Terror Cult: Anthology Horror

Devon Ashby introduces some of the greatest horror movies ever comprised of other, shorter horror movies.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

Each week on Terror Cult, CraveOnline unearths and examines a micro-subgenre of the horror film, highlighting key examples and dissecting the characteristics that tie them together. This week, our subject is anthology horror: horror features consisting of several shorter films, which hark back to the popularity of notoriously gory and insanely popular 1950s horror comics.

The omnibus format is hardly confined to the horror genre, but for several reasons, feature-length horror movies consisting of short segments bound together by a wraparound narrative have become a tradition of the genre. The inspiration for this format dates back to pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, and, later, to the notoriously bloody and shocking horror comic books of the 1950s. In film, the tradition of horror anthologies goes all the way back to the silent era, with movies like Waxwork and Der Mud Tod compiling several short narratives together into feature-length films.

The “wraparound” format that characterizes many of these movies comes mostly from EC horror comics of the postwar period. EC horror was composed with such bitingly irreverent wit, and illustrated with such excruciatingly gory attention to detail, that its comic magazines were famously banned at the height of their popularity in response to the activities of busybody religious protest groups. One of the most popular titles in the EC horror canon was Tales From the Crypt, which would be revived in the early ‘90s by HBO as a similarly popular kitsch horror TV series. Aside from its punchy writing and graphically morbid illustrations, the key to EC’s success was the invention of the “horror host,” a recurring character who popped up week to week between stories, slinging bad puns, inserting auxiliary visual gags, and often wrapping up individual segments with a tongue-in-cheek moral or epilogue.

Unlike most micro-subgenres, horror anthologies are perennial, and have been a popular and successful modus operandi since the genre’s inception. Below is an overview featuring some of the more memorable entries.

Dead of Night (1945)

One of the earliest and most fondly remembered entries of the post-silent period, Dead of Night was produced by Britain’s Ealing Studios. Ealing was more famous for bawdy comedies than for morbid genre fare, and fittingly, portions of Dead of Night are darkly humorous, though the film’s tone, for the most part, is ominous and foreboding. The wraparound concerns a man who arrives alone at a country inn, only to discover a strange and overwhelming sense of déjà vu, punctuated by the vague but insistent certainty that something horrible will soon occur. Many of the short segments are inspired by classic British ghost stories, and the movie is also notable for being the first to feature a possessed and malefic ventriloquist’s dummy.

Tales From the Crypt (1972)

Long before the popular HBO series, this British anthology adapted certain key entries from the Bill Gaines canon, including the Christmas-themed “And All Through the House,” which here features Joan Collins as a money-grubbing, murderous housewife. The wraparound seems pretty clearly inspired by the fledgling one from Dead of Night, with a group of strangers induced to imagine the horrific repercussions of the devious and sinful plots they have each been secretly constructing. Tales from the Crypt features a robed Crypt Keeper who is decidedly more restrained and laconic, and less gleefully punning than either EC’s original or HBO’s later version, but the short segments themselves are surprisingly entertaining considering the film’s age. In addition to Collins, British horror icon Peter Cushing also appears as a heartbroken toymaker driven to suicide by his snobby and over-privileged neighbors, and distinctive comedy performer Terry-Thomas likewise shows up as a nitpicky husband who eventually receives due comeuppance from his frazzled and beleaguered wife.

Creepshow (1982)

Scripted by ‘80s horror icon Stephen King and directed by George Romero, the creator of the modern-day zombie apocalypse scenario, Creepshow was the first horror anthology to overtly pay tongue-in-cheek homage to the horror comics that had inspired earlier entries. Each of Creepshow’s short segments are adapted from previously published stories by King, and the movie also features an all-star cast, including Leslie Nielson, Hal Holbrook, and Ted Danson. King himself makes an appearance as the star of the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” Adeptly balancing humor and nostalgia with genuine chills and slimy latex makeup effects, Creepshow remains one of the funniest, scariest, and best horror anthologies ever produced.

Deadtime Stories (1986)

Deadtime Stories is a slightly lesser entry whose main claim to fame is its former ubiquity in the dark annals of ‘80s and ‘90s VHS rental outlets, but that distinction is reason enough to warrant its inclusion. It’s a pretty unapologetic Creepshow rip-off, right down to the suspiciously similar wraparound banter between a morbidly monster-obsessed little boy and a stern adult authority figure. The segments themselves are hit-and-miss and tonally erratic, but on the upside, Deadtime Stories is loaded with boob shots and really gross special effects. Plus it has a really great, cheesy opening credits theme song that will get stuck in your head and basically never go away.

Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Produced for TV, Trilogy of Terror was adapted from three short stories by cult favorite horror author Richard Matheson. The first two segments are mediocre, and unlike most memorable horror anthologies, there’s no wraparound story to tie the disparate narratives together. Trilogy of Terror endures for two important reasons, however, and the first is the stellar and varied performances of lead actress Karen Black. Following Trilogy of Terror, Black would go on to star in several other horror films and to earn a reputation as a cult icon of the genre. Today, Black is so beloved by genre fans that director Rob Zombie went out of his way to solicit her participation in his ‘70s horror homage House of 1000 Corpses in 2003. She was also the inspiration for musician and performance artist Kembra Pfahler’s outré punk outfit The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Secondly, Black shines most brightly in Trilogy’s final segment, about a possessed Zuni hunting fetish doll that comes to life and stalks her in her apartment, bent on her eventual demise.

Three… Extremes (2004)

Also lacking a wraparound, Three… Extremes is a cross-cultural horror omnibus co-produced by Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea, and featuring short entries by one of each country’s strongest genre filmmakers. Korea’s Kim-ki Duk offers an entry that’s gory and intense but a little disorganized, and Japan’s Takashi Miike likewise delivers a bloody and perverse installment that unfortunately lacks the compulsive bite of most of his features. The standout is Hong Kong filmmaker Fruit Chan’s opening entry, “Dumplings,” which the director would later expand into an award-winning feature-length movie starring Bai Ling.

Fear(s) of the Dark (2007)

The strongest entry in this animated, black-and-white anthology from France is the first, which was written and drawn by respected American cartoonist and graphic novelist Charles Burns. The look of each short was conceptualized by a different experimental cartoonist accustomed to working in a sequential art format instead of animation, and the results are not always overwhelmingly strong from a storytelling perspective. Visually, however, the movie is beautiful, intense, and often genuinely creepy.

Trick ‘r’ Treat (2007)

This horror-themed anthology doesn’t technically feature a wraparound, but instead takes place in a single town during the course of a single Halloween. The short narratives interweave and double back on each other, and characters from earlier segments occasionally pop up in later ones. Like many of the best horror anthologies, Trick ‘r’ Treat is both funny and scary, and it also has a great cast of beloved indie perennials, including Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, and Brian Cox. Since its original release, Trick ‘r’ Treat has amassed a formidable cult following, and has become one of the most frequently watched Halloween horror movies around.

Come back next week for an introduction to a new horror microsubgenre with CraveOnline's Terror Cult!

Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline and the writer of the weekly series Terror Cult. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby.