'Nightmare Cinema': Fantasia Review

A gore-crazed romp offering laughs, twists and the occasional scare.

Mick Garris enlists Joe Dante and others for a feature take on his old 'Masters of Horror' format.

Genre legends team with relative newcomers for Nightmare Cinema, a horror anthology happily recalling Creepshows of days gone by. More fluid in its conception than most and boasting gruesome fun of a generally high level, it will attract attention thanks to the participation of fanboy-adored Joe Dante (recipient of a lifetime achievement award at this year's Fantasia Film Festival) and Mick Garris, the Stephen King collaborator who created Showtime's Masters of Horror series. TV is the most likely resting ground for this outing, but those who catch it at fests or in theaters will certainly benefit from seeing it with a crowd.

A wraparound device sure to earn some buzz, despite being less diverting than many anthology-uniting conceits, casts Mickey Rourke as a kind of grim-reaper projectionist. Strangers who walk by his theater see their own names on the marquee, wander curiously in and are treated to movies of their own deaths. In what seems like a cheap shot at its own star's history, the film doesn't put the character onscreen until after its second segment, which ends with horrific visions of plastic surgery gone wrong. (Alas, that's the only laugh The Projectionist gets in this underdeveloped part.)

That episode, called Mirari, is Dante's offering, and the one that harks back most enjoyably to Twilight Zone-style storytelling. A woman (Zarah Mahler) who was scarred as a child has found her Prince Charming, a rich fella who swears "looks are overrated" in one breath and, in the next, offers to pay if she wants to erase that scar before their wedding day. As soon as we see her consultation with the reptilian Dr. Leneer (Richard Chamberlain), we know this will not be a simple procedure — and before his punchline, Dante milks the poor patient's post-surgery daze with plenty of Dutch angles and sickly blues and greens.

Dante's influence is also felt in the opening section, a twisty riff on cabin-in-the-woods flicks directed by Juan of the Dead director Alejandro Brugues. Here, the action starts in what appears to be the final act of a slasher pic, but things are weirder (and funnier) than they seem, with our loyalties (and the camera's POV) leaping a time or two before the end.

Only one of the five episodes is truly a dud: In Mashit, Japanese cult director Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus, Godzilla: Final Wars) delivers a Catholic school-set tale of possession that is all gory shock beats and no connective tissue, culminating in a ludicrous battle that will play best with those who'd like to see a priest destroying the heads of children with a broadsword.

While Garris' own Dead is notable mostly for a bright performance by teen thesp Faly Rakotohavana (and for a tricky view of maternal love), the evening's one unambiguous chiller comes from David Slade, the Hard Candy helmer who more recently has worked with Bryan Fuller on Hannibal and American Gods. Shooting stylishly in black and white (as he did on a standout Black Mirror episode, "Metalhead"), Slade's This Way to Egress focuses on a woman in the throes of an apparent mental collapse. Elizabeth Reaser's Helen has been waiting a very long time in her psychologist's reception area, trying to keep two sons calm while strange things are happening to her environment: revolting crud (blood, mold or some other debris) is covering everything around her, and the humans she interacts with are more deformed every time she sees them.

"Things keep changing," she says worriedly when she finally is admitted to the shrink's office. But Dr. Salvador (Adam Godley) is unfazed, and his questions — "Have these changes accelerated since four o'clock?" — suggest he's in on whatever is going on. After marinating in this ick for some time, the film delivers more explanation (however open-ended) than viewers may expect, and more resolution as well. While none of the short fictions on the Projectionist's program are ones a viewer would enjoy being the star of, Egress is the only one that might actually inspire nightmares.

Production companies: Cinelou Films, Cranked Up Films, Nice Guy Productions
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Sarah Withers, Faly Rakotohavana, Maurice Benard, Elizabeth Reaser, Zarah Mahler, Mark Grossman, Eric Nelsen, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Annabeth Gish
Directors: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugues, Joe Dante, Ryuhei Kitamura, David Slade
Screenwriters: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugues, Richard Christian Matheson, Sandra Becerril, David Slade, Lawrence C. Connolly
Producers: Mick Garris, Courtney Solomon, Mark Canton, Joe Russo
Editors: Mike Mendez, Tony Kearns
Venue: Fantasia Film Festival
Sales: Cinelou Releasing

Rated R, 118 minutes