Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Movies That Dripped Blood: 12 of the Best Anthology Horror Films
Anthologies in the horror genre have averaged around ten per decade since the 1960s. The format enjoyed its first burst during those years after the moderately entertaining DR. TERRORS HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) made an impact at the box office. From there, omnibus horror exploded in the 70s and beyond. Many of the cinematic compendiums that followed varied wildly in quality. The following are my picks for the Best Anthology horror films. There are others that are good, but you can't go wrong with this sampler of a dozen fang-tastic fear features of multi-tiered terror tales.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)
This British B/W feature is one of the earliest attempts at an omnibus format; and unfortunately, this vintage spooker is seldom spoken of in horror circles. It would seem to be highly influential on the genre, most noticeably THE TWILIGHT ZONE television series. It's more unsettling than scary, and much of what is here has been done many times over. Still, it's well worth tracking down just to see such an early example of the anthology style. The chiaroscuro cinematography captures a mood color rarely seizes, and ends up as one of this films strongest assets.
The five tales (not counting the framing device) deal with a race car driver's encounter with a hearse after a serious accident; a woman who discovers a cherubic specter in a haunted house; a wife buys her husband a supernatural mirror previously owned by a murderer; a love triangle involving a ghostly game of golf; and a sincerely creepy tale of a ventriloquist and his dummy who may or may not have a life of his own.
The wraparound concerns a man stopping over at a country house where the revelers all detail their macabre dreams. The finale could be deemed derivative, but considering this was 1945, it's totally fresh, surreal, and definitely disturbing.
Creepiest Tale: Britain's premiere portmanteau picture saves the best for last. The story revolving around the ventriloquist and his devilish dummy usurps the others in sheer grim atmosphere.
Throwaway Tale: Easily the comedic entry with the spectral golfer and his rivalry with a living friend is the weakest link of this antiquated, and visually striking horror movie from across the pond.
BLACK SABBATH (1963)
Mario Bava's gloriously ghoulish anthology is rife with atmosphere, and, in its original Italian form, not necessarily for children -- at least some of the films subtext and violence didn't sit well with co-producers from AIP. Through the magic of alternate footage and scissor-like editing, much of this adult tinged material was made safer for the monster craving kiddies infiltrating matinee showings.
In its original form, Bava's trifecta of terror contained tales of a revenge seeking husband on former lesbian lovers, a family terrorized by a vampiric patriarch and a night nurse whose theft of a dead mediums ring proves costly. There's no framing device outside of an intro and outro by Boris Karloff. In contrast, the fascinating, deliriously compiled US cut features intros to each segment by Karloff.
Creepiest Tale: 'A Drop of Water' is no flash in the pan. Truly one of the most terrifying pieces of horror cinema ever constructed and still packs a wallop today. Dialog is minimal and confined to the beginning and last few moments leaving sights and sounds to relay the pure horror Mario Bava created in this marvelous goosebumper.
Throwaway Tale: The inaugural item here, 'The Telephone' is moderately at odds with the more supernatural elements of the proceeding two entries. Taken into context with the original Italian title (THE THREE FACES OF FEAR), it fits, but nonetheless, it's the least horror inducing of the three.
Masaki Kobayashi's 3 hour visual assault is macabre poetry in motion. Artistically inclined, the film is punctuated by an unusual morbidity that resonates in all four ghost stories. What makes KWAIDAN stand out from other multi-story format films is its frequent lack of dialog married to surreal, painted landscapes brilliantly echoing a Kabuki style theatricality. There are long stretches where no dialog is uttered -- visuals are saturated in dissonant chords and nerve-jangling sound effects. It's really a remarkable movie that was unjustly ignored in its native Japan.
The stories are: A destitute samurai abandons his loyal wife to marry a wealthy lords daughter. Years later, he realizes the wrong he's done, and returns home to find his seemingly ageless wife still waiting for him; a woodcutter near death in a snowstorm is pitied by a lady specter who promises to spare him so long as he never reveals what he's seen; a blind musician's instrumental abilities attracts the ghosts of dead samurai; and finally, a swordsman finds the reflection of a dead samurai staring back at him in his cup of tea. There is no framing device.
