Monday, October 27, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology Movies




I’ve always loved reading horror anthologies, and for one simple reason: more bang for your buck. There’s something wonderful about a short story, well-written, that scares the beejeezus out of you. It’s a particularly good literary magic trick to pull off. Sure, you’re going to run into the occasional story that doesn’t do it for you for one reason or another, but that’s okay; there’s another story right after it, and chances are, it’ll be better.

Horror anthology movies are fairly uncommon, and I guess it’s because of the expense. I mean, you’ve got to set up three different production crews, and much like a literary excursion, not all of the segments are going to inspire thrills and chills. Usually. There are some exceptions, and many of them have made the list below. In thinking about this category, I ranked each segment by how scary/creepy/effective it was, and then averaged the scores together to get a single ranking.

5. From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)
This is one of those movies that is hard to pin down, mostly because of a name change from a title that made no sense (in this case, The Offspring) to another title that made no sense. The initial directorial effort from schlock sequel-meister Jeff Burr is an ambitious project, for a number of reasons. As I mentioned earlier, anthology movies are hard on the budget. He also had the stones to just walk up to Vincent Price and ask him to be in the movie. Burr was already directing seasoned veterans, and Price was the marquee name, of course (he later claimed he didn’t like the movie). Fair enough; he’s not that great in it, either. I’m glad it wasn’t his final role.

As the stories go, well, it’s a mixed bag, but they all have one thing in common: their 80’s-ness is amazing and wonderful, in turn. The gore factor is high, and everyone does a good job with the material they are given. Terrifying? Not so much, but again, it’s a solid effort that plays homage to what we’ve seen before. And when you compare it to some of Burr’s later movies for Full Moon, well, it’s a real diamond in the rough.

4. Trilogy of Terror (1975)
This television offering from Dark Shadows producer Dan Curtis makes the top 5 by force of will alone. Three segments, all based on Richard Matheson short stories, adapted by William F. Nolan and Matheson himself, and all starring Karen Black in the lead to help maintain a thread of continuity. Curtis and Matheson were a force to be reckoned with in the 1970s, each coming off of successful television series and both producing their best work at the time. Even with the abundance of mid-70’s kitsch beating you up one side and down the other (oh! The Hair! The Fashions!), it’s still a pretty potent package.

Karen Black knocks it out of the part, playing four very distinct and different roles in each segment. These stories basically rest on her ability to deliver the goods, and boy, does she ever. Mind you, you’re probably going to guess the outcome of at least one, or maybe even two of the stories, mostly because the innovative little ideas (circa 1975) have now been done to death, forty years later.

3. Black Sabbath (1963)
Boris Karloff was on a career high in the 1960s, putting his name on TV shows, comics, and starring in movies alongside his friends, Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi. They all had a chance during this heyday to make hay while the sun was shining, and Karloff made the absolute most of it. Black Sabbath is one of the many American International Pictures’ low-budget thrillers that came out cheaply and quickly, but this quirky little anthology of tales had a few things going for it. In addition to Karloff himself as the horror host and star of the final segment, the whole shebang was directed by legendary thrillmeister Mario Bava.

These three stories are all very strong contenders and while they vary wildly in subject matter, there is an overall consistency to them that really delivers. Bava, of course, knows how to direct horror, and he can get more use out of a green light shining on Boris Karloff than just about anyone. Of course, the American version of the film had some scenes removed; violence and implied lesbianism and prostitution. Oh, those wacky Italians, eh? You can find both versions easily enough and make up your own mind. Either way, you’re probably going to remember “A Drop of Water,” about a medium who dies during a séance, for a long, long time.

2. The Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983)
“You wanna see something really scary?”
One of the best openings to a horror film of any kind. Who can forget Dan Ackryod and Albert Brooks discussing their favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone TV show (and even confusing one of the episodes with an Outer Limits plot)? This anthology paid due homage to the show by updating a couple of the most famous stories and adding a few new twists, as well. There’s a framing sequence that ties everything up, and wonderful, evocative narration by Burgess Meredith. It should be perfect, right? Well, it’s not.

Four amazing directors, each with a pedigree, were hired to produce their favorite “take” on what the Twilight Zone meant to them. John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. Of the four, George Miller should have been the weak link. After all, Landis was coming off of American Werewolf in London, with several other movies on his list. Then there was Spielberg, who cut his directing teeth on Night Gallery. And this was post-Jaws, post-Raiders of the Lost Ark, and around the same time as Poltergeist. Joe Dante? He did a little movie called Gremlins. And George Miller was the dark horse candidate, with only two movies to his name. However, those two movies were Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Awesome flicks, but hardly horror. So, he’s the weak link, right?

