The 13 Days of Halloween: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Perhaps as much as any genre out there, horror caters to the short story format.  In fact, I would argue that horror actually does the short story format better than most.  Given that is the way it is in print, then it is no surprise that their equivalent will show up in the movies and on TV.

I love horror anthologies.  I have shelves full of them in book form in my dining room.  I have copious anthology films on dvd, and even entire tv series on dvd, and some older ones on VHS, if you can believe that.  The horror story has always had the capacity to get its point across concisely and effectively, be that in a dozen pages, a half hour episode or a 45 minute 1/3 of a movie.

So, here are a few of my favorite anthology series and films.  I had a difficult time whittling this list down.  Who knew there were so many to choose from?

Tales From The Crypt

Beginning in the late 1980s and running seven seasons, Tales From The Crypt may well be the best horror series ever.  Based on the pulp horror comic of the same name from the ’50s, this show seamlessly blended scares, sometimes extreme gore and dark humor in a way that I just couldn’t get enough of.  It got to be so popular that name actors were lining up to get their turn at an episode. 

I’ve been sitting here for an hour trying to figure out what my favorite episode is, but I simply can’t.  Over the years, so many of them stick in my mind that I just can’t narrow it down.  The Christmas episode with the escaped lunatic dressed as Santa, the lumberjack episode where they literally split the only woman in camp down the middle, the struggling cafe that finds success serving a unique new menu item, the conjoined twin ice cream salesman where one twin gets killed in a robbery attempt, the escaped killer who kills the cop handcuffed to him and gets stalked across the desert by a hungry vulture, the salesman/con man who gets caught up with the most repugnant woman ever when Tim Curry played the whole backwards family, the haunted house episode with Morton Downey Jr. as an exploitation journalist, the one where Jon Lovitz wants to be a Shakespearean actor and wins a key role as Yorick’s skull in Hamlet–I could go on forever. And if I don’t stop, I will.

Creepshow

This may be my favorite anthology movie.  The cast was loaded with big names–Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Leslie Nielson among many, and told a variety of tales.  Father’s Day where a murdered wealthy patriarch returns from the grave for some cake, The Lonesome Death of Jordy Ferrill where an alien weed consumes everything in its path, including Stephen King, They’re Creeping Up On You where eccentric germaphobe E.G. Marshall gets overrun by bloodthirsty cockroaches, and The Crate where Hal Holbrook and friend find a unique way to dispose of his unbearable shrew of a wife.

But my favorite of the bunch is Something To Tide You Over.  Ted Danson is screwing around with Leslie Neilson’s wife, so to get even, Neilson buried them both up to their neck on the beach and watches via closed circuit tv as the tide comes in.  Needless to say, things take a horrible turn for Nielson, and he ends up the one buried neck deep in the sand.  I will simply never forget the end scene when the waves started to lap over Nielson’s head, with him cackling insanely, “I can hold my breath for a long time!”

There were two lesser sequels to this movie, but other than a brief high point or two–The Raft, for instance, from Creepshow 2 where the creepy oil slick in the secluded lake ate the stock group of horny, stoned, drunken teenagers–but neither film came close to the original.

Tales From The Darkside

This show from the early 1980s followed on in a tradition established by Rod Serling’s
excellent work with the Twilight Zone and later Night Gallery, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Outer Limits and preceded
The Ray Bradbury Theater and the harsher, more graphic Tales From the Crypt that I referenced earlier.

Episodes were written by a plethora of great writers, including Robert Bloch, George
Romero and Stephen King. One of King’s episodes, in particular, based on a short story of his, The Word Processor of the Gods, had a unique impact on me. Good horror tales are always morality fables, and this one was no different.  What would you do if you had a word processor that would make whatever you typed come true?
Would you use that power for good or let it destroy you? It was that kind of ethical quandary and commentary that brought me to horror fiction. In fantastic situations, would people stay grounded or would they get drunk on the new-found abilities?

Later on, they also made a Tales From The Darkside film that ranks among my favorite anthology movies, as well.  An all star cast that included Christian Slater and Steve Buscemi told three tales wrapped around a more modern take on the old witch in the gingerbread house, capturing small children and fattening them up for supper.

