Forget the overly buttered popcorn, the deadliest thing in this theater are the coming attractions.
Horror anthologies are an inconsistent bunch by their very nature, but one fairly constant thread between them is the presence of a storytelling device in the wraparound segments. Creepshow has a comic book, Tales from the Hood has a storyteller, V/H/S has videotapes — they serve as connective tissue between the stories and offer a focus for the narrative whole. Nightmare Cinema delivers a pretty interesting spin on the conceit in the form of a theater that draws people in one at a time by featuring their name on the marquee. Once they take a seat in the otherwise empty theater a show begins featuring them in the lead role.
The film opens, perhaps unwisely, with its strongest entry. A young woman is on the run from a masked killer at a remote cabin getaway. Most of her friends have been slaughtered, and the madman — wearing a welding mask and armor plate and carrying weapons including a blowtorch — is targeting her next, and just as closes in for the kill something unexpected happens.
“The Thing In the Woods” comes from writer/director Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead), and aside from a couple extremely stupid beats in the script it delivers a lively, thrilling ride complete with fun and bloody gore effects. What starts as a “slasher in the woods” scenario becomes something fresh and different, and its creative energy keeps trucking through to the end. The segment works pretty damn well as a short, but more than any of the others it could easily be adapted into a feature.
Next up is a tale about vanity and the things we do for love. Anna has has facial scars since an accident in her childhood, but now as she nears her wedding day her fiance offers to pay for plastic surgery. Desperate for his approval, ashamed of her appearance, and hopeful that the change will impress David’s mother who’s also had work done, Anna agrees. She awakes from surgery with her face still wrapped, and soon the doctor is strongly suggesting additional work.
“Mirari” is directed by Joe Dante (The ‘burbs) and written by Richard Christian Matheson (Three O’Clock High), but despite their immense talents the segment feels obvious throughout. It’s fun seeing Richard Chamberlain as the increasingly creepy doctor, and Dante’s putting a clear spin on a Twilight Zone classic, but it’s not enough to captivate as the story beat — singular — unfolds towards a familiar ending.
A man of God enters the theater for story three, and he sees a nightmare unfold on screen involving an orphanage he runs. A child commits suicide off the building’s roof, and the priest and a nun come to realize that a demonic presence known for targeting children is at work within their walls.
“Mashit” comes from director Ryuhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train) and writer Sandra Becerril, and it has great fun doing horrible things to children. The opening suicide is bloody, but it’s just a tease compared to the slaughter that wraps up the short (and will remind Kitamura fans of Versus). They’re the segment’s highlights too as what’s in between never quite gels including an ill-advised detour into an illicit relationship between the priest and nun. Still, it’s easily the second best entry.
Story four offers a hallucinatory descent into madness as a woman’s attempt to seek psychiatric help instead sends her further towards insanity. The office begins to disintegrate, the receptionist’s face slowly begins to disfigure, and she begins suspecting she’s in the entirely wrong world.
“This Way to Egress” is directed/co-written by David Slade (30 Days of Night) and co-written by Lawrence C. Connelly, and its visual style — black & white, surreal and dreamlike — is both appealing and distracting as it stands out from the other more grounded segments. More mysterious than horrifying, the short leaves its central question unanswered which in turn leaves it a bit unfulfilling.
The final segment sees a young boy and his parents carjacked by a gun-toting thug who shoots all three of them. The boy lives — after dying for 17 minutes — and when he awakes in the hospital it’s with the ability to see dead people. The “gift” has its pros and cons, but will it help him when the killer returns to finish the job?
“Dead” is from writer/director Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers), and like Dante’s segment it just feels more than a little predictable and obvious. The sole element that feels unique involves his dead mother’s ghostly attempts to convince the kid to die so he can join her in the afterlife, but while that idea is creepier than anything else in the short it’s never allowed to amount to much.
Nightmare Cinema is a perfectly okay horror anthology with the expected ups and downs, but it’s hurt somewhat by the weakness of its connective tissue. We’re not introduced to our “host” — Mickey Rourke as The Projectionist and looking like he just stepped out of Mortal Kombat — until after the second story, and even then he doesn’t come bearing a theme or through-line connecting his involvement here. Some of these theater-goers die in their segment, others don’t, some are guilty people while others are innocents, and it’s unclear if what we’re seeing is in their past or future. Issues aside, there’s enough fun to warrant a visit to Nightmare Cinema, and with any luck the next time it opens its doors it will be with stronger, more connected tales.