This Forgotten Tobe Hooper Horror Film Needs to Be Rediscovered

Tobe Hooper Mortuary

The late Tobe Hooper had such a fascinating career. He helmed one of the defining horror films of the 1970s with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and was also behind Poltergeist, which proved to be one of the most celebrated supernatural chillers of the 1980s. However, his career between (and after) those two films was often hit or miss. As a result, some of the director’s noteworthy efforts seem to fly under the radar. One such example is Hooper’s 2005 film, Mortuary. It may be a bit rough around the edges and has been largely forgotten to time but the flick is actually pretty decent. And it’s even pretty scary in its more effective moments. 

Here’s the setup: After graduating from mortuary school, single mother Leslie (Denise Crosby) packs up her two children and relocates to a small town in rural America. Their new domicile is in a state of disrepair but is equipped with a basement funeral home that will allow Leslie to work out of the house. The only problem is that the residence has a reputation for being haunted by a former resident. 

The fact that Leslie is a single mother serves a couple of purposes. It works to endear the audience to her. In the film’s early scenes, she’s doing the job of two parents and never seems resentful, even though she has a ‘let me speak to your manager’ haircut. Additionally, her status as the sole head of the family also enhances the isolation factor. They don’t have a large support system. Leslie and her children have moved to a town where they don’t know a soul and are living in this creepy house. And it’s just the three of them. Distinctions like that subtly add to the intensity of the proceedings. 

Also Read: Tobe Hooper: Celebrating the Legacy Of A Horror Hero

Although the film takes a while to get into the real horror, Hooper begins establishing atmospheric tension almost immediately. The house Leslie moves her family into is immediately foreboding. It’s rundown and unwelcoming. The water from the sink comes out brown. The paint is peeling off the walls. The set design effectively serves to establish atmosphere before matters turn sinister for the family of three. And then, there are the scares, of course. Mortuary starts with ominous omens and eventually evolves into more tangible scares. There’s a great jump scare around the beginning of the second act that marks the onset of the truly spooky stuff. Matters continue to grow progressively more intense, eventually building to a sufficiently harrowing third act.  

Hooper wisely imbues tension into some of the scenes that don’t pertain to the central evil at play. There’s a particularly stressful sequence with Leslie’s first embalming job taking place downstairs while her teenage son, Jonathan (Dan Byrd), is upstairs getting high with his friends. In the midst of that, the town sheriff shows up at their front door. That entire sequence is chaotic and intense. And it works to keep the viewer unsettled while the characters are still being fleshed out. 

Also Read: Spielberg, Hooper and ‘Poltergeist’: How Auteur Theory Cursed a Classic

When the central evil does come into focus, things get pretty creepy. The film is a cross between the supernatural and zombie genres. However, I won’t say anything more than that to avoid giving too much away. But I will say that screenwriters Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch (Toolbox Murders) have crafted a solid screenplay that takes the proceedings to some unexpected places. They abide by genre tropes, but the nature of the central evil at play and the corresponding mythology are each well rendered. 

I also have to give them props for scripting a gay character whose sexuality doesn’t have a significant impact on his storyline. It’s nice to see fairly positive queer representation in a 2005 film. It wasn’t all that commonplace back then.  

Gierasch and Anderson also script several moments of dark comedy into the proceedings that make me chuckle. One in particular is Sheriff Howell (Michael Shamus Wiles) showing up to welcome Leslie to town and simultaneously warn her about teenagers sneaking into the graveyard at night. He proceeds to tell her that together they can prevent graveyard babies. But he says it totally deadpan. His awkward stoicism makes the scene that much better.  

Also Read: Meat Hanging and Head Banging in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2’ [Spins and Needles]

Characters aside, Mortuary features some solid effects work that does a lot with a little. There’s a gooey, tar-like substance that’s central to the narrative that likely wasn’t all that expensive to create, but it’s put to good use. The practical effects at large aren’t bad. The CG is a bit dodgy but it’s not terribly distracting. 

To be fair, not everything about this film works. It certainly shows some of its budgetary limitations. The core actors are serviceable. But the thespians in some of the smaller roles come across as pretty green. And some of the editing, scene transitions, and cinematography seem a little awkward. But considering it’s a low-budget indie, I have a hard time faulting it too much for any of that. 

On the whole, Tobe Hooper’s Mortuary is spooky. It serves up reasonably likable characters, boasts a solid set design, and an effective screenplay. If you haven’t seen it or want to give the film a reappraisal, you can find Mortuary streaming on Tubi as of the publication of this post.  



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