Watching David Johansen as a high end hitman struggling to put down a small black cat or Rae Dawn Chong as a tormented gargoyle were great, but Lot 249 was my favorite.  Based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story, of all things, what could be better than watching Steve Buscemi reanimating an ancient Egyptian mummy and having him act out the mummification ritual on unsuspecting victims?

The House That Dripped Blood

In the late ’60s to early ’70s, a British film company called Amicus cranked out an array of horror anthology films, many featuring Peter Cushing, loosely based on the horror comics of the ’50s.  Some even sported the titles of the comics, like Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror.  Most of them were surprisingly good, but my personal favorite is The House That Dripped Blood.

This film is a collection of four stories, all written by the great Robert Bloch, wrapped around the gruesome history of one particular house.  Starring Cushing and horror film great Christopher Lee, this movie has one of the better wrap-around stories in horror anthology film history.  Including tales about a muderous fictional character come to life, a creepy wax museum, some voodoo and a haunted cloak, The House That Dripped Blood isn’t just a movie with a very cool-sounding title, it backs it up in terrifying substance.

Masters of Horror

This series, which appeared on Showtime in 2005, took the Tales From The Crypt precedent a few steps further.  Running for two seasons, Masters of Horror featured individual episodes directed by some of the biggest names in horror cinema.  Admittedly, the episodes were a little uneven at times–the one where dead soldiers came back from the grave to vote stands out as particularly awful–but overall, there was more good than bad here.

Jennifer was a particularly creepy episode about a smoking hot girl with a demonic face who enchanted men to look over her and had a taste for fresh meat.  The Fair Haired Child told of a boy’s parents who engaged in an intricate ritual to bring their deceased son back to life.  The child itself, crawling around all herky-jerky still gives me the shivers.  Pelts with Meatloaf as a fur coat maker taken in by some enchanted raccoon pelts has a particularly gruesome ending.  And Pick Me Up is a great mano-y-mano duel between two serial killers.

My favorite episode, though, is The Black Cat with Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe struggling to stay atop his sanity with no money, a fatally ill wife and a heavy drinking habit.   Combs descends into a surreal madness before emerging with one of the most famous tales ever written.  This series may have been short-lived, but well worth the time.

Friday the 13th: The Series

This series, from the later part of the ’80s, has always been among my fondest memories of childhood tv. The Friday the 13th television series (no, it’s not about Jason) was an entire show based on the morality play.  The main characters had to go around hunting down cursed objects from their deceased uncle’s antique store, objects with the power to grant the owner their inner-most desires, at the cost of their souls.  Every week, we’d see the consequences of giving in to temptation.

The show was really very 1980′s, big hair and all. On one episode about a scarecrow who beheaded its owners’ enemies, there was even a macrame owl hanging on a bedroom door. I haven’t seen one of those
since, well, since 1987.  I think my favorite episode was about a woodchipper that would spit out cash depending on how much the person stuffed in the business end was worth.  Drop in a rich heiress and oodles of money came flying out.  But in the end, the guy who used it was sucked in himself, and all that came out was ground up gardener.  The episode was so cool, it never occurred to me to ask why the hell an antique store was selling a woodchipper in the first place.

Cat’s Eye

This is a 1985 film based on some short stories by Stephen King.  The title comes from a cat that serves as a unifying character, appearing in all three separate stories.  Previously, I mentioned how much I enjoyed King’s early short stories, and this film is made up of two of those. 

In The Ledge, a former tennis pro is made to traverse the thin ledge around a mobsters penthouse apartment after being caught screwing around with his wife.  The cat plays a tangental role, helping the tennis pro and working against the mobster.  Then, in Quitters Inc., James Woods signs up for a smoking cessation program only to discover that the primary motivation to quit is the threat that his wife and child would be brutally tortured if he continued to partake.  To hell with the patch and nicotine gum, cutting off one of your wife’s fingers every time you puff is a plan for people very serious about laying off the smokes.  The cat appears only briefly in this one, just long enough to have some electro shock demonstrated on him.

Finally, the cat plays a lead role in The General, battling it out with a soul-stealing troll to protect a young Drew Barrymore.  In the end, the cat wins and finds a permanent home as Barrymore’s guardian.  This isn’t the best movie ever made, but I definitely have a soft spot for it in my memory.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

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