Anthology films are feature lengths made up of several different short films, usually three or four. They’re more often than not connected by a single narrative, also known as a “frame story,” that introduces the shorts and concludes the film. A “horror anthology” film is this but with lots more blood. After all, what’s better than one scary movie? A bunch of scary movies tied in one neat package.
The earliest cinematic horror anthology is the 1924 silent film Waxworks, in which a poet conjures different stories in a wax museum. Fast forward to Britain in the ’50s and ’60s where horror anthologies are immensely popular. Film studio Amicus Productions is put on the map with their anthologies, featuring gods like Grand Moff Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Interest waned during the late 1970s and would spike in popularity again in the 1980s on both television and the big screen.
So from major studio productions to some schlub with a camera he borrowed from school, let’s take a look at the greatest of the horror anthologies.
20) After Midnight
The best part of this loathsome 1989 anthology is the batshit insane story that frames it. Dig: There’s a new course being offered at Allison’s college: “The Psychology of Fear” with Professor Edward Derek. The prof’s name being “Edward Derek” should’ve been Allison’s first clue that the he might be a creep. The second clue should’ve been when he pointed a gun at a student within the first three minutes of the first day of class. Then, maybe, another creepo-alert would’ve been when Mr. Derek pretends to shoot himself. But Allison gives in to peer pressure and joins her token-’80s friend Cheryl (the sassy, incorrigible one) on a visit to Mr. Derek’s house… because he asked them over for a private lesson in fear. *face palm* Three shorts follow: a surprise party turns deadly, a group of gals out on the town encounter a Mexican and some dogs (gasp!), and an injured telephone messenger has stalker problems. Who cares though. The conclusion of the frame is honestly all anyone should sit through this for. It makes no sense in the best way possible.
19) Screams of a Winter Night
This is no-budget horror at its best, which kind of like saying the “better part of a box of wine.” It’s really hard to get through. The first and only film by director James Wilson, 1979’s Screams of a Winter Night is framed around a group of 30-somethings staying in a cabin allegedly cursed by an Indian. That’s a pretty standard set-up; one that could be easily utilized for some good scares. Good thing the Indian curse is never mentioned again and only materializes as a class-1 hurricane at the end. The three urban legend-themed stories told by fat, drunk men in the cabin have nothing to do with anything, and humorously star the same “actors” from the frame. Seriously, don’t watch this alone. Not because it’s scary, but because you’ll need to be on suicide watch during it. Drunk and with friends, it’s awesome.
18) Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye
Directed by Lewis Teague (Cujo) and produced by the nerd-friendly Dino De Laurentiis (six Stephen King adaptations total) in 1985, Cat’s Eye is about an unlucky cat who winds up in three miserable situations. Based on the King shorts “Quitter’s Inc.,” “The Ledge,” and “The General,” the film is framed by the unlucky cat as he travels through the U.S. James Woods is modestly pushed into quitting smoking in the first, a former tennis pro is forced into traveling along the ledge of a sociopathic gambler’s penthouse in the second, and a tiny troll tries to steal young Drew Barrymore’s breath in the third. The troll would be scary except he’s wearing a jester’s cap and frightens easily. The beginning of the film features a cameo by Cujo. Nice touch, Teague. A-yuk!
17) The Willies
Donkeylips! Donkeylips is in this movie as a boy obsessed with flies. He spends his after-school hours in his parent’s basement, pulling their wings off and setting them up in elaborate dioramas. If that wasn’t enough to spark your interest, jerk, allow me to mention that Sean “Samwise” Austin stars in the frame story. Still shrugging your shoulders? Well the writer and director is none other Brian Peck. Or should I say “Hot Dog Stand Customer” from the first X-Men film! Okay. I give up.
16) Two Evil Eyes
Two Evil Eyes had Italian horror master Dario Argento and American master George Romero teaming up to interpret two tales by Edgar Allen Poe. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Black Cat.” The first features Adrienne Barbeau (Creepshow, Escape From NY) and displays the negative side effects of hypnotizing someone before they die (are there any positive ones?). The second one, directed by Argento, is a lot better and not just because Harvey Keitel wears a silly beret through most of it. Keitel, playing a Pittsburgh death-scene photographer (that exists?), squares off against his miserable wife and her wretched cat. The final shot deserves its place alongside the great deaths in horror films and if you’re into bodies filled with kitten fetuses, look no further.
15) Deadtime Stories
In this low-budget 1986 anthology, Uncle Mike tells three horror-fueled stories to his insomniac nephew, Brian. Each tale is a gored-up version of a classic story, including Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks. I’m not sure which story the first tale is taken from, but it’s about two witches who use a slave boy named Peter as their pimp. Peter gives their johns LSD or something and they think the witches are hot. Anyways, the film is genuinely funny and contains some awesome effects and creature designs. It also features retarded original songs by “Taj,” which address “fairytales’ symbolic trauma” with lyrics like:
“It’s no wonder why, we turned out like we did.
