Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, July 25, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (2005)

19. Mortuary

The positive critical reaction of “Toolbox Murders” revitalized Tobe Hooper’s career. After years of horror fans ignoring the mediocre products he was involved in, suddenly Hooper’s name meant something again. The next year, Hooper would re-team with the “Toolbox Murders’” screenwriting team of Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson once more. The next film, “Mortuary,” went direct-to-video and received little attention. Many perceived Hooper as squandering the good will he had built up with his latest success. Yet, if approached with reasonably measured expectations, “Mortuary” holds up alright.
Following the death of her husband, Leslie Doyle picks up her teenage son, Jonathan, and her young daughter, Jamie, and moves them across country. Leslie has taken a new job as a mortician in a strange town. The house they move into is surrounded by a graveyard and is totally dilapidated. It’s also the source of a local legend, about Bobby Fowler, a deformed boy locked in the attic. Despite these roadblocks, Jonathan still manages to make some friends. He’s going to need them, as a strange entity under his new home is turning people into murderous zombies. Soon enough, his own mother has turned into a killer.

Scripting wise, “Mortuary” doesn’t appear to be anything special on the surface. The film’s general set-up, about a kid moving into a new town and struggling to make friends amidst bizarre circumstances, isn’t too unusual. However, what keeps “Mortuary” entertaining is its light, comedic tone. The film is slightly goofy, the character being a little ridiculous and the threats being equally quirky and scary. In time, the story reveals itself to be a kids on an adventure flick, Jonathan and his new friends working together to survive the ordeal. While not topping genre classics like “Night of the Creeps” or “Tremors,” it happily recalls the same atmosphere. The characters are threatened by monsters and surrounded by death yet still seem to be having an awfully good time.

The funny tone nicely balances out a story that is all about death. The death of their father continues to haunt Jonathan and Jamie, with the little girl still not seeming to understand where he went. Leslie is eager to start over but literary filling her house with dead bodies constantly reminds everyone of her late husband. When the mother becomes a zombie, the siblings loose their remaining parent. Yet this isn’t the only death in “Mortuary.” The Fowler house is crumbling and so is the town around it. Many of the local businesses are closing. The kids don’t have much of a future. Moreover, “Mortuary” also concerns itself with the literal realities of death. Leslie’s work puts her in contact with rotting flesh and bloated bodies, a fact that even Jonathan’s gothy girlfriend isn’t prepared to handle.

“Mortuary” takes its time getting to the zombies. In its first half, the film appears to be a different kind of horror movie. As soon as the other kids hear that Jonathan is living in the Fowler house, they begin to mock him. After becoming friends with Liz, she regales him of the story about Tommy Fowler. About the legacy of black magic, about his deformity, about his sheltered existence. Every town has a legend like that and “Mortuary” happily invents its own. Other scenes are devoted to teens’ sexual adventures being interrupted by a masked madman, a moment that blatantly recalls slasher flicks. This pays off in small moments, such as Tommy’s distinctive mask appearing in little Jamie’s closest. The film’s story is full of fun references like this, including a brief shout-out to H.P. Lovecraft.

Once the zombies show up, “Mortuary” puts its own spin on that well-worn horror archetype as well. The zombies here are not shambling corpses that feed on human flesh and spread their infection via bites. Instead, they’re capable of limited speech, often repeating phrases they used in life. Some of them can even pass for human, though their pale flesh gives them away. They spread their zombie virus by puking a black sludge into their victims’ mouths. Most importantly, the zombies are created and controlled by a black/green mold or moss, that crawls into the dead bodies. Likely inspired by a bizarre real life fungus, the organism compels the zombies to gather victims. They are then fed to a Sarlacc mouth in the basement. The script also gives the monsters a weakness, in the form of salt, a mineral with numerous occult properties. In other words, it’s not the same old zombie shenanigans you might be use to. “Mortuary” is a quirky, unique take on the subgenre.

“Mortuary” is solidly in the horror/comedy mold. The behavior of the zombies is often absurd, the undead teens spitting black ooze at the old woman. Or the local sheriff carrying his obsession with “graveyard babies” beyond the grave. However, the film occasionally goes for real scares. The scene devoted to the zombified Leslie trying to get her kids to ingest the zombie-creating slime is appealingly morbid. The children’s slow realization that something is wrong with their mother plays out nicely. Soon afterwards, “Mortuary” becomes a siege pictures, the teens walling up inside the house, attempting to keep the undead out. This leads to some solid sequence, such as the undead mom bursting through a morgue locker. An earlier plot thread, that has dead bodies being stored in coffins inside the house, pays off nicely. Some of the early jump scares are too obvious but “Mortuary” eventually develops into a decent spook show.

