Featuring five twisted tales of terror, The Mortuary Collection is an anthology horror that pays homage to the fun, classic horror films of the Seventies and Eighties but with a fresh, new twist.
Following the story of Montgomery, a creepy mortician who tells spooky tales such as ‘Monster Cabinet’ (featuring a tentacled monster), through to the trope-turning ‘The Babysitter Murders’ to his new apprentice, Sam, The Mortuary Collection is fun, scary, gory journey through five fantastic stories.
Written and directed by Ryan Spindell, the film stars genre legend Clancy Brown (Highlander, Starship Troopers), Caitlin Fisher (Teen Wolf), Jacob Elordi (Euphoria), Barak Hardley (Spell), Sarah Hey (Braid) and Christine Kilmer.
We spoke to Ryan Spindell about The Mortuary Collection, his love of the anthology format, horror movies and working with Clancy Brown…
Where did the idea come from for The Mortuary Collection?
I think it just grew out of my love for the short form. I’m a big fan of the short format stories in general and always have been a fan of the anthology format. Whether it’s from a series like the original The Twilight Zone or Tales From The Crypt and movies like Creep Show and a lot of the Amicus movies from the Seventies.
These were big touchstones for me as a creative, but it started out as a love for the format, and this idea that some stories don’t require 90 minutes to be told. Especially in horror, where I feel like sometimes less is more. I was kind of bummed out that there is not really a venue for these really cool short tight little ideas to be presented to a wider audience.
I had already been writing – I write short scripts for fun on the side because there is nothing you can really do with them, you can max out some credit cards and make one or two but I have done many of those. I have many of those ideas on my computer that are just sitting there gathering dust and ‘The Babysitter Murders’ (the fourth segment in The Mortuary Collection), was one I had just finished. I was really excited about it but it bummed me out as this is potentially just going to be a short that I make and just play at festivals and then it just disappears, so that was the motivation I needed to just take the dead format and try to make it my own.
What was your process in writing The Mortuary Collection?
I had two of the shorts written and then two of them were just little paragraphs of what the story might be, so I wrote them all in one push. Once I figured out the general skeleton of it, I moved through the movie and wrote them all.
The interesting part was that initially, the first story in the movie was something else altogether. It was basically another robust 20-minute segment about a telemarketer who is so aggressive on phone calls with people that he actually harasses somebody to death. Then he starts to get haunted through all the phone lines wherever he goes and his whole reality starts to unravel as he’s trying to figure out how to appease this vengeful spirit. It’s interesting because it was one of my favourite shorts in the whole thing and it had a ton of interconnecting components because he was a telemarketer so he would call these different people in the movie and we would see these little vignettes of these different stories that we eventually would come to see. So it was a bummer to have to lose it but halfway through production, the producers came to me and said ‘we 100% are not going to be able to afford this big unwieldy segment and on top of that if we do it’s going to be two-and-a-half hours long and we can’t do that!’.
They asked me to think of something else with one or two people in the room, and I went off and wrote ‘Medicine Cabinet’. It was an exercise to see if I could tell a story with one person in a room that still has a three-act structure and essentially make it a silent film. So it’s all just performance-based and ideally, if I can get a monster in there then double bonus because I’m a huge monster fan. I was already sad that I didn’t have a monster in the movie and this was my chance to do it. I wrote the short and sent it to my producers and they were like ‘it’s great, we love it, we can build a really quick and dirty set here and we will just shoot it in two days’. But I felt it wasn’t satisfying as a story, I had just built this whole world around this idea that I wanted to tell a complete three-act story in a condensed amount of time and this felt more like a one-off.
Then I thought ‘well that’s how Sam would respond, it’s not a real story’ and that spawned this whole back and forth between [Montgomery and Sam in the film] and this breakdown of what makes a story good or bad. So then ‘Medicine Cabinet’ ended up being a great appetiser to set the table both tonally for the movie but also for the debate that’s going to carry us.
What is it that appeals to you about short films?
A friend of mine said that a feature film is like a marriage and a short film is like a one-night stand. He was saying that making shorts are worthless and throw away. But a one night stand isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on where you are! I think there is some value in these mini-narratives that don’t have to wallow in all the intricacies that it takes to maintain a feature.
I do really love the challenge of a short, I think writing a short is more difficult than writing a feature, a good one. I think that’s where a lot of people go wrong (whether with anthology series or anthology movies) is that they don’t really approach the craft of writing shorts. They don’t really look at it as a unique art form. They try to take what they know about features and then try to smush it into a short form. Or they try to take a piece of a feature and just show you a slice of a story. I’m of the mindset that a short should have a nice three-act structure and have a setup and a pay up and character development. All the things you would need in a feature.
So there is this factor that this is really hard to do and can I pull it off? Just challenging myself as an artist. Can I set up a character in three minutes and then get on with the story? The by-product of that is if you want to tell these really high concept stories as we have in The Mortuary Collection, you have to go really simple in the mechanics just to get everything across because everything is so tight. In a normal feature, you may have 30 minutes just to establish who the character is and the different levels and what they want/need etc. But with these stories, you just have to get it across in one scene essentially and I like the challenge of that.
