Its creaky connective tissue leaves much to be desired, but there’s enough meat on these bones to warrant a casual viewing.
Notorious for their tendency toward unevenness, horror anthologies are often most identifiable by their connective tissue. Occasionally, an anthology’s interstitial sequences may form a distinctive aesthetic, such as Creepshow’s incorporation of pulpy, comic book panels. Other times, it’s a simple gimmick, like the alphabet in The ABCs of Death, that links the various shorts together. There may even be a ghoulish host like HBO’s iconic Crypt Keeper or John Carpenter’s Coroner character in Body Bags. To that end, Nightmare Cinema saps the modest effectiveness of its five segments by nonsensically trotting out a leather-clad Mickey Rourke as an allegedly metaphysical master of ceremonies who does little more than listlessly mumble lines like “I’m the Projectionist” and “Welcome to my nightmare.”
The inexplicable blandness of such an approach, bereft of both chills and camp, takes the already heavy-handed conceit of a midnight movie theater beckoning in passersby to view horror flicks in which they are inexplicably featured and makes it that much more laughable. Which is a shame, because the five stories told in Nightmare Cinema, each vividly atmospheric though compelling only to varying degrees, lose some of their verve when juxtaposed with such nonsense. Of particular note is the Joe Dante-directed segment, “Mirare,” which takes beauty-obsessed culture to an extreme with a disturbing plastic-surgery horror. Featuring Richard Chamberlain as a sinister surgeon whose idea of beauty seems to be synonymous with monstrous disfigurement, the segment casts Zarah Mahler as a woman whose boyfriend convinces her to go under the knife to remove a facial scar that has always made her self-conscious. With the woman’s shifting appearance obscured by mummy-like gauze for most of the short film’s runtime, there’s an unmistakable “Twilight Zone” vibe exuded by Dante’s contribution, though the segment stops short of Rod Serling’s incisive sense of irony or convincing sociocultural commentary.
More subversive of expectations is the first short, “The Thing in the Woods,” which opens with familiar slasher tropes but then careens into body horror and creature-feature territory with parasitic alien spiders scrabbling around the forest floor and a killer in a welder’s getup turning unexpectedly heroic. Nightmare Cinema succeeds when it goes deliciously over-the-top, as in Ryûhei Kitamura’s “Mashit,” with a sword-wielding priest (Maurice Benard) and his cadre of nuns slicing and dicing through a horde of demon-possessed students.
Given its midnight-movie trappings, this anthology works best when it indulges in garishness and gore, with its psychological horror proving a bit more hit-and-miss. David Slade’s “This Way to Egress,” which utilizes black and white to stark effect, depicts a depressed woman (Elizabeth Reaser) descending into surreal and disturbing hallucinations while sitting in her therapist’s waiting room, and it coasts along on slick production alone. And Mick Garris, who also directs the theater scenes, offers the dud of the bunch, with the closing “Dead,” a sluggishly-paced entry which belabors the film’s focus on hospitals and evil spirits as a boy (Faly Rakotohavana) begins seeing visions of the dead and fights the urge to cross to the other side to join his deceased mother (Annabeth Gish), who beckons him to let go of life.
As uneven as many other horror anthologies, Nightmare Cinema offers enough surprises and indulgence in excess to entertain horror buffs. Its creaky connective tissue may leave much to be desired, but there’s enough meat on these bones to warrant a casual viewing if you have time to kill.