Macabre Movie Monday: Attack of the Anthology

Welcome to the annual segment of OcTerror that focuses on a subgenre of films rather than paying attention to era lines. These reviews may ignore the boundaries of good and bad in favor of expanding the definitions of what horror can be. In the past, we’ve looked at Remakes & Reboots, Sequels, and Asian horror. This year we’re looking at a particular format of storytelling—anthologies.

Anthology horror is a popular formula for combining multiple scary stories within one film. There tends to be three potential formulas: A) separate segments with barely a plot or theme connecting them B) separate segments with a minor narrative arch or frame device and C) segments which may or may not be interwoven or connected to the narrative arch or each other. While it may feel that this format has been more popular in the 21st century, a whole slew of anthology films hit screens in the mid-1900s as well. We can often see how smaller trends are reflected within this subgenre—from the Gothic to found footage to torture porn. And, in the relatively small dose of 5-40 minutes, it’s usually a taste of what you might find elsewhere in the director’s toolbox. We have decades of possibilities to choose from, but here are ten to remember this Monday.

Kwaidan (1965). It’s relatively rare that a horror film, a foreign-language film, and an anthology at that earn critical acclaim but Masaki Kobayashi’s exploration into Japanese folk tales managed to do all three. At three hours, it is a long film with three of the four segments averaging around forty minutes and the last at about twenty. For its length, however, each segment feels like a dream. Unlike the other anthologies on this list, none of the segments feels stronger or weaker; they’re all equally fantastic in different ways. We begin with a samurai’s regret for leaving his first wife in poverty, then survive a snowstorm and a mysterious woman, retell a great battle to lost spirits, and end with an author’s unfinished story. While none of the tales are outright terrifying, the use of atmosphere, the score by Toru Takemitsu, and much of the editing heightens the tension in so many of the scenes. There is always a sense of eeriness, of something just beyond normal or out of touch, and it’s these interactions between our characters and that other-world that often comes at a horrifying cost. The use of color within the film, especially red, is outright gorgeous; everything feels intentional in its framing. The costumes shift between styles and historical periods so fluidly. While this film couldn’t quite be called ‘background,’ it is very much a movie that is beautiful to experience and look at with or without the scares. As far as movies go, horror or otherwise, Kwaidan is a story that should be shared.

Tales from the Crypt (1972). While Freddie Francis’ anthology is inspired by the titular EC Comics, those who are more familiar with the later TV adaptation will find a different tone and Crypt Keeper here. Five strangers touring a remote crypt encounter a mysterious figure who, one by one, shows them the deadly consequences of their actions. While it’s rather simplistic and the stories themselves have become classics, the direction and overall pace of the film makes it a lot of fun. From the lurid paint-like blood to Saw-like traps, each segment feels of a cohesive mind and tale even as they don’t overly connect beyond the framework. (I’m also legit curious of how the time passes; like, does everyone see the vision, or are they just watching other people stand there for 15 minutes and doing nothing?). Joan Collins and Peter Cushing deliver standout performances amongst the tales, and each segment feels relatively of the same quality although some are given more time than others. The ‘twist’ at the end was delightful and a little unexpected as I’d had another ending in mind entirely; while it does seem a bit simple, it also finishes things off cleanly. While the effects haven’t quite stood the test of time, I’d say that the stories themselves are continually classic (if a little heavy-handed on message and morality, which is fine). Of the five segments, “Poetic Justice” was my favorite, and I’d actually be interested to see how a modern day adaptation of the same story would play out. Overall, Tales from the Crypt delivers more than a few macabre scares to haunt.

