A Less-than-brief History of Anthology Horror Films

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“An anthology film (also known as an omnibus film, package film, or portmanteau film) is a subgenre of films consisting of several different short films, often tied together by only a single theme, premise, or brief interlocking event (often a turning point). Sometimes each one is directed by a different director.” Source: Wikipedia

Since 2012, films within films have appeared again on the scene. There is “The ABC’s of Death” with two entries and “V/H/S” with three, not to mention “Holidays”, “Southbound”, and probably a few others that I have missed. To some, this is a new and different trend in movies.
But, as they say in Poland, Au contraire.

The Last Dance in Babylon


Anthology films have been with us since the days of D.W. Griffith. In 1916, his masterpiece “Intolerance” wove together four stories with the Fall of Babylon, the Slaughter of the Huguenots, the Crucifixion of Christ, and an Innocent Man facing Execution. All were told with huge sets, excellent acting and great writing. Yes, this film is consistently on my Top Ten List.

Horror would soon follow suit, but not where you would expect it.

The 1920’s was a very creative period of experimentation and expansion in film…in Germany. In 1924, director Paul Leni led viewers on a trip through a “Waxworks” and spun tales of Jack the Ripper, Ivan the Terrible and the Caliph of Arabia, each told by a poet charged with coming up with a story for each of the exhibits.

This film was one of the first attempts at an anthology film. True to form, there was supposed to be a fourth story, but they ran out of money. So, the first rule of this type of film is to make sure you can keep within the budget. There would only be few other anthology films between “Waxworks” and the 1960’s, but there was a standout, namely, the 1945 “Dead of Night.”

“Don’t call me ‘Dummy’!”


In this British film, an architect is called to a country house for some possible work and is, instead, told tales of terror by its guest. Some are scary, such as a ventriloquist dummy with a life of its own, and some are humorous, such as two men playing golf for the affections of a lady. It would also foreshadow the UK as being the hotbed for these films during the 1960’s and the 1970’s.

During the 1950’s, American horror stars would be on the wane. Bela Lugosi died in 1956, after a long absence from films. Both Boris Karloff and John Carradine could be found more on television than at the cinema. Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr. could usually be found in small roles in non-genre films. Vincent Price would not truly be considered a horror star until the late 1950’s.


But in the late 1950’s, Great Britain would step in. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would pair up for a number of very successful film revamping Dracula and Frankenstein. Hammer Studios would become the nexus of the horror world. From 1965 to 1973, the UK would roll out no less than seven anthology films, beginning with a mysterious Tarot-reading stranger (Peter Cushing) named Dr. Terror. His deck of cards, which he refers to as his “House of Horrors”, would spell out bad ends for the likes of Christopher Lee and a young Donald Sutherland.

The stories the next few films would draw on would be from very American sources. “Torture Garden” (1967), “The House that Dripped Blood” (1971), and “Asylum” (1972) would all feature the works of “Psycho” author Robert Bloch. Meanwhile, 1972’s “Tales from the Crypt” and 1973’s “The Vault of Horror” would bring the fabled EC comics back into the public consciousness. Peter Cushing can be found in “Torture Garden”, “The House that Dripped Blood” (along with Christopher Lee and Dr. Who’s Jon Pertwee), “Tales from the Crypt” and “Asylum.”

Outside the British Isles, the classics would also be revisited. Edgar Allen Poe’s tales would be brought to life in the 1962 “Tales of Terror”, with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories would appear on the screen in 1973’s “Twice Told Tales”, once again, with Vincent Price. Directors Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim would put their stylish mark of three stories by Poe in the 1968 film “Spirits of the Dead,” which features Jane Fonda and Brigette Bardot. The decade would close with Rod Serling launching another television series, “Night Gallery”, with stories featuring Roddy McDowell and Joan Crawford, along with a story directed by young Steven Spielberg.

