If there’s one person whose commitment to the horror genre can never be called into question, it’s Mick Garris. Garris, whose directorial credits include Critters 2 and the miniseries version of Stephen King’s The Stand, inadvertently set his life on its current path in 2002 by inviting a group of filmmaker friends to dinner; that meal eventually evolved into the now-defunct Showtime anthology series Masters Of Horror, as well as Garris’ podcast, Post Mortem With Mick Garris, where he interviews fellow filmmakers on the art and craft of the scare. Now, Garris’ unflagging enthusiasm for uplifting his fellow creators has found a new manifestation: Nightmare Cinema, a sort of sideways revival of the Masters Of Horror franchise.
Garris initially attempted to shop the Nightmare Cinema concept as a Tales From The Crypt-style horror TV series, but after a while, he got frustrated with the process and ended up gathering a few famous friends for an anthology film instead. At the film’s premiere last summer at the Fantasia Film Festival, Garris said that his intent with Nightmare Cinema was to showcase filmmakers from around the world; that’s reflected in the final product—Nightmare Cinema includes directors from Japan, Cuba, and the U.K. as well as the U.S.—but you wouldn’t know that was the goal unless you were told as much. As a standalone film, Nightmare Cinema is a pretty typical horror anthology in that it’s got its highlights and low lights. It’s even less cohesive than most horror anthologies, however, despite the wraparound segments (directed by Garris) featuring Mickey Rourke as the projectionist at a demonic movie theater who talks like a Vincent Price character and dresses like a regular at cybergoth club nights.
The most pleasant surprise Nightmare Cinema has to offer is undoubtedly “Mirari,” directed by Garris’ longtime friend and collaborator—and horror legend in his own right—Joe Dante. Dante has been on a downward trajectory as a feature filmmaker over the past decade or so, but the short-film format and collaborative environment of an anthology seems to have reinvigorated him. As a result,“Mirari”—a winking horror-comedy set in the already-grotesque world of a Los Angeles plastic surgeon’s office—is his best work in years. In a move that suits his bright, unabashedly cartoonish style, Dante stays true to the EC Comics template, using an ethical dilemma as the setup and a nightmarish comeuppance as the punchline to a cruelly ironic joke. In between, Richard Chamberlain makes a scene-stealing appearance as a malevolent plastic surgeon, and prosthetic makeup from Robert Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero’s celebrated KNB Efx Group elevates the production value beyond the clearly low-budget sets. Although “Mirari” is nothing groundbreaking, it’s great to see Dante having fun behind the camera again.
Speaking of, Juan Of The Dead director Alejandro Brugués also stands out by doing his best Dante impression (and it’s a good one) in his segment “The Thing In The Woods.” An efficient and wildly unpredictable riff on slasher movies, the short basically fast-forwards to the third act of a typical “teenagers rent cabin, teenagers party, teenagers get picked off one by one by a gimmicky killer” movie, skipping over all the boring dialogue and getting straight to the kills. Once you think you’ve figured out what Brugués is up to, however, he’s already moved on to something else, adding a hilariously bizarre sci-fi twist to an already entertaining story.
Downrange director Ryuhei Kitamura, meanwhile, swings for the fences and ends up with a mess with “Mashit,” a riff on ’80s Italian horror set in a Catholic school beset by demons and defended by a fornicating priest-nun duo. And sure, ’80s Italian horror isn’t exactly known for its tight plotting, but all the gleeful excess of the segment can’t compensate for its sloppy storytelling and garish-in-a-bad-way costuming. Hard Candy’s David Slade puts his experience directing all those Black Mirror episodes to wonderfully bizarre use in “This Way To Egress,” a first-person descent into madness with a masterful command of tone and black-and-white cinematography that heightens the unease. Finally, Garris turns in an unexpected combination of family drama and intense violence in “Dead,” a segment that ekes real tenderness from the friendship between Riley (Faly Rakotohavana) and Casey (Lexy Panterra), teenagers holed up in a hospital ward who are both cursed with the ability to see the dead.
Nightmare Cinema’s uneven quality is not for lack of trying. The below-the-line crew, including music from Full Moon’s Richard Band, is shared across several of the segments, and the camerawork is professional and engaging even when the storytelling gets a little careless. Several of the screenplays even share similar origins, having been cut down from feature-length scripts. But although the shorts are arranged thoughtfully, descending gradually from gleefully violent horror-comedy into emotionally involving horror-drama, the whole exercise makes more sense once you learn that it was initially conceived as episodes of a TV series. One could argue, quite persuasively, that any excuse is a good excuse to gather together a group of filmmakers like this one. But it’s still difficult not to wonder what could have been if they weren’t limited to such half measures.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Fantasia Film Festival.