Director: Howard Avedis
Scorpion Releasing

Another Film Ventures favorite (and a skeleton in Bill Paxton’s closet) MORTUARY makes its digital debut on DVD courtesy of Scorpion Releasing and “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater”.

Young Christie (Mary McDonough of TV’s THE WALTONS) has never believed that her psychologist father’s (stuntman Danny Rogers) drowning death was an accident (we’ve seen the opening credits, so we’re sure of it), and she believes that her mother Eve (Lynda Day George of TV’s MISSION IMPOSSIBLE) has started dating after only two months of mourning. What she doesn’t know is that Eve actually spends her evenings out at a coven headed by local mortician Hank Andrews (Christopher George, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD). One of their meetings is witnessed by Christie’s boyfriend Greg (David Wallace, MAZES AND MONSTERS) and his pal Josh (Denis Mandel) – recently fired from Andrews’ funeral home – when they sneak into the mortuary to steal some tires in compensation for the $150 Josh believes Andrews owes him. While Greg is distracted watching the coven, Josh mysteriously disappears with his van (actually he’s been impaled on a trocar by a figure in a hooded black cloak). When Greg’s van turns up at the bus station with no sign of Josh, Greg tells the Sheriff (Bill Conklin, GRAND THEFT AUTO) who disbelieves him. Christie cannot get her mother to believe that a cloaked figure is stalking her and trying to kill her and believes her mother is out to drive her crazy. When she confides in Greg, he tells her that he has seen her mother in Andrews’ coven – the members of which wear the same kind of cape as Christie’s stalker – the pair head to the mortuary in search of answers. Andrews’ son Paul (Bill Paxton, ALIENS) hasn’t been right since his mother committed suicide – the mother who used to lock him in the mortuary when he was bad – and his crush on Christie is more than a bit creepy; but is he the one who has been maintaining her preserved corpse and embalming some friends to keep her company?

With its cast of TV actors, Gary Graver’s slick photography, and KOJAK/“After School Special”/“Movie of the Week” regular John Cacavas’ score, MORTUARY feels like a TV movie with R-rated elements; and that’s not necessarily a bad thing when one recalls some of the classic 1970s and 1980s made-for-TV genre efforts. The film’s plot has some common elements with the Canadian horror film FUNERAL HOME, as well as the Cacavas-scored TV chiller NO PLACE TO HIDE, in which stalked heroine Kathleen Beller is similarly fixated with her father’s death. MORTUARY was the second of three Cacavas’ scoring assignments for Avedis – which also included SEPARATE WAYS (a Crown International sexploiter with Karen Black and Tony Lo Bianco) and the Sybil Danning cult item THEY’RE PLAYING WITH FIRE – and his stylish work here easily rivals his well-regarded score for HORROR EXPRESS and easily outclasses his work on Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA. Al Adamson regular Graver’s cinematography features some atmospheric lighting with red gels accenting the backgrounds of several scenes, as well as some neat tracking shots in the mortuary warehouse and Steadicam work by Randy Nolan (who also worked on HELL NIGHT, FRIDAY THE 13TH parts 4 and 6, as well as THE PREY before moving onto high profile assignments). Although Howard Avedis only helmed eleven titles between 1972 and 1987, his work was distributed by some of the more memorable exploitation companies of the period: Film Ventures (THE SPECIALIST, THE FIFTH FLOOR, SEPARATE WAYS), Crown International (THE STEPMOTHER, THE TEACHER), Dimension Pictures (DR. MINX), Cinema Shares (TEXAS DETOUR), New World Pictures (THEY’RE PLAYING WITH FIRE), and of course American International (SCORCHY). Avedis co-wrote and produced the film with his wife Marlene Schmidt (who also plays Greg’s mother).

