There is a fundamental flaw with most multi-film horror storytelling. A single 90-minute film can usually get around it, but when a horror film series gets into the the fourth or fifth sequel, we have to face the problem of who the hero of the story is. You see, if a hero is faced with a supernatural killer, and they are successful in vanquishing their foe, then the story has ended. If the killer is resurrected for the sequel, you either have to have the same hero face them down a second time, making for a dull repetition, or you have to bring in a new hero to vanquish them, which would only serve to reveal how easily the supernatural killer can be killed; if anyone can do it, what’s the threat? The dramatic focus shifts away from the victim, and our sympathies begin to lie with the killer. And while I do revel in cheesy horror sequels as much as the next gorehound, I do get pangs watching a story arc form around a horrible murderer.
The best ways to tell a horror story are actually the shortest. A brief tale where someone is stalked, killed, or driven mad by an extreme situation, and are left triumphant in the best scenario, or dead in the worst. I’ve read Stephen King’s 1000-page horror tome It, and I have to say that by prolonging the tortures, the book becomes less scary. Far more scary is a ten-minute campfire story told at night to a group of skittish listeners. As Shakespeare once said, brevity is the soul of wit. A scary story is going to be scarier if you don’t necessarily know the hero or the villain, and anything can happen in the brief time you’re allotted.
Which brings me to the topic of this week’s list: Anthology horror. There are a few movies and TV shows in the world that have sought to capture this witty and scary brevity. Movies and that have, rather than stretching a horror movie into 90 minutes (pretty much guaranteeing cynical audience predictions about who will die next), tell three or four shorter movies together, connected by a storyteller of some kind. I love this approach to horror movies, and have always liked the horror form. The TV shows tend to do it even better, as it allows them to write whatever stories they like, disregarding distracting ideas like continuity and accumulating character arcs. They can just have a rotating bevy of popular actors, creative stories, and even vastly differing tones.
Here then is a look at ten pieces of anthology horror, five TV shows and five movies, that exemplify the form best.
To start with, the movies:
5) “Three… Extremes” (2004)
dir. Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, Takashi Miike
Asian horror has its own passionate cult following the same way anime does. Indeed, I’m sure we can all remember the glut of Japanese horror remakes that flooded America just a few years ago. J-Horror, along with horror films from other Asian countries, seems to have a much different sensibility than Western horror films. Western horror seems to be about a punitive system, where a killer punishes vice and rewards virtue (like any slasher movie). Or, at the very least, revenge is enacted upon those who wrong another character (something like “I Spit on Your Grave”). J-Horror seems to be about discovering the evils that already float around the country; like a kind of cultural guilt is capable of killing anyone or anything. Korean films seem to be about sudden punishment that is not connected to any perceivable crime (watch “Oldboy” sometime).
“Three… Extremes” consists of thee short films, one from China, one from Korea and one from Japan. The Chinese chapter, “Dumplings” is a shortened version of a feature film wherein an aging woman discovers a secret recipe for a youthful demeanor. Don’t ask what’s in the dumplings, though, and don’t ask why the chef who prepares them makes frequent trips to the abortion clinic. I haven’t seen the full-length version, but this 20-minute version is wicked and weird in itself. The Korean chapter, from the director of “Oldboy” features a mad killer who has kidnapped a pianist and her husband, and forces the husband to watch while he slices off the pianists fingers and blends them. There’s also a twist about a young child, and a tantalising offer that the couple will be set free iof they murder an 11-year-old girl. Park Chan-wook is awesome at this sort of twisted thing. The Japanese film, by the prolific and amazing Takashi Miike, is about a dancer and a mysterious secret about a box she keeps.
These films are dark and, well, extreme. It’s rare that every film in an anthology horror film is excellent, but “Three… Extremes” fits the bill. A few years after this theatrical release, there was a straight-to-video film called, inelegantly, “3 Extremes II.” As I often implore, stick with the original.
