Mortuary

When I was a kid, one of the movie theaters I frequented would do a slideshow before the movie started. The slides would alternate between ads for upcoming movies and pictures of popcorn and soda pop. One of the movie ads that was burned in my mind featured the image of a gravestone with a hand reaching out of the ground in front of it. The movie was 1983’s Mortuary, which I used to always confuse with another 1983 film, Mausoleum. Now, that memorable poster image actually has nothing to do with the actual film; a largely forgotten and pretty effective slasher.

The film centers on a teenage girl named Christie (Mary Beth McDonough), who has been having a rough time since the death of her psychiatrist father. She has nightmares and occasionally sleepwalks until she finds herself up to her chin in the family’s pool. There are other strange goings on, though, as Christie’s friend Josh has recently vanished after having observed strange occult ceremonies taking place at the local mortuary where he once worked. Unknown to Christie and her boyfriend Greg (David Wallace), who also observed the weird ceremony, Josh was murdered by a black-cloaked figure. Oh, and did I mention that Christie’s mother (Lynda Day George) was also at the ceremony. And then there’s Paul (Bill Paxton), the awkward son of the mortuary owner, who has had a huge crush on Christie for years.

Well, as you may have figured, one night the hooded figure turns up at Christie’s home. Of course, when Christie tries to tell her mother about it, she writes it off as having been a dream. Soon it becomes clear, though, that this is no dream. When the mysterious man returns he captures Christie and drags her to the mortuary, where there is more than murder on the agenda.

Now, I guess I’ll throw up a spoiler alert here, but I don’t know how much of a spoiler this is. The reveal happens midway through the film, and you’ve probably figured this out already based on my brief synopsis.  Consider yourself warned, though. The killer is, of course, Paul. I suppose the filmmakers made some effort to disguise this with the ghoulish white latex that covers the killers face; but now, almost 40 years later, with the killer being played by the member of the cast who achieved the greatest fame, there’s no mistaking that that’s Bill Paxton under the hood. Plus, you don’t have to have a degree in mortuary science to know that the killer’s weapon of choice is an embalming tool, and it’s established early on that Paul works in his father’s mortuary.

Having said all that, Bill Paxton is definitely the highlight of the film. He pulls off being goofy and awkward when he’s just plain old Paul. There’s a scene where he literally skips through a cemetery after presenting Christie with a rose. When he’s the killer, though, he’s quite sinister and creepy. His actions are legit disturbing. Probably the film’s most graphic moment is when Paul kills Christie’s mother. Between the nature of the murder weapon, and the heavy breathing and writhing of Paxton as he plunges it into her, there’s definitely a sexual angle to this moment. Given that just a few minutes earlier, dear old mom was flirting with Christie’s boyfriend, Greg, the scene definitely has some unsettling layers.

In many ways the film feels like it’s what you get when you mix a soap opera with a slasher film. It centers on a small group of people in a affluent community who are all strangely intertwined. Christie’s dead father was a psychiatrist…Paul was his patient, struggling with his mother’s suicide…Christie’s mother is involved in a strange cult with Paul’s father…Paul has the hots for Christie. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Paul and Christie were actually siblings! 

Despite the soap-operish qualities, the film manages to be a very effective little slasher. In addition to the great performance from Bill Paxton, Mary Beth McDonough also excels as the object of his desire, Christie. There are a lot of great final girls in 80’s slasher films, but I can’t say that we the audience actually have legit concern for all of them. I found myself actually worried for Christie, and that was all on the strength of McDonough’s performance. McDonough is probably best known for appearing as Erin in the long-running, and exceedingly wholesome, TV series The Waltons. She grew up on that show, but here we are two years after it went off the air, and she is showing everyone she’s not a little girl anymore. She spends much of the movie in a revealing nightgown and has a fairly graphic love scene…which may have employed a body double, but still. Clearly, the fans of The Waltons were not the audience the filmmakers were going for.

Going back to that original poster image, though, there are absolutely no corpses reaching out of their graves in this movie. In the end, it didn’t matter that much. I can deal with misleading marketing when you deliver an effective and creepy slasher film like this. If that’s not enough for you,it’s a real treat to see Bill Paxton, an actor who would eventually hit it big, getting his start playing the killer in a teen horror film, and giving it all he’s got.

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