If any, what were your inspirations when writing The Mortuary Collection?
One of the things which is an advantage of The Mortuary Collection is because it is five movies at once, each segment kind of embraces a different sub-genre and I was able to cram everything I love into it! So it ended up being a giant pastiche of my favourite filmmakers, my favourite moments, my favourite ideas and then trying to figure out a way to make that the starting point and turn it on its head.
Peter Jackson, especially his early stuff, was one of the reasons I got into making movies to begin with because I love the artistry and the craft that he puts into building the worlds he creates. Sam Raimi as well I love, old Steven Spielberg and Amblin – this like fun fantasy element to horror which I love. I love all horror movies, I am a horror fan through and through but even I at certain times can’t take another heavy horror movie. I want something light and fun that scratches the itch but doesn’t make me contemplate having an existential crisis for the next three weeks afterward!
Jean Pierre Jeunet was a huge influence, I remember watching Delicatessen when I was in college and first starting to branch out and watch foreign films and I remember thinking, ‘I would love to see what Jean Pierre Jeunet would do in a horror film’. So it’s like taking all these different influences and then filtering them all back towards the genre that I love most, which is horror.
Did you pay particular attention to the order the stories are shown in?
I put a tonne of thought into it. There was a lot of thought into how the stories were ordered, what each story presented us with and how the film as a whole evolves from beginning to end. It was 100% designed to be that way. It was designed to pull you in with this kind of Disney Haunted Mansion, fun, quirky and fantastic vibe, and even the first story in the film is setting that tone and showing you, ‘okay we are going to go to some interesting places get ready’. Then as the movie progresses and as Sam and Montgomery discuss the merits of stories in between, the movies get a little bit darker, and they a bit more grey in their morality. Montgomery has a point which he is trying to make throughout – the point that’s older than time and the foundation of all of these stories, which is if you commit wrongs then you will have to pay for it.
Interestingly, when I first started putting this thing together I started off with eight, maybe nine shorts that I had in mind and I kind of filtered them down based on what each one was about. Then I put a lot of energy into how the audience would be carried through it. The complaint you hear a lot about this format is because we are trained to watch a 90-minute movie, people start to feel this weird start and stop. They don’t feel like they are pulled through one narrative and they get bored and turn it off.
So I put a lot of energy into really thinking about the wraparound film that pulls us through and how each story would affect us. As the movie goes on we have a really big short in the middle that was the longest and the heaviest, and at that point, it’s like ‘we can’t do another heavy story we have to get right to the action’ and we have got to be a little bit more wham bam because we don’t want to lose people yet. So I probably overthought this movie with the amount of time and energy I spent into thinking about every single detail, but the kind of films that really inspire me are those types of films where the directors are all-in and I try to bring some of that into my work if possible.
How did you decide on the anthology’s wraparound story that all the short stories tie in to?
‘The Babysitter Murders’, of all the stories, was the most recent one I had written at the time. It was the one I was the most excited about and I did want to find a way to tie a wraparound story into one of the stories themselves. I think ‘The Babysitter Murders’ itself and where it goes to, sort of inspired me to take the character out of that and place her in the world of the wraparound as a throughline. But I think why she was at the mortuary and what drives her forward evolved as the movie was being made and that’s the most fun about these things.
You can sit down in your room or in a coffee shop and you can come up with these stories in your head and you can do your best to make them interesting but it’s not until you practically start putting together a plan as to how it’s going to happen that the really interesting stuff happens. The beating heart of the movie starts to present itself and it starts to push the movie; you can either fight or embrace it. So the wraparound is the thing that evolved the most.
It was interesting because I did want to maintain the integrity of the anthology format. I remember early on there were some people saying ‘well you know some people don’t like anthologies, can you cut up the different stories and intercept them more like a Pulp Fiction thing’ and so I was really adamant from the beginning that I wanted to be true to the original format, I wanted to have the self-contained stories that you could watch independently of the movie and also be their own thing and I wanted to have a classic archetype storyteller bringing us through the stories. But I still wanted to try to find a way to make it feel like a whole. It was an interesting challenge but based on the response we are getting it seems to really be working!
How involved were you in the film’s casting? There are some great two-hander scenes with Clancy and Caitlin…
We made ‘The Babysitter Murders’ first as a proof of concept in 2017. At that time I met Caitlin who is the lead of ‘The Babysitter Murders’ through a friend. I said to her ‘who is the best actress you know?’ and she showed me this picture of Caitlin and said this girl’s great. I said ‘no she is too cute she needs more edge’ and she said ‘no trust me she has levels’. So I met her and immediately cast her and it was the best thing I ever did. She is an amazing person and an amazing friend. We kind of needed these close personal relationships to make this movie because we did make this movie piece by piece over the course of several years, so that’s how a lot of our casting actually came about because we were like, ‘who are the people we know who are the best actors and where can we slot them into this insane project where there are like a billion speaking roles that we have to somehow juggle?!’.
