[REVIEW] New school meets old school in horror anthology ‘NIGHTMARE CINEMA’ 

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

NIGHTMARE CINEMA (2019)

Rated R, 119 minutes.
Director: Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade and Mick Garris
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Elizabeth Reaser, Annabeth Gish, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Kevin Fonteyne, Tangie Ambrose, Dan Martin, Mariela Garriga, and Belinda Balaski

Evaluating an anthology movie is similar to judging a gymnastics performance. But we’re not awarding points to a degree of difficulty or technique. We are presented filmed short stories tied together with either a uniform story or overall theme (hopefully) and must decide whether to judge the quality of each story or the movie as a whole. At least with television anthologies – particularly THE TWILIGHT ZONE, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and most recently BLACK MIRROR – we can gauge the quality episode by episode. Anthology movies you have to stomach the good with the bad.  

In the tradition of CREEPSHOW and THE ABCs OF DEATH, NIGHTMARE CINEMA arrives and it is a macabre marriage of old school horror maestros and new blood directors. The brainchild of filmmaker Mick Garris, the anthology plays like an extension of his early television series MASTERS OF HORROR. Garris recruited Joe Dante, David Slade, Ryûhei Kitamura and Alejandro Brugués to a project where five characters enter an empty, art-deco theatre run by a mysterious “Protectionist” (Mickey Rourke). Each presentation is a horror short by a different director starring the five characters. The theater setting and the projectionist seem to be the only connective tissue.

The good news for horror fans is that there are three entries worth your time. However, the lack of a central through-line is frustrating and only detracts from what is an OK anthology overall.

NIGHTMARE CINEMA gets off to a promising start with Alejandro Brugués’ “The Thing in the Woods.” Much like TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL this short is a straight-up slasher parody that morphs into something else. Brugués makes sure to include all the essentials: a cabin in the woods, horny teenagers, a final girl, and a masked killer known simply as “The Welder.” Then he takes those ingredients and stirs the pot and introduces a new menace that changes the proceedings and makes it a blast.

Courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment and Cranked Up Films

Joe Dante’s “Mirari” feels like an homage to Rod Serling’s classic TWILIGHT ZONE. Here we have a facially-scarred woman who is convinced by her wealthy fiancé to have plastic surgery before the wedding. His assurance of the procedure – recommending the doctor that did his mother’s surgeries – wins her over and thus begins her fever-dream nightmare to reclaim natural beauty. Medical horror and mishaps can be yucky, but Dante purposefully tries to keep things reasonably lighthearted with the gore. Having Richard Chamberlain as the surgeon is a nice touch. His smooth, tongue-in-cheek demeanor as he tries to assuage concern is a definite highlight in a short where its climax fizzles out quicker than anesthesia wearing off.

If you felt that THE EXORCIST needed to be a grind-house exploitation flick with Father Merrin decapitating possessed children with swords and other sharp objects, then Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Mashit” is the short you need in your life. The story is a mess, as is the nave once the head priest unleashes his form of hellfire on the possessed. The blood-soaked sequence is fun and totally over the top, but aside from this spot, the rest is mostly forgettable. 

Now for something completely different is David Slade’s monochrome “This Way to Egress.” Up until this entry, the stories have embraced the farcical side of horror. Slade’s stark presentation of a mother (Elizabeth Reaser) dealing with trauma is an uncomfortable nightmare. Grieving is never easy and in “Egress” we experience the difficulty in saying goodbye in a stark and surreal way. Having directed the famed choose your own adventure “Bandersnatch” episode of BLACK MIRROR and the pilot for TV’s HANNIBAL, which pushed the limits of gore on network television, David Slade’s entry is the most proficient in terms of style and story. Its only hindrance is time. This short is too short.  

All things come to a crashing stop with “Dead” from Mick Garris. It seems wrong that the man behind NIGHTMARE CINEMA would deliver the least interesting short. His hospital-set ghost story never picks up any momentum, wandering through stairwells and corridors before reaching a rather unspectacular resolution. Garris also directs the wraparound segments with Rourke as the projectionist. The actor’s presence is fine. The action inside the movie house between the projectionist and the characters (victims?) is incoherent, however. These breaks from the shorts are a buzzkill.

So we are left with two great shorts, one that Rod Serling would have enjoyed, a short with some grizzly exploitation, and a finale that is deserving of a coroner’s toe tag from the start. Three out of five. In baseball, that batting average is respectable. For a horror anthology that is a mild recommendation at best. The mix of Dante and Garris as horror’s old guard, Kitamura and Brugués as the new breed, and Slade somewhere in between makes NIGHTMARE CINEMA a directing showcase. Maybe that’s the through-line because it isn’t the projectionist. Sequencing three horror comedies in a row before the stark nightmare of “Egress” feels like an editing blunder that should have been corrected.

NIGHTMARE CINEMA, sadly, is less than the sum of its parts. Horror fans should watch for “The Thing in the Woods” and “This Way to Egress.” Outside of those two, your level of enjoyment may vary.

Grade: C

NIGHTMARE CINEMA is now playing.

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