Whatever its known literary antecedents may be, we can be sure that horror as a form of storytelling emerged more than 10,000 years ago, likely while some proto-humans sat hunched around a flickering firepit. The stories these people told were likely far more Nature-based than most of our own, and probably hinged on metaphysical beliefs of which we can know little. But it’s a dead certainty they told horror stories of their own, and these were most likely brief tales, the sort of thing you could squeeze into that space between the evening meal and sleep.
There are those who argue horror is best served up in precisely these short doses, that short stories and novellas are more likely to deliver the frisson fans are looking for than epic novels and feature-length films. I don’t agree with this reading myself (there are far too many powerful 500+ page horror novels and movies that run over two hours for this to be true), but there is an immediacy and power to a simple story told with no frills. This was something Edgar Allan Poe, who will feature heavily in this list, called a “unity of effect,” that in such a short piece, every word, every character, and every event can work together to produce one powerful effect.
Film is strange, in that you can easily watch three, four, or even more movies in the time it takes to read an average novel. A TV series is actually the better comparison. But short film can sometimes prove the assertions made above, that a relatively quick, unfiligreed story can pack a punch a more top-heavy movie can’t pull off. While short film now has venues like YouTube in which they can shine on their own, gathering them into one anthology movie, particularly one united by a theme, a style, or an underlying larger plot, can be effective and fun way of delivering chills.
Horrific movie anthologies, while rarely perfect all the way through, seem to have a special place in cinema. Compared to the movies on this list (and dozens of films that could’ve gone on it), where are all the science fiction, fantasy, mystery, or even comedic anthologies? All due respect to Monty Python and Mel Brooks, but horror is where this mode of presentation seems to thrive. Fortunately, after years of them falling in and out of fashion, the subgenre seems to have finally proven its mettle, and I think we can expect to see more of them.
Kwaidan is a classic of Japanese filmmaking, long-beloved by critics and directors and due for more attention from the modern horror community. These four tales are based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn, a late 19th/early 20th century Irish-Greek journalist and fiction writer who emigrated to Japan and embraced its culture, even adopting the name “Koizumi Yakumo.” Inspired by folktales and ghost stories he learned from his wife and other Japanese citizens, Hearn transcribed them into subtle and eerie short stories. Decades later, director Masaki Kobayashi gathered some of the best of them into this anthology.
Kwaidan primarily deals with ghosts and yōkai, mischievous, dangerous, but not altogether wicked spirits. Revenge, regret, and generally the pall the past can cast over the present are major themes here, but so are love and obsession. Kobayashi had until this film mostly worked within the confines of “realist” film, but for Kwaidan he embraced a more theatrical and even expressionist style, creating large and dreamlike sets in which these stories unfold. Kwaidan‘s influence on modern horror, both Japanese and global, is inestimable. It easily holds up to contemporary viewing and will give many viewers real chills and the most pleasant discomfort.
Spirits of the Dead (1968)
Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim
Cinematically speaking, Edgar Allan Poe dominated the horror genre in the 1960’s. Most famously, Roger Corman and Vincent Price brought “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and other stories to vibrant and melodramatic life in a series of movies released throughout that decade. The emerging Giallo genre in Italy also owed much to Poe, particularly his fascination with aberrant psychology. And the Hammer horror flicks of the time, while typically built around Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and other mainstay monsters, had a distinctly Poe-esque feel to them. Even art-film directors couldn’t avoid this influence, and that’s where Spirits of the Dead comes into play.
In this film, three directors not otherwise often associated with horror tackled stories by Poe, bringing mordant humor, stylish cinematography, and famous actors to his brand of terror. Roger Vadim (best-known for his erotic-comedic Barbarella) starts the movie with “Metzengerstein,” a story about cruelty and curses starring Jane and Peter Fonda. Next, Louis Malle directs “William Wilson,” Poe’s creepy examination of the doppelganger motif. And finally, Federico Fellini, along with Bernardino Zapponi (who would go on to co-write Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso/Deep Red), turn Poe’s amusing little “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” into “Toby Dammit,” a manic and hallucinatory story about celebrity and madness with a sudden, shocking end. Simultaneously classy and over-the-top, Spirits of the Dead is an excellent choice for someone looking for artsy takes on horror classics.
