Filmmaker Ryan Spindell is the sort of artist that proudly wears his inspirations on his sleeve while still making a mark all his own. Growing up on series like The Twilight Zone and the early works of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, he's someone actively working towards bringing some escapist fun back into the horror genre, which has almost been taking itself just a bit too seriously lately. His feature length debut, The Mortuary Collection, is a proper horror anthology that has everything from monsters to ghouls to sex curses. The stories are told by an eerie and towering mortician by the name of Montgomery Dark, played by Clancy Brown in one of his most memorable performances to date.
Ryan was gracious enough to sit down with Knotfest via Zoom to talk about the journey that The Mortuary Collection took from conception to its eventual release on Shudder and the existential crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic caused. He also discussed the film's multiple nominations and win at the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards, how to get audiences to watch more short form stories, and gave a surprising answer to what kind of music he's currently jamming.
What's it been like for you now that The Mortuary Collection has been out for a few months now?
Ryan Spindell: That whole process was really incredible for me because I finished the movie in 2019 and we did our first premiere that year. Shudder picked up the movie from Fantastic Fest and the general plan was "We want to put this out during October, so you guys can do the festival circuit and sort of travel with the film for a year, and then next year, when October comes we'll release it as part of our big Halloween lineup." That seemed great to us because I've been working on that thing for years and the dream is to travel with the movie, go around Europe, see it with crowds, meet other filmmakers. When you're making an independent film, you really don't make any money, all you really get to do is sort of make a film. Which is a blessing in itself, I mean, that's so rare and so hard to do. But then you get to watch it with an audience and connect with other filmmakers and commiserate and do that whole process. And so that was the thing I was looking forward to the most and of course, because of the pandemic, that was the thing that was totally taken off the table.
Around March when the pandemic started, I think we had like 23 or 24 festivals all over the world that we were going to travel to and they were going to bring us out and put us up and give us like housing and it was gonna be awesome. And instead it just kind of went, you know, go back to your house in Los Angeles and wait. So that year was kind of grueling to just kind of sit on the movie for an entire year and not be able to show it to people or talk about it. I just had to sort of move forward and work on other projects. We did start getting some really great buzz out of Fantasia, which was an online festival. We got a ton of awesome press from there, which was such a cool thing and a reason I would encourage any filmmakers to really look at Fantasia, especially if you have a genre film, because they really put a lot of work into getting the word out there, which is something you need nowadays.
So we had some good press coming out of that but I never could have imagined how strong the audience response would have been having it released on Shudder. It's one of my favorite streaming services already even if I hadn't had a movie on it. What's cool about Shudder is that the people that subscribe to Shudder are going to pretty much watch everything that is released on there because they're not releasing a ton of stuff. It's very curated. There's this sort of weight put on every project that they put on the platform. Over a million people who have Shudder were suddenly watching our film, which is kind of unheard of for a movie this small. Even if we were on Netflix, I think we probably would get a lot of views, but I don't know if that would even register because it's such a massive platform with so many other movies competing for spots. Making a movie is incredibly hard, and it beats you up, and it kind of leaves you bloody and broken. And some of these messages that I've gotten from people all over the world who've seen the film and not only enjoyed it, but it sort of has helped them in some way out the pandemic process, has given them that sort of escapist entertainment - which is what I'm a huge fan of making and doing - in a weird, roundabout way, made some sense of making movies for a career. Because as you can imagine, when the world starts falling apart, the first thing you think of as a filmmaker is what am I doing making scary movies when I could be like, you know, working on a vaccine or helping people or being on the front lines or doing something significant? Like, why am I just sitting in my room writing spooky stories?
What am I doing just writing about other people making movies??
Ryan Spindell: Yeah, it was a pretty deep existential crisis for a minute there, where I was like, I need to do something else, I want to contribute to the world. But then when the movie came out, and people were writing these really wonderful messages about how the movie gave them a little piece of happiness or escapism, or something special, during some of their darkest hours, I was like, "Oh, I now understand the value of art and cinema and music." And that it's not a small thing. It's not a throwaway luxury. It's an essential part of us as humans sort of processing the world around us. That was a really, really, really cool experience. Probably the biggest takeaway I had from the whole project was just finding some sort of value in doing this for a living and being excited about doing it again.
I imagine October is a coveted spot for a release on Shudder.
