Mortuary (2005)

mortuary

The 2005 horror film Mortuary suffers from a single, if significant, flaw:  it was made.   The following review contains spoilers.  But spoilers are only a problem if you intend to watch the film in question.  Believe me, you don’t.

Quite what possessed Tobe Hooper, the man behind such classics as Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to make such an horrendous film is rather baffling.  This is a film, after all, in which the storyline is basically about a mother and her two children taking over a mortuary that suffers from an outbreak of black goo-like moss that turns people into zombie-like creatures.  I would give you a reason for the existence of the goo, but sadly the film doesn’t give us one.  I’d tell you why there’s a madman living in a tomb, but there’s not a reason for that either.  Nor is there a reason why rock salt “kills” the goo, but that’s kind of just left to our imagination (or perhaps Hooper had caught an episode of Supernatural at some point).  I’d give you reason for the film’s existence, but that’s not clear either.

What I’m trying to say here is that Mortuary is a pile of crap.  That’s not a description I often use in my reviews, but it’s very apt here.  And this comes from a guy who has recently watched more than his fair share of Elvis films over the last few months for a project I’m working on – in comparison, Kissin’ Cousins is Gone with the Wind.

What makes Mortuary slightly interesting (at least for this writer) is that it is one of two films from 2005 by horror maestros in which one of the teenagers at the heart of the narrative is gay.  The other film, Cursed by Wes Craven (hardly a classic, but better than this), makes more of a fuss about the gay issue than Hooper does here.  In the case of Mortuary a teenager announces to his friend that he’s gay, he says “that’s cool,” and it’s never mentioned again.  And that, in fact, is rather cool.   There is often a link between (homo)sexuality and horror, but it’s often implicit, and all too often links homosexuality with the monster at the heart of the film.  That’s not the case here, and the inclusion of a character who just happens to be gay in a teen horror film (well, I’m guessing it’s aimed at teens) is a welcome one, and it’s a shame it doesn’t happen more often.  Of course, the gay guy dies first – killed by a dead, hairy old man in briefs.  Don’t ask.

Horror films with gay characters normally end up being directed by David DeCoteau who, if you don’t know already, makes horror films in which attractive twenty-something males spend most of the film in their white boxers, writhing around in bed (alone).  In other words, he took the similar images from Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and made a career out of it.  DeCoteau’s films aren’t good.  In fact they appear to get worse as time goes on, but at least you know what to expect.  With a film directed by Tobe Hooper, one expects something that at least passes the time effectively.

Sadly the issues with Mortuary don’t end with the stupid plot.  The CGI effects are awful, and the pacing often makes the Lord of the Rings trilogy look like a fast-moving action thriller.  The three teens at the heart of the narrative are at least likeable and slightly kooky, and the actors do well with what they are given to work with.  Sadly what they are given is a director who has lost the plot, and a script that should never have been filmed.

Mortuary was Hooper’s last film to be released for eight years.  Djinn (2013) was made in the United Arab Emirates and its release had been delayed since 2011.  Critics have not been kind to the movie – perhaps Hooper’s best days are far behind him.

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The Sissy in 1910s Cinema

The earliest known surviving film containing what we now call the “sissy” is Algie The Miner (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912), although with so many films from the period lost, it is likely that there were films prior to this which featured similar characterisations.  The narrative of Algie the Miner tells how Algie, a rather effeminate man, is sent away by his girlfriend’s father to prove himself a man within a year; if he fails the marriage cannot proceed.  Algie goes West, encounters a variety of cowboys, including Big Jim, with whom he becomes good friends and whose life he eventually saves.  Once the year is up, Algie returns to claim his girl, having slowly but surely changed from a mincing, effeminate pansy into a gun-wielding, butch and altogether more “manly” man.    Her father then “allows the two to marry under the watchful eye of Big Jim’s gun” (McMahan, 2002: 224).

Richard Barrios writes that Algie has a “dandified air, fluttering hands, pursed and apparently rouged lips, sly smile and eyes that he bats while fondling the barrel of a pistol” (Barrios, 2003: 17).  He goes on to suggest that “Algie is heterosexual in only that he has a girlfriend” (ibid).  Alice Guy-Blaché’s biographer, Alison McMahan is in agreement:  “At the diegetic level of narration the movie is about Algie becoming more virile, skilled and confident, but at an extra-diegetic level the film is a love story between two men…To satisfy American mores, [Alice Guy-Blaché] added the sweetheart subplot, but as we have seen the sweetheart is barely a presence” (McMahon, 2002: 223-4).

Yet if these characters do not have male partners within the films or refer to themselves as homosexual there is always going to be some element of doubt as to the intention of the filmmakers and the extent to which contemporary audiences would have read these figures as gay.  In other words, how do we know that Algie and other characters like him are homosexual, rather than effeminate and yet heterosexual?

Within this mire of uncertainty, one film from 1916 explicitly informs a modern-day viewer as to contemporary understandings of the sissy.  Behind The Screen is a short film starring Charlie Chaplin as a scene-mover at a film studio.  Chaplin’s regular leading lady, Edna Purviance, plays a young woman who dresses as a man in order to get a job on the set, and is employed when the other manual workers go on strike.  Chaplin is the only person to know about the disguise and falls in love with the young woman, eventually kissing her.  However, the kiss is seen by Chaplin’s boss who believes that he has just seen his employee kissing another man.  At this point he taunts Chaplin by impersonating a gay man, thus accusing him of being homosexual in the process.  It is this impersonation which is telling here, for he is mimicking a sissy character, therefore showing us that this type of portrayal on screen was linked intrinsically with homosexual behaviour, despite such apparent inconsistencies as sissy characters having girlfriends or, in some cases, wives.

Bearing this in mind, we can, perhaps assume that Algie the Miner was intended to be read as gay.  This in itself is problematic in that the notion of homosexuality as an identity did not exist in America at the time.  And yet Algie has a girlfriend, and returns to her at the end of the film despite seemingly enjoying his adventures in the West with his male companions.  Rather than an inconsistency, this is arguably a reflection of the experiences of many gay Americans of the time.  Algie is a character who is depicted as choosing a safe, heterosexual life despite obvious homosexual inclinations.  To follow those homosexual impulses would have possibly resulted in being ostracised from his social circle.  Therefore Algie does not miraculously turn straight at the end of the film, but makes a choice to become something he isn’t having spent a year in training during his travels.

 

Barrios, Richard., 2003.  Screened Out.  Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall.  London: Routledge.

McMahan, Alison., 2002.  Alice Guy Blache. The lost Visionary of the Cinema.  New York:  Continuum