The Last Horror Blog: Get Scared on the Small Screen with These Classic Horror-Anthology Series

The Last Horror Blog: Get Scared on the Small Screen with These Classic Horror-Anthology Series

Feb 20, 2014

Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.


Monsters DVD coverIn the pantheon of great horror-anthology TV series, Monsters sits somewhere in the middle of the pack. The syndicated show ran for three years, filling in for the departed Tales from the Darkside, which was also produced by Richard Rubinstein. Like Tales, Monsters popped into our living room each week with a 30-minute tidbit of terror that often reveled in an O. Henry-esque twist ending. Unlike Tales, which was free to cover the full gamut of the genre, Monsters generally kept true to its name – with each shiver-inducing short featuring some sort of beast.

The complete series made its DVD debut this week, allowing fans to finally pitch all those grainy old VHS recordings or shoddy black-market discs and replace them once and for all. Featuring a full 72 episodes, this set is sure to keep viewers busy for the next few weeks. However, if revisiting some of these episodes inspires an urge to watch more anthology horror from the small screen, here are some of the best of the best.

 

Tales from the Darkside

As the spiritual inspiration for Monsters, putting Tales on this list is a no-brainer.

The big selling point of this series back in the day was its creator: Night of the Living Dead filmmaker George Romero. The story behind the show’s inspiration is that basically production company Laurel Entertainment wanted to make a Creepshow TV series – but since Warner Bros. owned Creepshow, they were forced to move in a similar, but slightly different, direction.

Tales from the Darkside featured 90 episodes in total, each running 30 minutes. The stories occasionally strayed beyond the horror implied by the title, wandering into the realms of black comedy, sci-fi and fantasy. Like Monsters, many of the episodes had a big twist at the end, designed to shock the audience while often making them laugh at the same time.

The show was notable for adapting the works of a lot of famous authors (and some of those adaptations were far more successful than others), including Stephen King, Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison.

Still, the most unforgettable element of Tales from the Darkside was arguably the opening and closing credits, which featured ominous images with a creepy theme from Donald Rubinstein and a spooky voiceover. It’s still unsettling even today. Hopefully, the CW and writer Joe Hill keep that vibe for the upcoming reboot series.


The Twilight Zone

No list of horror anthology shows is complete without Rod Serling’s beloved The Twilight Zone. The influence and impact of Serling’s series is really impossible to quantify – it’s one of the greatest shows in the history of television.

Spanning five seasons and featuring 156 episodes (in its original incarnation – there have been updated revivals over the years), The Twilight Zone was never a straight horror anthology, but it did work in the supernatural on a regular occasion.

Serling felt that setting his moralistic tales in a world of monsters, robots, and aliens would allow him to make larger statements about mankind and injustice in a way less likely to offend viewers. It worked. Cataloguing all the great episodes of the series is an exhaustive task (here’s a good list to get you started…), but the complete series is now available on Blu-ray, so you can make time to revisit all the classics at your leisure.


The Outer Limits

One of the great things about The Twilight Zone was that it opened a floodgate for more anthology shows on television. One of the offspring was The Outer Limits, which would become influential in its own right.

Unlike Serling’s show, The Outer Limits was a far more focused production. The Twilight Zone was happy to do stories in essentially any genre that fit, whereas this anthology was essentially a sci-fi/horror hybrid, particularly in the first season.

Leslie Stevens and Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano were the creative forces behind The Outer Limits, which ran for an all-too-brief two seasons starting in 1963 (and like The Twilight Zone, the show has had a modern revival, too). Stefano’s vision was that each episode would be a sci-fi tale, but feature what he referred to as a “bear” – meaning a monster to scare audiences.

As such, the episodes of the series are rarely pure horror – but the horror is there. In some ways, the typical Outer Limits episode is like Alien – it looks like it has all the trappings of traditional science fiction, but there are some very pronounced horror elements as well. Those spooky components are less obvious in the shorter second season, which opts for a more “hard sci-fi” approach.

Even fans who aren’t big into science fiction will find a lot of great stories in this series – including two classics from Harlan Ellison (one, "Soldier," was the inspiration for James Cameron’s The Terminator).

 


Night Gallery

Rod Serling’s second bite at the anthology series apple isn’t quite as beloved as The Twilight Zone, but it is a pure horror show, which makes it a favorite here at Casa de Bracken.

Night Gallery ran for three seasons, from 1970 through 1973, on NBC. All together, there were 44 episodes (43 regular eps and the pilot movie, including one segment directed by a then-unknown Steven Spielberg).

