Anthology horror films have been growing in popularity in recent years. But unlike the classic anthologies created in the 60s and 70s by the likes of Amicus Productions, these more recent additions to the genre tend to bring together multiple writers and directors. So when Ryan Spindell set out to write and direct an entire anthology on his own for his feature debut, he was setting himself a big challenge.
The resulting film was The Mortuary Collection, a stylish and atmospheric anthology that stars the legendary Clancy Brown as Montgomery Dark, an eccentric mortician on the cusp of retirement. When a young woman (Caitlin Custer) responds to a “Help Wanted” sign outside the mortuary, Dark regales her with some of the strangest—and most grisly—stories he’s encountered in his long, long career.
To celebrate the release of The Mortuary Collection on Shudder, I caught up with Spindell and Brown to discuss the art of short-form horror and the process of creating a wraparound character who’s a worthy successor to the Cryptkeeper himself.
SCREAM: Let’s go right back to the beginning. Where did the initial concept for The Mortuary Collection come from?
RYAN SPINDELL: The movie was sprung out of a love of short-form horror, short-form genre content in general. I grew up loving Stephen King—I’m from Maine, it’s required reading. And as I got more into it, I really fell in love with Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. I love these masters of the short format, so that’s always been a mode of storytelling that I’ve been drawn to, but it’s not a mode of storytelling that we really get to see on a regular basis. As a short filmmaker, I’ve made a bunch of shorts, and I’ve done a bunch of festivals, and I’ve seen a lot of amazing content. But really, general audiences don’t have a way to see it.
This was in 2012, mind you, so it was a bit of a different landscape. But I had been watching a lot of the Amicus films from the 70s and remembering how much I loved them, and I thought to myself, well, if I’m going to write my next feature, I’d like it to be something interesting that I haven’t seen before or hadn’t seen in a long time. Maybe this is a great way for me to combine my love of short-form storytelling and my love of cinema and package it in a way that I could bring this kind of stuff to audiences. So I sat down and took a bunch of these stories that are floating around in my head and I started tying them together.
I’m obsessed with anthology series, anthology movies, anthology books—anthologies in general. But one of the things about a lot of the movies that was always disappointing to me, especially in the later movies, is how little effort was put into the wraparound—because, in my mind, that is the story. And so one of the first things I started thinking about once I had these shorts that were swirling around was, how do I tie all these together in an interesting way? We wanted to get into the movie with the archetypes and the things that I love—the Cryptkeeper, the person that narrates the stories. I thought that was an interesting way in, and so a mortuary seemed like the place to go and serve this big, looming, foreboding character who exists there and who collects stories.
But then, as the movie started to evolve, I started thinking more about, well, what are these characters like when we’re not in their domicile listening to the stories? Like, what is the Cryptkeeper doing when there’s no audience? Is he just sitting around waiting? Is he lonely? Is he sad? Does he wish to be doing something else, to be somewhere else? So that’s when the movie really started to evolve a little bit more into what Clancy ultimately brought to the table.
Clancy, your character, Montgomery Dark, is really the glue that seals the whole thing together. Can you tell us a little bit about how you worked with Ryan to bring that character to life and really get a sense of who he was?
CLANCY BROWN: Ryan’s a tremendous writer, so it was pretty clear as soon as I read the script. I was tricked when I read the script, because I thought, oh, well this is just gonna be Ralph Richardson sitting down and telling everybody how they’re going to die. I thought, this is fine, I can do that—until I got to the payoff there at the end, which just made it all so much more fun and so much more urgent for me to do.
Ryan draws, and the shop that did the makeup did a tremendous concept job, and so you see all these things and in your mind, you know what it is. And then you get put in the makeup and put in the wardrobe, and it just kind of becomes obvious and possesses you. I think the final touch was the teeth, wouldn’t you say, Ryan? The teeth are brilliant, because there’s just too many of them.
RS: Oh, yeah. I wasn’t sure what the makeup was gonna be, but I knew what the teeth were. That was the one thing I remember in the script, and I think that was the description: “they were like yellow piano keys, there’s just too many.”
Because I’m a massive fan of EC Comics and Creepshow and these kinds of wraparound characters, the initial makeup was much more heavy in the prosthetics; he had inset eyes and these big jowls. The makeup artists worked with this company called studioADI who created the makeup, and then Mo Meinhart applied it on set. So we had the best of the best, and Clancy looked awesome. But I started realising that with all of the makeup, I was losing the whole reason that I cast the guy in the first place. So we started stripping away the elements to see how Montgomery could retain who he is without having all of these layers. The more we stripped away, the better it got. And the interesting component that I hadn’t anticipated was that the teeth were doing so much of the work for us. Because as humans, we smile to put people at ease—but with Montgomery, whenever he would smile, it would become more uneasy. So it was a happy accident that we ended up with.
