Friday, April 13, 2007

Tobe Hooper's Mortuary (2005) review

This was just so much fun, not perfect, but a lot of fun. People are still expecting Tobe Hooper to direct another Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is too bad, because this is a really enjoyable horror movie. It has a lot of great B-movie atmosphere, hot chicks, small town punks and some original gore concepts that left me feeling repulsed and violated. In other words, it's a very successful low-budget horror movie.

The idea of a conscious fungus colony is pretty creepy, gross, and horrific! Living-ooze is definitely a Lovecraftian theme, and some parts of the small town's back story resemble "The Colour Out of Space", "The Dunwich Horror", and a little bit of "The Outsider." Besides, what could be more primal than living-ooze? That's what we used to be, and where we'll eventually return (we appear obsessed in achieving this). Mortuary shares some similarities with Lucio Fulci's "The House By the Cemetery," one of the best "cursed house" films outside of the original "Haunting" (1963) or the "Legend of Hell House" (1973).

There are also a few nods to Hooper's "Poltergeist" (1982), and "Eaten Alive" (1976), and 1998's "Phantoms." This really is just a very funny and creepy ride that a normal family can watch together. It doesn't have any great statements to make and a lot of it isn't new, but the combinations in it are new. Let's be honest: sometimes it's just good to have some fun with the genre.
Denise Crosby was really great as the single mom who moves her poor family to a cruddy little California town for a job as the new mortician. They find a really rundown old mortuary that literally rests on an island of muck--we know we're in for some grim, dirty horror here, and Hooper and his collaborators deliver. Greg Travis returns from the Toolbox Murders (2003) as a shady local businessman who rents the accursed property to unsuspecting tenants. His foppish gimp character laughs all the time, creating a genuine sense of unease. All the characters are well-drawn and likable with a few notable-exceptions, so those characters "die" early-on as we hope for them to as horror fans.

What's impressive is howHooper's characters all seem to act as real people do, like
Dan Byrd's as the son, he's very believable. "Normal" behavior and conformity are the targets of the film, and as is standard in a Tobe Hooper movie, they're the fodder for some spot-on social satire.

While the film is a light-horror with lots of black humor, the plot line is actually very grim. Many online reviewers have expressed anger at the climax of this film, calling it a "cheap ending," but I don't see this at all. Was it supposed to be a Spielberg ending where everyone's safe and happy? That would be a "cheap" ending. Did I mention the girl with the Kool-Aid hair looked pretty hot?

But, honestly, could the ending be any more unexpected?
Horror has its conventions (no, not the merch ones), there are only so many, and the only options left are to mix-things-up. How is this movie any different from any 1970s-80s indie horror? Texas Chainsaw Massacre looks better with hindsight, but it was very cheaply done and only meant as entertainment. The same applies here. No, what many so-called "horror fans" expect is a predicatable, safe ending that doesn't go in new directions. Horror fans have been criticizing Hooper for revitalizing and redefining horror for a very long time. You can't please everyone. What angered many viewers was the fact that characters they liked and identified with died in a way that negated their identities.

Usually, in an American horror movie, the characters who aren't sympathetic die quickly and the "good" characters survive for the most part. Yes, it is the much reviled American optimism. Not many American horror directors allow sympathetic characters to die-off completely or have their identities taken over or destroyed (like the original "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers"). It's in the indie productions or Asian and European horror that this occurs in the story if it does at all.

We remember John Carpenter's "The Thing" (1982) because he breaks this rule again-and-again, even to the very end of the film. Knowing the rules helps! At the time, many people were angered by this but it's part of the original short story by John W. Campbell Jr. from 1938.

There is aboveground horror, and there is underground horror like Campbell and Lovecraft, Bloch, Derleth, etc. We know there are some things that you just don't do in a mainstream film, which is exactly why they should be done in horror. To do horror well, you have to betray the audience.

The only way for horror to progress is by a violation of contemporary taboos and a knowledge of what works in the genre. Killing the heroes certainly works, and that's too bad for those who feel emotionally betrayed by the authors of a movie. The ending of Mortuary was just a fun fake-out. There were two other scenes that stood-out: the infected mother robotically serving the kids dinner in a parody of domesticity and the scene in the subterranean well where the role of the "authority figure" gets deconstructed...literally.

As in "Funhouse" (1981), Hooper makes his infected completely mechanical and insane, replaying his own fear of the mechanistic nature of the universe. What could be more fearful than something that cannot be reasoned with?

The latter-scene was a nod to parts of his own "Invaders from Mars" (1986), his remake of the 1953 classic. If you hadn't noticed, most of Hooper's films center threats to a family unit in some way, or one family threatening another. He makes some pretty interesting comments on the family in his films and not all of them are sympathetic. This film just supports his countercultural credentials, and people get irritated by his jabs or when they simply don't get it.
Sometimes, that's the whole point. Learning the horrible truths of our lives isn't supposed to be a pleasant experience.

The only major complaint I have with Mortuary is that some of the CGI effects could have been better. Some of sequences drew too much attention to themselves, but overall of they were pretty good considering the film cost less than $1 million when it was made. As much as it costs, why not do a few matte paintings and miniatures in the real world? It might look a lot better and could have even cost less. Another weak moment here was the scene in the mortuary where some accident victims "reanimate," and it could have been staged better, it looks hurried. Overall, the Mortuary looks great and has a very solid cinematography, it looks very assured. The real "star" of the film is the house, real location that was once the home to one of California's first senators. You can't replicate real decay and grime.
Nearly every small town has a local boogeyman story like the "Bobby Fowler" character, haunted places, and the cemetery surrounding the mortuary house was well-drawn: an accursed place of death where nothing grows...but something there feasts on the dead and the living underneath the earth. The townsfolk whisper rumors of the Fowler place and warn of its dangers after dark. Local folklore has it that the last family to live there vanished, perhaps devoured by the land itself. Even their cattle became sick and mysteriously wasted away. Time passed, and after the biggest rain in fifty years, something has reawakened to feast again on the town and its inhabitants. This is a portrait of a town that's literally decaying from the inside-out.
Hooper seems to enjoy portraying people in disintegrating social roles (cop, mother, punker, movie reviewer, skater, girlfriend, employee, businessman, sibling, goth, metal head, authoritarian, homosexual, criminal, judge, manager, wife, husband, etc.) portraying them all as a form of living-death, but who can complain when this is how we chose to "live"? The anarchist in me loves watching identities in free-fall, seeing conformity collapse abruptly beneath its own paradoxes.
All-in-all, Mortuary was just entertaining (I know, the end of the world!), with a few jolts and some effectively disgusting makeup that can only be achieved with almost no budget. The tone gets more-and-more hysterical and bizarre which is what I expect from Tobe Hooper. This is the same level of filmmaking he was at when he did Eaten Alive, and it's a low-budget attempt but very solid. The origins of the zombification were pretty original and there were some moments of greatness in the imagery. I'm a sucker for graveyards.

This is another great addition to the works of Tobe Hooper and he has nothing to be ashamed of here. The Echobridge entertainment DVD is excellent, with a 53 minute featurette, a great widescreen transfer, and even a commentary track and DTS-sound. Mortuary is a horror film for the family, and it's fun to watch. That's all it ever claimed to be: A decent B-movie horror with a some shocks. Nobody sets-out to make a masterpiece, they just do. Mortuary is a good reminder that everyone you've ever looked up to can be wrong, and that some people are just doomed from the start.

Revised, 12.01.2008

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