Writer-director Ryan Spindell got some attention with his 2015 short The Babysitter Murders – co-opting the original title of Halloween as part of its strategy to misdirect – and has here spun the style of that impressive mini-movie into a slightly protracted, but engagingly off-the-wall anthology movie in the classic EC/Amicus/Creepshow tradition.
A Victorian house in some Oregon woods is home to an antiquated undertaking business and mildewy tale-teller Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown, channelling the Crypt Keeper and the Tall Man) who takes young blonde Sam (Caitlin Fisher) interviewee on a tour of the facilities while telling stories about previous clients. The interstitial segments feature commentary not only on the specific tales but debate about the conventions of short moralistic horror stories in which people commit some sin and are punished extravagantly, with Sam finally telling her own counter-story – The Babysitter Murders, as it happens – as a riposte to Dark’s squarer tales of ruthless morality.
The film runs 111 minutes, but has only four stories and a frame – and the first tale is a blackout sketch involving a thief (Christine Kilmer) and some tentacles from the beyond (presumably Lovecraftian in nature, they prompt Sam to wonder how an octopus got behind a mirror) – so the stories about a frat boy seducer (Jacob Elordi) who gets a gruesome comeuppance and a frustrated wimp carer (Barak Hardley) whose attempt at mercy-killing goes gruesomely awry tend to hammer home their points through repetition rather than escalation. There is an interesting contrast in that Jake (Elardi) is a loathsome creep and Wendell (Hardley) sympathetic, but are both drawn into hideous, horrific traps – prompting musings about just how fair the Dark universe is.
Unusually, a secondary character – a local doctor (Mike C. Nelson) – winds through the stories, playing a different role in three of them, twining into the frame story which caps the twist endings with a foreseeable but effective development that could segue into sequels. The stories vary in subject matter, but share a retro aesthetic – the setting is sometime in the past, but with a blend of styles and tech like a 1950s vision of the 1970s, but some of the themes tie in with contemporary issues (Sam approves of the addition of social commentary to the second story, though it turns out that she’s on shaky ground there). It’s a world of starched dresses (and hairstyles) and bakelite dials, huge old houses with kitchens full of weapons, colourful clothes but drab interiors, abused women turned monstrously powerful, and characters with fixed expressions. And its bursts of gruesome effects – not just tentacles, but charred child zombies and floating spectral apparitions – are strikingly horrific.