Ryan Spindell: Yeah, I mean, they have two things now. They have October and then they have their Halfway to Halloween event where they're kind of creating a second window for a massive release of horror movies, which I'm all for as a horror fan. It is a coveted block to have it really come out in October, but it's also a competitive block because they were releasing, I think, a movie a day or something. So unlike the normal run of things where it's one or two movies a week, it was one every single day plus bonus. So yeah, there was a competitiveness to it. But again, I mean, I don't know about you, but I already watch too much horror and I'll double up my intake during the October season. So I can keep up.
You had three nominations at the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards, one of them for Best Streaming Premiere alongside a ton of other great movies like Beach House, His House, Run, Host, and Anything for Jackson. What's it like to be nominated alongside those kinds of films?
Ryan Spindell: Man, it's overwhelming. I think His House was probably my favorite movie of the year. Those were all fantastic movies and it was just such a cool testament to how great the films were that came out in 2020. It was pretty surreal to see all of the lists that we were part of, and see the other films that were on those lists. It's weird that we happen to have this sort of strange, surreal off-year because of the pandemic. But at the same time, just by coincidence, the amount of releases - especially independent releases - was massive. So many good films. So even though we lost out on all of those big budget studio releases that are being held till the pandemic ends, we got this huge influx of indie movies, and I just loved that so much.
The Mortuary Collection did win for Best Supporting Actor for Clancy Brown. Last year that went to Willem Dafoe and Rebecca Ferguson, and I saw this great tweet that was like "The Chainsaw Awards kicked off with giving an acting award to Clancy Brown, immediately solidifying their authenticity."
Ryan Spindell: That was awesome. I mean, that that's no surprise. I'm so proud of what he did in the movie. And he's just been such an amazing supporter too. He doesn't have to help promote this movie, he can do whatever he wants, but he's been helping push the ball forward because he loves it, and that's such a cool thing. So to see him get that award kind of gives me some vindication to make it worth his while.
I like that your film stands out because it's the one that's more purposely fun. It has a bit more levity to it than the other films.
Ryan Spindell: It's true. I noticed this interesting trend in horror, which was like the post-Hereditary trend, where suddenly horror kind of became a bit more of a highbrow genre. And everybody started scrambling to make their A24-style horror movies. I'm a fan, so I'm not complaining, but we got a huge influx of them. But at the same time, nobody could anticipate that the entire world would suddenly become a very dark place and people would want escapist, fun, light content. So at the same time we're all like, gloomily sitting in our apartments, all of this really dark content is coming in. I realized that movies like The Mortuary Collection and a few others like Scare Me, more of these light, fun, horror movies, were really rising to the top because people needed escape, they didn't want to be dragged through the mud emotionally anymore. I think that was a nice indicator of what people want from the genre, they don't really want one thing all the time. And at any moment, the world could change and what they want could shift dramatically. Hopefully it opens it up for more styles of horror to be made and not have everything constantly following some sort of trend.
The Mortuary Collection was also nominated for Best Makeup FX. What was it like to work with Amalgamated Dynamics, whose filmography is insane?
Ryan Spindell: We have no business working with ADI on a project this small, we got lucky because we had made the short ahead of time and the short was a great showpiece for the movie. I was talking to some different makeup artists about who is going to do the makeup, and we're going to talk to some friends and they're all kind of newer up and coming artists, which I love to work with, honestly, because they have the most to prove. But people kept dropping out and not being able to do it. I had this moment where I was like, "Alright, I'm gonna just write really impassioned letters to my three favorite special effects companies in the world and just see what happens." What have I got to lose, I don't have anybody to work with right now. So I submitted to three companies, two of them got back to me immediately. One of them was Spectral Motion, they loved the project but they couldn't do it because they were too jammed.
The other was ADI. And they were like, "We don't usually do projects like this, but we love the short, send us the script, let us take a look and we'll get back to you." We sent them a script, and they love the script. We went into this fancy meeting room they have to meet with them and they were like, "We love this project. It's exactly what we want to do. We haven't done anything like this for a while. What's your budget?". We told them our budget and they got real sad, real quiet. But then they were like "Ah fuck it, let's do it. "They made it work. What they did is they repurposed a lot. We did some custom gags built from scratch, for sure, like the Ghost Until Death and a few other key elements, but then there were other stuff like the tentacles where we needed to repurpose parts that they already had. So a big part of the tentacle creatures was actually repurposed tremors from the original Tremors. So that's cool, I've got tremor parts in the movie.
The great thing about those guys is that they have such a passion for the filmmaking side of things that even when they can't possibly take a tiny budget and create everything from scratch, they have all these fun components that they're like willing to throw together and rework and repaint and shoot at a certain angle. It kind of brings it to life in a really special way that you couldn't really do with a smaller company that doesn't have all those resources and storage. One of the highlights of my career was sitting in this like, fancy mahogany meeting room with four grown men, and for about half an hour we were talking about how to make a penis explode. What a weird career that us four adult men are talking about how to make a dick explode for the past 30 minutes in a fancy meeting room. And this is what we do for a living. It's pretty cool.
It's the most important part of the film, obviously. It was also nominated for Best Kill, which I was leaning towards. But it went to The Invisible Man, for the restaurant scene.
Ryan Spindell: That one swept the awards, huh? I mean it was basically the only major theatrical horror movie in the whole year. Did you see In Fabric? That was a killer horror movie that I saw at the Alamo Drafthouse here in LA. It just slipped through under the radar and then everything shut down, but I feel like it kind of got dismissed because it happened pre-pandemic, which feels like another life. It's cool, it's like a very retro kind of 70s movie about a killer dress.
You were previously working on 50 States of Fright for Quibi, but now that Quibi is gone, its content may be moved to Roku under the name Roku Originals.
Ryan Spindell: Yeah so, with 50 States of Fright, so many people didn't see it because it was on Quibi. But it was such a cool show. I remember I'd seen most of the episodes through working with the other directors and working through editing together side by side. And I was really blown away by how great the show was for a traditional horror anthology series, which is something we haven't really had in a long time. It was such a bummer that so few people got to see these really cool shorts that were made with really significant resources. So it's awesome if they're coming to Roku. I was actually working on season three of the series, and I wrote two episodes. And now I guess they're just lost in the void but I hope that they find a way to bring them back.
It's frustrating because I feel like there's definitely an audience for that kind of short form entertainment, especially, you know, when you have stuff like Tik Tok and how everybody likes getting stuff in bite sized portions at the moment.
Ryan Spindell: Here's the thing. I think if something like Black Mirror, because that's sort of solidified itself as a pretty great show that has a great track record, started putting out 10 to 15 minute episodes every three months on Netflix, I think it would be a thing. I think people would be jazzed about those and people would watch those. You just need some kind of platform, or some sort of name that draws people in. Like if Stranger Things did 15 minutes shorts...
People would watch that.
Ryan Spindell: You need a way to direct people to them. Even if they're amazing, just random anthologies - other than for people like me, who are going to seek that stuff out - I think it's never gonna find its way to a mainstream audience. Even The Mortuary Collection still hasn't really found its way to a massive, massive audience. We had a theatrical release in Korea and we did one in Germany, so I'm getting some feedback from different parts of the world where it's more mainstream, but there are a lot of people even here in the United States, who are massive horror fans, who have never even heard of The Mortuary Collection. So that kind of goes to show that we're all in these different bubbles, where we can feel like we see it everywhere, but you just step out of that bubble and no one's ever heard of it. That's sort of the tricky part about independent movies. Unless you make something that has such a vibe around it like Human Centipede or something where people can't help but seek it out, you can easily kind of fall in between the cracks.
What kind of music have you been listening to lately?
Ryan Spindell: I've been listening to the Moana soundtrack pretty much on repeat. It's fantastic. I don't watch a ton of musicals beyond you know, Pixar, Disney, mostly animated stuff. But the storytelling in musicals affects me because it's like I'm listening to a movie. It's the images that have been burned into my brain. And now I'm, you know, on a jog or something, and I'm listening but I'm seeing the movie in my head. It's like it's an interactive experience a little bit more. I Love Little Shop of Horrors, it's one of my favorite movies and musicals of all time and the music in that movie is fantastic. But man, Moana has given it a run for its money. I was really surprised when I saw that movie, I put it off for a long time because I was like, "It's not my thing, I'm probably not gonna watch it" but then I did and I'm like, okay, I love this movie.
'The Mortuary Collection' is now available on demand and Blu-ray and is currently streaming on Shudder.