The Monster Club (1981). For a time in the 70s and 80s, the UK was churning out horror anthologies like no other. Quite a few have stood the test of time as classics….Others have turned a bit schlocky. John Carradine and Vincent Price form the framing device as a fictional version of author R. Chetwynd-Hayes and a vampire super fan attending a night at the titular club and sharing stories based on said author’s work. While there are only three segments (and thus plenty of time for development), the frame is actually what steals the show here. Something about the meta-wink to Chetwynd-Hayes’ work, while making him a character, and acknowledging all of this creates a good sense of campy fun that doesn’t let up. Each segment is bookended with musical numbers, and—at one point—a skeleton strip show. Plus, Carradine and Price are always delightful. “The Shadmock” was probably my favorite of the three, which isn’t to say “The Vampires” or “The Ghouls” are bad. As a whole, all of the segments can’t seem to balance between scares, humor, or camp in quite the right ratio. The somewhat unified vision of director Roy Ward Barker and Milton Subotsky means that the film doesn’t feel disjointed as it jumps around rather than a wild trip. If you’re looking for silly fun with Vincent Price, musical numbers, and some monsters then become a member of The Monster Club tonight.

Three Extremes (2004). Directed by acclaimed names such as Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, and Takashi Miike, this anthology is really more a collection of three 40 minute films to showcase East Asian horror. That said, I love that we have a segment from Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan because (as shown in Macabre Movie Monday last year), Asia has so much to offer in terms of horror and so many ways of going about it. This anthology definitely lives up to its title as it carries the more…extreme. Despite the different directors, the anthology as a whole feels like one voice in its style and all are of equal equality. Maybe viewers might prefer one segment to another, but they’re all showcasing craft. Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Im Won-hee, and Kyōko Hasegawa were some of the standout performances for me. I love how each segment focused on different taboos of society in various ways (which would be its own horror), but then wrapped more elaborate stories around them to build. Some of the scares were quiet and unsettling, others were bloody and loud, and some were full of psychological twists. There’s even a bit of humor here and there! Of the ‘three extremes’, “Dumplings” was probably my favorite but I’m a sucker for foodie horror. Although none of the directors were women, two of the segments—“Dumplings” and “Box”—had female writers, Lilian Lee and Haruko Fukushima. So while this may not be an anthology versus three short films, it is still a great collection and full of horror to the extreme.

V/H/S 2 (2013). Now, if you’re wondering why I’m not reviewing the first film in this found footage anthology franchise, I have a good reason for that. The reason is “Safe Haven”, the third segment of this movie, and the reason my friend recommended it years ago and why I’ve continually heard about it since. A private investigator and his girlfriend discover a hoard of tapes in the apartment of a missing student; watching them, however, turns out to be a very bad idea. There are four segments and, visually, most of them are a bit too similar in style (two even use GoPros for effect). However, compared to other anthologies, V/H/S has a distinctive low-quality grit to it that you either like or don’t and it works for or against some of the stories. Of the segments, “Safe Haven” is definitively the strongest, initially sharing a behind-the-scenes tour of a ‘family’ compound in Indonesia before descending into absolute madness and terror with some amazing/shocking visuals. The first and last segment felt weaker, comparatively, even though they both use techniques that were and are still popular within bigger horror films. Overall, some of the effects and gore toe the line between over-the-top and perfect shlock, particularly toward the end, and the frame narrative feels, at times, too thin even as it comes around a bit. All of the directors and writers were men, although we do have Roxanne Benjamin as one of the producers so there’s that I guess. If you miss the good old days of videotapes and static then find this footage tonight.

Tales of Halloween (2015). Similar to 2007’s Trick R Treat, this anthology takes a series of events over the titular night and connects them through other means (here it is a radio DJ). Over our 92 minute runtime we have no less than 10 different segments, loosely threaded together, and I’ll be honest in saying not all of them are highlights of the film or noteworthy. This is a sacrifice the film makes in how it’s structured, in its choice to compile so many together, and in the different tonalities presented across the different segments. If there was a bit more cohesion throughout then maybe it would be stronger as a whole. The film also feels as if it ends rather abruptly and, perhaps, more of that linking or radio narration would have helped; instead it seems as if this was supposed to be an anthology series that never came to fruition. That said, what stands out in Tales of Halloween really stands out: some notable segments, the general spirit of the season and holiday, and a good sense of spookiness and some actual scares. A few segments also have great production or tongue-in-cheek references or homages. My favorite segments would have to be “Sweet Tooth”, “Ding Dong”, and “This Means War.” The opening title sequence is a lot of fun and the overall pacing of the night and the organization of the segments within it seems to play out well. While it, perhaps, doesn’t work together in the best way, it is certainly entertaining enough and worth a watch or two, particularly around Halloween. Again, we’ll note that of the 10 segments, two were written by women and 1 was directed by a woman (Axelle Carolyn). So this October 31st, if you’re looking for more than one scary story, why not try for ten and see which scares you the most?