Nope. Spielberg tanked it. It’s not that his segment is bad. It’s not. It’s vintage Spielberg, fresh off of E.T.  rather than anything relevant to the Twilight Zone project. It’s about the magic of childhood and it’s got cute little kids in it, and Scatman Crothers literally playing the Magical Negro part...ugh. Sure, there were some Twilight Zone eps that had that fantastical, idyllic message of hope in them, and Spielberg’s story just manages to capture that vibe, but it’s really out of place amid the other three director’s very creepy and downbeat segments.

Of course, everyone knows about Landis’ segment involving the death of Vic Morrow and the two children he was working with at the time. Because of the decision to keep the segment in (albeit with a different ending) and because there was no mention of Morrow’s death or the children in the credits, many consider the segment to be in poor taste. Your mileage will vary. But the ending in the film is more grim, and very likely adds to the idea of the ethical quandary around the segment. Joe Dante updated Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” and thankfully, it’s the “creepy kid with super powers” story we need to see after Spielberg’s sugar-coated fairy tale. But the best one of all is Miller’s update of Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 10,000 Feet,” starring John Lithgow.

From the second the segment opens, Lithgow is the best thing in the movie. Totally out of control and also believable at the same time. Better still is the updated gremlin, ably handled by Craig Rearden. If you’ve ever seen the original, trust me on this, ANYTHING would be better. But this take is a home run. And after the frame story collapses, we get one last reminder of why the music and the intro to the Twilight Zone were so important to setting the tone of the series, in form of classic narration by Rod Serling. If you’ve never seen the movie, you are in for a real treat.

1. Creepshow (1982)
The encapsulation of Form meeting Function, Creepshow was a major minor hit from the get-go for a few reasons: George Romero and Stephen King, two of the biggest names in horror in the 1980s, got together and decided to do an unlicensed homage to the E.C. Comics of their youth. So they took some of King’s short stories—a couple of them had been published elsewhere, in small markets (“The Crate,” and “Weeds,” which became “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”) and they adapted them into short, sharp, punchy vignettes with histrionic acting, garish blue, red, and green lighting, and wrapped the whole thing up into a comic book format from start to finish. It was exactly what it was supposed to be, and no more. Bonus points for anyone who has the Creepshow “novelization,” a graphic novel illustrated by Berni Wrightson.

The all-star cast is awesome to see, probably most of all Ed Harris, who worked with Romero a few times before his star power took over. His disco dance in the middle of “Father’s Day” is priceless in its absurdity. Also on hand is Leslie Nielson delivering a chilling, not-funny-in-the-least portrayal of a husband scorned in “Something to Tide You Over.” Even E.G. Marshall, playing an eccentric millionaire in “They’re Creeping Up on You,” is on target. Everyone just goes for it.

Despite the obvious comic book panel transitions and whack-a-doo acting during the end of some of the stories, at least two (or three, depending on your sensibilities) of the short stories really deliver the goods. “The Crate” is not played for laughs, and is easily the best of the bunch, thanks to stand-up performances by Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver, and Adrienne Barbeau. That is, unless cockroaches bother you. If that’s the case, “They’re Creeping Up on You” will have you squirming in your chair at the end. Actually, the end of the framing sequence is the real kicker to the movie—easily the scariest and most effective of the bunch, second only to The Twilight Zone Movie’s “Do You Want to See Something Really Scary?” gag.

Bonus! The Monster Club (1981)
The Monster Club was first introduced to American audiences through Elvira’s VHS series wherein she introduced the films in her inimitable fashion—and that alone should prep you for what kind of movie this is. I have great affection for this very uneven effort, and I don’t quite know what to do with it. It’s not funny enough to be a horror comedy, but it’s nowhere near a straight-on anthology movie. Not with a stripper who gets down to her bare bones in a musical number as part of the framing sequence. There’s 80’s new wave rock, an urban fantasy premise that has since been used to death, and then there’s Vincent Price and John Carradine! Doing their usual thing! It makes me crazy, I tell you.

The segments themselves run the gamut, but two out of the three manage to be effectively creepy with some great atmosphere and good use of the setting. Of course, when you’re filming in England, everything is creepy over there, even their 7-11 stores. Look for bonus artwork by John Bolton in a flashback sequence; he also drew the movie as a comic series (along with David Lloyd) for the Hammer Halls of Horror magazine. I won’t say it’s the best thing about the movie, but Bolton’s art is what makes that particular segment so creepy. The rest is ghoulish fun in a decidedly British vein.

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If you're just joining us: This is part of a much larger series of articles. You can find all of them here.

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