After a heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s, the horror anthology film became something of a rarity. The subgenre is enjoying a resurgence in the 21st Century for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, Michael Dougherty elevated the anthology film to the level of high art with Trick ‘r Treat in 2009. Dougherty’s masterpiece had it all: Great stories and characters with an awesome wrap-around, an intelligent script, and a mischievous demonic mascot, Sam, who put The Crypt Keeper and Creepshow’s Reaper to shame.
The horror anthology renascence of the 21st Century has been further fueled by the advent of affordable filmmaking technologies that allow up-and-comers access into a previously impenetrable industry; the popularity of short films as both an art form and an initial step towards the creation of new features is also a factor. Platforms like CryptTV have produced megahit shorts like The Birch and The Smiling Man, and major studios now regard shorts as proof-of-concept for major productions; Lights Out, for example, was a short film viewed over 30 million times before it became a full-length feature.
Modern fear practitioners and producers are now keen on the idea of putting together a killer collection of shorts, bound by a specific theme or aesthetic. Below, in no particular order, are my favorite horror anthology films from past decades and the present. Have a look and let us know what you think in the Comments section. Did your favorite make the list?
Creepshow (1982, Directed by George A. Romero)
Official Synopsis: A compendium of five short but terrifying tales contained within a single full-length feature, this film conjures scares from traditional bogeymen and portents of doom. In one story, a monster escapes from its holding cell. Another focuses on a husband (Leslie Nielsen) with a creative way of getting back at his cheating wife. Other stories concern a rural man (Stephen King) and a visitor from outer space, and a homeowner (E.G. Marshall) with huge bug problems and a boozing corpse.
Is there an anthology film more loved by horror fans who came of age in the 1980s than Creepshow? I think not. With George A. Romero directing from a script penned by Stephen King and Tom Savini helming the special FX, it was bound to be a classic. With its comic book trappings, Creepshow felt like a subversive alternative to kids raised on Super Hero cartoons.
Creepshow 2 (1987, Directed by Michael Gornick)
Official Synopsis: This second horror anthology presents more eerie tales based on Stephen King stories. One episode finds a cigar-store Native American statue coming to life to avenge the death of the shop owner (George Kennedy) and his wife (Dorothy Lamour). Another features a group of teens menaced by a blob-like creature. The final installment follows a wealthy and callous woman (Lois Chiles) who hits a hitchhiker with her car and decides to flee the scene, but the victim isn’t inclined to remain dead.
In 1987, Creepshow grew up. The sequel still had the original’s themes of vengeance, murderous cryptids, and ne’er-do-wells receiving their comeuppance, but Creepshow 2 was far gorier and more realistic. 3 stories instead of 5 meant each was more developed, and therefore, more harrowing. The Raft is the stand-out of the batch.
V/H/S (2012, Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Chad Villella, Ti West, Adam Wingard)
Official Synopsis: Hired to steal a rare VHS tape from a remote house, a ragtag band of crooks finds a dead body, old TVs and a lot of cryptic footage.
Combining the distinctly 21st Century appeal of the found footage subgenre with an anthology series was a stroke of genius for producers of the V/H/S franchise. The winner of the bunch is Armature Night, directed by David Bruckner, which was developed into the feature film Siren in 2016.
V/H/S/2 (2013, Directed by Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sánchez, Timo Tjahjanto, Adam Wingard)
Official Synopsis: Searching for a missing student, two private investigators break into his house and find a collection of VHS tapes. Viewing the horrific contents of each cassette, they realize there may be dark motives behind the student’s disappearance.
The top entry in the second film in the V/H/S franchise is Safe Haven, directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans; it’s a violent apocalyptic cult horror unlike anything you’ve ever seen. A close runner up is Slumber Party Alien Abduction, directed by Jason Eisener. The found footage presentation works perfectly for this installment, adding to the terror of a documented home invasion and authenticity of a genuine close encounter.
