When Creepshow hit theaters in 1982, it made an unexpected splash, raking in more than $20 million in sweet ‘80s coinage and going on to become Warner Brothers’ top-grossing horror film of the year. Of course, Creepshow wasn’t doing anything new — the horror anthology had been a part of cinema since the 1920s — but it definitely reinvigorated moviegoers’ interest in the form. As a result, a deluge of horror anthologies were released in the years immediately following Creepshow’s success.
The 1980s became the heyday for modern horror movie anthologies, but by the time the ‘90s rolled around, public interest was waning — at least at the theaters. Though only a handful of notable anthologies were released on the silver screen during the next two decades, horror fiends could still get their fix on television, where shows such as Tales from the Crypt, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and Masters of Horror prospered.
However, within the past five years, the horror movie anthology has undergone a bit of a renaissance. A new group of directors has latched onto the genre, releasing modest hits such as V/H/S and The ABCs of Death. Perhaps they were buoyed by the form’s ability to showcase multiple voices on a low budget, or maybe they were just inspired by the anthologies of their youth. Either way, we’ve decided to trace the trajectory of the modern horror movie anthology from the 1980s until today. So buckle up and enjoy the strange, hypersegmented journey.
Number of Chapters: 5
Theme: Two horror maestros, Stephen King and George A. Romero, join forces for the first time to tell this quintet of creepy, comic book-style tales. The theme is established in the film’s wraparound, where a boy is being punished by his father for reading too many trashy comics. As the kid sulks in his room, his favorite comic book character, The Creep, materializes at his window, ready to lead both the boy and the audience on a spooky journey.
Best of the Bunch: “Father’s Day” is a gruesome story about a spinster who commits patricide on Father’s Day, only to have her maggot-infested dad come back from the grave for revenge. While most of Creepshow’s segments combine equal parts horror and comedy, “Father’s Day” plays its scares with the straightest face. Romero does a bang-up job of creating a comic book aesthetic, punctuating shadowy cinematography with bursts of bright, saturated color. Plus, ol’ Georgey gets to direct another story about zombies, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Biggest Dud: Zilch. Horror nerds are no match for the one-two punch of Romero and King. —Adriane Neuenschwander
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Number of Chapters: 4
Theme: You’re about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sound and sight, but of mind … and the decapitation of two illegally hired child actors. A journey into the wondrous land of an imagination produced by Spielberg and Landis. You get it.
Best of the Bunch: The kickoff with Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd is hilarious, scary, and over way too soon. But the final story of this omnibus, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” kicks the most ass. In a role made sweaty by William Shatner, John Lithgow panics away 20 pounds in water weight as the only guy on the plane who sees a malicious gremlin on the wing. And with George Miller directing with his Road Warrior hard-on at full mast, it’s a blast to watch.
Biggest Dud: Everything you’ve ever hated about Steven Spielberg comes concentrated in “Kick the Can”. Unless you’re that guy who really, really likes Hook, you’ll be repelled by this saccharine segment, in which the elderly become children for a night. Oh, it’s sweet, alright, and those child actors have cheeks made for pinchin’. But in a movie with such an enjoyable mean streak, “Kick the Can” is the wimp of the bunch. The kinda wimp you wanna bully. —Roy Ivy
Number of Chapters: 4
Theme: Back in 1982, ABC tried and failed to create their own Rod Serling-ish horror series with the ill-fated Darkroom. And when that tanked, Universal assembled four leftovers deemed too intense for TV (total baloney) into the ho-hum theatrical release Nightmares. Besides an obviously inserted stabbing scene, this R-rated feature is as PG as it gets.
Best of the Bunch: Here’s why you need to see this. Here’s the only reason for this relic to exist. It’s called “The Benediction”, and you’ve never seen anything like it. Imagine a young and brooding (and acting his heart out) Lance Henriksen as a priest who’s suddenly lost his faith. And then imagine that priest, as he’s out on a soul-searching road trip, being relentlessly pursued by an evil trucker who might be the devil. Yup, it’s Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light meets Duel, and it’s easily the artsiest and most intriguing piece of this mostly flaccid anthology.
Biggest Dud: Eight-year-old me would hate 40-year-old me for saying this, but the lamest and longest piece is “The Bishop of Battle”. It’s the story of J.J. Cooney, played with the intensity of a young Emilio Estevez by Emilio Estevez, and his obsession with getting to the 13th level of the shittiest fake video game ever invented (it’s like Berzerk, but worse). Oh, this segment takes its sweet damn time establishing J.J. as a gamer you don’t wanna fuck with (imagine The Hustler, but with Dig Dug) before going bananas when J.J. finally makes it to that dang last level. That’s when the game bleeds into real life, and he gets chased by video game blobs that look dreadful but must’ve taken a team of Smalltalk-80 and Ada programmers years to finish. It’s like Tron, but even more boring, and it really makes you appreciate The Last Starfighter. —Roy Ivy
Cat’s Eye (1985)
Number of Chapters: 3
Theme: A stray cat travels cross-country to help save an imperiled little girl (Drew Barrymore). His journey ties together three stories penned by Stephen King, who had the Midas touch when it came to ‘80s horror anthologies.
Best of the Bunch: Based on a short story in King’s Night Shift collection, “Quitters, Inc.” is a darkly comic tale about the extremes one man goes to in order to stop smoking. James Woods is at his pre-An American Carol best as Dick Morrison, a pack-a-day cigarette fiend who joins an experimental smoking-cessation clinic run by Dr. Donatti (Alan King, stealing every scene). Donatti threatens to rape, electrocute, and mutilate Dick’s family any time he catches him taking a puff, and these heightened stakes lead to some of the most tense scenes of a guy concealing a bad habit that you’ll ever see. They’re so effective, in fact, that after watching this movie at the age of four, I vowed to never try cigarettes. Stephen King, my pink-as-new lungs thank you, sir.
Biggest Dud: Every chapter is solid, though some of the interstitial scenes with the cat get a bit hokey. —Adriane Neuenschwander
Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
Number of Chapters: 3
Theme: It’s like Hansel and Gretel without the Gretel, with Debbie Harry as a witch who wants to cook and eat little Matthew Lawrence. To stall her, he does what all kids do to stave off the oven: He tells a trio of horror stories.
Best of the Bunch: Rent/stream/steal this movie for the unforgettable (seriously, you really won’t forget it) second segment, “Cat from Hell”. Adapted by Romero from a script written by a raging-drunk Stephen King when he was really on a cat kick, this sucker is the funniest and sickest. Good ol’ perpetually old William Hickey, whose every line delivery sounds like granite clawing its way out of a calloused throat polyp, plays a rich old human throat polyp who hires a hitman to kill a black cat. He’s convinced that this sweet kitty is out to kill him. Maybe it’s because he ran a pharmaceutical company that killed thousands of cats doing drug research, or maybe it’s because his loved ones keep mysteriously dying when the cat’s around. David Johansen, when he was still more well known as Buster Poindexter, is the hapless hitman continually felled by the wily cat, and it plays like a grisly cartoon for a while … until the big finish. If you’ve ever been forced to explain your paranoia of cats crawling down your throat and Cuisinarting your neck, prepare to be vindicated.
Biggest Dud: “Lot 249” stinks. Steve Buscemi’s typecast as a creep who employs a mummy to kill his foes. Christian Slater, more grating than gleaming, tries to stop him. Julianne Moore dies. Everybody overacts. Mummy stories always suck. —Roy Ivy
Body Bags (1993)
Number of Chapters: 3
Theme: The execs at Showtime decided to cash in on some of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt money with this very obvious knockoff. John Carpenter, who directs two of the segments, stars as a Crypt Keeper–esque coroner, who weaves together a trio of tales about how some of his cadavers wound up on the slab.
Best of the Bunch: Both of Carpenter’s entries are cheeky and fun, but I’ll give “The Gas Station” the slight edge. Of all the chapters, this is the only one that actually succeeds in creating any scares. It follows a gas station attendant’s first night on the job, when she meets a handful of suspicious characters and eventually faces off against a machete-wielding psycho played by the third-best Carradine, Robert. Horror fans are also sure to get a couple titters out of cameos by Wes Craven and Sam Raimi, as well as geeky flourishes like the fact the story’s set in Haddonfield, Illinois.
Biggest Dud: “Eye” proves once again that Tobe Hooper is a one-trick pony. Remember that movie from 1991 called Body Parts? Unless you’re me or the film’s star, Jeff Fahey, you probably don’t. So you’ll have to just take my word for it that Hooper’s chapter rips off Body Parts’s premise, in which a normal guy becomes homicidal after receiving a transplant from a serial killer. But plagiarism is only one of the beefs I have with this turd. Not only does it force the audience to suffer through 30 minutes of Mark Hamill’s sub-community-theater-level acting, but it adds insult to injury by inserting an unnecessary shot of Hamill’s pasty ass. Come to think of it, the ass is the only thing horrifying in this entire vignette. —Adriane Neuenschwander
Tales from the Hood (1995)
Number of Chapters: 4
Theme: Three gangbangers go to a funeral home for a big drug deal, where they meet weird-ass mortician Mr. Simms. As they wait to pick up the stash, Simms tells them the stories behind his most recent corpses. But the wraparound, with Clarence Williams III creeping it up, is the only fun part of this incredibly grim series of wrenchingly earnest social commentaries.