Building the story around a spooky old building certainly plays to Tobe Hooper’s strengths as a filmmaker. Few horror directors go to as much effort as him in making the settings characters. The Fowler house in dilapidated, the walls rotting apart. Jonathan chooses Tommy’s room, which maintains bars on the window. The kitchen is always bathed in sickly green light, making the already filthy room seem especially unwelcoming. “Mortuary” goes even further by building a series of tunnels and hidden rooms underneath the house. In a move that recalls “Toolbox Murders,” Tommy Fowler has been living secretly inside the home for years. His hiding place is full of small details, toys and artwork. Just for kicks, the movie also throws in a spooky graveyard, adding further to the horror atmosphere.

A likable cast is another reason to seek out “Mortuary.” Dan Byrd stars as Jonathan. The characters embodies many teenage clichés. He’s eager to make his own life, getting a job in town, driving around, smoking pot behind his mom’s back. Yet Byrd adds enough personality to keep Jonathan from being annoying. Truthfully, he brings a lot of humor and character to the part. The biggest name in the film is Denise Crosby as Leslie. (Considering the story, her casting seems a likely reference to “Pet Sematary.”) Crosby also seems to be on the film’s comedic wavelength, bringing a nice light-hearted energy to the role. Once she becomes undead, Crosby goes nicely over the top, acting truly unhinged. I also like young Stephanie Patton as Jamie, who doesn’t come off as an obnoxious kid. Instead, she’s sweet and likable, making her eventual peril more compelling.

Maybe more important then his family are the friends Jonathan makes. Alexandra Adi plays Liz, a waitress at the dinner Jonathan works. He’s immediately attracted to her and, in an especially rewarding moment, she reveals that she shares that attraction. Liz is a bit gothy and is intrigued by Jonathan living in a mortuary. (At least, until she actually sees a dead body…) Adi is charming in the part, bringing equal amounts of humor and enthusiasm. I also like Rocky Marqutte as Grady, Liz’s best friend. Jonathan assumes the two to be lovers at first but Grady, it turns out, is gay. Marqutte is decently funny, even if he exits the film far too soon.

Among the supporting cast is Michael Shamus Wiles as Sheriff Howell. The local cop has several odd preoccupation and, amusingly, is incredibly awkward around strangers. Lee Garlington plays Rita, Liz’s aunt. An old hippy, Rita often references the many drugs she did in her youth. That burnt out quality makes the character memorable, Garlington playing the role to full effect. A trio of teens up the body count. Tina, played by Courtney Peldon, seems to be an indistinct blonde type before developing a surprising will to live. (Her chestiness is often drawn attention to and pays off in a sick gag.) Bug Hall as Cal and Tarah Paige as Sara, both believably brain dead, round out that trio. “Toolbox Murders” graduate Greg Travis has an amusing small role as Eliot Cook, an incredibly sleazy local politician.

“Mortuary” has two major flaws. While obviously a horror/comedy, the movie sometimes pushes too far in the comedic direction. Such as in a scene where Leslie’s attempt to embalm a body is cross-cut with Jonathan dispelling of some pot smoke. That moment is weirdly scored to some distracting rock music. Lastly, some dodgy CGI crops up throughout the film. The malevolent mold sometimes leaps into victim’s mouths, which is not a convincing special effect. The final scene, where the brains of the plague is revealed, also features some shaky effects. It’s clear that the film’s vision sometimes was beyond its budgetary means.

“Mortuary” is definitely flawed. In Hooper’s overall career, it’s also fairly minor. It’s not even as good as “Toolbox Murders.” However, it’s charming and fun. After years of making forgettable films, it proves that Hooper was still capable of creating a likable loopy flick. The horror and comedy elements are usually nicely balanced. The cast is agreeable. The script takes some unexpected turns. While unlikely to emerge as a great cult classic for the ages, it certainly is a pleasant way for a horror fan to spend eighty-nine minutes. [Grade: B]

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