A full moon glides into view, as a narrator insidiously intones the terrors of the dark. A gravedigger is toiling away by the moonlight until a hand comes from the ground and pulls him screaming into the open grave. This was the trailer for Mortuary (1983), and I remember it scaring the piss out of me when it would show up on late night TV. It also has nothing to do with the film whatsoever, and yet exemplifies the oddball spirit that permeates every frame; Mortuary is at least two in one, and both are askew and delightful.
This should come as no surprise to those who have followed (or in my case, stumbled upon through word of mouth) co-writer/director Howard Avedis’ career; he made They’re Playing With Fire immediately after this, and that film has the same trajectory – starts off in one basket, before dumping everything into another, almost completely unrelated one. I need to see more of this man’s oeuvre; he may be the king of rubbernecking. The film did well enough, helped by a low budget and the sight of horror’s then golden couple, Christopher George and Lynda Day George. There was even a critic or two that didn’t loathe it.
So where has it been in the pop consciousness for over 35 years? Hiding, as the glut of horror was prone to do before the advent of boutique labels and the hoisting of petards for the little or ill-remembered (every movie is someone’s favorite, right?). But Mortuary should be celebrated for its refusal to (or maybe it simply can’t) dish out the same old; or rather, the same old in the proportions we’re used to – all the ingredients are there, but Avedis isn’t fond of following the recipe.
So, foregoing further cooking metaphors, let’s look at the plot (or plots, as it were): Pity poor Christie (Mary Beth McDonough – The Waltons); she arrives on her balcony right after her father takes a fatal blow from a baseball bat and is found in the family pool, leaving her distraught. Meanwhile her boyfriend Greg (David Wallace – Humongous) is helping his buddy grab some tires from a funeral home warehouse. While there, they notice the mortician Hank Andrews (George – Pieces) lording over a group of cloak wearing women, who writhe around the room in rapture. According to the friend, he found out the mortician and his friends liked to hold these séances (his confusing descriptor, not mine), and he was fired upon finding out. Greg continues to spy on the congregation (gaggle? Pod?) while his friend retrieves his tires; this requires splitting up, which in turn requires the friend to be stabbed with an embalming wand by someone in a black cloak and white makeup. When Greg goes looking for his pal, he believes he sees him driving away in his van (but we know the embalming wand would get in the way of the steering wheel).
Greg and Christie go on a search for the missing friend; she also believes that her father was murdered and that the two may be connected - instead they find those around them meeting their maker sooner than expected. Who is the Kiss reject killing everyone and why is he or she fixated on Christie?
So it looks like Mortuary is up to some supernatural business, right? Perhaps, until it swings its focus completely to the cloaked killer and drops the Christopher George-as-cult leader angle. It turns out they are just holding séances; I’m unclear as to why they wear the capes, or are sworn to secrecy. (Just grab a crystal ball, dim the lights, and live your lives, people. We’re not here to shame.) Avedis’ modus operandi seems to be offering up sea changes where ripples would work; there is almost no correlation between the séance group and the killings. Almost.
I forgot to mention that Bill Paxton is in this, as the mortician’s son, Paul. Odd and quiet, Paul has a major crush on Christie and tries to give her flowers in the cemetery as she’s visiting her father’s grave (he’s visiting his mother’s). He then skips away out of sight as she once again spurns his meek advances. Just thought I’d mention that.
Look, there are various points in the film where you can clearly tell who’s behind the mask (I thought it was makeup, but nope); not only that, but before the reveal, two characters have an expedition dump where the killer is essentially outed.
I guess I’m saying that Mortuary doesn’t work as a whodunit, the nods to the supernatural don’t play, and the film moves with what I would call a glacial intensity. Which is to say even though it is filled with deaths, surprises, and attempts at suspense, the pace is mired in the mud. Fascinating, really; one would think the events would propel the action, yet Avedis seems incapable of pushing it along.
Not that Mortuary is boring; oh far from it. You get ripe performances from Paxton and Day George, and in his last screen work before his untimely death, George manages some subtlety unused in his last fabled run of horror films; it’s also nice to see different implements displayed for our splattery enjoyment. Perhaps the biggest kick is how Avedis decides to end his opus – the killer has his final say with a roomful of embalmed victims, propped up in chairs, appearing to hang on his every word. And the biggest surprise is that you may find yourself doing the same. But less dead, I hope.
Mortuary is available on DVD from Scorpion Releasing.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE TINGLER (1959)