Although destined for the grindhouse (and marketed for it by distributor Film Ventures), the film has great production value with Christie and her mother living in a conveniently isolated Malibu beachside mansion (the Pepperdine University-owned Gulls Way Estate), and Christie and Greg also get to trail Eve and Andrews along a sunny pier just for the sake of opening up the production). Christie and Greg’s investigation has a bit of SCOOBY DOO feel to it, not helped by Wallace’s helmet hair (and blue van), McDonough’s fashionably styled red hair, but this seems to happen when you take slasher characters out of the woods. It’s really more of a mystery disguised as a slasher. The climax brings to mind both HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and Ovidio G. Assonitis’ MADHOUSE, and the obligatory shock freeze-frame ending is simultaneously silly and endearing. McDonough’s nudity was body-doubled (and the clarity of the digital presentation is not particularly flattering to the double), but the only other nude is quite bosomy but also dead. Gore is limited to some bloody impalings – one of which goes on for quite a bit and seems disturbingly sexual – some gushing during an axing, and a prosthetic insert during an embalming (the effects are the work of Jim Gillespie who worked on a few early Spielberg blockbusters as well as the slashers SWEET 16, THE FINAL TERROR, DEADLY GAMES, and MORTUARY cinematographer Graver’s TRICK OR TREATS).

Paxton’s early performance is the most amusing thing about this film – outside of the Roller Boogie footage and “Hey boogeyman! Let’s boogie!” – and he goes all out, skipping through the cemetery and conducting a classical music record with a trocar. Although one is never in doubt about his guilt, the script at least gives him a scene where he explains to another character that he hates being an embalmer because no one will date him and he knows people think he’s creepy. Paxton also has a prior slasher credit with a supporting bit in William Asher’s NIGHT WARNING aka BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER. McDonough – whose Catholic mother refused to let her audition for THE EXORCIST – is an attractive and sympathetic final girl, and Wallace plays the same kind of All-American good guy he essayed in HUMONGOUS and the TV movie THE BABYSITTER (actually, it might have helped if the film cast some suspicion on him during the whole “they’re trying to drive me crazy” part of the plot). Christopher George isn’t really given much to do here but be gruff and suspicious for most of the running time (George died shortly after the film was completed), but Lynda Day George gives a warm performance even as she too is required to be suspicious long after the audience has guessed who’s really responsible. GREEN ACRES’ Alvy Moore appears in a single scene as Greg’s florist father (Moore did four films for Avedis, and had previously appeared in Byron Quisenberry’s mind-numbing slasher SCREAM/THE OUTING).

Scorpion’s dual-layer, progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer is mastered in HD from the film’s original internegative, and the remastering breathes new life into the film (not unlike Scorpion remaster of HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW). Colors are bolder, particularly the greens and reds (take a gander at that title card as well as the red gels in the backgrounds of some sequences), and shadow detail is improved (important for a film with a black-cloaked killer lurking in the shadows). An even greater revelation is the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track which boldly and beautifully renders the full range of Cacavas’ score from the busy electronic and individual plucked strings. There is some crackling and hiss – as well as some distortion in the high ends – that is more evident during silent passages, but doing any more digital clean-up on this might have reduced the impressive presence of the score.

Extras include an interview with composer John Cacavas (14:53) and the film’s theatrical trailer (0:47). The Cacavas interview is a bit of an endurance test since he admits that he remembers nothing about the film or any of his other horror film scores (or several of his higher profile assignments), admitting that his scores all “run together.” He usually recalls the scoring budget and the size of the orchestra (perhaps understandable given the film budgets and his need to assemble orchestras of various sizes out of session musicians rather than the symphony orchestras that some of his better-known contemporaries got to work with during this period). Cacavas did an interview for Severin’s HORROR EXPRESS Blu-Ray/DVD combo release and he does discuss his collaborations with Savalas, but the piece probably could have been shortened. The short trailer (not a TV spot) featuring all original footage with Michael Berryman – who does not appear in the film itself – and would probably be more suited to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD; despite the misrepresentation, it’s an effective little teaser. Sadly, but not surprisingly, there’s no input from Paxton (who I would have thought was quirky enough to embrace this early credit unlike some other actors who began in slashers). McDonough participated in a short interview for the Hysteria Lives website. Katarina Leigh Waters provides an intro skit – in which she is stalked by a hooded figure wielding a sword rather than a trocar – and highlights the major credits of the stars and the crew (including Graver). Trailers for DEATH SHIP, THE RETURN, DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE, SAVAGE STREETS, THE HEARSE, TERROR, SATAN’S SLAVE, DOUBLE EXPOSURE, and THE SURVIVOR round out the package (unlike other Katarina titles, this one does not include a promo reel before the end credits of the closing hostess segment). It should be noted that Tobe Hooper’s MORTUARY is not a remake of this film. (Eric Cotenas)