Some years ago, Christy Parsons (Mary Elizabeth McDonough) saw her father drown in his swimming pool. Ever since that terrible day she has suffered nightmares whilst sleepwalking and still believes her father was murdered even though her mother (Lynda Day George) insists his death was an accident. Adding to Christy’s suspicions, her boyfriend Greg (David Wallace) spots her mother at the local mortuary chanting along with a black magic ritual presided over by creepy mortician Hank Andrews (Christopher George) and his coven of cloak-swishing cultists! Shortly thereafter, Gregg’s buddy Josh (Denis Mandel) gets stabbed in the gut by a zombie-faced maniac. Killings continue around town, compelling Christy to investigate whilst eluding the madman who seems obsessed with her.
Not to be confused with Tobe Hooper’s 2005 horror movie of the same name, Mortuary was also known as Embalmed and part of an enduring slasher film tradition in casting fresh-faced starlets from wholesome television shows as scream queens. Best known as John Boy’s fetching second sister Erin on folksy, feelgood favourite The Waltons, Mary Elizabeth McDonough had previously played a teenage witch in spooky TV movie Midnight Offerings (1981). She went on to grace a handful of other more obscure horror movies and teen comedies, between returning to The Waltons’ fold, and later branched out into writing, producing and directing. Exploitation specialist Howard Avedis was well known for casting TV-familiar faces in sleazy fare, lending trash classics like The Stepmother (1972), The Teacher (1974) and They’re Playing With Fire (1985) a certain tawdry allure.
These days however, Mortuary is better known for including a future star in an early role. Step forward Mr. Bill Paxton, only a year away from his first notable role in The Terminator (1984), and atypically awful as Hank Andrews’ meek, mortician son, Paul. Paul Andrews is a shy, virginal nerd with a hopeless crush on Christy. Mocked by his fellow high schoolers and bullied by his dad, he has developed an unhealthy obsession with corpses. If you can’t see where this is heading, Avedis spells it out with a shockingly poor attempt at hiding the killer’s identity. What the film maintains is a rubber mask is actually ghoulish face-paint about as convincing as that at a kid’s Halloween party. Bill Paxton is a fine actor, but his sub-Anthony Perkins routine here is far from his finest hour and falls short of the memorable performance he gave in his own, underrated genre directorial debut: Frailty (2001).
Mortuary plays like a checklist of all the cheesy clichés of bland, by-the-numbers slasher filmmaking: false scares, suspiciously mature looking teenagers, gratuitous roller disco scenes, a ludicrous last second shock-twist that doesn’t make a lick of sense. However, a largely strong cast almost overcome the lapses of the silly script co-written by Avedis and his actress/producer wife Marlene Schmidt, who plays a small role here. Mary Elizabeth McDonough essays a distinctively strong-willed, sexually assertive heroine, playing especially well off Lynda Day George who in turn, manages a few grace notes in a largely thankless role. One of the early stars of the television incarnation of Mission: Impossible (she later recreated her role in the Eighties revival), Lynda Day George and her husband Christopher George starred in a fair few horror films together, including Day of the Animals (1977), Cruise Into Terror (1978), Beyond Evil (1980) and the infamous Pieces (1981). Most horror fans will remember Christopher George from Lucio Fulci’s video nasty City of the Living Dead (1980), though he was a prolific character actor in westerns and war films. He was particularly good in El Dorado (1967). Sadly, Mortuary was his last movie. He succumbed to a heart attack shortly after filming was completed.
The film is well shot by Orson Welles protégé and occasional exploitation director Gary Graver, but Avedis’ staging is none too creative and quite often lets John Cavacas’ scary score do all the work with its nerve-jangling harpsichord and eerie strings. One exception, is an interesting sequence where a dazed, sleepwalking Christy confronts the ranting killer. Incidentally, Mortuary’s infamous trailer featured none other than Michael Berryman as a gravedigger and tried to sell the film as a zombie movie.