4) “Trick R’ Treat” (2009)
dir. Michael Dougherty
It could be argued that Michael Dougherty’s “Trick ‘r Treat” is more of a clever out-of-chronological-order feature, but it’s presented as an anthology film, so I count it on this list. And while the film isn’t stellar, and won’t – as its noisy festival buzz from a few years ago implied – change the face of the horror movie, “Trick ‘r Treat” is still excellent in one regard: it really does capture the fun, gory spirit of Halloween better than most any movie. The film takes place over a single Halloween night, wherein we meet, over the course of four short films, all manner of monsters, killers, and beasties.
The first film, and my favorite, is about a wicked suburbanite dad (played by the indispensable Dylan Baker) who is so into Halloween, he ends up killing a few people, as well as teaching his son on what killing is all about. There is also a tale of werewolves involving the virginal Anna Paquin and her sluttier friends. There is a story of young kids going to a misty lake where a schoolbus was destroyed years before. And there is a curious tale of a grizzled Brian Cox fighting off an interloping trick-or-treater who is so determined to get a treat, that he’s willing to commit acts of violence.
By turns gory, fun, violent, weird, outrageous, and gleefully stupid, “Trick ‘r Treat,” is a good one for any October. What’s more, rather than merely sticking to the boilerplate werewolves and serial killers, the film bothers to invent a new monster. I won’t say what it is, but you’ll love it when you see it.
3) “Asylum” (1972)
dir. Roy Ward Baker
The 1970s were a ripe time for anthology horror movies, and one of the best of these was Roy Ward Baker’s surreal arthouse collection “Asylum.” The conceit was that we were taking a tour of an insane asylum, and we were given the stories of four of the patients held therein, explaining what caused them to go mad. Horror films set in insane asylums have always fascinated me, as they seem to declare that sanity, reality, rules and morality can all be boiled down to matters of perspective. One can, if one is clever enough and convinced enough, commit all manner of atrocities, and not be convinced otherwise. “Asylum” tells the tales of four people, all with completely unreliable perspectives, how they got there, the tales they tell are chilling.
While some of the stories are outright dumb (the one about the killer robots operated through astral projection is a little far-fetched), there is one story in particular that will keep you up at night. A man, you see, in a fit of rage, murders his wife (Charlotte Rampling), and cuts up her body for storage. He wraps the individual body parts in brown paper. Later that night, the various parts, still wrapped in brown paper, spring to life, and come crawling after him. The one shot of the severed head trying to breathe through the brown paper left me awake. And I was 19 when I saw it.
This film is, I admit, kind of obscure, and not solid all the way through, but that one image left such a strong impression on me, I’m including it on this list. Also it has Peter Cushing and a young, hot Britt Ekland.
2) “Tales of Terror” (1962)
dir. Roger Corman
In the early 1960s, B-movie god Roger Corman struck upon the idea to make film versions of several of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short stories, which were hitherto untapped. His adaptations, while moody and colorful and atmospheric, were typically pretty campy, and rarely cleaved very close to the source material. His “Fall of the House of Usher” is less of a poetic look of an ancient family’s deterioration, and more an incest-implied potboiler.
The bets of his Poe adaptations, though, was probably “Tales of Terror” from 1962. All three stories in the film featured Vincent Price in a different role, and each is surprisingly entertaining. The first, about a man haunted by the ghost of his dead daughter, is a little strange and non-committal, but the other two are lurid and fun and twisted. “The Black Cat” is about a drunk (Peter Lorre, yo) who ends up encasing a dandyish Price in a wall with a hated cat. The pleasures of “The Black Cat” is seeing the always creepy and always wonderful Lorre rolling his eyes and vaguely threatening people. The third film, “The Case of M. Valdemar” is a twisted little tale about an obsessed hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) who uses hypnosis to keep a dying man alive, even after his body begins to decay. Weird and is ends in a weird way which I will not reveal.
The film is devoid of extreme violence, and yet still has the ability to scare you out of your pants. Have we lost something in recent decades? Has our tolerance for extreme violence dulled our ability to scare each other? I would say not. A good horror film can be rated PG. As “Tales of Terror” exemplifies.
