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