From Beyond the Cinematic Universe: Why horror anthologies remain as popular and as effective as eve
Anthologies or portmanteau's in horror are no new thing. The sudden success of the likes of Inside No. 9, Black Mirror, or Shudder's Creepshow, in which each episode offers up a brand new, unconnected story (or, in the case of Creepshow, two unconnected stories) may seem like a new and unique concept to modern television audiences, but the likes of The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Dark Side, Tales from the Crypt, Thriller, Play for Today and so on were doing it long before digital streaming was a thing. Even shows such as American Horror Story, or Netflix's own The Haunting of Hill House, are drawing upon the anthology format, albeit in a slightly different way, by switching focus and narrative every season to tell and unrelated story.
And what's more, we're seeing this revival not just on the small screen, but in movies too. V/H/S brought a found-footage spin to the concept, while the likes of The ABCs of Death, Southbound, The Lodge, Nightmare Cinema and Holidays are all honing in on that portmanteau style. And we can't discuss the anthology movie without mention the efforts of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, with their excellent Ghost Stories stage play and subsequent film adaptation.
The reason anthologies are starting to see something of a comeback more recently is up for debate. For my money it's a reaction to the long form storytelling so many television shows and movie series are busy spinning. When television and cinema requires so many to watch so much - just think about Marvel, which has reached a point now where missing an entry can throw you entirely off track in terms of plot and characters - the need, or want, to simply sit down every week and watch a one and done plot is strong. And anthology films, much like their TV counterparts, offer a similar sort of freedom, in that if you didn't like the last story there is always a brand new one just around the corner that you might enjoy.
But while it's not difficult to see the appeal for modern audiences, why is it that horror anthologies have remained so popular throughout history?
There is an argument to be made that the entire sub-genre (if one wants to call it that) is built upon the pillars of two distinctly British properties. The first, Ealing Studios iconic portmanteau Dead of Night, remains as creepy and as enjoyable as ever today, while the second, the infamous Amicus Productions' series of anthology films that began with Dr Terror's House of Horror in 1965 and ended with From Beyond the Grave in 1974, has had such an influence that their style and set-up are quite possibly the reason we view such properties in a certain way today.
Both of these "pillars" share common elements beyond simply being a series of short horror films. They introduce us to a wraparound segment, which links the stories and the characters together, and then allow the stories to unfold, often through a telling of the story by its central character. Later horror anthologies, and more modern interpretations of the sub-genre, have dropped this approach (to their detriment, in my opinion), but the dark, almost morbid sense of humour that streaks through them is something that we see reoccur time and time again.
It's my belief that audiences will always be drawn to the horror anthology because the nature of horror storytelling is that it works best in short bursts. It's like the cinematic equivalent of ghost stories around the campfire, the singular idea, almost told as if it were a good joke, with a set-up and a payoff that often involves some sort of darkly humorous twist. Horror anthologies work in the same way short story collections work, and audiences enjoy the feeling of having such spooky stories recounted to them.
I will always find myself excited for a new anthology, whether it be on television or as a movie, because I love the format and I enjoy never being sure what grisly tale is going to be offered up next. I think, deep down, everyone feels a similar way.