Studio: Cranked Up Films
Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugues, Ryuhei Kitamura, Joe Dante, David Slade
Writer: Richard Christian Matheson, Sandra Becerril, Lawrence C. Connolly
Producer: Mick Garris, Courtney Solomon, Mark Canton, Joe Russo
Stars: Mickey Rourke, Sarah Withers, Faly Rakotohavana, Maurice Benard, Elizabeth Reaser, Zarah Mahler, Mark Grossman
The projectionist of a haunted movie theater forces five people to face horrifying nightmares involving death, decay, demons, plastic surgery, and cosmic spiders.
Horror anthology reviews should avoid two things. First, referencing the phrase “mixed bag.” In general, “mixed bag” ought to be stricken from the vocabulary of every critic for the crime of being ridiculously overused. It’s a catchall copout that boringly says, “there are some good things and some bad things,” which doesn’t benefit anyone looking for committed insight. It’s particularly pointless for an anthology because by definition, what is a collection of shorts from different creative teams if not a “mixed bag?”
A lesser landmine worth sidestepping involves making comparisons to “Creepshow” (review here). That’s a tougher task since the classic George A. Romero/Stephen King collaboration remains the gold standard by which all horror anthologies should be measured. I’m guilty of making that reference repeatedly, but it gets to be like leaning on “Lynchian” or “fever dream” to say something is hallucinatory or unsettlingly ethereal.
“Nightmare Cinema,” a quintet of horror shorts from Mick Garris and four of his filmmaking friends, makes it impossible to put “Creepshow” out of mind by deliberately aping that movie’s memorable piano theme. I searched end credits for a callout to “Creepshow” composer John Harrison thinking “Nightmare Cinema” either licensed his work outright or at least nodded at Harrison’s inspiration. Instead I discovered Richard Band recorded the wraparound’s music. Band was notably instructed to pay homage to or to rip off (I’ll accept either as correct) Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” theme on “Re-Animator.” Seems like Band operated under a similar directive here, as “Nightmare Cinema’s” opening sounds criminally identical to “Creepshow’s.”
Horror anthologies usually save the best for last. “Nightmare Cinema” instead plays its ace early. Alejandro Brugues condenses a complete slasher film into 20 minutes with “The Thing in the Woods.” Starting as a straightforward setup where a masked murderer stalks two teens, things take a sharp turn into cosmic possession with an unexpected twist. The segment toys with slasher tropes the entire time, yet only touches the tip of its tongue to its cheek to be sassily self-aware without veering into absurdist parody. It’s flighty in a fun way, and probably the pick of the litter. Grade: A-
Working from a Richard Christian Matheson screenplay, Joe Dante stays true to his characteristic style by going slightly more comic with his creepiness. In “Mirari,” Anna’s impending nuptials inspire her to address the scar on her face with plastic surgery. Her fiancé David facilitates everything with a bizarro doctor awkwardly played by TV legend Richard Chamberlain, who seems to have skipped rehearsals. Off-kilter atmosphere demands a 5/4 time signature, yet Dante slows the piece to 3/4, dragging “Mirari” into a cheeky message about appearance obsession that becomes muddled by a poorly revealed payoff. Grade: C
Ryuhei Kitamura hits unsteadiness too, although his segment about a demon haunting a Catholic boarding school provides “Nightmare Cinema’s” most gruesome slice of horror. “Mashit” wanders between beats of sinful clergy, suicidal children, and parental concern without settling into consistency regarding what it wishes to convey. More superficially, “Mashit” at least puts on a splattery display of sacrilegious slaughter featuring plenty of kids bloodily dismembered inside a chapel. If the term weren’t verboten, I’d definitely call this a “mixed bag.” Grade: C+
Based on Lawrence C. Connolly’s short story “Traumatic Descent,” director David Slade rights the ship with “This Way to Egress.” As a narrative, this black and white tale of a single mother unraveling while the world seemingly decays around her falters because its resolution doesn’t really satisfy a story. As a tangible portrait of intangible madness however, Elizabeth Reaser intriguingly entrances with an intense performance as a woman whose mental illness manifests as a “Twilight Zone” nightmare. “This Way to Egress” is the segment most certain to stick in the mind’s eye. It’s a frighteningly fantastical visual representation of what an unstable brain undergoes after breaking from reality. Grade: A-
If Kitamura’s “Mashit” is the anthology’s centerpiece for gore, “Dead” occupies “Nightmare Cinema’s” space for most traditional terror tale. Mick Garris directs a solid story about a young music prodigy whose near-death experience gives him the power of Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” Neither exceptional nor forgettable, “Dead” lands in its namesake’s center when ranking each short according to enjoyment level. Grade: B-
I’ve seen horror anthologies with throwaway wraparounds before, but “Nightmare Cinema’s” is as arbitrary as it gets. Mickey Rourke receives prominent billing as a bare-chested weightlifter in a leather duster weirdly posing as the projectionist of a haunted theater. A key character from each segment staggers in to watch his/her story onscreen and Rourke briefly appears for one minute at the end to imply everyone died or something. “The Projectionist” is so disposable, I don’t know why producers included it at all. Grade: D-
“Nightmare Cinema” shakes somewhat. That’s bound to happen with this many moving parts of disparate tones, themes, and talent. But it wobbles into wicked weirdness more often than it flirts with creative collapse. Totaling together two outstanding segments, three midrange ones, and one dumb wraparound, “Nightmare Cinema” averages out to a decently entertaining feature. It’s more “mixed bag” than “Creepshow,” but what horror anthology isn’t?
Review Score: 65