Remembering our bedtime tales as a kid.”
Eesh. There’s the real horror.
14) From a Whisper to a Scream Featuring Vincent Price in one of his last roles, From a Whisper to a Scream (also known as The Offspring) contains four tales that all take place in the small town of Oldfield, Tennessee. In the frame story, Price plays historian Julian White (with a southern accent!), whose niece was a female serial killer recently executed in prison. A journalist visits White to get an inside scoop on the killer, and White tells the journalist four stories illustrating the evil within Oldfield. Necrophilia, dangerous Civil War orphans, and voodoo abound!. The film is a valiant effort from a young director (Jeff Burr) and is aided by terrific special effects created by Rob Burman (The Thing). It’s a great anthology with some real scares, but a couple of the stories go on longer than they should. Fans of Price shouldn’t sleep on this one.
This 1983 film was originally produced with the intention of it being used as a TV pilot, but networks execs deemed it too terrifying for the small screen! Keep in mind, TV standards were different 20 years ago and today Nightmares would be okay for the Nick Jr. crowd. The highlight is the second tale, “The Bishop of Battle,” starring Emilio Estevez as videogame wizard J.J. He has a shitty home life so he spends most of his time at the arcade listening to Black Flag on his walkman and playing The Bishop of Battle game. One night after a particularly bad argument at home, J.J. sneaks into the arcade and finally makes it to the 13th level of “Bishop.” Shit gets real. The film also features Lance Henriksen, Lee Ving of the punk band Fear, and Richard “You’d Know Him If You Saw His Face” Masur.
12) Night Gallery
A year before Rod Serling’s post-Twilight Zone series Night Gallery hit the air in 1970, a movie-length pilot aired. The pilot featured the standard Serling intro and use of paintings to introduce the stories. The first, “The Cemetery,” features nerd-favorite Roddy McDowall and Ossie Davis (Do the Right Thing) in a tale of inheritance greed. It’s the best of the three and is pretty much scarier than every episode of Night Gallery combined. The second, “The Eye,” is one of Joan Crawford’s last roles and was directed by a 23-year-old Steven Spielberg. Expect Spielberg to re-release the film, replacing Crawford’s boobs with walkie-talkies.
11) The House That Dripped Blood
Written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) and featuring horror greats Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, 1970’sThe House That Dripped Blood is one of the many British horror anthologies released by Amicus Productions in the ’60s and ’70s. The frame concerns a film star who vanishes shortly after renting an infamous country house. When Inspector Holloway of Scotland Yard is sent to investigate, he learns of the house’s evil history. Four tales follow, the best being “Sweets for the Sweet,” featuring Lee. Despite its memorable title, not one drop of blood appears in the entire film.
That’s not true of the recent comedy spoof The House That Dripped Blood on Alex, starring The Room‘s legendary Tommy Wiseau.
10) Tales from the Hood
This 1995 urban horror anthology helmed by Rusty Cundieff (Chapelle’s Show) hemorrhages social commentary (especially in the last story). No surprise then that its executive producer was Spike Lee. But despite the heavy-handed racial rhetoric, it’s a really fun film. The storyteller here is Clarence Williams III as Mr. Simms, the owner of a funeral parlor three men attempt to rob in the frame story. What they get instead are four stories concerning crooked cops, domestic abuse, a white supremacist politician meeting his fate, and a crash course in self-fulfilling stereotypes. That final tale leaves the audience pretty winded, so the awesome and campy ending of the frame story is well-deserved.
9) Tales from the Crypt
Before the classic HBO series, there was this film featuring a bunch of limeys sitting around while the Crypt Keeper makes them reveal their dark secrets. But this isn’t the pun-savvy Crypt Keeper we all know and love. This is Shakespearean actor Sir Ralph Richardson wearing a hooded burlap sack. Not as fun. But the stories are great, especially the classic first segment containing almost no dialogue, “…And All Through the House.” Starring foxy Joan Collins, the story would also serve as the basis for the second episode of the HBO series. Peter Cushing stars in the third segment, “Poetic Justice,” as a sympathetic animal lover driven to suicide by his snobbish neighbors. Fans of the series, be sure to check this out.
8) Trick ‘R Treat
Michael Dougherty (writer of X2 and Superman Returns) unfortunately never saw a theatrical release for Trick ‘r Treat, but it swiftly gained immense popularity through word-of-mouth, blogs, and its long-coming DVD release in 2009. To put it bluntly, it’s the perfect Halloween film. It contains no hard frame story, but all of the stories are linked by the presence of Sam, a trick-or-treater sporting a shoddy burlap sack and something resembling orange footy-pajamas. Sam eerily weaves in and out of the stories until his spotlight in the tale with Brian Cox, “Meet Sam.” It’s really fun, gross, scary and happened to come out at a perfect time for 20-somethings feeling nostalgic for Are You Afraid of the Dark. Dougherty first introduced the character of Sam in his animated short “Season’s Greetings,” so check that out if you’re a film of this film.
