The time honoured Anthology film. There are no shortage of them on the festival circuit, particularly in horror-genre circles. Rarely, however, do they come with such pedigree as Nightmare Cinema. It seems Mick Garris has not entirely scratched the itch of of his Masters of Horror cable series, which was a success on Showtime nearly a decade ago, and has again assembled a collection of well known genre veterans to tell new tales, this time in a theatrical format.
Five short films which vary wildly in style and content, connected with a framing device not quite as kitschy as the Crypt Keeper from HBO’s venerable Tales From The Crypt anthology show, and yet, it must be said that Mickey Rourke is as awkward as he is unsettling (intentionally or not) as ‘The Projectionist.’ He scares the bejesus out of random patrons who wander in off the street by showing them their ‘future’ as a retro-horror short, projected in an grand empty auditorium. Rourke’s a big fellow, and requires little make-up beyond a leg-brace and a cane, and he looms large over his victims.
Filmed in historic Rialto theatre in Pasadena, California, where Robert Altman’s The Player (Vincent D'Onfrio watches The Bicycle Thief, if I am not mistaken) and more recently the almost-Best-Picture-winning musical La La Land have had scenes shot in this very cinema. Those films comment on ‘the movie business’ a wee bit differently than Nightmare Cinema, but not so different, if you accept the conceit that actors become ghosts trapped in 35mm capturing of the soul, “You’ll be with me forever,” The Projectionist promises his victims.
The first short is a high energy slasher that begins in media res, with ‘The Welder’ doing whittling his way down to the final girl. It then then incorporates at least two other horror sub-genres (which are cutely right in marquee title, pay attention to your marquee, ladies and gents). It is bloody and furious with gags galore, gleefully executed by Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX Group.
I am told that the lack of opening titles was a decision based on brevity to keep the collection under two hours in length. But there is an accidental bit of gamesmanship due to that choice. The anthology has no credits to connect the film with the filmmaker, so if you are an aficionado, and know which directors contribute the shorts: Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead), David Slade (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy), Ryûhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train, Versus), Joe Dante (The Howling, Matinee) and Garris himself (Sleepwalkers), it is very likely you will be tempted to guess which director is responsible for which short. If my experience is scalable, you would be wrong in many if not all of your assumptions. I admit it is part of the fun, intended or not, so I will not spoil anything here. (Rest assured, the closing credits will satisfy your curiosity if you are of this persuasion.)
Next we head over to the Mirari clinic where a woman considers getting some cosmetic surgery to appease her wealthy boyfriend, for reasons she will only later begin to understand. Richard Chamberlain, looking dapper and appropriately ageless at 82, plays the surgeon with the silver tongue and itchy scalpel. There is a cheeky visual nod to the ending of John Frankenheimer’s classic, Seconds. But the whole short is an echo of the dangers of 1% lifestyle and psychology for those uninitiated. It is a bruised and gory warning to be careful how us folks in the middle class might get entangled and spit out by incredibly wealthy, or the incredibly beautiful.
The third short is a gonzo, provocative and downright blasphemous bit of catholic schoolgirl exorcism mayhem that is only slightly undermined by the speed of its storytelling, which is enough to give whiplash. It’s naughty and gleeful and, well, very ‘Metal,’ all in equal measure. It doesn't make much sense, but then it appears to be evoking a period in Italian cinema that was lauded for its lack of sense or good taste.
The fourth, and to these eyes the pick of the litter, is presented in high-contrast black and white. A mother and her two children wait in the lobby of a therapist for her appointment. The children are restless and the mother is agitated. The clinic starts to take on grime and soot, and the mother’s anxieties ramp up to the point where she cannot recognize the words of the staff, who become distorted and disfigured in language and body. Made with a mixture of practical and composite effects, it dramatizes a woman’s descent into madness and paranoia from her highly subjected point of view. The emotional equivalent is akin to an itch she is afraid to acknowledge, let alone scratch.
The closing short, on which the cinema marquee reads simply ‘Dead,’ follows a young piano protege who sees ghosts after he wakes up in a hospital after a terrible bit of violence. Some are lost, some are loved ones, and some are malevolent. Some of them might not even be ghosts. A hospital can be as much an unsettling place as one of healing, and as patients are often there due to trauma, the combination of psychological demons and waiting is ripe for the kind of exploration that is only hinted at here. Of all the entries, this is the one that might work better as a feature, as it has a tad much on its plate. It dovetails back into the framing story, with a note of optimism, and sequel possibilities.
At the premiere of the film, Mick Garris was unambiguous in that this is the logical carry-on to his Master of Horror series. And there remains a strong desire to continue with a collection of sequels involving different filmmakers (or a new streaming serial series) one that acknowledges the classic venues, styles and tropes of the cinema, and embraces new ones. Marquee movie houses and 35mm film might be fading away, but Nightmare Cinema intends to keeps the dream alive, one scary story at a time.