Remember when you were a kid sitting around the campfire with your friends, swapping scary stories? The really good ones probably shared some common attributes: They were short, undeniably terrifying and often featured a marvelously unexpected twist ending (“But the real killer turned out to be… the kid’s dad!”). After a night of terrifying tales, you would go to bed a bit uneasy and scared, yet satisfied.
More than any other film (or literary) genre, horror is uniquely suited to the short story and anthology form. The horror anthology is a contemporary version of telling ghost stories around the campfire.
What’s the secret to making a great horror anthology? Ideally, it should be a collection of diverse tales, each uniquely creepy, yet inextricably connected by tone, style and approach. The very best anthologies should, of course, be consistent—If there’s one dud amidst a collection of terrifying tales, the entire work can feel uneven or off-balance.
In film, the horror anthology genre unofficially began back in 1919, with Richard Oswald’s silent German film Eerie Tales, which adapted stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson. Many future anthology films would take a similar approach in adapting short stories from notable genre writers.
It wasn’t until 1945, however, that the horror anthology produced a bona fide classic with Dead of Night. This collection of eerie British ghost stories proved to be profoundly influential, especially the linking storyline, in which a group of people describe their recurring dreams (each of which leads to an individual storyline).
It was almost 20 years before the horror anthology was revived again, with Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962), a trio of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price in various roles. The success of the film led to a reemergence of the horror anthology that would continue for many years.
Now, 30 years since the last great one (Creepshow) was released into theaters, comes a new, much-buzzed about horror anthology, V/H/S. The innovative film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to screams of terror and adulation, Is comprised of six found-footage shorts directed by some of the genre’s brightest stars, including Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West and Glenn McQuaid. V/H/S hits theaters October 5, and is currently available through Video On Demand.
To celebrate this oft-neglected sub-genre (and just in time for Halloween), join MM as we take a look at some of the greatest horror anthologies of the last 50 years—short, creepy horror tales with witty twist endings, all offering more scream for your buck.
Black Sabbath (1963)
directed by Mario Bava
Includes: “The Telephone,” “The Wurdalak,” “The Drop of Water”
Italian master of horror Bava has built up a sizable cult following over the years due to his Gothic, gorgeously photographed fright films (Bava was a former cinematographer) that have inspired the likes of Dario Argento and Tim Burton. Black Sabbath is one of Bava’s best movies and a great anthology—offering three stylistically diverse but uniformly unnerving, atmospheric tales. The best of the bunch is “The Wurdalak,” based on a story by Aleksei Tolstoy and starring Boris Karloff in one of his last great performances. It’s a unique spin on the vampire mythos, in which those transformed into the creature of the title prey on those they love most (essentially, their own families). With its brooding, beautiful visuals, this segment stands on its own as one of the creepiest vampire tales ever filmed. Whether you’re already a fan of Bava’s or are new to the pleasures of Italian horror, Black Sabbath is well worth seeing.
Night Gallery (1969)
directed by Boris Sagal, Steven Spielberg and Barry Shear
Includes: “The Cemetery,” “Eyes,” “The Escape Route”
Though a TV movie, Night Gallery (which spawned an underrated anthology show of the same name) still stands as one of the best, most consistent horror omnibuses. The reason for its success lies in the pen of legendary writer Rod Serling (“The Twilight Zone”), who scripted all three segments. Serling also serves as host of the film, introducing three paintings with disturbing backstories. The scariest story, “The Cemetery,” starring Roddy McDowall and Ossie Davis, comes first. With a bit of inspiration from classic EC horror comics, this darkly funny, yet relentlessly creepy tale illustrates a lost art in today’s horror movies: What we don’t see is scarier than what we do. Also, noteworthy is “Eyes, ” in which Joan Crawford stars as a heartless, blind millionaire desperate for sight. This segment was directed by a 22-year-old aspiring moviemaker named Steven Spielberg. Even after 40 years, Night Gallery remains one of the best, most frightening TV movies of all time.
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
directed by Freddie Francis
Includes: “All Through the House,” “Reflection of Death,” “Poetic Justice,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Blind Alleys”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, British company Amicus Productions owned the market on horror anthology features. From 1965 to 1973, they released seven in all, most of which are fairly uneven, save for their crowning achievement, Tales from the Crypt. This Crypt precedes the popular HBO show of the same name by 17 years and while both feature tales in which horrible characters get their grisly just desserts, and are based on classic 1950s EC Comics stories, that’s where the similarities end. Unlike the gore-spattered show, this movie is relatively bloodless (though still fairly violent for a PG-rated movie) and the Crypt Keeper here is not a wisecracking, decomposing corpse, but a refined, humorless Ralph Richardson in a hoodie. Yet, what it lacks in blood and guts, it more than makes up in suspense.
Director Freddie Francis (also the cinematographer of such acclaimed films as The Innocents and The Elephant Man) creates an eerie, Gothic atmosphere that greatly enhances the wicked tales. One of the best star turns here is Peter Cushing as a kindly old man who gets his “Poetic Justice” (the title of the segment) from beyond the grave. Like the classic comic series from which it is derived, Tales from the Crypt is ghoulish fun from start to finish.
directed by George Romero
Includes: “Father’s Day,” “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” “Something to Tide You Over,” “The Crate,” “They’re Creeping Up On You”
Indie titan Romero made his first foray into studio moviemaking with Creepshow, a collection of five original tales scripted by genre legend Stephen King (here making his screenwriting debut). With its comic book-inspired visual style (in which many shots mirror comic book panels) and campy, yet creepy tone, Creepshow is required viewing for horror fans. The stories feature a surprisingly high-profile cast (including Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver and Leslie Nielsen). Even King himself makes an amusing appearance, playing the title role of a dimwitted farmer in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.”
For sheer goosebumps, however, you can’t do better than the aptly titled “They’re Creeping Up On You.” The segment stars E.G. Marshall as a selfish millionaire who gets the worst comeuppance possible. He’s a clean freak who lives in an isolated high-rise apartment. Unfortunately, he also has the worst cockroach problem ever. Needless to say, things go a little, well, buggy. Those who despise creepy crawly insects be warned: The disturbing closing scene is not for the faint of heart. With top-notch makeup effects by gore master Tom Savini, Creepshow is a wickedly fun take on the classic 1950s horror comics.
Trick ’r Treat (2009)
directed by Michael Dougherty
Just when the horror anthology had seemed to grow anemic, first-time director Dougherty (screenwriter of X2 and Superman Returns) pumped new blood into the genre with Trick ’r Treat. Unlike the aforementioned films, the tales in Trick ’r Treat overlap, with characters appearing in each other’s stories, so the line between each tale starting and stopping isn’t clearly defined. The movie follows several different characters in a small town on a particularly eventful Halloween night. The characters include an oddball school principal (Dylan Baker) who takes an unseemly amount of joy in the traditions of the holiday, a virginal college girl (Anna Paquin) who hopes to find Mr. Right at a Halloween party and a misanthropic old man (Brian Cox) who despises Halloween and is forced to battle a mysterious intruder. Although the narrative structure of Trick ’r Treat makes it a bit different than the usual horror anthology, it’s the perfect movie to watch in front of a crackling fire on a chilly Halloween night, when most of the trick-or-treaters have begun to disperse and the time is right for some really scary stories.
Have a fave horror anthology that didn’t make the cut? Let us know in the comments!