The central conceit was that Serling would introduce each episode with one of his Twilight Zone-esque monologues, accompanied by a painting tied to the story about to be told. Then each stand-alone episode would commence, often minus the black humor of so many other horror anthologies.

While Night Gallery never received the praise and adoration of Serling’s other series, it did offer some truly amazing stories – including adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. "Cool Air" and "Pickman’s Model" were both based on the master of the macabre’s work and remain standout installments in the series’ run.

Unfortunately, Serling reportedly all but disowned the series by the end of its run in 1973. It’s too bad he’s not still around today to see that his anthology show did find an appreciative audience.


Masters of Horror

Filmmaker Mick Garris gifted modern horror fanatics with one of the most inspired anthology shows back in 2005 when he teamed up with Showtime to release Masters of Horror.

The idea springs from a series of dinners Garris hosted with fellow horror filmmakers. The idea was that each “master of horror” would direct a one-hour mini movie and Showtime would air them as a weekly series. The beauty of the plan was that it allowed Garris to hire some of the biggest names in the genre to contribute – including John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Takashi Miike and John Landis. The results were mostly pleasing –with Carpenter’s "Cigarette Burns" and Argento’s sexually charged "Jenifer" serving as season-one standouts.

The added bonus of Masters of Horror was that it was on a cable network (not unlike Tales from the Crypt), so there was no need to neuter the violence, gore or nudity – except in Takashi Miike’s case. Miike, hailed as the “rabid dog of Japanese cinema” turned in his episode Imprint only to have it rejected by the network. It eventually turned up on the season one DVD box set.

For whatever reason, Masters of Horror only lasted two seasons, but Garris then tried to spin it off to NBC as a new antho entitled Fear Itself. That version, which was inferior in almost every way, didn’t last long either.


Tales from the Crypt

HBO struck gold with this wildly popular anthology series inspired by the classic EC horror comics. Showcasing 93 episodes over a seven-season run, this is gold standard of horror anthos on the small screen. Each show opened with an elaborate sequence (complete with Danny Elfman score) leading viewers up to and inside a dark and foreboding house. The camera eventually winds up in the basement, where the laughing (and rotting) corpse of host the Crypt Keeper pops out.

Voiced by John Kassir, the Crypt Keeper quickly became the face of the show – a horror host with a love for bad puns and maniacal laughter. The puppet introduced each new story in wrap-around segments that soon gave way to the story proper.

The show mined its comic book inspiration (and various other EC horror titles) for its tales of terror, and as such, it was rarely all that horrifying. Like the comics – which were marketed to kids and eventually led to the creation of comic-dom’s self-governing body – the stories were more interested in black humor, gore and twist endings.

The fact that Tales from the Crypt was rarely all that scary never hurt a thing – those classic EC comics were beloved for a reason, and that was because they were gleefully inappropriate and hilarious. HBO managed to retain both of those elements for the show, which made it a huge success. Seriously – lots of big name stars and directors worked on this series, which is not the norm for horror.


Thriller

Thriller was yet another series that ran during the 1960s and specialized in tales of the unexepected. While it was only on the air for two short seasons, it was one of the more impressive shows of its kind – particularly once it shifted into the realm of gothic horror.

The show’s big selling point was the involvement of actor Boris Karloff, who filled the host role – introducing stories each week. Early on, the show focused primarily on more mundane crime and mystery stories, but it did eventually switch gears – incorporating straight horror stories as the show progressed.

Karloff himself appeared in numerous eps as a character in the tale being told, and other notable cast members include William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, Elizabeth Montgomery and George Kennedy.

While Thriller might seem a little quaint by today’s standards, there’s no denying it’s a charming and spooky piece of television history. Seeing Karloff week in and week out must have been a real treat for fright fans.


Are You Afraid of the Dark?

We wrap things up with a slightly off-the-beaten-path choice.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a coproduction between Canadian company Cinar and Nickelodeon that was aimed squarely at young horror fans. The show told twisted tales of terror that were kid friendly, with each story framed by the meeting of the Midnight Society – a group of young kids who convened at an isolated camp location to share their macabre tales.

The stories on the show were often surprisingly good, even though they tended to end happily – which set them apart from the more grown-up fare on this list. Occasionally, the series did slip in a dark ending, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

With most kid shows feeling dumbed down for the intended audience, Are You Afraid of the Dark? (and competing series Goosebumps) were something of a rarity – shows that actually treated their viewers with intelligence. That you could watch it as an adult and actually enjoy it was even more of a surprise.

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