Based on stories by Stephen King, Creepshow gleefully embraces the melodrama, grim irony, body-horror, and vicious revenge fantasies that characterized the horror comic books of the 1940’s and 50’s, especially those produced by EC Comics. The latter were a thriving genre until Fredric Wertham, a psychologist formerly fighting the good fight against segregation and racism, fell into a black hole of fanaticism and led a moral panic against the subgenre. This crusade, inspired by insipid mis-readings and uncharitable assumptions (par for the course for self-appointed moral guardians then and today), led to the cancellation of Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and other horror titles. Fortunately, these comics had by then already been read by and begun influencing many future giants of the genre, including, of course, young Stephen King.
Decades later, King teamed up with Night of the Living Dead director George Romero, and the two parlayed their love for those old bloody comics into this riotous anthology movie. Creepshow sports lots of wild performances from actors like Ted Danson, Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, and King himself, as well as colorful special effects by Tom “Sex Machine” Savini. These short tales are just a lot of fun, skipping nuance and instead going right for the jugular. My favorite is probably “The Crate,” but watching King wrestle with “meteor shit” in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is a joy for fans of the author. Creepshow has also gone on to spawn a series of the same name on the horror streaming platform, Shudder.
Two Evil Eyes (1991)
Dario Argento and George Romero
Another anthology centered on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Two Evil Eyes was directed by George Romero and Dario Argento. Third and fourth segments were supposed to be created by John Carpenter and Stephen King, but the former was held up on another production and King decided, after the debacle that was Maximum Overdrive, not to try his hand at direction again. Romero and Argento, however, fill the gap nicely, directing almost feature-length presentations that drill down to all that is chewy and disturbing in Poe’s oeuvre. Romero’s piece is based on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a story about adultery and the mind all-too horribly surviving death. Adrienne Barbeau and E. G. Marshall return from Creepshow to star in this ghastly little story, and genre stalwart Tom Atkins plays (what else) a detective on the trail of supernatural mischief.
My favorite of the two, though, is Argento’s rendition of “The Black Cat,” starring Harvey Keitel, John Amos, and a young Julie Benz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dexter, and Saw V) in her first role. Argento mashes together the elements of several Poe stories and combines them into a cruel story about a photographer and his disintegrating psyche.
Three… Extremes (2004)
Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, and Takashi Miike
In this anthology film, three Asian directors (Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese) probe the outer limits of taste, serving up stories about curses, old tragedies, and vengeance. While these stories aren’t the most violent or gory of those featured on this list, they do involve controversial subjects and intense situations, something often avoided by anthology films, which often stick to campier fare.
Fruit Chan’s “Dumplings,” also released in expanded form as a full film, explores the yearning for beauty and youthfulness. Mrs. Li, an aging actress with a failing marriage, resorts to eating mysterious dumplings cooked by a woman with more than one secret to hide. Park Chan-wook, hot off his success with Oldboy and only a few years from directing the excellent vampire-priest film Thirst, presents “Cut,” about another director being forced to deal with an especially troublesome critic, one who has already appeared in his own films. In the trippiest entry, “Box,” the legendary Takashi Miike, creator of Audition, Ichi the Killer, and the heartwarming and absurd musical The Happiness of the Katakuris, the novelist Kyoko deals with the trauma of her childhood spent as a circus performer. When her new publisher proves to be an uncanny duplicate of a monster from her past, Kyoko must reckon with more than just memories.
Trick ‘r Treat (2009)
In the decade since Trick ‘r Treat was released, it has quickly become a favorite Halloween film for many fans of the genre, stoking anticipation for a long-postponed sequel. Made up of five interrelated stories, Trick ‘r Treat manages to be funny and creepy in equal proportions. Much of the fun here is finding out how the tales intersect and seeing characters from one vignette pop up as supporting characters in another.
