Why does horror continue to return to the anthology format, and what makes them work so well?
If you’re a horror fan then you’ve likely at the very least heard of AMC’s “Netflix for horror” streaming service, Shudder. It’s an interesting idea and worth the subscription fee if you’re interested in finding obscure horror movies you wouldn’t normally get a chance to watch. They also offer a range of interesting originals, like horror-centred chat show The Core, which sees interviews with current horror filmmakers intercut with amusing, horror themed, sketches.
Well, this week AMC have announced that they’re going to be producing a new original series for the streaming service, working in conjunction with make-up effects creator and producer of successful TV show The Walking Dead, Greg Nicotero, based on the George A Romero directed, Stephen King penned 1982 horror anthology film, Creepshow.
Creepshow the film is a homage to the EC horror comics of the 1950s, including titles such as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, House of Mystery and House of Secrets. EC horror comics have been the source of inspiration for several horror anthologies in the past, including HBOs own adaptation of Tales from the Crypt, as well as British horror studios Amicus Productions’ portmanteau films, Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.
Horror and the anthology format seemingly go hand in hand, and its influence on the genre go back further than 1982’s Creepshow or even the Amicus output of the late 60s and early 70s. Indeed, Rod Sterling’s influential and iconic television show The Twilight Zone follows the anthology format, and while that show is often labelled as science-fiction, it’s hard to deny the horror overtones.
More recently we’ve seen television shows as varied as Brian Fueller’s American Horror Story, SyFy’s Channel Zero and even the BBC’s Inside No. 9, from the minds of Reece Sheersmith and Steve Pemberton, approach horror through the prism of the anthology. And in cinema we’ve seen Southbound, V/H/S and ABCs of Death tackle the format, while Jeremy Dyson and Any Nyman’s brilliant Ghost Stories offered a modern riff on Amicus portmanteau.
There have been several attempts over the years to use an anthology to tackle a host of other genres, most notably comedy, with films like Four Rooms, the Kentucky Fried Movie and, sadly for all of us, Movie 43, but the results have never been quite as successful as they often are with horror. Naturally a horror anthology can be hit and miss, with some segments fairing better than others, but there’s no denying that the format appears to work best when it’s serving up some scares.
So, what is it about horror that so attracts the anthology? Why does horror, above all other genres, not only work so well when in this format, but continuously return to it time and time again? And, perhaps most importantly, why are seeing it return now?
Well, firstly I think it’s important that we take note of what an anthology format is. Defined as a collection of works, in cinema an anthology tends to be a collection of short films, usually connected by a specific genre and nothing else. Sometimes anthology films feature what is commonly referred to as a “wrap-around” segment, the most notable of these appearing in the Amicus portmanteau films mentioned earlier.
In 1965’s Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, the short stories are linked via a train journey in which five strangers find themselves sharing a carriage with the mysterious Doctor Schreck (played with unnerving mysticism by the ever-excellent Peter Cushing). Schreck, using a pack of Tarot cards, proceeds to tell each of the passenger’s the story of their own demise. As Schreck tells each story the film cuts away from the action on the train and the stories play out on the screen.
It’s a simple yet effective way of connecting each short and offers the film an opportunity to include a sort of climax as the train pulls into a desolate station and Schreck reveals himself to in fact be Death himself, and each of the characters died when the train came off the rails. Amicus would reuse this trope throughout several of their portmanteaus.
But even they weren’t the first to introduce a “wrap-around”, as Max Scherbatsky, one of the men behind Amicus, would openly admit that Ealing Studios 1945 anthology horror Dead of Night was a big influence on his own movies.
Dead of Night concerns an architect who awakens after a strange nightmare and, at the behest of his wife, goes to stay for a weekend in the country. While there he meets a group of people whom he has no prior knowledge of but has seen in a recurring dream. The architect’s uncanny ability to predict events before they happen leads to the guests each recounting their own tales of the supernatural, and the film is capped with a twist ending that reveals the entire film to have been the nightmare suffered at the beginning, and events begin to replay exactly as they already had, the architect doomed to repeat the cycle forever.
The “wrap-around” segment offers an anthology movie a way to not only connect the stories but help the audience buy into what is happening. It creates a natural start and end for a film seemingly made up of disparate segments and allows for a three-act-structure to be built into a film that others would not have one. We see them used time and time again. In Creepshow a boy is punished for reading horror comics, in Tales from the Crypt strangers find themselves trapped in a mausoleum, and in 2012’s found-footage anthology horror V/H/S, thieves break into a house and watch videotapes while attempting to rob the place.
But for all the anthology films that do feature a “wrap-around” there are more that don’t. The anthology format doesn’t tie itself to the idea, and often times films can be connected in other ways. In Trilogy of Terror, each segment features actress Karen Black. In Holidays each of the shorts tells a tale based around a specific public Holiday (Easter, Christmas, Halloween). In The ABC’s of Death each short simply corresponds to a certain letter of the alphabet.