1) “Creepshow” (1982)
dir. George A. Romero
Those roaches. That’s all, man. Those roaches. They scare the crap out of me. I hate bugs. I always have had a phobia about beetles and insects. Watching hundreds of thousands of real cockroaches crawling out of the various orifices of a man’s body, even after he’s spent the entirety of his short film keeping them out of his apartment… oh man, it still makes me shiver. I can’t watch the cockroaches.
George A. Romero’s “Creepshow” was certainly not the first horror anthology film, but it is, in my mind, one of the exemplars of the genre, and started many of the anthology horror trends that would lead to one of the best TV series ever made. Stephen King, inspired by the gory EC comics of his youth, wrote five tales of terror, all of which end in a gruesome death. Each one starred a recognizable actor, so the film is chock full of some wonderful celebrity cameos, including Leslie Nielsen, Ted Danson, Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall, Ed Harris, and even King himself.
There is a tale of an uppity patriarch who demands a Father’s Day cake from his horrible brood, to the point where he’ll come back from the dead to get it. There is the tale of a jealous murderer who is done in by the couple he kills, thanks to a clever use of the tides. There is the mysterious crate which may or may not have a hairy monster in it. There is a weird and tragic and lonely story about a country bumpkin who, thanks to a meteor, begins turning into a plant. And, of course, there are those cockroaches. Damn those cockroaches.
The TV Shows
5) “Monsters” (1988 -1990)
NOTE: I came seriously close to including “Friday the 13th: The Series” in this slot, seeing as it’s kind of a lost classic that is ripe for re-discovery. And despite it’s very solid monster-of-the-week premise, I decided that the connective material was too strong to really count it as an anthology series. Too bad. I’ll just take this time to recommend the show. Be sure, also to stay away from the little-known and hard-to-find anthology series “Freddy’s Nightmares,” inspired, as it was, by “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” It’s not a very good show. Although it is a curiosity.
The conceit of “Monsters” was simple: Every week we had another poor beleaguered hero who was set upon by a different monster of some kind. There were the usual ones: werewolves, vampires, mummies. But there were more often a more creative bevvy of weirdos and freaks. I think the first episode of the show involves a giant space alien, and the second an intelligent robot. For a show about creatures, it was refreshing to see the creators try to make new monsters stick, rather than simply retooling older ones. In the age of the sparkling and/or sexed-up angsty vampires, this is a relief.
This show came on cable TV, which I didn’t have at home, so managing to stay up late and catch episode in motel rooms while I traveled was a delight. Plus it gave me nightmares. What more do you want? The one about the killer telephone still creeps me out. Or was that “Tales from the Darkside?”
4) “The Outer Limits” (1963 – 1965)
Sort of like a sci-fi heavy version of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” seemed to have more speculative horror on its mind than its contemporaries. Not content to have moral lessons or eerie scares, “The Outer Limits” was more focused on weird special effects, monsters, and aliens. It was “the Outer Limits” that first televised Isaac Asimov’s famous “I, Robot” story (starring a pre-”Star Trek” Leonard Nimoy), and was one of the earliest TV shows I saw to feature stop-motion animation.
“The Outer Limits” was easier to take than “The Twilight Zone” as well. Rather than the forceful moralizing of Serling’s show, “The Outer Limits” would try to come up with a new creative monster every week. The Zanti Misfits were particularly creepy. For a little boy who is bored at home watching reruns on the UHF stations, finding these monsters was a treasure trove. The Zone was all well and good for celebrity cameos and interesting stories and great writing, but the Limits was where we got to see creatures wreaking havoc.
I guess this makes the show seem more like a sci-fi action anthology series than outright horror, but the stories did each have twist endings, and the monsters were always kind of scary. So I think it counts. Of the hundreds of “Twilight Zone” ripoffs, this one was clearly the best.
3) “Eerie, Indiana” (1991 -1992)
Starting in the late 1980s, there seemed to be just as many anthology horror series for children as there were for adults. Thanks to the immense popularity of the Goosebumps books, conceived by author R.L. Stine, there was a great period in the early 1990s where kids got horror shows for themselves. It was during this time that we saw the TV version of “Goosebumps,” “The Nightmare Room,” “Are You Afraid of the Dark?,” “The Haunting Hour,” “So Weird,” and “Bone Chillers.”
