Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.
I’ve always enjoyed horror anthologies (both the cinematic and written varieties), if only because they’re kind of like that stupid box of chocolates Forrest Gump prattled on about; you really never know what you’re going to get. If you happen to tear into a story and hate it, well, the whole thing could turn around with the next one. This is part of why the newly released ABCs of Death is so intriguing – because it’s a massive undertaking even by horror anthology standards. The film features 26 stories, each inspired by a letter of the alphabet, sort of like how children’s books are structured or how Sue Grafton was titling her books. Will all 26 stories be hits? The law of averages says no, but I’m guessing there will be at least a few that tickle our fancy when it hits DVD and Blu-ray this week.
My anticipation of the project got me thinking about some of the other great horror anthologies to turn up over the years – and there have been many – so join me this week in taking a look back at eight of the greatest horror anthology flicks of all time.
We kick things off with one of the most recent horror anthology films, V/H/S. This low-budget found-footage entry features some of the genre’s biggest up-and-coming filmmakers (Adam Wingard, Ti West, Glenn McQuarrie, etc.) and made my Best of 2012 list. The title features multiple stories bookended by an admittedly weak frame story. The theme is that all of the footage is discovered on tapes found in a house filled with VHS cassettes and a dead man.
The bulk of the tales in V/H/S are good. The found-footage aesthetic leads to a bit more “shaky cam” than I’d like, but the overall concept is sound. Radio Silence’s closing entry is clearly the highlight of the film, but all of the stories have something interesting to offer, and the film was a big enough hit that the sequel has already had its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
Black Sabbath (1963)
The late, great Mario Bava dipped his toes into the anthology film format with his 1963 gem Black Sabbath. Thank goodness he did, because his three-story entry still stands as one of horror’s all-time great anthology flicks. Black Sabbath will probably seem quaint to audiences raised on extreme horror, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking out this atmospheric chiller from one of the form’s greatest masters.
Unlike V/H/S, all three tales in Bava’s outing are excellent and choosing a favorite is genuinely challenging. The film opens with “The Telephone”, a tense vignette about a woman menaced by phone calls from an escaped prisoner from her past. Things then turn supernatural in “The Wardulak”, a period vampire tale featuring a mesmerizing performance from Boris Karloff. The film finishes with “The Drop of Water”, which might be the best entry of all. Each of these stories is unique in its presentation, but all show just how talented Bava truly was.
George Romero and Stephen King teamed up for this 1982 homage to the classic EC horror comics and the end result is one of the best anthology flicks the genre has ever seen.
Featuring five tales of the macabre written by King and directed by Romero, Creepshow was one of those dream collaborations where the results actually lived up to fan expectations. While not every story in Creepshow is perfect (“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is the weakest, showing King is a better writer than actor…), it does a splendid job mimicking its inspiration. For every great issue of those old horror EC comics, there were more than a few clunkers as well. The balance here is shifted toward the positive, with the bug-infested “They’re Creeping Up on You” being the one I’m most likely to call my favorite.
Featuring a top-flight genre filmmaker, the biggest horror author in the world, and an impressive cast (that included Leslie Nielsen, Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall and more), Creepshow is certainly an anthology film worthy of classic status.
Trilogy of Terror (1975)
Dan Curtis’ 1975 horror anthology Trilogy of Terror is cheating a bit, if only because it was a made-for-TV film/pilot for series. I’m happy to bend the rules for this one, though, because a lot of people saw it, loved it, and still remember it.
Karen Black stars in a series of stories penned by horror icon Richard Matheson. The tales are unrelated, but Black plays a key character in each one. Each of the tales is named after Black’s characters, and all are entertaining enough, but the one everyone remembers is "Amelia."
“Amelia” is the classic installment where Black is menaced by a living, breathing, Zuni Fetish Doll she’s acquired. The segment is creepy and really intense for a 1975 made-for-television feature – I’ve talked to lots of other kids who grew up in this era, and we all wound up fairly traumatized by this particular tale – and all remember it fondly as adults. All of Trilogy of Terror is worth seeing, but there’s no denying that the “Amelia” segment is the real standout.
Kwaidan is one of the classic Japanese horror films – one that anyone serious about horror films or Asian cinema as a whole needs to see. Unlike Creepshow, Kwaidan is much more focused on an understated approach to fear. Director Masaki Kobayashi brings an almost expressionistic style to bear in this film centered on ghosts and those who encounter them. There’s a dreamy, ethereal quality to these stories, each one a slow burn where atmosphere trumps jump scares and gore FX. While that might make it seem outdated to modern audiences, there’s a lot to appreciate in this film, which also served as an inspiration for the deluge of Asian-girl ghosts films we endured in the late ‘90s and the early part of this century.
Kwaidan won a special jury prize at Cannes, which should help convince you that it’s worth seeing if you were still on the fence.
The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
Here we have the first of two films from Britain’s Amicus Productions. In the 1970s, these guys were like the kings of horror anthology films, and The House That Dripped Blood was one of their best.
This title's frame story involves an actor mysteriously disappearing from a country house, and when a Scotland Yard detective is sent to investigate, he soon discovers it’s not the first strange thing to happen in the home.
Featuring four tales and performances from Hammer Films stalwarts Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt, The House That Dripped Blood is a fine example of Amicus’ work in the era. All four of the tales are interesting, but “Waxworks” remains my personal favorite. This one’s worth seeing just to catch some of your favorite Hammer stars doing their thing – that it’s also good is just a bonus.
Oh, and despite the title, there’s no blood in this film let alone a house dripping with it.
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Not to be confused with HBO’s long-running anthology series, this Tales from the Crypt is another Amicus production. Like the series, it drew its inspiration from the classic EC horror comics – although a number of the stories here were actually culled from other EC titles aside from Tales.
The frame story features a ghoulish crypt keeper telling five strangers the stories of their demise. These tales form the basis of the film proper.
With a solid cast (including Peter Cushing and Joan Collins), this entry is fairly sedate by today’s standards but it’s still a lot of fun. Collins headlines “All Through the House”, which is a Christmas-themed horror tale that was later remade on the HBO series. “Blind Alleys” and “Wish You Were Here” were also redone on HBO, but they were changed from their original incarnations. It’s interesting to compare all the different versions, particularly if you really loved the HBO series.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat isn’t an anthology film in a traditional sense – it owes more to Pulp Fiction with its intersecting narrative design and self-referential nature – but it does tell several different stories in a really unique way and certainly fits in on this list.
This Halloween-themed feature showcases four different tales, each featuring an appearance by Sam, a diminutive creature dressed in orange pajamas and a mask who punishes those who break the traditions of the holiday.
The four stories all play up the Halloween angles (to the point where this has become essential holiday viewing for Halloween fanatics) in interesting ways. I love all four of these stories, but the final one – featuring Sam facing off with a Scrooge-esque Brian Cox – is really great.
We almost didn’t get to see Trick ‘r Treat – the film languished at Warner Bros. for years before finally getting a release in 2009. The wait was worth it – this is one of the best horror anthology films around.