When I think of Christopher George, I think of two films. First and foremost is William Girdler’s fantastic “JAWS with claws” Nature Amok film Grizzly. I cannot count the number of times I watched this film on Channel 16’s Million Dollar Movie. It stands up just as well for me today, and having at long last seen it uncut, I was actually surprised at the level of some of the violence. The other film is also from Girdler and also a Nature Amok film: Day of the Animals. Everyone remembers this one for a stripped-to-the-waist Leslie Nielsen wrestling a bear (maybe the brother of the antagonist from Grizzly? in revenge mode). I remember it more for George and Richard Jaeckel surviving against a world gone insane. But what I remember most of all is that George’s character in Grizzly is named Kelly. This is his surname, but everyone always refers to him as Kelly throughout the film, and for some reason, this stuck with me to the point that I was under the mistaken impression that George always played characters named Kelly. This thinking lasted for many years. Combine this with the name of a police officer named Kelly in Larry Hagman’s (yes, THAT Larry Hagman) Beware! The Blob, and I begin to find that I simply like male characters with that name, be it their proper name or their surname. I have no idea why. Having said this, George’s character in Howard Avedis’ Mortuary (aka Embalmed) is named Harry Andrews, but that wasn’t nearly so disappointing to me as the film on the whole.
Christie’s (Mary McDonough) dad is beaten with a baseball bat and knocked into the family pool to drown one fine, sunny day. Next thing you know, two stunads, Josh (Dennis Mandel) and Greg (David Wallace), are sneaking into Mr. Andrews’ warehouse to steal some tires. Josh gets offed with an embalming needle, and Greg flees the scene. Quickly thereafter, some creep (whose identity is about as secret as the recipe for ice) in white face paint a la The Exorcist’s Pazuzu (and I like to think The Embalmer is the inspiration for Brain Guy’s look on Mystery Science Theater 3000, though honestly I believe the “vampires” in The Omega Man would be closer to the mark [I have substantiated none of this]) runs around threatening Christie and slaying seemingly random characters.
What stands out the most to me in Mortuary is the idea of what lies beneath the façade of bourgeois normalcy, what lurks behind all the white picket fences of the middle class. Andrews has séances in his mortuary and warehouse. These are some of the oddest séances I’ve ever seen, since the first one we see is just a bunch of women in diaphanous capes swishing and dancing in a circle, while George simply stands there waiting for his SAG check to clear. Later, one is depicted a little more traditionally, with a moving table, questions answered from the beyond, and so forth. These aren’t witches or Satanists, though they bear the hallmarks of those, and this isn’t something that any of the characters does out in the open or will admit to in public. It’s still given a dim view by society and so must be kept secreted in the shadows.
Andrews’ son Paul (Bill Paxton) is the epitome of yuppie mediocrity at first glance. When we’re introduced to him, he’s dressed in a shirt and tie with a brown sweater over top. He’s excited (or as excited as one can be) that he just bought a Mozart album that he wants to share with Christie. This is expressed in the same way that comic book fans gush about their favorite titles to non-comic book fans, and it garners about the same level of polite disinterest. It isn’t until we discover that Paul is Andrews’ son and works at the mortuary that we are given the impression that he’s not as normal as he looks. This isn’t to say that there’s anything distasteful about the mortuary sciences, of course. It’s a combination of two things that puts an audience ill at ease. First, most of us aren’t privy to the details of these services in our normal lives, and we have been trained by society that there is a certain dignity in death that the realities of embalming a cadaver demystifies. Second, is the casualness with which morticians ply their trade. Greg is summoned into the embalming room by Paul, where a naked woman is prepared for embalming. While Greg is ostensibly a little in awe of this (you can’t really tell from his acting), for Paul this is as normal as breathing.
Christie’s mom Eve (Lynda Day George) puts on a nice exterior, but she is a participant in Mr. Andrews’ extracurricular activities. Further, she and Christie have a tense relationship centering on the death of the family patriarch and Christie’s recent sleepwalking sojourns. Christie believes that her mom is trying to drive her insane or maybe just get rid of her so she can move on with another man. The film attempts to strip away the veneer of the typical suburban family, sadly not exposing tons when you think about it at length, but it is in there.
Another aspect the film deals with is the act of grieving. The two families at the heart of this film have recently had losses. Christie’s dad was murdered, though it was ruled an accident. Christie and Eve deal with it in their separate ways. Eve attends séances to contact her husband’s spirit and find closure. She believes his death was accidental, so the answers she receives in these sessions are enough to bring her peace. Christie knows that her father’s death was intentional, but since she doesn’t know who did it or why, her internalization of this quandary leads to her sleepwalking habits which are potentially dangerous (once she winds up in the pool, another time hovering by the front door with a knife in her hand). Mr. Andrews also recently lost his wife to suicide. We can assume that this is why he started his little séance group in the first place, though he seems a little bit too into it for it to be a casual attempt to find solace, and for all we know this could all be a scam. This leads us to Paul, who behaves as if everything is same old, same old, despite his mom’s recent, tragic passing. He goes about his day as if nothing has changed, and this is just as unhealthy in the long run as Christie’s somnambulism. Interestingly, it’s the adults, in their arguably excessive, unconventional, and likely misguided activities, who deal the most healthily with the realities of the death of a loved one.
So why, then, is this movie such a dog? I maintain that the answer to the question lies within applying the same primary query to some specific examples. Why does Greg make a medium-level to do about Josh going missing and then never bring up the disappearance of his friend again? Why does Christie wear makeup to bed? Why are there more jump scares in this film than there were bodily fluid stains at Plato’s Retreat? Why did the filmmakers focus on these cheap frights rather than playing on the dread and innate creepiness of the story’s titular location and its goings on? Why, when Christie wants to take a break from Greg, does he not only not get emotional but also acts pretty fucking chipper when he sees Eve on his way out the door? Why are we introduced to a trio of Greg and Christie’s pals (including the requisite “funny fat guy” character) at a rollerskating rink if none of them contributes a single thing to the story, even as potential victims? Why does a mortuary stock sedatives? Aren’t all their clientele already free from all bodily pain? Why doesn’t The Embalmer kill Greg when he has the drop on him? You can dismiss any of these as stylistic flourishes, and they may, in fact, be the reason you happen to enjoy this film. Nevertheless, it’s the level of apathy threading its way through all of these exemplars that just kills it for me. There is no point to any of this outside of the big “surprise” ending which isn’t a surprise to anyone over the age of ten who has ever seen a movie before. The lackadaisical approach deflates any tension and derails any compulsion to find out where the narrative (and its uninteresting characters) is going, because it isn’t going anywhere. The big question I had after watching Mortuary was why couldn’t it stay buried?
MVT: The film was made in the Eighties, so at least you get some nice snapshots of that time (the roller rink being the one that stands out in my mind; funny, since the scenes set in it are utterly pointless).
Make or Break: The idiotic noncommittal of Greg to tracking down Josh, who we suppose is his best friend, and the film’s dropping of this plot point “just because” is the clearest indication I can think of as to why no one should commit the ninety minutes to watch this thing.