Directed by Heather Christopherson, L.C . Cruell, Andrew Featherstone, Dayna Noffke
Cemeteries. Let’s face it; they’re an evocative lightning rod for every emotion known to the human race: fear of death, loneliness, missing friends or family or lovers, historical fascination, vertigo at peering over the edge of death’s cliff and seeing where we will all fall sooner or later… and on and on. There is no way to walk round a cemetery and not feel anger or pain at the grave of a baby taken too soon, with teddy bears and sad, agonized, teary-eyed farewells to a child who “fell asleep” permanently. Or a young murder victim with wailing, broken-heart-drenched high school notes from friends dotted around and flowers eaten by the local deer. Or some football supporter who died in an accident, their grave draped in their team’s colors. Or a middle-aged housewife who just dropped dead, eternally missed by her numb, disbelieving family and friends.
Georgia-lensed Cemetery Tales: Tales from Morningview Cemetery certainly knows this fun-damn-mental fact of human life and death and exploits it to creepy, genuinely unsettling effect during its under-the-skincrawler running time. Unusually for Georgia, there is no air of religious extremism here – just a human, despairing, rotting one. Which works fine for me.What we have here are four separate stories about the aforementioned silent-air bucolic boneyard, buried deep in the American South, linked with an interlocking series of skits about a young couple who go camping in the middle of anywhere but where they should be. They end up bumping into a fear-tour guide, in the guise of an enigmatic, buxom young woman who tells them could-be tall tales of the cemetery’s dead denizens, inciting the couple on into drunkenness and potential sexual excess… and a non-sexual ending I did not (cough) see coming.
“The Living End” is the first tale from the dark side we see when the coffin lid of the film is prized open. Taking place in a funeral home, it presents us with the story of a young woman named Joanie (Madeline Brumby), who wakes up, well… dead. She’s lying on a mortician’s table being prepared for her funeral after her murder, and she’s none to happy about it, losing the plot as she’s about to be lowered into it. She argues with the philosophical, comforting-cum-violating mortician (Josh Lowder) prodding and probing her and refuses to believe she’s actually dead. But is she? Or is the guy just a lunatic torturing her? You know, we’ve all had mo(u)rnings when we’ve woken up in a similar predicament, and it can go either way, really. Well, we find out eventually, and I won’t spoil the ending for you. You’re welcome.
I confess that I really found this story genuinely dispiriting and unnerving – exactly what you want in a horror film, really. The woman’s strange, surreal plight bore all the hellmarks of waking up from a bad dream to me, the ones where you find yourself briefly paralyzed, unable to move for no clear reason, time is elongated and any scream would be nothing but a wasted, exhaled, shaky, loud-yet-silent breath. Her pain and confusion as she is penetrated by the clinical mortician (a low blow pun, sorry) with a huge needle to suction her blood and has her lips sewn together (a scene which made me cringe), then slowly starts inexorably to accept her inescapable fate, howling out to be saved by her boyfriend when she hears him next door… it just got to me, is all. I must say one thing I really liked about this film is that it is a straight horror film, not some modern schlocky torture porn (though it does have certain gory elements akin to that stuff very occasionally) or wacky-hyuck-fest. It didn’t choose to use a bad metal soundtrack and post-modern wisecracking teens talking about horror film character behavior, and it’s all the better for that. Indeed, this film is so bereft of the Net and cellphones and modern everyday gadgets and mindsets that, apart from a couple of technological mentions, it could have been made any time last century.
“It Takes One to Know One” is next up on the blood feast buffet. It concerns enigmatic angel-of-life-and-death Sera (Joy Kathleen Wood), a young woman with the power to kill or cure, seemingly on a whim; anybody she touches either is cured of disease or dies on the spot. The increasingly troubled nurse with wounds visits the graves of those she has killed, brooding darkly over her supernatural assignation (a metaphor for the incomprehensibility of life and death in general, who gets to live and die) and is accosted by the prying, morose, suspicious Groundskeeper (Rick Bedell), who wonders why she knows so many people who died. A fair enough question, really. Pushed to go and speak to one of the people she has saved by her concerned confidant Chuck (Joey Shealy), Sera seeks out a woman whom she cured of a terminal disease… and the reaction she gets is not at all what she expected. This oddly reminded me of the old Harlan Ellison story “Paingod,” from his 1975 short story collection, Deathbird Stories, but that is surely coincidental.
I have to say, apart from the general downtrodden atmosfear, one perfect for melancholicoholics, one of the main things I will be taking away from Cemetery Tales is the performance of young, attractive actress Joy Kathleen Wood. By turns intense, introspective, angry, hopeless, helpless, confused, philosophical, and coldly calculating when in who-knows-why execution mode, she imbues her preternatural female Grim Reaper with exactly the right amount of resignation and just-following-orders character and personality. Her dark-and-lighter-shades-of-dark interior moanologue are even mirrored in her arresting hair color, red-on-black-on-purple striations. I guess I just really liked her extremely contemporary, tattooed but vulnerable character and the existential implications implicit in her merciless, dichotomous existence. Wood is, to me, the stand-out actor in a film full of warm, accommodating performances. Those may be slightly varying in quality, but none of them ever sink into parody or knock you out of the film, being at least serviceable and/or very good, and it’s a joy to watch the young cast earnestly putting their all into what is clearly a low-budget film with lots of heart. And guts. And kidneys. And…
…Anyway. You get the groan-worthy, viscera-viewing idea.