The ABCs of Death (2012, Directed by Kaare Andrews, Angela Bettis, Hélène Cattet, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, Jason Eisener, Bruno Forzani, Adrián García Bogliano, Xavier Gens, Jorge Michel Grau, Lee Hardcastle, Noboru Iguchi, Thomas Cappelen Malling, Anders Morgenthaler, Yoshihiro Nishimur, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Simon Rumley, Marcel Sarmiento, Jon Schnepp, Srdjan Spasojevic, Timo Tjahjanto, Andrew Traucki, Nacho Vigalondo, Jake West, Ti West, Ben Wheatley, Adam Wingard, Yudai Yamaguchi)
Official Synopsis: An anthology of stories helmed by more than two dozen directors details 26 ways to die, each corresponding to a different letter of the alphabet.
It may sound flippant and light-hearted, but The ABCs of Death is no joke. True, some entries like T is for Toilet are hilarious, but entries dealing with dog attacks, cannibalism, and pedophilia will leave you shocked. The film is so extreme, an Ohio substitute teacher who inadvertently let her class watch the film served jail time for child endangerment.
Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990, Directed by John Harrison)
Official Synopsis: The first of three dark tales involves resentful student Bellingham (Steve Buscemi) looking to an Egyptian mummy for help in settling some scores. Then, hit man Halston (David Johansen) is contracted to kill a cat that has terrorized and even killed members of an extremely wealthy family. Lastly, struggling artist Preston (James Remar) witnesses a demon commit a bizarre murder on a city street but agrees to keep it a secret when the devilish being promises wealth in return for his silence.
The last great horror anthology series of the 21st Century before the long drought is Tales from the Darkside, a film that employed many of those who lent their talents to the first 2 Creepshow films. The winner of this trio of thrillers is The Cat from Hell, from a screenplay penned by George A. Romero from the short story of the same name by Stephen King.
Galaxy of Horrors (2017, Directed by Dennis Cabella, Javier Chillon, Todd Cobery, Andrew Desmond, Benni Diez, Marcello Ercole, Richard Karpala, Justin McConnell, Antonio Padovan, Fabio Prati, Ethan Shaftel, Marinko Spahic)
Official Synopsis: Trapped in a damaged cryogenic pod, a man is forced to watch a series of horrific science-fiction tales while his life support systems run out. Featuring eight intense stories of the unknown and other-worldly, equally wonderful and terrifying. Visit the GALAXY OF HORRORS, if you dare! Curated from Rue Morgue & Unstable Ground’s Little Terrors Festival.
One of the best horror movies of 2017 so far is the horror/sci-fi anthology film Galaxy of Horrors, a movie that will appeal to fans of dystopian futurism in the vein of Black Mirror and The Outer Limits. While each entry has the unique flair of its individual director, Galaxy of Horror is unified by a cold, sleek aesthetic that stands in stark contrast to the fury of human emotions portrayed.
Related Article: The Best Horror Movies of 2017 So Far
Cat’s Eye (1985, Directed by Lewis Teague)
Official Synopsis: Stephen King tales follow a cat into a smokers clinic, onto a penthouse ledge and into a girl’s (Drew Barrymore) bedroom.
Cat’s Eye arrived in between Creepshow and Creepshow 2 during Stephen King’s first renascence when studios were clamoring to adapt just about anything the bestselling author put to page. Director Lewis Teague had previously helmed Cujo, another film based on a King novel, so he was well equipped to tackle these terse tales of terror.
Related Article: The Dog Lives! The Best Horror Movies for Animal Lovers
Southbound (2015, Directed by Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, Radio Silence)
Official Synopsis: Interlocking tales of highway terror revolve around malevolent spirits at a truck stop, a mysterious traveler, a car accident and a home invasion.
