Anthology movies are challenging to judge in general as even really bad ones tend to have at least one good banger in there. Sometimes a strong standout can elevate the whole enterprise. Other times, it can get buried in the poor quality of surrounding shorts. The ideal, of course, is a series of strong, varied presentations wrapped in some larger unifying story or theme.
It is especially tough with Nightmare Cinema, a new anthology with contributions from major players like Joe Dante, Mick Garris, David Slade, Ryûhei Kitamura and Alejandro Brugués. Simply put, four of these entries are worthwhile, leaving only one stinker. That’s an impressive batting average. But lack of cohesion and a confusing overall premise hurt the film much more than you’d expect. It’s still very much worth seeing, but the shortcomings are frustrating for how much they mar an otherwise great anthology.
Things start off on an extremely high note with Alejandro Brugués’ “The Thing in the Woods”, which begins as a slasher parody before evolving into something else entirely. All the hallmarks are here: a tough final girl, a masked killer (“The Welder”), a wooded cabin, a cop who hurts more than helps… all told with enough wit and gore to earn its high pitched tone. Brugues’ short offers an impressively sharp and lively series of gags and surprises from beginning to end. It’s only fault is the high bar it sets for the rest of the film.
Luckily the next entry, Joe Dante’s “Mirare” brings a bunch of its own joy, if in a different flavor. The story revolves around a scarred woman who’s fiancé manipulates her into getting plastic surgery which quickly enters her into a fun medical horror sphere. Dante’s going for Twilight Zone homage, but it’s also filled with a ton of great humor thanks mostly to Richard Chamberlain's smooth delivery of some very choice lines. It all adds up to a somewhat basic and disappointing climax, but overall it’s quite fun and successful.
Like “The Thing in the Woods”, “Mirare” uses horror primarily as a showcase for gore and jokes, not actual scares. This continues with Ryûhei Kitamura’s “Mashit”, a Catholic horror piece featuring a hilarious over the top horror score and generous amounts of beautiful child violence. For all that, “Mashit” struggles to make much sense, so while parts of it are a blast to watch, its successes are paper thin and tied to a rickety ship that barely floats.
Still, it is funny. And after three of these, Nightmare Cinema’s stance as a horror comedy anthology seems assured. Then David Slade’s “This Way to Egress” comes along and ruins all that. “Egress” offers a surreal nightmare, as a woman hallucinates her world and its inhabitants devolving into a Silent Hill hellscape. Presented in black and white, “Egress” is uncomfortable, genuinely gross and totally serious, which is a confusing wrinkle given all that came before. It is also very assured and well done.
The same can’t be said for Mick Garris’ “Dead”, a rather boring, mostly PG-13 sad ghost story that goes on too long and never quite gets interesting. It lacks both the humor and horror of previous entries and generally feels like getting broccoli for dessert after a great meal.
And then there’s the wraparound premise, which should be good given it revolves around a bizarre Mickey Rourke performance as “The Projectionist”. The idea is the subject of each short finds themselves drawn to his theater to watch their deaths on screen. That’s all well and good, but the movie never commits to what this means. One subject survives her movie and gets killed by The Projectionist himself, which breaks the whole deal. Another subject’s short continues even after he’s already been killed in it. The specific way The Projectionist story fails to follow its own logic makes it all feel made up on the spot and complicates the overall's film quality.
There is so much to like here - and forced to choose between binaries, I’m going positive on the film overall - but baffling decisions like the above hurt things much more than necessary. If the sections aren’t tonally united, why sequence them with three horror comedies in a row? Why introduce The Projectionist only to break his whole premise soon afterward? Even the Garris entry would have been a serviceable enough low point if these other elements were sharpened. Not even a lot; a little would have done wonders.
As it is, however, I do recommend this one. As with all anthologies you take some risks, but “The Thing in the Woods” and “This Way to Egress” make Nightmare Cinema worth checking out. It’s just too bad how egregiously it misses true greatness.