CreepiestTale: While the first two entries are inherently spooky, the third, 'Hoichi, the Earless' is the longest, and ghastly of the quartet. The segment is so memorable, its main shock proponent turned up as a plot device in Kuei Chi Hung's HEX (1980).
Throwaway Tale: 'In a Cup of Tea' has a few moments of distinct hauntedness, but never quite wraps things up in a sufficiently satisfying way. The ambiguous ending is appreciated by some, but I was hoping for a more direct instance of closure.
THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970)
Amicus cornered the market on anthologies for an eight year period between 1965 and 1973. This one is their best, and most consistently entertaining of the lot. The quality of their horror compendiums varied, but they were all different in some way. HOUSE benefits from a unique, experimental, and sincerely eerie music score; and a stellar cast of British horror familiars including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
The segments are built around a house of death and the fates of those who live there. The four stories detail a horror novelist whose newest creation has seemingly come to life; a waxworks museum hides a gruesome secret discovered by two friends who loved the same woman; the husband of a witch learns his daughter has taken up her dead mother's activities; and a horror film actor seeks an authentic cloak for use in his new vampire picture. The framing device concerns an inspector investigating the house and the deaths of its occupants. At the end, he finds what he's looking for.
Creepiest Tale: Picking just one in my favorite of Amicus' anthologies is a difficult task, but I'll go with 'The Cloak'. Not only is it occasionally eerie, it also sports a sardonic wit and self-awareness absent in the others. In addition, it contains a humorous jab at Christopher Lee's interpretation of Dracula.
Throwaway Tale: While I do like the episode, 'Waxworks' gets the pick for the sole reason that it is the only story that doesn't take place within the title abode. It's boiling over with unsettling imagery, just the same.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)
A favorite of many, it seemed only natural that if there were to be an anthology based on the controversial EC comic books, Amicus would be the logical studio to bring it to life. Another fine cast is assembled, and a uniformly grim atmosphere grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go for a hundred minutes. The familiar tones of Douglas Gamley resonate on the soundtrack with that signature Amicus sound of his. The gore is subtle and the tales are all rather faithful to their source material.
A wife has just killed her husband on Christmas Eve as a madman in a Santa Claus suit stalks outside; an adulterer abandons his family for his lover which leads to disastrous consequences; an old man is tormented by a neighbor and gets his just desserts from beyond the grave; a statue grants wishes to a couple having financial troubles and get more than they bargained for; and a group of blind elderly men gain retribution on an insensitive manager of a rest home.
Creepiest Tale: Tough call, but 'Blind Alleys' wins for building a suitably self-serving, callous villain whose just desserts is unusually cruel, but elaborate in its creation and execution by a mob of blind men out for retribution.
Throwaway Tale: 'Reflection of Death' is easily the lesser of the five evils seen here. Its cyclical, premonition reveal is executed unenthusiastically by director Freddie Francis. But then, there wasn't much meat on the bones of the original EC comics story.
FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1973)
Prior to embarking on movies about lost worlds and dinosaurs, producer John Dark and director Kevin Conner collaborated on Amicus Studios final cinematic compendium. Thankfully, the company was able to go out on a high note with these four pieces of macabre maleficence.
Customers buy unusual items at 'Temptations Limited' run by Peter Cushing. The way the patrons acquire their purchases reflects how their stories turn out. The entries are -- a mirror harboring an evil spirit compels a man to murder; a war medal leads a frustrated husband to the home of a creepy former soldier and his daughter; a couples home is invaded by an evil Elemental; and a sinister looking door belonging to an occultist magically opens up the devil worshipers domain.
Creepiest Tale: All four are good, but my favorite would be the second, 'An Act of Kindness' with Donald and Angela Pleasence. It has the most surprising sting in the tail of the four. The performances of father and daughter Pleasence resonates an unsettling air just by their limited expressions alone.
Throwaway Tale: The lesser of the four would be 'The Door' -- the last story -- based solely on the fact that it's essentially a re-working of the segment that opens the movie; but substitutes a door for a mirror. It's an entertaining, well photographed segment, but the familiarity with the opening tale is unmistakable.
TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975)
Dan (DARK SHADOWS TV series) Curtis directed this terror-ific Made For TV triple threat that obtained a cult following akin to Spielberg's superb suspenser DUEL from 1971. The fan love for TOT comes unanimously from its third segment, 'Amelia', the films third and final story. That segment was so terrifyingly memorable, it was later released solo on VHS tape in the early 1990s as TERROR OF THE DOLL. The first two stories are moderately engaging, but inferior to the implacability of the final segment. If not for the ferocity of this entry, TOT would likely be forgotten. The late Richard Matheson wrote the three stories.
The segments deal with a student who develops a fascination with his English teacher, only to learn she isn't all that she seems to be; a doctor becomes embroiled in a rivalry between two malevolent sisters; and a woman purchases a Zuni fetish doll that comes to murderous life.
Creepiest Tale: Without question 'Amelia' hits the horror home run here. The killer Zuni doll is among the most memorably frightening creations of old school horror. It's so unforgettable, Dan Curtis revived it in a direct sequel story in the 1996 Made For Cable TRILOGY OF TERROR 2 as 'He Who Kills'.
Throwaway Tale: 'Julie' is fairly uneventful. Actually, the first two stories together aren't all that enthralling. Still, Karen Black's performance in all three stories is exceptional, and varied.
George Romero and Stephen King joined forces for this superlative EC comics tribute that packs five stories and a wraparound segment into a 2+ hour horror smorgasbord. The devotion to William Gaines's controversial four color fear books is apparent throughout in a unique visual palette that emulates the panels found in comics. The gore level is high, the comedy is dark, and the cast is incredible.
These five tales concern a dead man who returns from the grave for a vengeance fueled holiday; a lonesome hillbilly finds a meteorite thinking it will bring him fortune, but instead brings him a lot of bad luck; infidelity leads a husband to devise a gruesome revenge on his wife and lover; a professor discovers a decades old crate hiding a very hungry secret; and finally, a bigoted, self-centered clean-freak's fear of cockroaches materializes in his specially made apartment. The framing device -- such as it is -- sees a brutish father tossing out his son's "crap" copy of the Creepshow comic, and pays for it during the concluding moments of the film.
Creepiest Tale: This honor goes to 'The Crate' -- a great monster, a lovely in-joke, juicy Tom Savini gore and believable characters all amount to a compact, 37 minute monster flick.
Throwaway Tale: While it's hilarious watching Stephen King play a hillbilly outcast, 'The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill' is more comedy than horror. It's fun, but flaccid; its finish is more pinch than sting. Still, the utterance of "Meteor shit!" is one of the more memorable moments from the movie.
FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987)
Easily the most grotesque anthology of the 1980s. Jeff Burr's inaugural movie is rife with creativity and nauseating subject matter. Grim from start to finish, it never lets go. All the stories are relatively strong with powerful punchlines. While CREEPSHOW had an air of macabre frivolity about it, Burr's movie is simply ferocious. Only the framing device contains a darkly humorous tone about it.
The four sordid stories of Oldfield, Tennessee consist of -- a disturbed man has a thing for dead women; an injured criminal meets an old codger in the swamp who has the key to eternal life; a traveling band of carnival freaks are terrorized by their voodoo practicing boss; and a group of Civil War soldiers run afoul of a band of peculiar children living in isolation in the woods. The framing device provides a slight surprise, but lacks the nasty tone of the actual stories. Boasts a stellar cast, too.
Creepiest Tale: To say the fourth episode is repugnant would be redundant where Burr's movie is concerned. It's not only revolting, but it's frightening, too, mainly because of the creepy commune of children. Think Lord of the Flies meets CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984) and you get a general idea, just far more unsettling.
Throwaway Tale: It's difficult to nail down a lesser segment here, but the carnival story would be it for the sole reason that the shock ending is the least shocking.
TALES FROM THE HOOD (1995)
The first black-themed anthology horror film comes from Rusty Cundieff. It's a socially relevant picture that touches on a number of topics from racism to child abuse to inner city violence and drug dealing. Despite its obvious liberal leaning politicizing, the makers had enough forethought to not saturate the entire movie in propaganda. The last tale at least makes an effort to cover territory the media seldom traverses.
