October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror anthology movies is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Anthology films – or if you’re feeling fancy, omnibus or portmanteau films – have been around since the pre-Code era of Hollywood. Sometimes the films were just excuses to compile multiple different stories from the same author, like O. Henry or W. Somerset Maugham, or to adapt well-known anthologies from other formats, like Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen (better known as La Ronde).
More often than not, though, the anthology format is the domain of horror movies. Of all the genres, horror lends itself to the episodic structure set by anthologies because horror has always had a home in short-storytelling. The simplest setups, like a gas station attendant working the midnight shift as a killer is on the loose, or a suburban dad catching a trick-or-treater stealing candy, can easily inspire quick thrills and deep chills that can sate even the most voracious horror hound’s appetite. And if you don’t like one story, don’t worry, you’ll be treated to something completely different in fifteen to twenty minutes.
However, the ease of making a bunch of short films and tying them together into one means there are a lot of horror anthologies. Between Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Mary Beth McAndrews, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, and myself we’ve boiled down this expansive subgenre into the ten essential horror anthologies every fright fan needs to know.
10. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
While it’s true that this film carries with it a bad odor of incompetence and tragedy — fuck you, John Landis — its quality as a feature still demands respect. Joe Dante, George Miller, Steven Spielberg, and Landis (along with writers like Richard Matheson and Melissa Mathison, no relation) bring Rod Serling‘s legendary anthology series to the screen with four segments of varying style and effect. Plus, and this can’t be understated, the film’s opening bit is a mini blast featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd trying to scare each other on a late night car ride.
I’ll be the first to admit that Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” is merely okay, but both Dante and Miller knock it out of the park with “It’s a Good Life” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” respectively. The former pits a devious little shit against some terrified adults, and Dante fills the screen with creativity and practical wonder. Miller, meanwhile, updates another classic episode and delivers a terrifying flight through sky as John Lithgow squares off against a monster on the wing — it’s still absolutely creepy as hell when that beast comes face to face with him. Sure, they’re not all pure horror, and Landis’ touch has left a stench, but the film as a whole remains an all-timer for the format. (Rob Hunter)
9. Cat’s Eye (1985)
If you’re going to make an anthology horror film, it has to have a gimmick. And if you’re going to make a movie with a gimmick, you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s better than an adorable streetwise tabby. Following the adventures of a roaming stray, Cat’s Eye traces three tales from Stephen King. One thing to know is that the film delivers its best story right up front. It begins with James Woods as a several-pack-a-day smoker whose desire to quit leads him to an organization determined to give their clients the proper motivation needed to give up the habit. With a darkly comedic tone and one hell of a kicker, the opening tale is a real winner. By the end, the film gets a little silly — some might say downright cartoonish — but thanks to a charmingly precocious performance from a young Drew Barrymore, it’s still entertaining. All around, this anthology series is the cat’s meow. (Anna Swanson)
8. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
Tales from the Darkside started as an anthology series in 1983, which was created by George A. Romero. It culminated in the 1990 film directed by frequent Romero collaborator John Harrison, featuring a bewitching (pun intended) Debbie Harry as a suburban housewife and witch with a dark secret: she eats little children. As her latest victim Timmy tries to stall his demise, he tells her three scary stories to distract the hungry creature. These stories are funny, disgusting, creepy, and, in the case of the final installment, absolutely tragic, creating an anthology that runs the gamut of terrifying and heart-breaking. It also boasts a star-studded cast. Harry aside, Tales from the Darkside also features Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Christian Slater, William Hickey, and James Remar. This underrated anthology series features a personal all-time anthology short favorite, “Lover’s Vow,” featuring Remar as a struggling artist who is visited by a gargoyle statue who can change his life… for a price. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
7. Body Bags (1993)
Before they went on to write horror anthology television shows like Goosebumps, R.L. Stine’s the Haunting Hour, and the Henry Rollins-hosted Night Visions, Billy Brown and Dan Angel wrote John Carpenter’s horror anthology Body Bags. Originally intended to be an series on Showtime, Carpenter – along with Tobe Hooper – directed three stories connected by wraparound segments featuring Carpenter acting out the role of an undead coroner-cum-host, cracking wise like his HBO counterpart, the Cryptkeeper. Each segment is routinely strong, with a cast of powerhouse actors, but it’s the middle segment “Hair” that is the standout, showing the lengths Stacy Keach is willing to go to combat male-pattern baldness. I’ll just say this: you’ll never look at hair follicles the same way again! (Jacob Trussell)
6. Dead of Night (1945)
If I was personally ranking what I thought was the best horror anthology, Dead of Night would likely sit at the top spot. It’s not that the film is altogether scarier or more entertaining than any other title on this list, but it conjures an aura of unease that is remarkable for the age in which it was released. Dead of Night has an old world chill, like an M.R. James’ ghost story whispered over a fireplace in the bleak midwinter.
But Dead of Night is also like a way station, transmitting a classic sensibility of spooky stories to a new generation that could take the format in exciting new directions. Who was part of that generation? Rod Serling and Richard Matheson, whose affection towards this film is readily apparent throughout The Twilight Zone. With a patently forward thinking approach to using the wraparound story in surprising ways, Dead of Night is a horror anthology that is as ingenious as it is timeless. (Jacob Trussell)
Related Topics: 31 Days of Horror Lists