Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy
Calling All Hooper Troopers
Okay, so how is it that I’ve become the biggest Tobe Hooper fan on the planet over the past 2 years? I was never really a “fan” of Texas Chain Saw Massacre (sure, I got the point, but it never really revved my motor, if you know what I mean), Salem’s Lot always just looked cheap, and Invaders from Mars went waaay over my head as a kid (I didn’t quite get the ‘retro’ vibe of the whole thing). But since what has become a somewhat religious experience for me – seeing an uncut Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 and Toolbox Murders back-to-back in the decaying Victoria Theatre in San Francisco 2 years ago – I’m a born again Hooper Trooper. I’ve rekindled my love for Poltergeist – and not just because JoBeth looks smokin’ in the jersey/panties combo (c’mon, lads – we know nice legs when we see ‘em), but because of the scenes of hushed anticipation that precede the arrival of the white lady ghost, which is still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And let’s not forget the thrill-ride of The Funhouse or the space vampires of Lifeforce. On second thought... okay, we can forget Lifeforce.
But seeing the Chain Saw sequel and Toolbox remake back-to-back brought to light something I had never realized: this guy has a cracked sense of humor. It’s positively pitch-black and brilliant – hell, the original Chain Saw can almost play as a comedy if you think about just how deranged the sensibilities of this guy are – it’s certainly apparent in the follow-up, which I had not recognized as a comedy when I saw it as a kid, since I was too distracted by Caroline Williams’ amazing screams and all that chili (mmmm...). Even the nasty, brutal (and flawed, I admit – but I still love it) Toolbox has a sick undercurrent of glee to it – the kills may be sadistic, but they have a certain flair that tempers the brutality (unlike crap like House of Wax, which is just flat-out mean – and badly-made, at that) and lends some – dare I say – “class” to the proceedings.
So when I sat down to see Tobe’s new flick, Mortuary (penned by the same team that wrote his Toolbox and *cough* Crocodile), I was very, very excited. And when I got up after watching the movie, I was still very excited, but not for the reason I had expected – I had just seen a film unlike anything else Hooper has ever delivered. The guy just amazes me, seriously – his follow-up to the well-received splatterfest of Toolbox is a zany, slime-soaked rollercoaster ride of spook thrills and family comedy. Seriously. Yes, this is the Tobe Hooper Mortuary I’m talking about. Yes, that Tobe Hooper. No, I don’t think Chris Columbus changed his name to Tobe Hooper to make this movie and will you PLEASE STOP INTERRUPTING ME?!
Mortuary tells the tale of a family struggling to come to grips with the loss of its father that unfortunately moves into a house struggling to come to grips with its placement over an underground lake of pure evil. Mom (Pet Sematary’s Denise Crosby, apparently contractually obligated to appear in any movie based around a graveyard) has gone to mortician’s school (naturally!) so that she can support her kids, Jonathan (the excellent Dan Byrd, looking oddly like a Trim-Spa’d Oliver Platt) and Jamie (Stephanie Patton). The battered trio moves into one of the most disgusting houses I’ve ever seen – and this isn’t even taking into consideration the fact that it’s a working mortuary with a cemetery in the front yard. The septic system is backed up and seeping up through the front yard (yaaay shit!), there’s a thick black moss growing all over the house (the kitchen would send Martha into conniption fits) and the upstairs bedroom has bars on the windows and the name Bobby etched into the windowframe.
After arriving in this fixer-upper (it’s more of a “tearer-downer”, to quote Wild Palms), mom gets to work setting up shop as the new local mortician (stressing the “new” aspect – she’s fresh out of school and has no idea what she’s doing) and Jonathan nabs a job at the local diner, which is run by Rita (the gloriously through-the-mill Lee Garlington – my favorite character in the movie) and her lovely niece Liz (the kind of hot but kind of forgettable Alexandra Adi). Jonathan takes an instant liking to Liz, but it appears she has a beau, the wiry, tattooed NAMBLA-bait Grady (Rocky Marquette) – and besides that, there’s a group of greasy punk kids who hang out at the diner who are giving Jonathan a hard time. It doesn’t help that one of the kids is Courtney Peldon, the sometime Boston Public actress who has been singled out by the Gorgeous Ladies of FUG as the worst dresser in the universe.