All of the entries in Southbound take place on the dusty backroads of American, remote locations where society’s rule of law is weak and a man’s grip on reality is tenuous.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, Directed by Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante, George Miller)
Official Synopsis: This tribute to the beloved supernatural TV show has four episodes. In the first, racist Bill Connor (Vic Morrow) is transformed into a Jew in World War II. Next, Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) comes to a retirement home to teach the residents that they are only as young as they feel. In the third, teacher Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) meets Antony (Jeremy Licht), a boy who is not what he seems. Finally, panicky plane passenger John Valentine (John Lithgow) sees gremlins attacking his flight.
“Wanna see something really scary?” Anyone who loved horror movies in the 1980s will instantly remember this seemingly innocuous question that kicks off a terrifying quartet of tales in Twilight Zone: The Movie. (Okay, yes, only 3 of the 4 tales were terrifying; thanks to Stephen Spielberg, 1 is campy and sentimental). Most of us who saw the film as kids were traumatized by a rabbit in a magician’s hat, a gremlin on the wing of an airplane, and a girl with no fucking mouth!
Trick ‘r Treat (2009, Directed by Michael Dougherty)
Official Synopsis: Interwoven stories demonstrate that some traditions are best not forgotten as the residents (Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker) of a small town face real ghosts and goblins on Halloween. Tales of terror reveal the consequences of extinguishing a Jack-o-Lantern before midnight and a grumpy hermit’s encounter with a sinister trick-or-treater.
The best horror anthology film ever made is Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, a movie that becomes more than the sum of its parts. With some entries told in a single shot and other intertwined throughout, Trick ‘r Treat is a perfect unification of subplots into a single narrative; nothing feels excessive and every scene feel crucial. Of course, an irrepressible imp named Sam has his diabolical hands in everything.
Three Extremes (2005, Directed by Park Chan-wook, Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan)
Official Synopsis: Stories revolve around a witch doctor, a filmmaker (Byung-hun Lee) and a resentful extra, and a novelist and her twin sister.
The first entry of Three Extremes, Dumplings directed by Lilian Lee, is worth the price of admission alone. It’s an immensely disgusting story that’s almost impossible to describe without initiating waves of nausea.
Extraordinary Tales (2015, Directed by Raul Garcia)
Official Synopsis: Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi and Julian Sands narrate the Edgar Allan Poe stories “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Masque of the Red Death.”
This animated anthology of some of Edgar Allan Poe’s best-loved tales is pure American Gothic eye-candy; a treat to those who like their horror with literary flair. But it’s the narrations culled from recordings of the late Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi that makes Extraordinary Tales truly, well, extraordinary! One gets the feeling they are actually listening to stories told by ghosts.
Fear(s) of the Dark (2007, Directed by Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire)
Official Synopsis: Several scary black-and-white animated segments in different styles appeal to our fear(s) of the dark.
Fans of minimalist and experimental animation will dig Fear(s) of the Dark, distributed by the good folks at IFC Midnight. It’s a cerebral yet nightmarish exploration of mankind’s most universal and primitive phobia: Darkness.
XX (2017, Directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, Jovanka Vuckovic)
Official Synopsis: Filmmakers Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin and Karyn Kusama present four horrific tales of terror. In “The Box,” a boy (Peter DaCunha) starts to display strange behavior after looking inside a mysterious gift box. In “The Birthday Party,” a woman (Melanie Lynskey) refuses to let an untimely death ruin her son’s bash. In “Don’t Fall,” an innocent camping trip turns deadly, and in “Her Only Living Son,” a mother (Christina Kirk) must deal with the child from hell.
The first entry of XX, The Box (directed by Jovanka Vuckovic based on the short story by Jack Ketchum) is absolutely haunting and will stick with you long after the final credits roll; it’s the kind of metaphorical horror story that hits on several levels: Emotionally, viscerally, and mentally. The final entry is also fantastic; Her Only Living Son, written and directed by Karyn Kusama (The Invitation) feels like an unauthorized sequel to Rosemary’s Baby.