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Stacie Ponder – Horror Anthologies 101: Something Scary for Everyone

Blogger Stacie Ponder’s horror columns appear every Wednesday.

I have to admit, I’m not big on buffets. There’s something grody about shuffling down a line, plate in hand, to weasel my way under a sneeze guard to rummage around in a big bowl of macaroni. I do, however, like the notion of a buffet. I dig the idea of making a meal comprising a little lasagna this and a little mashed potato that, a bunch of tidbits rather than settling on a whole big pile of one thing — a sampler, if you will. It should come as no surprise, then, when I say that I love horror anthology films… and that I’m suddenly hungry.

Anthology films (or “portmanteau” films, if you want to be all hoity-toity about it) general consist of, three to five stories/segments and a framing device tying the segments together via location or a “storyteller.” Occasionally, the stories are interlocking, or they share a common theme. The segments are often helmed by different writers and/or directors, making the overall production a veritable cinematic salad bar.

The British Reign of Terror
Omnibus movies (there I go again, with the hoity-toity) have been a part of horror cinema since the earliest days of the genre’s inception. Some of the first films of this type originated in Germany, including Eerie Tales (1919), which includes an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”, and Waxworks (1924). The Brits maintained a reign of terror in the world of the anthology film for several decades in the mid-20th century, beginning with Dead of Night (1945). Widely considered to be one of the finest examples of the genre, Dead of Night culminates in a rather terrifying story, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.” The story of Hugo, the dummy who may or may not be alive and evil, is bolstered by a fantastic (and sweaty) portrayal of paranoia by Michael Redgrave as Hugo’s…err, right hand man. The segment is genuinely creepy and simply reinforces my opinion that no one in their right mind could possibly find ventriloquist’s dummies made of anything but pure evil. Even watching something as “benign” as Willie Tyler and Lester, I always find myself waiting for the imminent moment when Lester will flip out and eat Willie Tyler’s face off.

Amicus and Hammer
Throughout the late ’60s and much of the
’70s, competing production houses Amicus and Hammer churned out
anthology horror by the bucketful and gave the world some of the
greatest film titles ever: The House That Dripped Blood , The Torture Garden , and From Beyond the Grave to name but a few. A house that drips blood? A garden not made of delicious cucumbers, but of torture? Geez…and really, has anything good ever come from beyond the grave? I assure you, no, nothing ever has.

For their films Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt ,
Amicus adapted stories from the EC Comics of the same names. EC Comics
tended to be gory, scary, and outrageous morality plays wherein someone
acts excessively like a jerk but eventually gets what’s coming to them.
This “justice” is always meted out in some gruesome fashion — so
gruesome, in fact, that EC and its publisher, Bill Gaines, became the
target of Congressional investigations into “juvenile delinquency”
which led to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority. In other
words, EC Comics make for fantastic anthology films. The highlight of Tales from the Crypt
(1972) is undoubtedly the segment “And All Through the House,” which
pits a foxy Joan Collins against an escaped mental patient dressed as
Santa Claus. I know, I know — it’s as if the story was torn straight
from your dreams, right?

King and Romero
amped up their production of portmanteau flicks in the ’80s and ’90s,
thanks in large part to Stephen King. Along with director George
Romero, King created Creepshow
(1982) as an homage to EC Comics, and the film is such a spot-on
tribute that the stories could have been pulled from the pages of any
EC title. For example, in the supreme willies-inducer “They’re Sneaking
Up On You.” Upson Pratt (EG Marshall) is a real jerk who hates
cockroaches, Upson Pratt ends up a dead jerk who’s full of cockroaches.
With killer moss, zombies, water-logged zombies, monsters in crates,
and a foul-mouthed, acerbic Adrienne Barbeau, Creepshow is one of the few movies with a tagline that doesn’t lie: It’s the most fun you’ll have being scared.

King has also created or adapted material for other anthology films, such as Creepshow 2 , Cat’s Eye and Tales from the Darkside , but he and the Romero aren’t the only horror heavyweights to have had a go at omnibus films. Two Evil Eyes features a Poe adaptation by Dario Argento, Joe Dante and John Landis contributed segments to Twilight Zone: The Movie , and John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper both directed stories in Body Bags. Carpenter also plays “The Coroner” in the Body Bags framing story, the host who introduces each segment.

Present Day
while the frequency of anthology films has slowed in the US, the Asian
market has picked up the slack. One of the most well-known is Three… Extremes, featuring directors from Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. The stories in the film are a bit more… uh, extreme than those in their American counterparts — these movies aren’t taking their cues from 50-year-old comic books.

But I don’t care who’s producing anthology films, so long as someone
is holding the mantle. And that the formula remains the same: One story
will be “funny” to lighten the mood, two or three stories will be
varying degrees of average, and at least one story will kick complete
ass and be the segment everyone remembers the most vividly. Just
like at a buffet — the chicken wings might be only so-so, but the
potato salad is simply to die for.

Wait, maybe I am big on buffets. Man, I really need to grab some chow.

sp.jpgA fan of horror movies and scary stuff, Stacie Ponder started her blog Final Girl so she’d have a platform from which she could tell everyone that, say, Friday the 13th, Part 2 rules. She leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor’s edge of danger and intrigue.

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