Richard Matheson


A last hurrah for the anthology film seems to be in 1975, when the telemovie “Trilogy of Terror”, starring Karen Black and murderous fetish doll that haunts many of us to this day. Stories for this movie were supplied by Richard Matheson, a staple of horror films from the 1960’s into the 1990’s. He would write the stories that would give us “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983) and “Trilogy of Terror II” (1996). Matheson’s stories were often featured in the original “Twilight Zone” television series.


Stephen King

In many ways, the 1980’s belonged to one man: Stephen King. His stories would populate the few anthology films of the decade. Relying on the EC comic book scenario, stories for “Creepshow” (1982) and “Creepshow 2” (1987) would be all King. Even his son, Joe King, would be the little boy with the sharp pins in the first Creepshow and King, himself, would star in “The Loathsome Death of Jordy Verrill.” In between these two films is “Cat’s Eye” (1985), in which a cat tries to get back to Drew Barrymore, to save her from a monster. King would also contribute one story to the 1990 “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie.” The television version of “Tales from the Darkside” carries two King stories in its history.


For those interested, Joe King currently goes by the name Joe Hill and has written books like “Horns” and “Heart-Shaped Box”. His style is not like his Father’s, but he does understand how to get your hair to stand on end.


The 1990’s saw some films, but little that really stands out. Films like “Grim Prairie Tales” (1990), horror in the Old West, “Tales from the Hood” (1995), inner city horror, “The Willies” (1990) and “Campfire Tales” (1997), tent horror, were just some of the relatively unremarkable films of the period. There really wasn’t anything noteworthy until 2007, when a little boy in a burlap mask would make the scene.


“Trick ‘r Treat” (2007) is a different kind of anthology film. Set in a small town, the several stories all take place on one Halloween night and all cross over each other. Characters each have independent stories, but unwittingly cross each other’s paths at various times in the film. It is a film that requires a certain amount of attention and, occasionally, a dark wit. Sam is the little demon in the burlap mask. He is the true spirit of Halloween, its promoter, its protector and its enforcer. This film has become my favorite Halloween film and will always be part of my holiday viewing as long as I am able.Two other franchises have come into view. The “V/H/S” series (2012-14) has three films and is kind of a “Tales of the Internet” film, with three stories, wrapped around the technology of home video and social media. I only saw the first one and found it somewhat uneven.

Two other franchises have come into view. The “V/H/S” series (2012-14) has three films and is kind of a “Tales of the Internet” film, with three stories, wrapped around the technology of home video and social media. I only saw the first one and found it somewhat uneven.The more intriguing attempt

The more intriguing attempt are the “ABC’s of Death” pair. Take 26 short film makers. Give them each a letter. Have them make a short horror film.Then put them in alphabetical order as one film. I love the concept. Something like this, with so many variables, can be hit or miss. In this case, it

Then put them in alphabetical order as one film. I love the concept. Something like this, with so many variables, can be hit or miss. In this case, it is mostly hits. I highly recommend “F is for Fart” from the first film and “B is for Badger” from the second.

Of course, there are other films that I failed to mention, like 1990’s Poe film “Two Evil Eyes” and a meeting of the monster minds in 1981’s “The Monster Club”, and there are other films yet to come, like the often-rumored “Trick ‘r Treat 2.” Some films might be well-remembered (“Tales that Witness Madness” 1973), and others easily forgotten (“Creepshow 3” 2006). But whatever the case, there are still tales to tell. And anthology films will do their best to tell as many as can possibly fit into two hours.


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About Ernie Fink

Ernie Fink has been a fan of film, mainly in the genres of horror and mystery, in equal parts, for over fifty years. His love of horror in the cinema begins with "King Kong" and in literature with Edgar Allan Poe and Bernhardt J. Hurwood.  With mysteries, he skipped from the Hardy Boys right to Hercules Poirot, only to find John Rebus and Harry Hole waiting in the wings. He has been known to read subtitles extensively, and rarely leaves a theater until the lights come up.
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