Most of us have at one point in our lives have taken turns swapping scary stories with friends and family, either by the crackling flames of a campfire or the upturned flashlight that transforms familiar features into a ghoulish mask. In my own experience, such stories are seldom actually frightening, but the strength of each story was never the draw. No, I believe that gathering together and sharing scary stories is appealing for the same reason horror itself so often is: it holds a dark promise of the unknown. Sure, your pal Tommy’s story was a snooze…but what about everyone else’s? There’s bound to be something enticing and dangerous just around the corner…so why don’t we take a peek? I’m sure there’s nothing that can hurt us (much). Gather round the campfire, kiddies, because I’ve got a tale for you. This one’s called…
THE CATHODE-RAY CAMPFIRE STORIES…FROM HELL!!!
The horror anthology, long a staple in horror cinema writ large (since at least 1919’s Eerie Tales) is the cinematic equivalent to sharing scary stories around a campfire, a tradition that likely dates back as long as humans could speak. What you see in the glow of the television screen isn’t so different from the images your mind conjures as you stare into the embers. But, like telling scary stories with your friends, horror anthologies are so often greater in theory than practice. They hold that eternal draw of what the next story might contain, but are dragged down by an overabundance of weak stories, and the lack of a cohesive theme or arc sometimes leaves even the best of them feeling oddly unsatisfying. “Safe Haven”, an segment in V/H/S/2 (2013) directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, is the undeniable highlight of the anthology it’s featured in. It is an unpredictable and increasingly unhinged look instead an Indonesian cult that explodes into a hellish nightmare with boundless energy and a perfect use of the short film structure…and yet V/H/S/2 cannot ride on the success of this one story, and any recommendation must be tempered with a large “but…”. As such, the anthology structure is both a gift and a curse, because though its draw to an audience is readily apparent, in order to truly succeed it must tell several narratives with near flawless execution rather than just one.
Even if the quality of all the tales within an anthology can be assured, the overall film still has the tricky balancing act of sequencing the tales to balance the tone and pace of the overall film. Look no further than Mario Bava’s 1963 anthology film Black Sabbath to see how the sequencing of the stories can impact the whole. It is comprised of three ghoulish tales: “The Telephone”, a series of threatening phone calls that eventually escalates to murder and tragedy, “The Wurdalak”, a gothic tale in which a vampire preys on its former family, and “The Drop of Water”, where a nurse steals a ring from the corpse of a medium and is subject of phantasmagoric retribution. All three tales are good in their own right, and, in its original release, the stories are sequenced exactly as I have described: “The Telephone” opens the film,“The Wurdalak” is the middle, and “The Drop of Water”closes it out. This sequence allows the film to gradually ease us into the supernatural aspects of the film, and with them the sense of dread and uncanny (this is a sequencing tactic that 1945’s Dead of Night also successfully employed). “The Telephone” is the least scary of the three stories, and only offers the slightest misdirected hint of supernatural happenings, but it is a good suspense builder to gradually mount tension for what comes next. “The Wurdalak” is the longest of the segments and acts as the dramatic centerpiece of the film, eventually building up to classic supernatural tropes and the horror that comes with them. Finally, “The Drop of Water” is by far the most terrifying and visually impressive story, it and acts as a perfect phantasmagoric climax to the film. The American release however was heavily reedited by American International Pictures (with different color timing and heavily censored version of “The Telephone to boot), and the arrangement of the stories was completely different. The American release opens with “The Drop of Water”, which is certainly a great attention grabber, but it is also the most spectacular entry in the film so placing it first has the film showing its hand far too early. “The Telephone” is stuck in the middle where instead of building suspense it acts as a flaccid come-down after the high of “The Drop of Water”. That leaves “The Wurdalak” to close the story, and while it is a great tale, it lacks the definite notes of exclamatory horror that “The Drop of Water” has in spades. It’s remarkable how the same stories (well, for the most part, despite some re-editing) can take on a drastically different quality simply based on the order they are told.