It’s very unsettling. And Montgomery is obviously integral to the wraparound story, but he doesn’t feature in the segments themselves. Clancy, what was your reaction when you first watched the finished film and saw all the crazy things that happened between the scenes you filmed?
CB: Well you know, the script was so good, and the experience of making it was so good that it kind of sets you up for a let-down when you ultimately see the thing. But it wasn’t that—it was better than I had even imagined it to be. And of course, I didn’t know any of the other actors or any of the other segments, and so your fingers are crossed that they’re as good as what you think your segments are. And they were tremendous. They were better in most respects than I had imagined.
That all goes to Ryan. You make your bet with people, especially at my age. But at any age, when you’re doing these movies, you make your bet and you cross your fingers that it’s all going to work out. I mean, Ryan is making bets right and left on his producing partners and his designers and the actors that he casts, so he’s probably got the most at stake. Me, I just hope it’s as good as it felt. And rarely is it better than it felt at the time.
This is one of those rare times that it was better than it felt. Really, I can count on one hand the movies and projects that I’ve done that did not disappoint in some way. I like them all, but some are better than others. And this is one of the best.
It came together beautifully. One of the things I loved about it was that, even though the segments cross a lot of different sub-genres of horror, there’s a unifying style to it that just makes it all click. Ryan, how did you go about determining the visual style for the film?
RS: I think a lot of it came back to the feelings that I felt when I read the Stephen King short stories growing up. And Richard Matheson—some of the more horror-oriented people know who he is, a lot of people don’t know who he is, but he’s responsible for so many of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone, and I have this collection of books of his. He’ll start with a setup and it’s like, oh, it’s a couple and they’re driving through the desert on their honeymoon and they stop at a seedy gas station and things are not quite right. The initial thought is, wow, what a clichéd situation. And then you look at the date, and it’s like 1943, and you’re like, oh, he created the clichés. So I think because I had such a love of these classic storytellers that created the genre in a way, I wanted to embrace the timelessness with the whole piece. I didn’t want this to exist in any one specific time period—I wanted it to exist in the time period of our minds and let it sort of ebb and flow.
I don’t think I wanted it to be confusing to people, which I know that some people will probably come back with. But I did want it to feel the way that a campfire story doesn’t have a time or a place, it just is—we just know it exists and we accept it. We knew the crazy places that we were going to take the movie and we wanted the ability to give people enough distance from the material to fall in and go along for the ride.
That was obviously an incredible challenge on a movie with this budget level. Period pieces are expensive—you can’t go into any location and shoot as is, and you can’t use any costume that’s just off the rack. Even the hair and makeup is an extensive process; if you have five people in a shot and it’s in a determined period, that’s hours and hours of work from our hair and makeup artist. And so it really is a testament to the people that pulled it off on our team. We started off with our bar very high, and once we were beating that bar, we realised we couldn’t go backwards. We couldn’t have one great segment and then a bunch of weak segments. And so we sort of backed ourselves into a corner—we had to follow through with this ridiculously ambitious project that we set out to do.
Definitely ambitious, but it worked so well. Now, Clancy, you spend the majority of your screen time acting opposite Caitlin Custer, who plays Montgomery’s potential protégé, Sam. The pair have a really interesting rapport. Can you tell us a little about how you established that dynamic with Custer?
CB: Well, she’s adorable first of all. It’s easy to like her as soon as you meet her. She’s a tremendous actress, which I saw in the short “The Babysitter Murders” . And the most important thing to me was that she was a game: she was ready for anything and capable of anything. There’s nothing I could have done or that Ryan could have asked her to do that she wouldn’t at least give her best shot at.
The rapport was mostly her—she did the work on that. I was just being old Montgomery. She was the one that was driving the relationship in the script, and she did it beautifully. I give her total credit for this—her and Ryan. I mean, they’ve been with this thing the longest and they just invited me to the party later, which was great. I’m so glad they did, because it was a lot of fun.
RS: Yeah, she’s amazing. She’s wonderful in real life and on the screen. And she had such a massive challenge in front of her because she has to play opposite Clancy. He has this giant, larger-than life-character, he’s chewing the scenery, and she has to play off of that and somehow ground it and pull us through the world with her, while also not being so realistic that she’s not of the movie. So I got lucky. I got really lucky with her; she pulls it off with aplomb.
I realised after the fact that Clancy and Caitlin represent two different sides of my brain. Clancy is this obsession I have with the past and this idea of classic storytelling—the archetypes, the things I want for my horror, the morality tales, this aesthetic that really is the foundation of everything I do. And then Caitlin represents the new trends in horror—the genre-bending, expectation-defying type of horror. Part of my brain is always like, I love the old but I want it to be new. How do I do this thing that’s everything I love, but do it in a fresh way that’s exciting to me, and hopefully to modern audiences? So interestingly, the whole movie is kind of the two sides of my brain fighting each other on what the merits of great stories are. I hope at the end, the takeaway is that neither is right nor wrong, but it’s a fusion of the two where I think something special can happen.
Absolutely. And the film has scary moments and funny moments, and then there are some moments of genuine pathos. Was it difficult to strike that balance?
RS: I do think it’s difficult, but it’s something that I’ve spent most of my career trying to play with to find where the lines are. Ultimately, as long as the characters are treating everything as real, it gets you a long way. So what I’ll do is, I’ll write scripts that read very ridiculous, and then I’ll have actors play them as straight as possible.
But also, the order of the segments and the tones of them were specifically created to hopefully pull an audience through the movie. The movie opens with some whimsy and some fun, and it’s a little bit Haunted Mansion from Disney, and it feels like a kid’s movie some people have said—and that’s intentional. I want to draw you into the world—I want it to feel safe; I want it to feel spooky and cool. Then we ease into the “Medicine Cabinet” story. That’s sort of our appetizer: here’s what we’re in for, and here are some fun monster effects and some goodness. And then we work our way up into the pregnancy one, “Unprotected,” where we’re leaning into the comedy a bit more, we’re having more fun. But ideally, what’s happening is that the audience has been brought in on this promise of a safe journey, and each step of the way, we’re getting a little darker, we’re getting a little bit greyer in the morality of it all, to hopefully pull people in and have them experience a tonal progression. Then, of course, “The Babysitter Murders” is just a big wild climax, and the wraparound itself has its own climax, and hopefully people walk away questioning the mechanics of story that Montgomery and Sam are debating and making their own decisions. I don’t know if the movie tells you which one’s right and which one’s wrong.
CB: Montgomery is right. [Slips into Montgomery’s deep drawl] I know that for a fact.
Clancy, it’s wonderful to see you making a return to the horror genre—a lot of our readers will be familiar with your role in Pet Sematary Two in particular. Are you personally a fan of the genre?
CB: You know, I haven’t thought in detail about the genre as much as I have in the last couple of weeks. [Laughs]
Horror is a particular genre that lends itself to all mediums of storytelling. Ryan’s talking about Stephen King and Matheson—The Shawshank Redemption was a short story, The Body was a short story. Short stories lend themselves better, I think, to cinema than anything else. It goes back to Edgar Allan Poe—his best stuff is all short-form. Horror itself lends itself to short-form, and short-form cinema horror is a long tradition as well. So I think we’re right in the wheelhouse. It’s not like it’s not been done before, but it’s not always done really well. And I think this one’s done really well.
Do I love horror? You know, I’m gonna go do this Joe Dante podcast and they made me think back on all the genre pictures that I saw as a kid. I started making a list, and the list just got so long it was like, how am I gonna talk about this? I think the genre is also really time-specific, so it makes it an interesting anthropological journey to go back and watch the old James Whale Frankenstein movies and some of the stuff [Terence Fisher] did for Hammer—Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Blockbusters of their time, but also very much of their time. And then you go into [William] Friedkin’s The Exorcist and that whole period, and they’re very much of the social thing that was going on.
I think we’re due for a big explosion of horror coming up. So you know, I’m ready to work. [Laughs] It’s just such a great genre to go for, because you can push the envelope.
RS: And it’s an escapist genre in the purest form, too. We’re looking for escapism right now in the US. It’s a genre that’s already exploding based on the current state of things, and it’s probably going to happen even more. I guess I would trade the success of horror for a better world, but we’re reaping the benefits, too.
If only we could have both. Obviously some productions are paused right now, but looking forward, are there any upcoming projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?
RS: I did an episode of this anthology show with Sam Raimi at the end of last year called 50 States of Fright, and it’s awesome. I’m currently working on season three of that show. And I’m just finishing up a new script for the masses hopefully. We’ll see. It’s a precarious world out there.
CB: There’s a great movie I did coming out called Promising Young Woman with Carey Mulligan. It’s sort of a horror picture, sort of a thriller—a #MeToo revenge kind of thing. I totally lucked out in the last couple years meeting Emerald Fennell [writer-director of Promising Young Woman] and Ryan. These are two young directors that are just terrific.
That’s all the questions I had for you. Thanks so much for chatting with me—I really enjoyed this one.
CB: Just know that we had as good a time making it as you did watching it. I did, anyway.
RS: Speak for yourself! I’m still trying to pull the tendrils of my life back together. [Laughs]
The Mortuary Collection is now streaming on Shudder in the UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)