Saturday, 8 July 2006

Mortuary (2005)

My diagnosis? Hmmm it seems a simple case of zombie movie, but note the Lovecraftian angle...

Since 1977, Tobe Hooper has been making horror films. The director is an icon in the world of horror movies, but his output is wildly inconsistent. When Tobe Hooper is good, he is very, very good (Texas Chainsaw Massacre); but when Tobe Hooper is bad, he is very, very bad (Crocodile). Here, Tobe Hooper surprises everyone by being funny. Very, very funny. Mortuary is the culmination of Hooper’s decades of craft; it is not a horror movie, but a campy spoof of horror zombie movies of an older era. Hooper has no intentions of making a serious zombie revival like Shaun of the Dead, so audiences are warned as they enter the cinema not to expect a scary movie, but rather a horror-themed comedy.

Shortly after the death of her husband, flaky mom Leslie (Denise Crosby) uproots her two children, Jonathan (Dan Byrd) and Jamie (Stephanie Patton) from their home to a small town in California. With her correspondent degree in mortuary sciences and some help from the corrupt town business council, Leslie is installed at the town’s latest mortician or funeral director. The real estate agent (and head of the business council) evidently forgot to mention that the new home for the Doyles is the long abandoned Fowler Brothers Funeral Home and cemetery, the place of business for generations of Fowler undertakers until a recent tragedy that still has the townsfolk whispering darkly about cursed land, tainted blood, and deformed monsters.

The script, which refuses to take itself seriously, bursts with references and in-jokes from HP Lovecraft’s mythology, quoting from classics like “Call of Cthulhu” and “The Colour Out of Space”. The Lovecraftian conceit is taken further by Tobe Hooper, who abandons the copious blood and gore of standard zombie films in favour of sometimes corny, sometimes menacing, but always tantalising glimpses and never full-on exposures of the Horror that lurks beneath the sewers of the ramshackle funeral home, which are of course connected to a vast subterranean tunnel complex manned by mindless zombie-thralls.

Hooper serves up effective scares, jolts, and entire scenes illuminated with dread at appropriate places, showing that he hasn’t lost his touch for horror films. However, Hooper’s energies are focused on the comic aspect of Mortuary, and to his credit, manages to pull off a casting coup by creating unforgettable weird and left-field minor characters, such as the perennially giggling real estate agent, a scaredy-cat sheriff who falls into swoons on seeing blood, and a washed out proprietor of a diner who does a great impression of Joanna Lumley’s Patsy Stone character from Absolutely Fabulous.

Why have a horror movie without the gore, without even a full revelation of the monster lurking beneath the mortuary? That’s old school horror, which relies more on atmosphere and hints than on explicit shots. Hence the only appropriate frame of reference is an old master like Lovecraft. Yet, living in this day and age, the only way one can credibly do Lovecraft is through parody and comedy, never through a straight adaptation or telling. In this sense, Mortuary joins Re-animator as one of the more successful film tributes to the American horrormeister.

Tobe Hooper’s Mortuary makes up in infectious fun what it lacks in gore and horror. Bring a friend along, and if you’re a geek, you might have double the fun identifying all the hidden Lovecraft references!

First published at incinemas on 20 July 2006

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