Tuesday, May 22, 2012

New on DVD: MORTUARY (1983)

(US, 1983)

Directed by Howard Avedis.  Written by Howard Avedis and Marlene Schmidt.  Cast: Mary McDonough, Lynda Day George, Christopher George, David Wallace, Bill Paxton, Alvy Moore, Bill Conklin, Denis Mandel, Donna Garrett, Marlene Schmidt.  (R, 93 mins)

A familiar title from the video store glory days, MORTUARY arrived in theaters in the fall of 1983 with one of the most misleading ad campaigns of its day.  With poster art featuring a hand sticking out of a grave and a trailer that utilized footage and an actor (THE HILLS HAVE EYES' Michael Berryman) not present in the film itself, MORTUARY didn't exactly endear itself to horror fans.  Instead, it's a rather straightforward suspense thriller with post-HALLOWEEN/FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher elements that too often look like clumsily-inserted gore scenes that were added after the fact, as if a distributor or someone controlling the cash flow decided the movie needed more splatter.  Exploitation vet Howard Avedis (SCORCHY, THE FIFTH FLOOR) does a nice job staging some effective scare sequences throughout, and until you get a really good look at the killer ("Open the window, Christie!"), his appearance--sort of a cross between Captain Howdy from THE EXORCIST and the frontman of a Norwegian black metal band--is pretty unnerving.  But Avedis lets some scenes go on too long, the killer's identity is too obvious too early, and the gore scenes aren't as well done as in some of its contemporaries.  When fans today look back at a lot of these '80s slasher films, there's much misplaced nostalgia for some of them and I think it's really the era being remembered with such fondness rather than some of the individual titles. MORTUARY was not a beloved film in its time.  Is it a long-buried treasure ripe for rediscovery?  No.  But freed from the shackles of its hysterically inaccurate one-sheet and trailer and all of those expectations, it holds up pretty well.

Mary McDonough and Lynda Day George
Since her father mysteriously drowned a month earlier, Christie (Mary McDonough) is convinced his death was no accident and thinks someone is after her.  Meanwhile, her mother Eve (Lynda Day George) is attending seances held at the funeral home of local mortician Hank Andrews (Christopher George).  Hank's creepy son Paul (a pre-fame Bill Paxton), who spent time in a mental hospital after his mother's suicide, has a crush on Christie, who already has a boyfriend, Greg (David Wallace).  Greg's friend, a former employee of Hank's, has vanished without a trace.  Soon, Christie is being pursued by a robed, hooded, white-faced killer whose weapon of choice is a sharp embalming tube and of course, no one believes her.

MORTUARY was shot in 1981, just as then-20-year-old McDonough was wrapping up a ten-year run as Erin Walton on the classic TV series THE WALTONS.  It was probably a surprise to see one of the Walton kids getting naked in a horror movie, but Avedis (who co-wrote the script with his wife Marlene Schmidt, formerly 1961's Miss Universe) does a pretty bumbling job of hiding that it's a body double.  You never see McDonough's face and body in the same shot.  The gore scenes are also of varying quality, one obviously without the presence of the actor whose character is being stabbed (again, you never see their face).  Oddly--for the time period, at least--MORTUARY works best when it's more old-school in its execution.  Some of the killer's sudden appearances, as well as a chase through Christie's house (filled some some of the most cluttered and hideously garish decor you'll ever see) are very well done and Avedis seems more invested in these scenes instead of the sloppy, awkwardly-shot gore bits.

"You two donkey dicks couldn't get laid in a morgue!"
With its inconsistencies and its red herrings (the seance subplot never really goes anywhere), MORTUARY is a mixed-bag, but it's entertaining. McDonough makes a likable heroine, and the Georges, who had PIECES in US theaters just two weeks later, are on hand to provide solid professional support (and in Lynda's case, a surprising display of cleavage).  Christopher George, who died of a heart attack less than three months after MORTUARY's release, was well into his run as a grindhouse fixture by this point, after roles in THE EXTERMINATOR, GRADUATION DAY, THE GATES OF HELL (the US retitling of CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) and the forthcoming PIECES, and unlike many in his position, never phoned it in.  He seems to be genuinely trying here, and even clearly ad-libs in a few spots, including a bit where he has to sign a receipt and dickishly makes Greg remove the pen cap, and a scene where he's trying to sell a casket to a bereaved couple, telling them with all the smirking charm of the world's sleaziest used car salesman, "I could run things much smoother if people died between 9:00 and 5:00!"  But the real selling point for MORTUARY today is the presence of a young Paxton in one of his first films.  He's pretty over-the-top, but hard to take seriously, especially when he's seen at one point merrily skipping through a cemetery.

Scorpion's DVD, part of their "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" line, is framed at 1.78:1 and looks good overall.  Some print damage here and there, and some of the murder scenes show more wear than the rest of the film, a possible indication that they came from a different source. MORTUARY has been shown with running times ranging from 84 to 91 minutes, and this DVD runs 93, so maybe there's some extra footage in spots.  Extras include an interview with composer John Cacavas, and the infamous trailer that does not in any way reflect the actual film:

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