For being such an important and iconic horror director, Tobe Hooper’s career has been really hit and miss. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist are obviously classics and have not only launched franchises, but both have been remade. Unfortunately in more recent years it seems like he’s been relegated to more direct to video fare, and with Mortuary it’s pretty clear why.
Mortuary is basically a pastiche of copied and borrowed ideas from other movies. A family moves across country into an old rundown mortuary (like in A Haunting In Connecticut) and soon an ancient evil is awakened after a drop of blood hits the floor (like in Hellraiser). There’s also an old legend about a deformed mutant living in tunnels under the graveyard, but that doesn’t really amount to much since the film instead focuses on a zombie plot and weird creepy vines slowly overtaking the mortuary.
The cast here is surprisingly pretty good. Dan Byrd stars as Jonathan, the rebellious and sarcastic teenage son trope of the family who ends up being far more levelheaded and reasonable than anyone else in the film. Genre fans will recognize him from his later role in the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and he plays out relatively similarly here to how he acted in that film. He’s likable and smart and does much to help the film’s watchability. Denise Crosby plays his mother who is absolutely ridiculous. She moves them across the country so that she can start a new career as a mortician with no prior knowledge or experience to the point that she reads a “how to” book while embalming a body. It’s kind of a fun and funny idea but completely preposterous. Even besides that she’s just sort of unlikable due to how off base most of her decisions are regarding her family. She punishes Jonathan for getting into a fight that he didn’t even start. What was the kid supposed to do? Just not get punched? Rounding out the family is Jamie, Jonathan’s younger sister. She’s a small child. Not much to say there.
Outside of the main characters, the movie is filled with eccentric weirdos for all of the extra cast, and it certainly makes for an interesting watch, albeit a bit of a confusing one. The owner of the diner that Jonathan gets a job at is an old hippie, talking about auras and going off of her gut feelings instead of any actual logic. Jonathan gets into a fist fight with a customer on his first day on the job and not only does she not fire him, but she kicks out the customer. I’m sorry, but that’s not how reality works. Speaking of which, the customer in question is some over-exaggerated bully stereotype that makes zero sense. Jonathan asks for a job application and this customer along with the two girls he’s with burst out laughing. I don’t get it. What’s funny about this kid asking for an application? Then there’s the mayor and the cop. The mayor gives the customer-bully a real run for his money in the “most screen-time spent laughing” category as well as having a limp for no reason. The cop has some sort of speech impediment and is quick to anger, doing a total 180 in at least one scene. This town is crazy.
The pacing and tone of this movie are weird. It starts off like a fairly serious horror film, attempting to build tension and set up a mystery as the family explores the dilapidated mortuary that is their new home. Most of that tension falls flat, but fortunately the film immediately takes a hard turn into something closer to a comedy as they start to establish the lore of Bobby Fowler, our resident deformed killer. As it starts to look like we’re gearing towards a slasher movie, the movie then takes another hard turn and becomes a zombie film. It’s strange, because all of the build up towards the deformed mutant living in tunnels underneath the graveyard leads almost nowhere. This guy only really shows up at the very end and doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot. It’d be like sticking Jason into the middle of Slither and only having him wave at the audience from the background before disappearing. What was the point?
The zombies themselves seriously give off a distinct ReAnimator vibe. The makeup effects are pretty great and a lot of the shambling corpses sort of look like Frankenstein’s Monster. When it comes to the zombies that got turned from living breathing people however, the makeup is a bit more subtle. It’s still effective, though. The CGI effects on the other hand are terrible. The black ooze and growing vines never look quite right and it’s obviously due to budgetary constraints. Towards the end there’s even some more extensive digital effects that look cartoonish in their execution. They’re completely out of place. The one thing that’s seriously missing here is any kind of gore. The best death in the film is ruined with bad CGI and there isn’t any real blood splatter or flying guts to be had. While not a necessity, this could have really helped the film’s entertainment value. Instead all we really get is a lot of black bile being thrown up.
Mortuary isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen and Hooper’s directing probably elevates the film, but it’s still not great. Fortunately, this movie is just so absurd that it’s fun to watch. The characters are so bizarre and the plot just jumps all over the place. It starts and ends like a slasher film, but with a zombie movie jammed right into the middle. There are so many plotholes and questions left unanswered that I was left scratching my head. Why do the zombies die from salt? Why is this town filled with weirdos? Why does this woman just suddenly decide to move across the country and become a mortician? This is all nonsense, and it’s kind of great. Mortuary certainly doesn’t live up to Hooper’s best work, but it’s at least fun.
Here at Cult Corner we cover the weird and obscure. Given the low budget that these movies often have we feel the need to recognize that entertainment value and quality aren’t always synonymous. That’s why we have opted for the “trash or treasure” approach in lieu of a typical rating system. After all, Troll 2 is incredibly entertaining but it’s no 8 out of 10.