Then Clancy came as a second part when we went to shoot the wraparound, as a big hero piece. We needed someone to play opposite Caitlin and I basically started making a list of my very favourite character actors. What I love about character actors and why I always push towards casting them is I just think [they are] the shapeshifters who are always in the background but really create the lifeblood of all these different films. They are the best actors, they can slip in and out of roles. We wanted Montgomery to be recognisable because that’s what you want with a film that’s just starting to get off the ground. Clancy has always been one of my favourite character actors and I was blown away when he came on board and also intimidated because this guy has worked with the best directors in the world! The best actors and directors, he’s done it all! I was like ‘oh shit now we have Clancy Brown and he’s going to show up on set and there’s no trailer, no Craft services, holed up in a room for two hours in makeup…’ I was nervous he was going to be a diva, not that I got any indication of that, but he’s been doing it forever and you don’t want to take a step backward. Instead, he was the lifeblood of the whole crew. He set the tone and he was so down to get in there and play and experiment and the yin and yang between [Montgomery and Sam] worked out better than I could have expected.
That’s a scary thing when you’re making an independent film. You don’t always have the time to try people out and do a bunch of run-throughs and see if it’s going to work. You just have to take a swing and hope that your instincts are right. One of the things that was interesting was the duality between those two. I started realising that the debate that the two of them are having throughout the film is the debate that I have with myself every time I sit down to write a project. I’m a little bit old fashioned, I like old classic genre stories, I like morality tales. Montgomery represents that, he represents the old school way of telling stories and horror in general. But then Sam represents this artist in me that wants to change it all and twist genre on its head. So interestingly the wraparound of this movies ends up being the two sides of my brain battling each other to decide which one is right or wrong when it comes to storytelling and I hope at the end, what the audience takes away is that they are both right, it’s just the combination of the two that make something interesting.
Out of all the short stories in The Mortuary Collection, what is your favourite?
I can’t say I have an overall favourite because my favourites have changed throughout the course of the movie! The mood I was in at the time or who I was when I wrote the movie back in 2012 as opposed to who I am now and what matters to me has shifted. So throughout the course of the movie I’ve had different favourites where I’m like ‘yes this is easily my favourite’ and then I’ve flopped on it.
I think what’s interesting outside of that is to see the general response of audiences. A lot of my problems with a lot of anthologies are there seems to be one segment that it was built for, one really great segment, and then there are a bunch of filler segments to fill out the movie. I really didn’t want to do that, I wanted to put everything I possibly can within my means to make these full, robust, worthy stories. The nightmare would have been if we premiered the movie and everyone was like ‘well clearly this one is the best and these other ones are okay’. But what I’ve found is there has been no consistency. Someone will write a review and be like, well clearly it’s all building towards this third segment and then the next one will be like, ‘the one with the man and his wife was fine but what I really like was the girl in the medicine cabinet’. People are latching on to different ones, even though it hurts my heart a little bit because I want them to love all of them equally! I think ultimately that’s really satisfying because we made different sub-genres and at least one of them speaks to most of the people who are into the movie and I guess that’s a win.
This is your debut feature film, what was the experience like in making The Mortuary Collection?
I had a lot of amazing collaborators. It was a scary movie to make honestly because you can sit in a coffee shop and you can say ‘I’m going to do an anthology movie because nobody does them and I’m going to prove them wrong’. That’s a really easy thing to do when you’re by yourself at a computer but suddenly when you have a crew of 40 people and you are building sets, and you have these amazing actors who have signed up and they trust you.
It’s easy to go ‘did I make the wrong choice here? Should I have made a traditional film as my first film – just a nice solid, straight forward movie that I could have launched my career with?’. I regretted this movie many times because of the difficulties that went into it but at this point, I am really proud of this movie and I’m glad that I took a wild swing at the first bat. If I don’t ever make another film then at least I’ll go down in history as having tried something, which I think is important for filmmakers, especially now when it feels like everyone is making a movie!
What’s next for you?
I did this really fun project last year after The Mortuary Collection but before the pandemic called Fifty States Of Fright with Sam Raimi. It’s an anthology series and it’s on Quibi. It’s really cool – basically, each episode is based around an urban legend from each of the states of the US. Sam handpicked all of these interesting up and coming filmmakers and he let us write them and he let us direct them. At its core, it was just making a short film with Sam Raimi which was pretty awesome! The second season just came out and it’s really interesting. I do think if it’s allowed to go further it’s going to be one of the best horror anthology series out there because it comes from a creative space and not a ‘how do we make a show that everybody is going to watch’ space. I wrote two episodes of that for Season Three and I think I should be directing one of them.
I also wrote and am going to direct a segment of an anthology based around other filmmakers, it’s a remake of the horror movies from the Nineties for MGM. That’s exciting.
Beyond that, I’m really excited about continuing to work in the world of features and telling stories for movies. I’m just finishing the first draft for a movie that is tonally and spiritually very much in The Mortuary Collection frame but it’s one story and it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever worked on, so I’m really excited about getting that out there and hopefully making it next year!