The latter of these was probably my favorite, as “Bone Chillers” was conceived and directed by Richard Elfman, the mad genius behind weird-ass cult films like “Forbidden Zone” and “Shrunken Heads.” If you’ve seen his films, imagine that same sensibility applied to a low-budget horror series, and geared toward kids, and you’ll have a show that’s perfect to get high to.
The best of this wave of children’s horror, though, was probably “Eerie, Indiana,” a show about a young boy (Omri Katz) as he discovers increasingly bizarre occurrences in his small town. While the show did follow one young boy, I got the distinct impression that the creators tried really hard to leave him out of the picture as much as they could. It was the monsters that they really wanted to focus on. But that’s the thing about the show: It wasn’t just about monsters. It was about things like hyper-intelligent robots, or a mad being who keeps track of “lost” items.
In the shows’ best episode, a cursed record turntable begins to influence the mind of a local boy. He turns into an asshole metalhead, much to chagrin of his family. Our hero soon discovers that the record is implanting subliminal messages into the head of the listener, depending on their personal insecurities. At the end of the episode, we learn from the turntable that the boy has been abused by his father. It’s actually a brilliant revelation, and is not cheap in the very-special-episode kind of way that TV shows for kids usually pander to. It’s on DVD, and your better video stores will have them. Rent them.
2) “The Twilight Zone” (1959 – 1964)
I need say little about “The Twilight Zone,” other than to re-stress that it is perhaps one of the best TV shows ever produced. Like ever. Seriously. Watch it. Rent the videos. They’re also available on the Netflix streaming feature, if you prefer. If you don’t know the show, I will let it speak for itself.
1) Tales from the Crypt” (1989 – 1996)
In terms of quality, “Tales from the Crypt” was hit-and-miss. In terms of its impact, well, “Tales from the Crypt” is probably the most consistently successful TV shows in TV history. No show had a better rotating cast of celebrities, better inspiration for material, better gut-churning gore, better nudity, and better scares than this infamous HBO show.
Like “Creepshow,” it was inspired by the famous EC comics with titles like “Shock SuspenStories,” and “Two-Fisted Crime Tales,” but it actually bothered to cleave closer to the twisted mechanics o the originals. Indeed, even a lot of the images were taken directly from the comics. Each episode was kind of the same, as they all involved revenge or comeuppance. An evil person would be driven to kill (out of greed or lust, usually), and they would, usually through supernatural means, be killed in turn. As the show progressed, though, the dynamic became increasingly weird, until we were stuck with episodes like the one where Don Rickles’ conjoined twin fused itself to Bobcat Goldthwait’s hand.
That’s another thing: In the 1990s, it seemed like “Tales from the Crypt” was a hoop through which most any actor would have to inevitably jump. Almost any recognizable actor you know has probably appeared on “Tales from the Crypt” at some point. I don’t want to list them all, as it would take up too much space.
What’s more, since it aired om HBO, “Tales from the Crypt” was free to show as much sex and gore as they liked. This meant that they could actually show severed limbs, stabbings, zombies, and other gooey horrors that an eager 14-year-old is hoping to be terrified by. Catching glimpses of a chainsaw death in the lurid anthology context provided thrills that is difficult to describe. And when they weren’t chainsawing one another, we would often have daring actresses disrobing for the camera. In an age where pornography wasn’t online yet, catching glimpses of these topless women was a thrill unheard of in the real world. “Tales from the Crypt” in an enormously important show, and perhaps the best anthology horror series.
- Cat’s Eye
- Two Evil Eyes
- Tales from the Darkside: The Movie
- Tales from the Crypt
- Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors
- Creepshow 2
- Tales from the Darkside
- ‘Way Out
- Night Gallery
- Alfred Hitchcock Presents
- The Hitchhiker
- Masters of Horror
Witney Seibold can be read in chapters on his ‘blog, Three Cheers For Darkened Years! Which he really needs to update. He is half the voice of The B-Movies Podcast. He is the ersatz professor on The Free Film School. He is one of the starts of the new web series The Trailer Hitch.