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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [August 27, 2016]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] Shay (Aurora Grabill) might say she's no necrophiliac. She only photographs herself caressing corpses in various states of undress. There is no penetration. But if she's no necrophiliac, it's only on a technicality. She is, at the very least, a necro-tease.
Memento Mortis isn't exactly a horror film. The dead stay dead, and the body count is low. Its premise more closely parallels The Body Snatcher and The Doctor and the Devils (sans their artistry), in that it's a tale of people who require corpses for their work (and must, eventually, obtain them by means other than digging up their local graveyard).
The story opens with shy Shay photographing a dead baby. It's legitimate work. The mother wants a photo of herself cradling her prematurely dead infant. It's called remembrance photography. Little does mom know that Shay, in her spare time, does nude photo spreads atop freshly dug corpses. She sells her necro photos on her website. She has fans.
I call her shy Shay because Grabill portrays her as something of a wallflower, quiet and self-effacing, when among people. Shay doesn't go out much. She's more comfortable among corpses. Till the day she meets Mason (Johnny Carroll), a seemingly nice guy who convinces Shay to seek fresher meat for her work.
"The idea came from an email conversation with lead actress, Aurora," said writer/director Adam Chandonnet to the Hollywood Investigator. "Remembrance photography came up. I thought, there's probably a weird fetish in here somewhere. (Nekromantic was also an inspiration, but Memento Mortis isn't as extreme.) I did some research into remembrance photography. There was a lot more about it in the original draft of the script, but most got cut out. The only mention of it is a brief scene where Shay tells Mason what she does for a living."
Shay and Mason's growing relationship is a big part of Memento Mortis. Low on violence, the film is more soft-core porn than horror. Grabill provides a fair number of topless shots, some bare naked bottoms, and even some full frontal nudity. Carroll too reveals some flesh. Their acting is less than stellar. Despite an extensive list of acting credits, Grabill could still use lessens.
Chandonnet's direction doesn't help. Told that Mason's lies drove Roger to suicide, Shay tearfully rushes at Mason -- "He was my friend!" -- pounding him angrily, then breaking down and hugging him. The whole scene rings false. The dialog (as written and as delivered by the actors) is stilted throughout the film. Characters are poorly motivated. Shay too willingly goes along with Mason's idea of killing people for their corpses.
There are also minor problems. The dead baby Shay photographs is so wrapped in a blanket, its face is obscured. Why would the parents want a remembrance photo of their baby's face unseen? Yes, I know the "baby" is a prop doll, but still. Also, the murder victim is so fresh, she could just as easily be a live person pretending to be dead. If Shay's website fans are satisfied with that, why risk killing anyone?
Of course, one doesn't watch a film like Memento Mortis for its literate wit, nuanced performances, or logic. One watches for the nudity. Chandonnet's film resembles the horror lite, soft porn work of Debbie Rochon and Fiona Horsey. "Their films never came to mind as I made the movie," said Chandonnet. "Aurora was recently in a movie with Debbie Rochon, though. The Ungovernable Force. It's very good."
As is typical of porn, Memento Mortis's production values are functional, but lacking in artistry. The images are sharp. The voices audible. But neither lighting or sound are used creatively. They don't build atmosphere or aesthetically support the characters, story, or theme.
Actually, the story is pretty good. Its premise is more original than that of many straight horror films I've recently seen -- mostly slashers or supernatural monsters terrorizing young people in the woods or wherever. Shay was a more interesting character, her story more entertaining, than to be found in some of those films. That was even without the nudity, which I found unnecessary. Grabill disrobes matter-of-factly, her nude scenes as stiff and functional as much of the film.
"This is my first feature," said Chandonnet, "but I made a handful of shorts over the past few years, so I had some experience going in. The biggest thing I learned is that it is possible for me to make a feature length film. I'd never done something this big before. Although it is a super low-budget indie film, it was a lot of work that actually paid off. It gives me the confidence to go on to another feature."
Memento Mortis was shot on a Canon Vixia HFR50 and edited on Sony Vegas Movie Studio. The IMDb has the budget at $2,000, which Chandonnet calls "a very rough estimate. I took the cost of equipment, props, and travel into consideration. I fed the cast once or twice. I paid for everything from my day job. I didn't want to be responsible for anyone else's money if anything went wrong."
Chandonnet isn't worried about Memento Mortis's nudity hindering its distribution. "I've come across much more graphic films on Netflix and Hulu. Pornography is a part of the plot in my film, but the film isn't really porn. There's a good deal of sexuality and nudity, though. Just the other week I found out that it is listed on Mr. Skin, so I guess I've really made it in the business.
"Marketing is not my strong point. I kind of just put the film out there and hoped people would find it and spread the word. I've had a pretty positive response, but it's definitely not for everybody, and a few of those people have made sure to let me know.
"I'm waiting to hear back from a few festivals, and have a much wider distribution deal in the works. I can't talk about it yet, but I'm very excited."
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