Director – Tobe Hooper, Screenplay – Jace Anderson & Adam Gierasch, Producers – Tony DiDio, E.L. Katz & Alan Somers, Photography – Jason Presant, Music – Joseph Conlan, Visual Effects – Krypton Visual Effects (Supervisor – Lloyd Lee Barnett), Special Effects – Ultimate Effects, Makeup Effects – Dean Jones & Starr Jones, Production Design – Rob Howeth. Production Company – Echo Bridge Entertainment/D&K Screen Fund I/Mortuary Productions, Inc.
Dan Byrd (Jonathan Doyle), Denise Crosby (Leslie Doyle), Alexandra Adi (Liz), Stephanie Patton (Jamie Doyle), Rocky Marquette (Grady), Courtney Peldon (Tina), Bug Hall (Robert ‘Cal’ Calvin), Tarah Paige (Sarah), Michael Shamus Wiles (Sheriff Glen Howell), Lee Garlington (Rita), Greg Travis (Eliot Cook), Price Carson (Bobby Fowler)
Solo mother Leslie Doyle moves to the small town of San Lorena along with her teenage son Jonathan and younger daughter Jamie in order to take over the Fowler Brothers Mortuary. However, when they arrive they find the house and mortuary to be in decrepit condition. Jonathan gets a job at a local diner where he hears the story of the Fowler family and how the son Bobby killed his parents and is supposed to live in the crypt, hiding his deformed face beneath a burial shroud. As the Doyles clean up, they hear noises and see things in the crawlspaces and tunnels beneath the house and graveyard. People then start to go missing. A black fungus begins to cover everything and then starts taking over the bodies of both the dead and the living.
Sometimes in reviewing any kind of artistic field – be it films, television, literature or music – you come across talents who had one enormous hit early on in their career and spent the rest of their lives trying to scale those heights over again. Either that or the rest of their lives were spent coasting by on the royalties/kudos that come from that particular work and never making any effort again. You could point to most of the cast of Star Trek (1966-8) who have failed to have any significant acting roles since the 1960s. Within the horror genre, the saddest example of this has been the career of director Tobe Hooper.
Tobe Hooper peaked with the enormous controversy-laden hit of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Hooper spent a few years after that trying to replicate the same success with Eaten Alive/Deathtrap (1977) and The Funhouse (1981). His greatest successes during this time came with the tv mini-series of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1979) and the Steven Spielberg-backed Poltergeist (1982). Hooper was still making an effort with the Golan-Globus backed Lifeforce (1985), the remake of Invaders from Mars (1986) and the fine and underrated The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).
Come the 1990s and Hooper’s output had sunk to the type of direct-to-video refuse that feels like the work of an untalented amateur. Look no further than the likes of Spontaneous Combustion (1990), I’m Dangerous Tonight (1990), Night Terrors (1993), The Mangler (1995), The Apartment Complex (1999), Crocodile (2000) and Djinn (2013), all of which are sad and lamentable. Hooper did seem to briefly show he still had it with the remake of Toolbox Murders (2003), but Mortuary quickly slips back down to the same level of shameful embarrassment. It is genuinely sad seeing someone who once showed a great deal of talent lose their way as spectacularly as this.
Mortuary slips into an unmitigated mess from the outset. The plot has a written-on-the-hoof ricketiness that never decides what kind of film it is – a deformed relative hiding in the cellar/attic work such as The Black Torment (1964), The Shuttered Room (1967), The Beast in the Cellar (1970) or The Unseen (1981), a zombie film or else some body snatchers film about people being taken over by a sinister force. This might have been okay if the film had held up in the shocks department. However, Tobe Hooper gives all indication that he has lost the ability to create worthwhile or even credible shocks. Everything that happens has an eminent predictability, while the red herrings make you groan at their lameness.
Mortuary seems on the verge of turning into a black comedy. With the bad memory of Tobe Hooper’s previous venture into black comedy, The Apartment Complex, lodged firmly in mind, one cannot help but greet this with some trepidation. Certainly, Hooper seems to be aiming towards black comedy in scenes like where Denise Crosby tries to get the embalming apparatus working, only for fluid to jet everywhere, just as the sheriff shows up at the door and she is forced to answer covered in blood, while at the same time Dan Byrd and his friends are panicking about being found smoking dope upstairs.
Sometimes you are not sure what tone Tobe Hooper is aiming for. The introduction to the mortuary within the first few minutes seems so overemphatic in its attempt to depict a rundown hovel – leaking septic tanks, bulbs bursting when people turn lights on, filthy water coming out of the taps, fungus growing on the walls, as all the while the realtor insists that everything is okay – that it feels like Hooper is edging towards farce but you are not sure if such was intentional or not.
The one scene where Mortuary starts to work is where Denise Crosby, who has become possessed by the fungus, invites Dan Byrd’s friends for dinner in a kitchen where everything is lit in flickering half-light and the walls are covered with the black fungus. There is a constantly akilter bizarreness to the scene as Denise Crosby throws sinister black coloured soup on the table in front of them, demands they drink the milk she serves up and then that they hold hands and be thankful, before Alexandra Adi throws salt into her soup and it unnervingly starts to bubble, while Crosby starts convulsing and then vomiting up black ichor. The scene works in a way that suggests something of the blackly farcical family scenes in Hooper’s Invaders from Mars. Denise Crosby gets into the spirit of proceedings and gives a performance that hits just the right note.
Tobe Hooper creates a passable tension during the scenes in the last quarter with people fleeing through the tunnels from the possessed, although even here there are silly shocks with bodies suddenly popping up out of coffins in the mortuary foyer en masse. However, Hooper loses the whole film when it comes to the climactic scenes with the emergence of the creature from the pit amid some tatty digital effects and then the sudden last minute discovery that salt acts as an antidote, whereupon it and the possessed zombies are instantly dissolved.
At no point does the script ever bother to explain what the creature in the pit is, what the creeping black fungus is meant to be or why salt has such an effect on it. There is an annoying twist ending coda where everyone escapes from the mortuary, only for Dan Byrd to be grasped by a set of tentacles that erupt from a puddle of mud.
Tobe Hooper’s other genre films include The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), the dull Eaten Alive/Deathtrap (1977), the fine tv adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1979), The Funhouse (1981), the Steven Spielberg-produced ghost story Poltergeist (1982), the enjoyable psychic alien vampire film Lifeforce (1985), the remake of Invaders from Mars (1986), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), the tv movie I’m Dangerous Tonight (1990) about a haunted dress, the pyrokinesis film Spontaneous Combustion (1990), an episode of the John Carpenter anthology Body Bags (tv movie, 1993), the erotic film Night Terrors (1993), an awful Stephen King adaptation The Mangler (1995), the weird apartment dwellers black comedy The Apartment Complex (1999), Crocodile (2000), the remake of Toolbox Murders (2003) and Djinn (2013), as well as work on various genre tv series.