See how I’m getting off-track here? There’s a lot going on, yo. So Jonathan gets interested in the history of this new house, and Rita and Liz are all too happy to fill in the blanks for him. In a great “storytelling” scene on the front porch, Liz reveals the sordid history of the Fowler estate, which ends with the disfigured final offspring disappearing and the abusive parents turning up dead as doornails. Pretty creepy stuff, especially since the loony Bobby is rumored to still live on the grounds, which also happen to be a fucking cemetery. I just love this shit.
Meanwhile, the smelly punk trio set about vandalizing the property and wind up tickling the ire of old Manwich-face, who wears a burial shroud over his ugly mug and looks to be the size of a small grizzly bear. But just when you think these kids have been ripped to shreds, they show up at the diner days later, looking like yesterday’s ass and demanding coffee. Something stinky is obviously going on here, and the black moss and the cemetery are all a part of it. Mom comes face-to-face with the “revitalizing” power of the black sludge when working on a corpse (they pile up thanks to a nasty curve on the highway, apparently) and starts behaving strangely as well – what’s up with this stuff, and how can the kids stop it?
Okay, so I’ll admit that all this “plucky family battles black goo and guys with masks in graveyards” stuff might sound kind of… well, lame (it actually reminded me more of the Wonderful World of Disney Mister Boogedy movies more than anything). And you know what? Some might find it completely unacceptable from the guy who made what is probably the most disturbing film that most people have ever seen. But let the guy breathe a little, will ya? This goofy tale of a family stress and reanimated dead folk and teen love has such a good heart and offers so many fun variations on the standard zombie or slasher routines that it just shines. The actors are uniformly excellent – Crosby is absolutely hilarious as the well-intentioned but batty mom (I liked her a bit less near the end of the film, but she’s like a breath of fresh air for the first half), and the supporting cast of bizarre adults (the realtor, the cop, Rita the gloriously burnt-out diner lady) is like something out of Central Casting Heaven. My god, when’s the last time you saw a horror movie that had half a dozen minor characters that were so odd and quirky that you remember all of them a month later? I can’t remember the leads of Venom, much less the supporting cast.
I’m sure a lot of people will be floored to learn that there’s virtually no blood in this flick, especially after the much-hyped on-set accident involving Courtney Fug and a misplaced prop (in the only blood moment in the film, she cuts her hard with a Swiss Army knife). But we all know that horror movies don’t have to be bloody to have an impact – and besides that, there’s plenty of black vomit and ooze here to compensate. The ending I found a bit disappointing, but I'll admit that’s nothing really new for Hooper films either – even Chain Saw kind of throws its hands in the air (and its saw) instead of closing the book. But I had such a good time for the rest of the movie that it didn’t bother me too terribly much – although I would have liked to see something different happen.
There's also a wonderfully encouraging queer element here -- I won't ruin it, but one of the lead characters is gay and everyone's totally cool with it. God, if this kind of horror film had existed when I was a teen I never would have left the house. Which I didn't do anyway. But the mature and casual way in which Hooper presents the gay character is perfection: he's a good kid with his head on his shoulders, and he doesn't act out or do anything self-destructive or trashy. At least, not any more than any other characters -- which is nice, considering the number of gay characters who are either one-dimensional boobs or self-loathing disasters. Here, it's just part of life in a small town, and it's totally cool. Oh - and did I mention he's cute enough to put on a plate and sop up with a biscuit?
In the end, I’m pretty appalled at the write-ups that this imaginative, brazenly different flick has been getting from some its festival plays (although they're mostly from Germany -- and while I love me some Deutscher, let's face it: they're David Hasselhoff's bread and butter). Is it “balls-to-the-wall horror”? No, and neither are most of the films that claim to be “balls-to-the-wall horror” (yes, Zombie and Roth, I’m talking at you). But Mortuary has the smarts to know that it’s on the lighter side of things and to play to its strengths, which is a refreshing alternative to many of the craftless, self-conscious pout-fests that have hit the screen this year. If you like cheeky horror like Night of the Creeps and Return of the Living Dead, you should definitely give Mortuary a try. And if you don’t, you should lighten the fuck up.