The four stories begin with black vengeance from beyond the grave on three racist cops; the second is about a young schoolboy named Walter who says there's a monster in his house; the third deals with an ex-Klan member turned politician who is besieged by a grisly group of dolls possessed by spirits of dead slaves; the last concerns a drug dealer who, after being shot, must confront his victims as part of a bizarre series of experiments, or is it? The framing device reveals the fate of our three young drug dealers. If you're familiar with some of the more well known anthology pictures of old, you can guess the finish.
Creepiest Tale: Two stories (the 2nd and 4th) vie for the most satisfying segment; but for me, the second story, 'Boys Do Get Bruised' roughs up the rest mainly for the soul-breaking performance of David Alan Grier. His career as a funnyman is erased with this heated, brutal performance.
Throwaway Tale: 'Rogue Cop Revelation' wimps out as little more than a standard revenge yarn; and neither an accent slipping villain portrayal by Wings Hauser, or the decent shock ending can salvage it. The only average entry of the bunch.
TRICK 'R TREAT (2009)
Michael Dougherty's intriguing compendium of seasonal spookery went virtually unseen for two years before it found a home on DVD, bypassing theatrical release altogether. It's limited circuit run allowed horror fans to ponder exactly why it wasn't given even a nominal release in theaters. I did see the trailer at the multiplex, but the film never debuted. Instead of the usual omnibus template of stories unrelated to one another, these four entries (and the framing device) overlap one another -- unraveling in a non-linear fashion over the course of Halloween night. The running theme concerns the rules of Halloween -- break them and suffer at the hands of Sam, a holiday creature hidden behind a nightmarish burlap shroud.
The terror begins with a single parent, child murdering school principal trying to dispose of his new victim; next, five young teens travel to a rock quarry where a busload of mentally handicapped kids were sent to a watery grave; a vampiric killer meets a group of young lovelies en-route to a special kind of Halloween party; and an old scrooge with a murderous past gets a mysterious visitor. The framing device literally ties all the stories together. The opening murder sequence, just before the segments begin to unspool, is reminiscent of a slasher picture.
Creepiest Tale: The story with the party girls and their one "virginal" member -- she's dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood and encounters a fang-toothed killer. It's the one segment that has the most candy in its sack yielding one heckuva sting in the tail.
Throwaway Tale: None of the entries are lacking, but the last with the old man engaging in a bloody battle with Sam (like Samhain) has the least amount of plot till the last few minutes when it ties itself up with an earlier tale. It also recalls the 'Halloween Candy' episode from the first season of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE (1983-1988).
THE THEATER BIZARRE (2011)
One of the best, and eccentric of the current crop of omnibus horror, as well as the most focused, mature, and experimental. Akin to the multi-director pattern applied to 1945s DEAD OF NIGHT and 1990s TWO EVIL EYES, this ghoulishly bizarre theatrical experience packs in six macabre stories with six different directors; seven if you include Jeremy Kasten's wraparound segment. Artistic flourishes abound here; and melded with gruesome gore and subject matter. These ingredients make for a startling marriage of unique imagery. It's not entirely successful, of course, but it's well worth your investment. Udo Kier and Catriona MacColl are among the cast for added enthusiasm.
A couple vacationing in Europe are enticed by a strange woman who claims to own a copy of the Necronomicon; sexual dysfunction leads a woman to split with her husband, only he isn't ready to let go; an abusive husband divulges to a psychologist his recurring nightmares of vagina dentata; a mother and daughter discuss the nature of death; a disturbed woman extracts ocular fluid from near dead druggies, then injects the juice into her own eyes so as to see what they experienced; a food obsessed couple's relationship is about to end till the doting boyfriend begs her not to leave and regrets it later. The framing device that gets the show on the road involves an artist who enters a rundown theater that has inexplicably opened across the street. A living marionette indulges the girl as the stories unfold.
Creepiest Tale: The nasty number titled 'Sweets' takes the cake. You'll likely eventually pick up on where this episode is headed, but the surreal imagery of people stuffing their faces with food may turn some off before the scrumptious, culinary conclusion.
Throwaway Tale: It's provocative in its way, but 'The Accident' is bereft of horror; and while it's well shot and directed, it simply does not fit within the parameters laid down by the other segments.
Since 2010, there's been an influx of anthology horror films that shows the format to not be slowing down any time soon. Here's hoping this style of motion picture maintains fresh blood in its veins in the coming years.