The connectivity of segments isn’t something that the anthology format appears to be tied to all that, sometimes it appears and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the connection is more to do with behind the scenes than it is in front, with XX being the most recent example here; an anthology featuring shorts directed entirely by women.
In Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone or even HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, instead of having any real narrative connecting the stories they are instead simply presented by a host character (Rob Sterling himself and the iconic Crypt Keeper respectively), and with the BBC’s Inside No. 9 – a show that you should definitely be watching, by the way – the only thing connecting each episode outside of the involvement of Sheersmith and Pemberton is that each story takes place inside some kind of number 9, be it a house, flat, office, dressing room or, indeed, a shoe…
But what is it about the anthology that appears to attract it to the horror genre above all else? We understand the nature of the anthology format, and we understand how it can be applied in different ways, but why horror, and why does it continue to remain as popular a format as it does?
Well, by its very nature horror is only ever successful as a short burst of terror. Be this inside of the run-time of a feature film, often utilising a slow build and a manic payoff (seen in anything and everything, movies as varied and different as Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Wicker Man), or the twenty or forty minutes it takes for an episode of a television show to wrap itself up.
This is perhaps why sustained horror often falls flat, rather than simply telling its story, getting on with its scares and moving on, long-form storytelling, the kind of which we see in more modern television shows, can’t hold real horror in quite the same way. We see horror shows in particular tackle this problem with the inclusion of what is known as “monster of the week” episodes. The X-Files, Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer are all successful horror shows that utilise a long-form story structure, with elements of each episode carrying over into a larger narrative. But they also each utilise the almost anthology-like structure of “monster of the week” episodes, with each episode both contributing to the larger narrative while telling its own self-contained story.
This allows these shows to tell frightening or unsettling narratives without the fear of the horror element out-staying its welcome. They only ever must sustain this particular horror narrative for the duration of the episode, because by the time the credits role it’ll have been wrapped up ready for the characters to tackle a different monster next week.
We compare this approach to something like American Horror Story, a show which, while technically utilising an anthology format in that it reboots each season, features season long storylines with continuous characters and arcs throughout multiple episodes. Quickly, when we look at American Horror Story, we can see that the show often struggles to sustain its atmosphere and its scares and suffers from what many have called the “mid-season slump”, where plotlines and characters dip and audience interest wains, the build-up becoming a slog as they wait for the inevitable manic payoff.
As an audience our appetite for horror most often comes in the want for short bursts of terror. In the early 1900s acclaimed author M R James wrote several short story collections, all of them focusing heavily on horror, and, in particular, ghost stories. His works include Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Thin Ghost and Others, and perhaps the most famous of all, A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories.
James’ work was incredibly successful, even spawning the now infamous Ghost Stories for Christmas BBC show, itself a kind of annual anthology, airing in the dwindling hours of Christmas Eve.
We see these kinds of short horror stories appear the world over, and often these are cited as the most successful. Seldom do we see horror stories on a scale one might expect from fantasy or drama. It seems that horror is at its most frightening, and therefor most appealing, to general audiences when it comes in short, sharp, easily digestible bursts.
From this end, then, we see just why the anthology format gels so well within the horror genre. It enables an audience to get those short, sharp bursts of terror, but it also ensures that if you’re not enjoying this particular story then there will be another one along soon that you might.
Of course, studios like them because they can afford to put big name stars in a film for less than they might have to pay for a longer piece. Amicus Productions were infamous for signing successful and recognisable “serious” actors to appear in their portmanteau films, including such recognisable stars of the day as Ralph Richardson, Joan Collins, and, indeed, horror icons Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, many of whom would be on set for two days at most, and yet the studio would be able to sell the film off the back of their names.
But maybe filmmakers are also attracted to the idea of the anthology film, it gives them an opportunity to tell a short story in a way that perhaps they might not be able to in a feature or studio environment. Anthologies offer filmmakers the opportunity to be more creative and inventive in their approach, and that is a tantalising prospect for anyone interested in telling stories.
We all know that horror is currently in a kind of boom period, becoming more and more popular with the success of films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It, and we all understand that this is likely down to our current political and social climates. But when we look at our current cinematic and televisual landscape, perhaps maybe we can see where the appetite for short and sweet horror tales is coming from.
In an age where we have Cinematic Universes left-right and centre, where our blockbusters are continuations or spin-offs of pre-existing narratives, and our television centres heavily on long form story telling like Game of Thrones or Westworld, is it any wonder people are crying out for something they can watch there and then and not have to bring any baggage with them?
I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing what AMC, Nicotero and Shudder do with their Creepshow series, as a fan of both horror and the anthology format, I enjoy the potential something like this has, not just to entertain but tell deep, meaningful stories in creative and interesting ways. The Twilight Zone did it years ago, Black Mirror does it now, and there have been countless brilliant attempts in between. I’m glad to see the format return and I hope to see more movies follow this approach in the future too. Maybe we can see the return of the great British portmanteau, like the Amicus films I love so much, and perhaps well see the return of the darkly comic horror anthologies of the 80s and early 90s, like Tales from the Darkside. The possibilities are near endless, and that’s a tantalising prospect.
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