Besides the order of the story, one must think of the composition of the stories themselves in relation to the whole. One reason George Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow (1982) works so well is that the stories, despite sharing a general tone and aesthetic, all function differently enough to keep the viewer entertained and on their toes. “Father’s Day” is a no-frills tale of supernatural revenge, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is a more overtly comedic tale (with a bleak twist), “Something to Tide You Over” is an exercise in pure Hitchcockian suspense, “The Crate” is a longer centerpiece tale of destructive marital strife by way of a creature feature, and “They’re Creeping Up On You” is a twisted little paranoia builder that ends on a superb gross-out note. In addition to being sequenced well, and ending on the appropriate punctuation (the horror short film so often works best when ended with an exclamation point, but sometimes, as with “The Crate”, an ellipsis does the trick), the tales of a horror anthology must deliver something to the whole of the film that the other stories do not, in addition to succeeding on their own merits.
A good story to dissect to determine one path for a successful anthology segment is “… And All Through the House” from 1972’s Tales from the Crypt (which has a different, but equally fun, adaptation by Robert Zemeckis in the Tales from the Crypt television series). The story begins with a classic tale of spousal murder (a well-worn trope in short form horror), but quickly becomes a gripping and deranged cat-and-mouse hunt with an escaped lunatic pretending to be Santa Claus, and finally ends on a perfect note of black irony. Part of what makes it a strong story, besides the technical merits of building suspense and peppering in excellent scares, is that it subverts the predictable. We think it will be another story about the spousal murderer trying to hide her crime before being overcome by guilt, and supernatural vengeance, but it turns out that that device is merely used to add tension and plausibility for why she cannot call for help when the lunatic Santa comes knockin’. A pitfall so many horror anthology segments fall into is relying on hoary old tropes without offering anything to surprise the viewer and put them off balance (show of hands, how many of you have seen way too many stories of cursed objects, usually mirrors, that end up possessing their unsuspecting owners and inducing them to violence?). “…And All Through the House” is also perfectly paced for its brief runtime (so many of these stories tend to drag, or are to brief to build to anything worthwhile), has a unique atmosphere, and it manages to stick the landing. It’s the perfect specimen to keep you on edge, and wanting more, and isn’t that all you could ask for?
Well now, if that doesn’t send a shiver down the spines of your inner filmmaker skeletons, I don’t know what will! Don’t leave yet, though, the night is young and there are more bones to pick in this little anatomy lesson. You better wrap yourselves up tight for…
REVENGE OF THE LIVING WRAPAROUND SEGMENT
An anthology horror film isn’t comprised of just the individual stories, but also a wraparound segment that acts as a sort of loose narrative framework to cohere the disparate stories into a thematic whole. It’s often an underrated element of the anthology form, because while it isn’t necessary to have one for an anthology to succeed (Masaki Kobayashi’s excellent Kwaidan (1964) just uses narration to introduce each of its Japanese ghost stories), they can elevate the whole package. Some common wraparound themes are a host that introduces each tale (Boris Karloff in Black Sabbath, and the Crypt Keeper in HBO’s Tales from the Crypt series), a gathering of individuals that each share a story (1972’s Tales from the Crypt film, and Dead of Night), or a series of evil objects that have a story associated with them (From Beyond the Grave (1974), and V/H/S (2012)). Even the most pedestrian wraparound can add some much needed cohesion to the form.
Occasionally, however, you come across an anthology film that does something truly unique with the wraparound story which really sets the film apart as more than just the sum of its parts. The aforementioned Dead of Night begins more or less like many other wraparound stories (albeit with more time invested into its characters), but ends up taking a nightmarishly unexpected turn towards the end that not only ties together the unrelated stories we’ve been told in a hallucinatory manner, but recontextualizes the entire framing device. The stories themselves are fairly ho-hum by today’s standards (there’s that cursed mirror again), but the wraparound story remains a fascinating device that leaves a lasting impression and justifies the film’s anthological format as more than just a storytelling gimmick. Michael Dougherty’s Trick r Treat (2007) doesn’t have a traditional wraparound at all, but places all the stories existing all contemporaneously in the same town on Halloween night, and crosses them over at various times through non-linear editing. It’s a great conceit to unify the stories as well as tell a broader story about the setting in which they are housed.
Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum (1972) features a wraparound about a doctor interviewing for a job at an insane asylum, and as part of the process to see if he is fit for the job he must interview several inmates and determine which one is the former head of the asylum who has since gone mad and become a patient. This adds an extra layer of tension and viewer participation into the film, as we try to look for clues in the patients’ stories just as our protagonist does, and eventually the (totally insane–in a good way!) final story segues nicely into becoming a part of the wraparound story itself, which of course ends with a fittingly deranged twist. The best use of a wraparound is ultimately something that not only binds the stories together in a semi-plausible fashion, but functions as a cohesive narrative itself that the writer and director have crafted with as much care, and effort to surprise and unsettle, as the individual tales themselves.
Well now, my skin is simply crawling from such informative frights! Alright, kiddies, I think we have just enough time for one last story before bedtime…before the lights go out and you’re all by yourself with all this ill-gotten knowledge hehehehe. I call this one…
THE EXECUTIONER’S TALE
Naturally, the only thing that could be as important to the success of an anthology as the stories themselves are the people who tell them. Your friend from the basketball team might shoot a mean three pointer but chances are he’s probably not quite as good at getting under your skin as the pasty kid who doodles dead rats for fun. And so the dead rat doodlers of the cinematic world are often more of a draw for anthologies than the stories (come to think of it, I rarely even have more than a vague notion about the wraparound or theme when I come to an anthology film, and nothing at all about the stories that comprise them. I come to them because of the talent). And because of the nature of anthologies, they usually come in two flavors: those directed entirely by one person, and those directed by a host of horror talents, each giving their story a unique flavor according to their aesthetic and technical signatures. My personal favorites in the subgenre tend to be the former, if only because a film conducted by a single director offers a formal consistency to such an inconsistent form, and lets a director play around with many different styles of narrative within one movie, but I won’t deny the lure of the horror equivalent to a supergroup. The best of these horror directing team-ups is likely Three…Extremes (2004) directed by three renowned Asian filmmakers: Fruit Chan representing China with a culinary take on cannibalism, Park Chan-wook of South Korea with an ornate revenge story, and Japan’s Takashi Miike with a hallucinatory nightmare about trauma and jealousy. Each director is able to bring their distinct directorial and narrative style to their stories, and heightens the variety, and thus the lure of the unknown, the film is able to bring. The ABCs of Death (2012) is the apotheosis of the multi-director take, elevating the number of directors, and stories, to 26, with each story based around a letter of the alphabet. Of course quantity rarely equals quality, and The ABCs of Death is no exception, as you have to wade through a sea of mediocrity to get to the highlights (Timo Tjahjanton again steals the show). With single director anthologies you can often see works of total aesthetic brilliance under the guidance of a visionary. Masaki Kobayashi guides Kwaidan with precision, as his hauntingly surreal and vibrantly stylized sets, and chillingly sparse audio cues, leave the film feeling unmistakably authored by a master. George Romero as well is able to take his already comic book-y aesthetics to new heights in Creepshow with a much more literal translation, ripping comic paneling and vibrant primary colors straight from the EC Comics that inspired it.
Of course Creepshow may not be a directorial team up, but it’s still a collaboration of greats as all the stories are penned by none other than Stephen King. Likewise, every story in Asylum is written by Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame), and Trilogy of Terror (1975) by Richard Matheson. The short story format allows both acclaimed writers and directors to let their hair down, so to speak, and have a little more fun with the genre than they might allow themselves with a feature length narrative. But if the anthology is a playground for filmmakers, it is a difficult one, as even the most accomplished artists find themselves stumbling and bruising themselves on the precarious structures that make up the art of telling satisfying short tales of horror. But when they do succeed, even if for just one tale, that’s what keeps the fan of the anthology going, always digging for the next buried gem. After all, what is a horror fan but a grave digger, eagerly sifting through an artists nightmares?
Well, there you have it, kiddies. We’ve thoroughly plucked apart the corpse of the anthology horror film and left the offal to rot. Don’t worry, wash the blood from your hands and enjoy the fruits of your labor. I’m sure it won’t be shambling up from beyond the grave to seek vengeance on you just as you’re drifting off to sleep…hehehe but of course that would be madness. That rapping at my window is probably just a branch…nothing more. But why don’t I go check, just to make sure? Ah, never mind it’s gone now. No, wait…now the sound is coming from inside the