Dissecting a Stiff: The Coroner (1999)

Dave assesses the decaying corpse of a DTV’r that had a little work postmortem.

“I do not want to be associated with that movie. Basically, I was a film doctor. I directed half a dozen scenes, but there’s nothing redeeming about that movie whatsoever.” [1]

The words of Brian Katkin there, speaking to Fangoria back in 2003 about his Alan Smithee credit  – but more from him shortly. The film in question is THE CORONER, which gave a directorial debut to one Juan Mas, a long-time collaborator of Roger Corman.

Mas started out with Concorde-New Horizons at the beginning of the decade in the role of second second assistant director on the sublime sizzler Body Chemistry (1990). He graduated to first A.D a few years later for further adventures in softcore with the sultry sequel Body Chemistry II (1991), with the likes of Rodman Flender’s In the Heat of Passion (1992) not far behind.

The canvas-backed chair of director came calling in ’99 with the opportunity to shoot a script from former Corman PA, Geralyn Ruane. It’s a seriously mixed bag: in what remains his sole feature credit, Dean St. Louis stars as Dr. Leon Uraski, the eponymous coroner who takes a shine to hotshot lawyer Emma (Jane Longenecker – Dinocroc (2004)) and kidnaps her, intending to subject her to some torture-based humiliation in his basement of tricks.

Emma, though, is a real ass-kicker, and upon escaping from the psycho’s underground lair, heads to the police who accompany her back to where she was held captive. As luck would have it, the local Coroner is a buddy of the police, so the heinous allegations get swiftly swept to the side. Now it’s left to the counter-playing counsel to exercise revenge, and inflict her own brand of post-mortem inquest.

Opening the film is a tacked on handful of strip club sequences and a subsequent murder, which makes for a jarring start – but it’s one that Katkin can shed some light on:

“It’s a film that had sat on the shelf for years,” admits the reluctant contributor. “It was too short so Roger wanted fifteen to twenty minutes of new footage shot for it. However, instead of shooting just those inserts, he wanted me to shoot a separate film entirely, then pinch a segment of my project for The Coroner. Two for the price of one! So that’s what I did. I had an old script called Hard as Nails (2001), and I devised a few scenes that could play in both movies! Obviously we didn’t tell the actors, as we couldn’t afford to pay ‘em for both!” [2]

It did the trick anyhow, and extended what’s largely a two-hander into something (slightly) more expansive that succeeds in being quietly satisfying at times, although irritation and boredom are frequently on hand to reign in any excitement. In its favour, the evolution of the picture is quite the catch, with the erosion of Emma’s morality a real hook, but there’s very little else to swoon about.

St. Louis is horribly miscast as the villain. Looking like a second rate Neil Sedaka impersonator, and dressed only in a chef’s apron for one of the early scenes (swiftly followed – bafflingly – by an American football kit), he’s a figure of mockery as opposed to carrying even a smidgeon of menace. There’s so little depth to his character as well, which is a trait that’s echoed through all of the (modest) cast. Longenecker is fine as Emma, but she’s a strangely sketched out individual with her legal-based livelihood front and centre, yet looking like a cheerleader in a crop top and plaid skirt when she gets abducted. It’s a distracting paradox, yet one that defines The Coroner to a tee.

USA ● 1999 ● Horror ● 74mins

Jane Longenecker, Dean St. Louis, Christine Burke ● Wri. Geralyn Ruane ● Dir. Juan Mas, Brian Katkin (as ‘Alan Smithee’)

[1],[2] Slaughter on a Budget by Steven Puchalski, Fangoria #219, January 2003

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