Horror anthologies are almost always something of a mixed bag. It’s a genre tradition, and a proud one, which allows filmmakers to fly a little more free without the burden of big-budget pressures and the challenge to carry an entire film. It lets them get weird with it, try something a different, or finally get around to that one not-quite-feature-length story that’s been nagging at their brain all these years. But because a single filmmaker isn’t carrying the film, it’s even harder to get the tone and structure just right — something very few anthologies, even the good ones, accomplish.
The latest big name anthology on the market is no different. From producer Mick Garris, who knows a thing or two about anthologies having got his start on Amazing Stories and subsequently bringing Masters of Horror, Nightmare Cinema unites a round of five new horror masters for a stylish, strong set of shorts that falls just shy of greatness thanks to some structural issues and an interstitial that doesn’t make quite enough sense to carry the stress of the weaker entries.
The film is structured around the old-school Rialto Theater, aka the titular Nightmare Cinema, where five strangers wander in one-by-one, confronted with their own name on the marquee, and come face-to-face with a mysterious figure called only “The Projectionist” (an under-utilized Mickey Rourke), who serves up a new nightmare scenario for each new guest.
The films kicks off on its high note with ’The Thing in the Woods’, a meta-slasher by way of sci-fi surprise from Juan of the Dead director Alejandro Brugués. It wouldn’t do to spoil the twists and turns of the segment, but suffice it to say the witty bit starts with the slasher hallmarks we all know — a masked killer with a distinct weapon of choice (a blowtorch in this case) chasing down a Final Girl through the woods — and evolves into something much funnier, livelier and more interesting by far. It’s easily the strongest segment in the film and unfortunately sets a standard the rest of the shorts can’t quite clear.
But that’s not to say the rest don’t have some twisted delights of their own. Next up is horror legend Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling), who serves a classic Twilight Zone homage rooted in psychological terror with ‘Mirari’. A beautiful woman with a significant but subtle facial scar on her cheek is manipulated into plastic surgery by her seemingly supportive fiancé, who can’t stop talking about how great his dear mother looks after her surgery. Before long, she’s sedated in the doctor’s chair and Dante delivers a cheeky (no pun intended) spin on surgical horror. The predictable ending disappoints a bit, but Dante builds tension and queasy unease like the master he is. Dante doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, but It’s a fun one, ripped from the pages of the classic creep show playbook.
Things get a little batshit in the next film, a possession horror in extreme from Midnight Meat Train helmer Ryûhei Kitamura. Titled ‘Mashit’, the segment unleashes a whirlwind of blood spray and body parts as a satanic force tears through a Catholic Church (and the children therein) with a savage spark of humor. The audacious comedy elements don’t tonally line up with some of ‘Mashit’s seriously dark and grim themes, but there’s more than a little of Kitamura’s Versus at play in the wild finale and that kinetic assault makes for an entertaining, over-the-top romp with a few great punchlines along the way.
Next, Nightmare Cinema takes it way, way down with David Slade’s quiet, black-and-white segment ‘This Way to Egress’; a surreal slip down a rabbit hole to hell that conjures a nightmare of insanity. Elizabeth Reaser gives the best performance of the film as Helen, a woman stuck in a hallucinatory nightmare wherein the world around her seems to be decaying into decrepit disarray. Desperate for help, she seeks answers at her psychologists office, but each new step towards the truth only deepens her torment. Slade does some killer work conjuring a singular, genuinely unsettling vibe that leaves you wanting a shower and a good hug.
Finally, we arrive at ‘Dead’, an emotional, rather restrained ghost story from Garris that just doesn’t live up to the energy and intensity of the other shorts. There’s a core idea here that begs to work, but ultimately feels somehow too long and too short at once, without the humor or stylistic flourish of Nightmare Cinema’s best moments.
Garris also directed the interstitial wraparound, which is a bit too vague to pull the film together the way it should. What is the cinema? Who is the projectionist? Why is he targeting these people? The Rialto might be a portal to hell or a haunted house of horrors, but it’s hard to tell with what we’re given, and without that cohesive through line to pull it all together, the tonal disparities between the segments feel more at war with each other than they should. There’s also a strange decision to drive the film’s tone down with each new segment, an unfortunate choice that brings you in on a high and sends you out on a low. A bit of restructuring would the film a heap of favors.
However, Nightmare Cinema is still ultimately a stronger-than-average anthology with some good-to-great material worth checking out, especially ‘The Thing in the Woods’ and ‘This Way to Egress’, which are both true horror anthology bangers.
Nightmare Cinema premiered at Fantasia Festival 2018 in Montreal, Quebec.