Moving swiftly along, we encounter “I Need You,” the third tale of terror clanking along in this chainwaving-spooks cinematic ghost train. Owing a debt to Poltergeist and Beetlejuice, here we are treated to a vignette about a young quarrelsome couple who go out on a rainy night, leaving their son, Lucas (Darby Long in a performance belying his tender age), and his babysitter, whilst the boy pleads with them not to go out. Their car ends up in a ditch, and they raggedly stumble back home soaking, arguing, fit to bust about who was responsible for the accident. Wife Kim (Stephanie Stevens in a fine, emotive performance, even though the script doesn’t give her much more to do than scream hideously and cry piteously) reckons it’s her husband Ted’s (Rob West) fault, and vice versa. But things soon get worse when they realize their son is missing, seemingly kidnapped by this haunted house, and they have to somehow get him back from beyond.
It’s funny. This section deals with every parent’s worst nightmare, that of losing a child, but it’s also, more specifically, a very female fear, of losing a part of themselves. The first three films do come across as being very estrogenerated, being, as they are, all directed and written by women. I do like this because it plays around with the sometimes dickswinger braggadocio and misogyny some male directors can bring to horror films and serves up a more quietly philosophical, introspective, existential fear feast, with strong female characters who don’t just exist as male horror-canon cannon fodder. To me, “The Living End” is partly a female vanity piece, about a woman wanting to go out of this world looking her best, and “It Takes One to Know One” is partly about the often-unexplored female will or power to kill, to be a life-taker as well as a life-giver. We’re served three slices of modern skull-under-the-queasily-smiling-skin Southern Gothic that Flannery O’Connor would have felt totally at ease with, and it’s nice to have this sort of equality happening in a part of the USA far too often coming off like a woman’s worst nightmare. These are talented female filmmakers we’re dealing with here, reader, and they’re just as harsh and gut-grabbing as any male would be in the genre.
This is not, however, to deride the fourth and final film, “Nekro-fancy,” written by another woman, Nikkia Lovejoy, and directed by Andrew Featherstone, the lone man ranging amidst the female wild bunch here. The title, I would imagine, is a pun on “necromancy” (Americans don’t use the word “fancy” for finding someone attractive, so you know there’s a European sensibility on display here!) or, more specifically, the Nekromantik films, with Featherstone clearly influenced by Jorg Buttgereit’s infamous groundbreaking necrophilia films, with a side salad of Deranged and an Ed Gein chaser. His is a melancholy, strange tale of a mentally haunted mamma’s boy cemetery groundskeeper called Marcus (James Ellis) looking for a replacement for his deceased mother’s love among the dead young women who come into the funeral parlor he works in (amusingly, all the corpses he is working on appear to be attractive young females in their 20s!), whom he talks to and has sex with whilst his mother’s voice berates him in his head. But his world is rocked when the beautiful young Amity comes a-knocking on his door and he finds true love with a (gasp!) real live woman, one with desires just as insatiable as his at that. But is Amity a vile horror? Well, you’ll have to see the film for yourself to find out…
Which, ultimately, I would confidently advise you to do. This is a quiet, sometimes-understated, sometimes-ultraviolent, solid wee horror film, and all involved should congratulate themselves on getting it done and dusted. The cinematography, by Jessica Gallant and William Schweikert, is crisp, robust, sometimes poetic, perfectly capturing the look and feel of a lonely, melancholic, creepy countryside cemetery (brought back memories for me of taking Jorg Buttgereit to Ed Gein’s grave, which is another story), with many a morbid and macabre tale to be told from dead, truth-itching lips. Any fan of the genre will know what they are getting with this Atlantic-hopping shocker: something one part Amicus, one part EC Comics (the stories often had an EC twist in their tales, and were, it has to be said, pretty downbeat), one part Creepshow, and one part “Tales from the Crypt,” a real heart-attacking, tomb-raiding Crypt Kicker 4.
I have to admit, whilst watching the film, with its stabbing, decapitation, evisceration, lip-sewing, necrophilia, blood-draining, etc., I did wonder, for obvious reasons, just what kind of cemetery would allow itself to be associated with this sort of material. Having a glance at the credits, I could not see any mention of a real cemetery, though the story “I Need You” did thank Gus Thornhill’s funeral home. So unless the disparate filmmakers filmed in some god-forsaken countryside cemetery on the fly, they just mocked up a fake dirt-nap dormitory, and I must say it worked fine for me. And if they did film in a real final rest-in-peace place, I just hope they cleaned up after they finished their zombie rising and murder scenes. I hope Gus Thornhill did a full head and body count after the production vacated the premises… just in case. I’m joking, obviously. But whatever the truth of real-life death-internment camps, cemeteries, funeral homes, whatever, the quartet of scare story recorders and countryside horror exorcists certainly left with the best possible thing they could have: this fun, sick, poignant, unsettling, disturbing film.