Holidays (2016). This is a concept that, in more recent years, we know works and—if anything—we can call this film a test run of what would later become Blumhouse’s Into the Dark. This anthology is a series of loosely-connected short films that each follow and are organized by a designated ‘holiday.’ So, no, there isn’t an overarching framework guiding us, but we do have title cards after each segment. This ends up making it feel more like a film festival that put out a call for works rather than a cohesive whole. And yet there is, for the most part, a kind of tonal melody that holds throughout the segments even though the locations, moods, and subgenres vary. As with all anthologies we have highs and lows and everyone can differ. However, out of eight segments, only one really stands out as not understanding the assignment (sadly it is “Halloween”). My personal favorites of the bunch are probably “St. Patrick’s Day” (which has to be watched a few times because it is wild), “Easter” (for the craziest monster for this holiday ever), “Father’s Day” (surprisingly suspenseful and yet touching), and “Christmas” and “New Year’s Eve” (both of which don’t use new concepts but have fun with them and stand-out performances by Seth Green and Lorenza Izzo). Out of the eight segments, only one was written and directed by a woman: “Mother’s Day” by Sarah Adina Smith. While it wasn’t my favorite, I will probably continually wrestle with how it depicts infertility, abortion, pregnancy, and the implications of its twist; horror can create conversations as well as entertain so I appreciate this depiction. Overall, if you’re looking for an anthology of holiday-based horror, Into the Dark might be a bigger time commitment but a better choice. However, the unique visions within these segments make this a film that can be watched all year long.

XX (2017). As you’ll no doubt have noticed in my track-keeping, most directors in anthology collections are men. To combat that and showcase some of the talent female directors have in the horror genre, this anthology is composed only of women directors: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, and Karyn Kusama. Similar to Holidays, there really isn’t much of a framework around the segments; we do see a short and eerie stop-motion sequence (directed by Sofia Carrillo) between them but it isn’t necessarily a plot and doesn’t guide or connect the stories. That said, the quality of the segments is what elevates this anthology as there isn’t really too much of a low between them. “The Box”, based on a short story by Jack Ketchum, has great suspense and use of makeup. The premise is simple yet it reminds me in some ways of cosmic horror. “The Birthday Party” has kind of an absurd sense of humor, carried by Melanie Lynskey, and the simple premise of hiding a body before a children’s party. It feels like the weakest of the four, but is still quite enjoyable. “Don’t Fall” uses great effects, production, and a quick pace to jump into its story of four friends who might be hiking at the wrong location. Lastly, “Her Only Living Son” is indebted to Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. On its own, there are ways it could have been more effective but, as a tie-in and homage, it feels like an alternative ending and a loving tribute to a great story. The same general limits of all anthologies apply to this one as well, but, overall, the segments make use of the extra runtime not devoted to eight or nine other shorts to develop on their stories and create suspense in pacing. Most of the performances are rather standard with a few standouts. In the end, the variety and coherence of an anthology based around creations from women but not necessarily about women makes this something worth checking out.

