Writer, producer, director and horror mega-fan Mick Garris assembles a cadre of like minds to create “Nightmare Cinema.” This anthology feature is basically a two-hour, big-screen version of the several macabre TV anthology series he’s been involved with since the mid-’80s “Amazing Stories.” Comprising five directors’ tales linked by the inimitable Mickey Rourke as a diabolical projectionist, this feature falls short of Garris’ greatest effort in that vein: His all-star 2005-07 cable pet project “Masters of Horror.” Each segment here has strengths and weaknesses. If there are no outright duds, there’s no real triumph either. But the whole is certainly diverse, lively and reference-packed enough to please horror fans attracted to this kind of enterprise, which are so often (see last year’s “Tales From the Hood 2”) so, so much worse. Cranked Up Films is releasing to 25 U.S. screens and on demand June 21.
Things get off to a fast start as Samantha (Sarah Withers) is weepily walking off an apparent breakup when she spies a theater marquee emblazoned with her name as star of “The Thing in the Woods.” Mystified, she walks into the open, empty, seemingly automated movie palace and is promptly locked into her seat as the (first) film-within-the-film begins.
Cut to Samantha as a scream queen, frantically trying to outrun “The Welder,” a masked Unstoppable Killing Machine who’s already slaughtered most of her friends, though not yet Jason (Kevin Fonteyne) or Mike (Chris Warren). This energetic sendup of bombastic, all-American slashers compiles all the usual clichés (from Short-lived Black Dude to Final Girl with incongruous gladiator-level survival skills), then takes an abrupt left turn into an equally amusing, sci-fi-tinged direction.
The only minus to this sequence directed by Argentine Alejandro Brugués (who still hasn’t made a second feature since 2011’s spoofy “Juan of the Dead”) is that its particular cocktail feels derived from what “The Cabin in the Woods” did at greater length and with greater ingenuity.
After couple Anna (Zarah Mahler) and David (Mark Grossman) unwisely sneak into the theater balcony to make out, they find themselves starring in Joe Dante’s “Mirari.” Now she’s a facially scarred woman engaged to a dreamboat who generously offers pre-wedding plastic surgery to soothe her insecurities. But once inside the clinic of obsequiously cheerful Dr. Leneer (Richard Chamberlain), Anna soon realizes the agenda is more sinister. It’s a lively if familiar exploration of black-comedy body horror tropes, with a weak ending.
Only after a couple segments do we meet The Projectionist, who makes a hell of a first impression: Not because he announces he’s a “death collector” or even “curator of a 100 years of nightmares trapped on a silver screen,” but because he’s some indeterminately aged hipster guy shirtless under an unzipped leather jacket. Is this entity the Devil or a demon? Either way, it obviously does a lot of time at the gym. Of course it’s Rourke, weird AF as ever, and if the film barely taps his unique ambience, one still wishes he got more screen time.
Next up is a priest (Maurice Benard) lured in by the same marquee ruse, then finding himself on screen in a Catholic boarding school gone berserk with demonic possessions — plus the usual current assumption that those clerics are sex-crazed. While there are specific nods to “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” here, this segment directed by Japan’s Ryuhei Kitamura (“Versus”) and penned by Mexico’s Sandra Becerril is more like the umpteen garish knockoffs that ensued of those films from Catholic nations for about a decade. As an act of exploitation subgenre homage, it’s successful, at once handsomely atmospheric and tastelessly over-the-top. But those unschooled in vintage celluloid Euro-trash may just find it disjointed, hysterical and silly.
Immediately striking for its monochrome lensing by “Hunger Games” DP Jo Willems is “This Way to Egress,” directed by his “30 Days of Night” and “American Gods” collaborator David Slade. It’s adapted from a short story by Larry Connolly, and the translation doesn’t quite take: There’s an interesting but muddled literary quality to this surreal half-story in which a woman (Elizabeth Reaser) waiting for a doctor’s appointment experiences disturbing perceptual shifts that make her question her sanity. With the story’s particular distance from reality (any reality) left vague, this segment provides an aesthetically sharp contrast but an underdeveloped idea.
Finally in Garris’ own “Dead,” pubescent piano prodigy Riley (Faly Rakotohavan) must relive the post-recital trauma after he and his parents (Annabeth Gish, Daryl C. Brown) were carjacked by a trigger-happy wacko (Orson Chaplin). Once Riley wakes up in the hospital, he’s told he was dead on the operating table for 17 minutes.
This is one of those “between two worlds” things in which the protagonist can see dead people, so maybe he’s already dead … but then why are live people trying to kill him … and are dead ones too? It’s well directed, yet the script’s fantasy rules seem so arbitrary that the whole thing ultimately makes no sense. Ditto the Rourke-again closing tag, for that matter.
In fact, the writing gets progressively more overloaded and sloppy in “Nightmare Cinema.” Best to think as little as possible, just enjoying the overall range of story types and tones. Which does work as a fun couple hours, all together. The urge to get too critical is shushed by a closing dedication to Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and George Romero, who all made better movies — and worse ones.
Such compendiums are often a little too potluck, with wildly different approaches and levels of expertise. But while “Nightmare Cinema” has little thematic or stylistic repetition between segments, there’s nonetheless a consistency of overall packaging. Production designer Lauren Fitzsimmons, editor Mike Mendez and DPs Andrew Russo and Matthias Schubert are among major contributors involved throughout — or nearly, with “This Way to Egress” appearing the major outlier.