Unknowingly overseen by a mysterious burlap-sacked trick-or-treater named Sam, several citizens of Warren Valley celebrate Halloween. There’s old Mr. Kreeg, played by Brian Cox, a grouch and a recluse who has complicated reasons for disliking the season. Laurie, a twenty-year old who wanders off from her friends only to meet a dangerous stranger. And who could forget Principal Wilkins, an amiable father with his own peculiar ways of celebrating the holiday? If you haven’t seen this one yet and you like your horror spooky, surprising, and funny, definitely give it a try.
The ABC’s of Death (2012)
The ABC’s of Death is comprised of twenty-six short films from around the world, all centered on one form of ghastly death or another. It shares some creative DNA with Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, in that each death is organized by a letter of the alphabet, but whereas Gorey’s classic has at least one foot in the world of children’s literature, this movie is strictly for adults and mature teens. I’ll lay down this blanket trigger warning: while plenty of these shorts are funny and some would qualify as PG-13, most are gory and many deal with scenarios viewers may find upsetting and few taboos are left untouched. Animal and child deaths, mutilation, disturbing sexual scenarios, scatological humor, and suicide abound, so if any of that sounds unappealing, you should probably skip this one.
If you’re still here, though, I think you’ll find some of these pieces to be little gems. As with any anthology this varied, the shorts can’t all be stellar, but some of them (C, L, Q, W, and Y being among my favorites) really shine. The mood shifts from goofily gory to grim to ambiguous, producing a roller-coaster of responses. Two follow-up films were released, about which all of the preceding can be said as well.
Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, and Radio Silence
As with Trick ‘r Treat and Ghost Stories (next up on the list), Southbound is made of several interlocking stories, though here each is filmed by a different director. It’s all the more impressive that Southbound coheres as well as it does, creating its own warped little world. Also, unlike with the two other movies, this one is genuinely and almost solely out to disturb you, passing over the campy fun seen in most of these anthologies in favor of dark and compelling tales, most of which work excellently. It’s also littered with enough Easter eggs and clues referring to the other pieces in the movie that it gives a sense that there are mysteries to be solved here, hidden meanings and unspoken twists.
These five stories are all set in or around a dusty and depressing little town in the middle of nowhere, mostly focusing on commuters who, for one reason or another, are forced to stop in this desolate place. Travelling musicians, a family on vacation, a group of men on a sinister mission: they will all be confronted with their own sins, as well as those of others, before they can make it another mile down the road.
Ghost Stories (2017)
Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
Based on a one-act play by the same name, Ghost Stories follows Philip Goodman, a professor and the host of a TV show dedicated to exposing psychics as frauds. When an old paranormal investigator who once inspired Goodman asks him to look into three potentially authentic encounters with the supernatural, the professor can’t pass up the opportunity. One involves the night watchman in a closed mental asylum, another deals with a young man on an eventful drive through the forest, and the third concerns a businessman facing the twin challenges of impending fatherhood and a poltergeist. How the three tales are interwoven with Goodman’s overarching storyline is the central mystery of the movie, and I wouldn’t dream of giving it away here. What I will say is that, much like Trick ‘r Treat, this is a great flick for anyone looking for their humor and horror interwoven.
Simon Barrett, Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, Jennifer Reeder, and Timo Tjahjanto
In 2012, the first V/H/S movie helped initiate a new wave of horror anthology films. By merging the anthology format with found footage, the series brought an immediacy and believability to these stories not often found in this subgenre. While subsequent V/H/S entries have wildly varied in terms of competence and quality, they’ve always provided at very least a few surprises and scares. With V/H/S/94, though, the creators have outdone themselves, telling four gruesome little tales all nestled in a compelling framing narrative.
When a violent SWAT team invades a warehouse, they find the remainders of what appears to be an apocalyptic cult dedicated to gathering recordings of horrifying incidents. A young reporter investigating a fabled sewer monster, a lonesome funeral home vigil for a suicide victim, a grimy and not-quite-abandoned underground laboratory, and a white supremacist militia with a hilariously inventive new weapon: each of these stories provides both the gore and grim humor that characterize this series, and each serve as a fine vehicle for the inventive directors who tell them.