7) Trilogy of Terror
They don’t make TV movies like this anymore… mainly because censors are wimps. Trilogy of Terror aired in 1975 as the ABC “Movie of the Week” and people have been having nightmares of fanged Zuni fetish dolls ever since. All of the segments are based on short stories by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Twilight Zone) and star Karen Black before she looked like Clayface. Each of the three stories features Black in a different role, including a murderous school teacher, polar-opposite twin sisters, and a anthropology enthusiast who gets a crash course in Zuni culture. The third segment, “Amelia,” is the most iconic and celebrated of the trilogy, but the second, “Millicent and Therese,” plays to fans of psychological horror and IMO is the best.
Another Amicus Production, another screenplay by Robert Bloch. 1972’s Asylum does, however, feature one of the best frame stories. At an asylum for the “incurably insane,” a Dr. Martin arrives for an interview to become head doctor. In order to be considered for the post, Martin has to interview four inmates and deduce which one is the former head doctor, Dr. Starr. The first three segments are great and feature voodoo and a suit that can animate the dead. But it’s the fourth feature, “Mannequins of Horror,” that delivers the goods. Small, murderous automatons with human heads? Yes, please.
5) Body Bags
This 1993 flick is a lot of fun and unites two American masters: John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. Carpenter not only directs two of the three segments, he also stars in the frame as an engaging corpse who introduces each tale by opening a body bag and goofing on the corpses. The first tale, “The Gas Station,” is a tightly-packed murder story that features Sam Raimi and Robert Carradine (Lewis Skolnick from Revenge of the Nerds). This is followed by “Hair,” which is pretty boring. The final segment, “Eye,” directed by Hooper, is the best of the three and stars Mr. Mark Hamill in one of his few good post-Star Wars roles. Hamill is a pro-baseball player who loses his left eye in a car accident. He’s given a replacement eye from a recently executed serial killer! Dun DUN!
4) Tales from the Darkside: The Movie
Allegedly, this here is the “real” Creepshow 3. But following the popularity of the Tales from the Darkside TV series (1983-1988), the producers decided to attach the show’s name to the movie. Either way, it’s awesome. The frame story features Deborah Harry (always lookin’ good) preparing to cook a young boy for a dinner party. The film also features Steve Buscemi, Wlliam Hickey, Julianne Moore, and Christian Slater. George Romero directs the second tale, “The Cat Fom Hell,” adapted from a short story by Stephen King. King either hates or loves cats, I can’t tell. They’re always killing people and battling jester trolls in his work.
Stephen King didn’t mind having his own child, Joe King, slapped around in Creepshow‘s frame story. Written by King and directed by George Romero as an homage to old E.C. horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, the film has spawned two sequels and become a classic in its own right. Since its release in ’82, every Father’s Day, some father somewhere in the world gets drunk and repeatedly screams “Where’s my cake, you bitch!” Then his wife probably kills him with an ashtray. And since its release in ’82, every time there’s a meteor shower, some horror-nerd somewhere in the world looks up at the sky and screams “Jordy Verrill, you lunk-head!” Well, maybe not, but the movie is highly quotable.
A formidable sequel was released in ’87 and was directed by Romero’s cinematographer, Michael Gornick. An unofficial, bullshit third Creepshow was released in 2006 but has nothing to do with E.C. or the original films.
2) Dead of Night
The Brits have always done horror extremely well — one of the earliest movie examples is Dead of Night, made in 1945, and the grandaddy of the horror anthology genre. It’s so good, it was previously mentioned in TR‘s The 10 Creepiest Ventriloquist Tales of All Time. The frame involves a brooding architect who starts creeping out guests at a house party by predicting random events in the house before they happen. He also reveals that he’s been having recurring nightmares in which some of the strangers at the party appear in. There’s always one at every party, am I right? The guests then tell stories of the supernatural which they’ve experienced. These include stories concerning golfing ghosts, a haunted mirror, a Christmas ghost, a bus crash, and an insane ventriloquist. The only one that sucks is the one about the golfers, which was penned by H.G. Wells. It was thrown in just for laughs. But the others rely on subtlety and let the audience’s imaginations do a lot of the work. The ending of the frame contains one of the great twists of early horror that is forever being recycled. British horror was sadly flatlined after this film until the Amicus and Hammer Horror revival in the mid-’50s.
1) Black Sabbath
Directed by Italian genre maestro Mario Bava and hosted by Boris Karloff (who also stars in the segment titled “The Wurdalak”), Black Sabbath is the most horrific of the horror anthologies; Bava already had 20 years of experience as a sought-after cinematographer under his belt when he made this in 1963. Each of the three segments alone are scarier than most of the films on this list, especially the final one, “The Drop of Water.” The first segment, “The Telephone,” will make anyone with a jilted ex change their number. The middle segment, the aforementioned “Wurdalak,” is gothic vampire horror at its best. Packaged all together, Black Sabbath is the Citizen Kane of horror anthologies. Oh, some old metal band named themselves after this movie.