Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mortuary

Tobe Hooper's Mortuary (2005) was the first new movie of his I saw. When it debuted (on what was still the Sci-Fi Channel; I refuse to dignify the current spelling), I had seen of his work The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, and Salem's Lot, probably his three best movies and yet to encounter the like of Spontaneous Combustion, The Mangler, or Crocodile. This was the first time I had the chance to look forward to something new from him . After watching Mortuary, I thought it was one of the worst films I had ever seen and embarrassingly bad.

Watching it again with a little more perspective, I've found it's not as bad as I remember. There's actually quite a bit to like and even admire, but overall, it's not very good. Many problems remain, including a cliched story, holes in the script, irritating performances from supporting characters acting as comic relief, and atrocious CGI effects that neuter any possible tension or suspense. Hooper has some fun with the material, but in the end, it's pretty weak.

Widow Leslie Doyle (Denise Crosby), along with her teenaged son Jonathan (Dan Byrd) and the younger Jamie (Stephanie Patton), moves to a new town to start a new career as a mortician. Jonathan gets a job at a nearby diner where he falls in with Liz (Alexandra Adi) and Grady (Rocky Marquette). It's from them he learns the legend of Bobby Fowler, the deformed son of the funeral home's previous owners who disappeared around the time his parents were brutally murdered and is believed to be living somewhere in their cemetery. But Bobby does live; something has kept him alive, something deep underground, something fed by the blood, fluids, and materials from the funeral home from all those years, something spreading through the house through black fungus and turning its victims into obedient zombies.

At the center of Mortuary is a potentially interesting story about a family, coping with the loss of its patriarch, trying to find its footing while exploring the mystery of their new home; the mother neglects her children because of her work, her son tries to be a responsible caregiver, and the daughter is too young to understand or cope with death. At the same time, the house's dark history - child abuse, murder, treatment of corpses - has literally been pooling into something monstrous, and when this new family, with all of its pain, resentment, and anger, moves in, the beast has a new outlet through which to operate it. That right there has some immediate fright and dramatic possibilities, and Hooper should have focused in on it like a laser.

Instead, Hooper, working with a script by Jace Anderson and Adam Gierach who also wrote his Toolbox Murders  (good) and Crocodile (not so good), meanders off-topic into much less interesting story lines, forced comic relief, idiotic characters, and set ups with no payoff. There's the character of Elliot, the real estate agent who sold the funeral home to Leslie, and in both of his scenes, he never stops laughing, and it gets irritating really quickly. Usually a character this obnoxious is introduced only to be horribly killed, but he's dropped from the movie after two scenes, never mentioned again. The bully Cal and his two girlfriends prove to be little more than slasher fodder, and they get annoying quickly as well. Rita, Liz's hippy aunt, gets sprayed by the fungus that turns people into zombies, but this is a point that's never brought up again, and she's never seen again once this happens, which is a shame because I thought she was one of the more interesting supporting characters.

Hooper, admittedly, has a strange sense of humor; in interviews, he said he considers Texas Chainsaw comedy. It's one thing when the cook berates Leatherface for ruining the door (chasing Sally Hardesty) and having no pride in his home; there's a twisted logic to it, a perverse reflection of family values. In Mortuary, the humor is lame; there's no other way to put it. People act weird and hysterical, lots of screaming and running around, but I don't usually see what the joke is supposed to be. It just comes off as poor writing, confused direction, and bad acting. Too often, I'm just staring at the screen wondering whether a scene is supposed to be scary, funny, both, or what.

Not helping is some awful CGI and predictable jump scares. By the end, once we see Bobby Fowler and what he obeys, both are incredible letdowns. Bobby is a pale mute guy with a cleft lip while the source of the fungus is a poorly-rendered, animated pit, which on paper might have been creepy but looks like low-rent computer graphics from Windows 95.

Positives? I thought Crosby and Doyle were good. The funeral home itself is a creepy setting: rundown and filled with shadows and hidden passageways (though I could never imagine anyone in their right mind living there. The movie tries to lampshade this but only succeeds in pointing out how unlikely it really is), and beneath, Bobby Fowler's home in the crypt is suitably dingy, dark, and disorienting, bringing to mind the lair of the Sawyer family. The zombies themselves have some cool makeup, particularly the Mr. Barstow corpse, and sometimes, Hooper's dark sense of humor works, like the dinner scene with a possessed Leslie.

The real reason Mortuary disappoints is that it could have been so much more. Hooper seemed to have momentum from Toolbox Murders, reuniting with much of the same creative team, and the story could have really been an intense, atmospheric fight fest. Instead, the movie, despite some nice touches, is a confused, campy letdown.

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