Best of the Bunch: The final segment, “Hard-Core Convert”, is the most ambitious and hard-hitting, and I never want to see it again. But the most … enjoyable (?) would have to be the second, “Boys Do Get Bruised”. Yes, in a film that deals with racist cops, the Klan, slavery, and inner-city genocide, the one about child abuse is easiest to take. The bruised boy is Walter, a sweet and quiet kid who claims he got those mystery bruises from a monster. But that monster is actually his mom’s boyfriend, played with an anti-David Alan Grier ferocity by a bizarro-world David Alan Grier. When DAG starts beating the ever-loving shit out of Walter and his mom, it’s so rough and gritty you might flinch. But thankfully, li’l Walter has a magic voodoo power (if he draws somebody, then crumples the paper, that person gets crumpled) that saves this segment from being as depressing as the rest.
Biggest Dud: “Rogue Cop Revelation” sure ain’t fun. It’s the tale of three white cops who brutally beat and murder an innocent black rights activist (to the tune of “Strange Fruit”.). He comes back from the dead to get revenge … but that all-too-realistic first half, combined with Billie Holiday, just leaves you too bummed out by the time the pigs get their comeuppance. —Roy Ivy
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Number of Chapters: 4, plus a brief prologue and epilogue
Theme: Writer-director Michael Dougherty presents this series of strange vignettes, which all occur in one small town on Halloween night.
Best of the Bunch: “The School Bus Massacre Revisited” has it all, including creepy masks, revenge, and high school bullies getting dismembered. It tells the story of a group of little shits who lead an autistic girl into a quarry to scare her with an urban legend about a busload of drowned children. Their prank backfires when the legend turns out to be true, and the dead kids come back for blood. Dougherty also injects “School Bus Massacre” with a hefty dose of melancholy, with the flashback to the bus crash carrying an unexpected emotional weight that doesn’t exist in the other chapters.
Biggest Dud: “Surprise Party” is little more than a condensed, low-rent version of the cult horror film Ginger Snaps. The whole segment is just a heavy-handed metaphor comparing a girl losing her virginity to a werewolf killing its first victim. As if that wasn’t barf-inducing enough, it also stars the always-dull Anna Paquin. —Adriane Neuenschwander
Number of Chapters: 5 (not counting the crappy framing narrative)
Theme: Unbearable jerks get paid to break into a house and steal a special VHS tape, and they have to keep popping in tapes of half-baked films by mumblecore directors until they find the right one. Also, there’s a ghost picking off the jerks, and no horror anthology should be two hours long.
Best of the Bunch: I’d say “10/31/98”, Radio Silence’s inventive tale of four jerks who think they’re in a fake haunted house, but it’s really haunted. But by the time that rolled around, I was too exhausted to enjoy it. So I’ll go with the first, “Amateur Night”, where bros try to make a porno with a succubus.
Biggest Dud: For a while, Ti West is doing what he does best in “Second Honeymoon”, in which a stranger keeps sneaking into a vacationing couple’s bedroom. Then he biffs the ending — hard — and demolishes the whole dang thing. —Roy Ivy
The ABCs of Death (2013)
Number of Chapters: 26
Theme: Twenty-six up-and-coming horror directors, including mumblegore wunderkinds Adam Wingard (You’re Next) and Ti West (House of the Devil), helm brief, minutes-long vignettes based on each letter of the alphabet.
Best of the Bunch: “D is for Dogfight” has more energy and style than most feature-length movies. Writer-director Marcel Sarmiento (Deal Girl) fashions a tight, surprisingly moving segment about a boxer forced to fight a stray dog. Shot in slow-motion without a single word of dialogue, this 5-minute short boasts such virtuosic editing that you could swear that all the punches, bites, and blood spatters are real.
Biggest Dud: Timo Tjahjanto’s “L is for Libido” is one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences I’ve had in recent years. This story about a bizarre masturbatory competition in which the losers are brutally murdered is the type of thing that makes me pine for the good ol’ days of the Hayes Code. It’s a smorgasbord of graphic sex and torture porn, none of which is particularly shocking or original. It’s cruel, it’s gross, and it ought to be renamed “S is for Shit.” —Adriane Neuenschwander