I'm a huge fan of the horror subgenre known as anthology horror or portmanteau horror, meaning a single film made up of several different short subject stories, usually unrelated to each other or knitted together by a framing device or theme. These used to be a staple of horror in the '70s and '80s, with titles like Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, and The House That Dripped Blood. Horror legend Mick Garris is evidently a very big fan of these movies, as he's put together a brand new, five-story anthology called Nightmare Cinema which is a fun, if uneven, night at the movies.
Garris is no stranger to the anthology, having produced both the Masters of Horror and Fear, Itself series, which saw various legends in the horror and sci-fi fields contribute self-contained episodes. For Nightmare Cinema, he's joined by four other directors to offer five totally different (and all super gory) horror shorts all beginning and ending in a creepy old movie theater run by Mickey Rourke. The other directors include Garris' old friend Joe Dante (himself a veteran of another anthology movie, The Twilight Zone: The Movie), David Slade (Hard Candy), Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead), and Ryûhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train).
It's a great lineup of filmmakers, but unfortunately the quality of the films varies wildly for seemingly no reason, though a couple of the stories are legitimately excellent.
We begin with Brugués' story, which finds a teenage camp counselor (Sarah Elizabeth Withers) running from a psychotic killer in welder gear, fittingly called "the Welder." What we get is basically the final act of a typical '80s slasher movie, but done with an eye toward comedy. Everyone is profoundly stupid and the victims all die in hilariously graphic ways. I felt like this story went on a bit long, but a twist toward the end that gave it new life.
Dante's vignette is up next, wherein a beautiful woman (Zarah Mahler) who's had a minor but noticeable facial scar since birth is convinced by her supportive fiance (Mark Grossman) to get plastic surgery if she's self-conscious about it. She then goes to see Dr. Mirari (Richard Chamberlain) and things take a rather sinister turn. This was a fun one, with a wicked sense of humor running throughout and an ending right out of the Cryptkeeper's playbook.
Then we come to Kitamura's entry, and I have to say, this is the one that almost made me pack it in. This story takes place at a small Catholic boarding school where a young boy commits suicide. After his death, other children begin exhibiting cruel, even demonic tendencies and outbursts. Eventually, Father Benedict (Maurice Benard) and Sister Patricia (Mariela Garriga) realize the horrific truth and take matters into their own hands.
This section was flatly awful, with bad acting, gratuitous violence (and not at all in a funny way) and it ultimately doesn't make any sense. For context, Kitamura is the director who made his mark in 2000 with the bananas yakuza-fight-zombies-in-the-woods movie Versus, and he brings that same gonzo approach to violence here, but it's in a story that is completely not the right vehicle for it. I cannot convey enough how much I disliked this section of the movie.
And as I said, I very nearly wrote the whole movie off right there...until the next story. David Slade has been a director not only of features, but of some tremendous episodes of TV shows like Hannibal and American Gods. He also directed the Black Mirror episode "Metalhead," and he brings that stark, greasy monochrome look to his story, which adds some much needed visual dynamism to Nightmare Cinema.
Slade's story has a mother (Elizabeth Reaser) in the waiting room of a psychiatrist's office with her children, and everything looks gross and creepy. She evidently has some sort of disorder which makes people look hideous to her, evidenced by the evermore upsetting faces of the people around her. This story was truly nightmarish and weird, and of a completely different kind of horror than anything up to this point. This one leaves you unsettled and you wonder where that's been prior.
And the final story comes to us courtesy of Garris himself, who also directed the wraparound segments filmed at Pasadena's historic Rialto Theatre. His features a young boy (Faly Rakotohavana) who has a near death experience at the hands of psychopath (Orson Chaplin) and begins seeing restless spirits while in hospital, all while the psycho tries to finish the job. This final vignette brings some real emotion to the film and features some incredible tense moments in various hospital rooms.
Overall, Nightmare Cinema is certainly not a runaway success. It's uneven to say the least, and I think each of the stories could have benefited from a little more length to flesh out story, characters, and ideas. The premise also doesn't quite coalesce the way it ought to, though the idea of a movie theater from hell is solid. But you watch an anthology horror movie for the strength of individual stories. While the first three stories never get higher than "just okay" (with Dante's the clear winner of the bunch), and that third story that just did not work, the final two are so good and so strong I ended up walking away feeling good about the whole thing, and ultimately are enough to make me recommend it. Just maybe go get some popcorn when Father Benedict shows up.
3 out of 5
Images: Mike Moriatis/ Cinelou Films