Ghost Stories (2017). Directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman and based on their play of the same name, this anthology—at first glance—doesn’t feel like an anthology. Part of that is in the time it takes to establish the framework and how much time is devoted to that versus the three segments that build into it. Professor Phillip Goodman is a debunker of psychics and other paranormal phenomena; when he’s handed three cases by his childhood idol that are deemed “unsolvable”, he sets out to discover the truth behind these supposed supernatural events. First off, the production value and acting in this film puts it on a different playing field than most anthology films. Additionally, tonally the single-handedness of its vision and story helps it deliver a deft story and compelling scares where most films juggle between frights and humor in uneven ways. The cohesion and build between the segments and the frame creates more of an overall filmic experience than segmented one, even as their separation is made clear by the film itself. Andy Nyman does well in carrying the film as Goodman, playing the non-believing straight man against stories that grow more and more unsettling. Martin Freeman and Alex Lawther, in particular, deliver compelling performances in their segments. Some of the scares the film delivers are genuinely terrifying: from an abandoned hospital with creepy mannequins, a dark rural road, or an out of focus figure in a crib. I will say that I wish there was at least some kind of female presence somewhere in the film because this is a very male-dominated movie all around, but not in an overly macho way. While the first two-thirds of the film are satisfying, it builds to two twists: I would say the first satisfies and the second will split audiences. Be that what it may, Ghost Stories is a must-watch for anthology lovers, or people who love questioning what is real or what is a coping mechanism.

The Mortuary Collection (2019). This was a movie I heard good buzz about from the film festival circuit prior to actually seeing and, for an anthology film, that’s an especially good thing. Director Ryan Spindell achieves a more cohesive vision by not meshing with others for control of the narrative. Here, most of the anthology format is delivered by Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown) to Sam (Caitlin Custer), a young and curious woman, who keeps asking for new and darker stories as they tour the mortuary where Dark works. This overarching plot and its use as a device is one I like (a bit Devil’s Carnival-esque) as it seems more natural than tying numerous segments together with a similar theme or idea. It’s one of the reasons Trick R Treat has remained a classic and, perhaps, it’s a reason this could join as well. Each story builds in both length and how dark they’re willing to go, with four overall: a woman finds something lurking in the bathroom mirror, a frat boy contracts a mysterious illness after a night of unprotected fun, “in sickness and in health, till death do we part” is taken a little too literally, and our favorite babysitter and escaped mental patient trope is played with. Since we know—from the mortuary frame—that each of these stories will end in death, it’s fun and a bit suspenseful to watch and discover the how and why of it all. Brown’s acting is just the right hint of mysterious and sinister with his voice thrown in a perfect Haunted Mansion manner. The production design, especially of the sets, feels like a maximalist fever dream in the best way, and I love how distinctive each story looks and becomes through these lenses. And the special effects (when used) are the right amount of cheese, gore, and gross-out. Although this anthology hits many of the right notes and has more than a few delightful twists and turns, nothing is overly shocking. Still, it manages to satisfy. Overall, this is an anthology that feels a bit more evenhanded than most and manages to carry itself well and entertain. Gather around to honor the stories within, but be careful not to become one yourself.

Rare is the anthology that has a perfect balance between each of its segments. It’s more likely that some moments will stand out and be memorable and others will fall flat in more than one way. The more segments within the film, the more likely the ratio. The sweet spot seems to be between three to five. Balancing directors’ visions and tones is also difficult, but a singular voice and vision seems to work best. What does the future of anthologies hold? It seems “higher concept” anthologies are becoming more common—where a tighter narrative arch connects the segments with more heart, or a bold theme—and we even have an anthology franchise in the V/H/S series.

That said, if anthologies are a great opportunity for beginning or lesser known directors or writers to get a foot in the door then, as pointed out, there’s a disparity between the genders. If, in a film with four to twelve segments, the majority are held by men—continually—then the opportunities aren’t being presented to women at the same rate. XX is a novel film solely powered by women, but I hope that eventually we can move past the need to exclude in order to include.

So, if you’re looking for a bunch of scares in one sweet package this OcTerror, why not watch an anthology? It will remind you of all the scary stories you used to hear back in the day. Maybe it will keep you up at night too.