Despite the fact that he's directed the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, widely considered by fans and critics alike as one of the most effective and disturbing horror films ever made, and despite the fact that he directed (at least portions of) Poltergeist, a vastly successful film at the box office and on home video, Tobe Hooper's career hasn't been so hot in the last ten to fifteen years. While The Toolbox Murders looked like a return to form, the results were uneven and while there were hints of promise seen in that film, it didn't perform to a lot of people's expectations despite a few shining moments. His most recent film, Mortuary (which is completely unrelated to the film of the same name made back in 1983 starring a young Bill Paxton), looked like it could be what fans have been waiting for him to deliver now for years.
Leslie Doyle (Denise Crosby of Pet Cemetery and Star Trek – The Next Generation fame) and her two children – Jonathon (Dan Byrd of the The Hills Have Eyes remake) and Jamie (Stephanie Patton who played a toddler in the masterpiece that is Baby Geniuses) – have just moved six hours across state because Leslie has just finished school and is now a full fledged mortician. As such, she got a deal on a mortuary in a small town right beside the graveyard. When they arrive, they're shocked to find out that the place is completely rundown and not at all like they were promised, but the paperwork is signed and so the Doyle family tries to make the best of a bad situation.
As Leslie sets out to clean up the old place and make sure that the upstairs is livable for her and her two children, Jonathon sets out and gets a job at a local greasy spoon where he meets and soon develops a crush on Liz (Alexandra Adi) after being introduced to her by her aunt Tina (Lee Garlington), who also happens to be his boss. As he gets into a tussle with a few local punks, he soon learns the legend of Bobby Fowler, a deformed behemoth of a man who reputedly killed his mother and father who ran the very mortuary that Jonathon and his family now own and live in – in fact, Jonathon has even found the words 'Bobby F' carved into the wood of his bedroom, which also happens to have bars on the inside, presumably to keep whoever or whatever was living there before him from escaping.
As the story moves along, those same punks that Jonathon got into a scrap with turn up missing, no one knows where they went but it sure looks like all signs point to the graveyard near the house. When Jamie sees a man wearing a funeral shawl hiding in her closet and Jonathon finds the shawl himself, allowing him to dismiss the idea that his younger sister might be making it all up, he figures that maybe the rumors that Bobby Fowler is still alive and haunting the area might not be local folklore after all, they just might be reality! To make matters worse, there's a strange fungus growing throughout the building that they can't seem to get rid of, and those missing punks soon show up, though their arrival hardly makes for what you'd call a happy reunion, what with the fact that they're vomiting blood all over the place.
For as much as Mortuary has going for it in terms of style, premise, and one of the coolest locations in recent memory, it's got just as many, if not more, sizeable flaws. Let's start with the good – the idea behind this one is interesting. It provides ample opportunity for some interesting character development and it provides us with themes that many of us have dealt with, such as teenage alienation, trying to meet new friends after moving, and dealing with the loss of a family member. It's also got some serious potential for horror movie coolness, what with the graveyard beside the house and the operational mortuary in the basement of the home where the Doyle's now live. Hooper's film makes the most of the sets, most of which involve the real life run down mortuary that served for the principal location and the real life graveyard next door, and as such, the movie looks creepy. There are scenes towards the end of the film that will conjure up images of the more recognizable sets from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which is a good thing) and it's difficult to imagine anyone versed in the history of horror movies to be unable to appreciate the efforts that the set designers and art direction team have gone to in order to maximize that atmosphere and eeriness that this location provides.
Unfortunately, the praise has to end there. The acting, aside from Denise Crosby who is pretty decent, is flat out bad. The supporting characters and leads alike are hardly in their prime here and a lot of the performances are akin to those you'd see in a seventies porno film. The dialogue is predictable enough that you'll find yourself finishing character's sentences before they do, and every supporting character you'd expect to see in a horror film, from the odd local sheriff to the cute love interest to the bully all show up and behave exactly like you'd expect them to. This makes it difficult to care about the characters or what happens to them, and as such, the element of suspense required to keep you interested in the movie cannot be sustained for more than a few minutes here and there. The plot also has problems deciding on where it wants to focus. At times, we're dealing with a local legend and how it has developed and how one teenage boy tries to figure out what is or isn't true, and then all of a sudden there are supernatural elements thrown in and the dead are rising from the grave. Add to that a completely retarded way of dealing with the problem that the living dead present which seems to come right out of nowhere (yeah, fine, there's a brief hint as to what it is at the beginning of the film but that still doesn't mean it makes sense) and couple it with some really, really, really bad CGI effects and you can see how it all heads down hill very quickly despite the promising set up.
It's a shame that Mortuary didn't turn out better than the film we have on this DVD. The premise was good, Denise Crosby does a fine job in a decent role, and the location and set design is fantastic but the end result is neutered by bad acting, bad dialogue and bad special effects, rendering the entire thing not a step above mediocrity.
The 1.85.1 widescreen on this disc is pretty nice despite an abundance of edge enhancement in some scenes. Black levels stay strong throughout, only showing mpeg compression in a couple of spots (which is good seeing as so much of the film takes place at night or in dark places) while aliasing and line shimmering are kept to a minimum. Flesh tones look lifelike when they're supposed to and sickly when the script calls for it. There's a pretty decent level of both foreground and background detail present in the image pretty much throughout the movie though some fine detail does get lost in the shadows from time to time. Overall though, Mortuary does look pretty good on this DVD.
You've got your choice of a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix or a DTS 5.1 Surround Sound mix, both in English without any alternate language dubs, subtitles or closed captioning options provided.
The differences between the two tracks are negligible and aside from one or two spots where the DTS tracks produces slightly stronger bass response, you'll be hard pressed to tell which one is which. Surrounds are used very well during the more action intensive scenes that occur during the last third of the movie and they do add some atmosphere to the proceedings and provide a few decent jump scares as well. Dialogue is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion and the levels are well balanced ensuring that the performers don't get buried by the score or the sound effects.
First up in terms of supplements is a full length director's commentary track with Tobe Hooper. Say what you will about the quality of his more recent output but the man does know how to deliver a reasonably interesting discussion when it comes to movie making. He tells us of the casting, what he liked about the script, some of the location shooting in and around the mortuary and the old cemetery, and some of the difficulties that he and his crew encountered on set. There are a few spots with a bit too much dead air but otherwise, this is a decent discussion and if you enjoyed the film you'll find some good information in here to chew on. Hooper is joined throughout by various crew members, and interestingly enough they mention that the mortuary where they shot parts of the film was supposedly haunted in real life as well, and some of what they claim happened on set is actually more interesting than the movie itself.
Echo Bridge has also supplied an extensive making of documentary that clocks in at a lengthy fifty-three minutes. There's a ton of behind the scenes footage in here shot on set during the production of the film, as well as interviews, some brief and some longer, with pretty much everyone involved with the making of the film, from Hooper down to effects technicians and almost every member of the cast as well. The mood on set seems to have been pretty jovial and it's nice to see everyone looking as happy as they do working with each other. The documentary could have gone more in depth on some of the technical aspects such as the sets and the effects work and particularly the locations (the strongest part of the film is the actual mortuary where the bulk of the film is shot!) but overall, it does a good job of filling us in on what it was like on the set of Mortuary.
Rounding out the extra features are the film's trailer, animated menus, and chapter stops.
While Echo Bridge has given the film a very nice DVD presentation, Mortuary isn't such a hot film, in fact, it's incredibly mediocre. It has a few shining moments but not enough to propel it over the heap, making it worth a rental for horror movie buffs while everyone else will likely want to pass on it and catch it on cable.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.