Horror Anthology Movies 101

Three Stories Are Better Than One

Horror anthology films, also known as portmanteau horror movies, have been a staple of the genre since the 1960s. They combine several short stories -- generally three to five -- into one film, along with typically a "wraparound" or "framing" tale in which a person is relating the stories that we see on screen. Horror anthologies are known for containing morality tales wherein a protagonist commits an injustice that he believes he's gotten away with, only to have the tables turn with a twist ending.

The climax of each tale -- and even the wraparound story -- thus tends to be macabre with a touch of dark irony.

Early Anthologies

Many of the earliest horror anthologies came from Germany. Eerie Tales from 1919 was perhaps the earliest. It includes five tales, one being Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," as well as a framing story about characters reading about themselves in a bookstore. Later, its director, Richard Oswald, would helm The Living Dead (also known as Ghastly Tales), a 1932 anthology that revisits not only "The Black Cat," but also two other Poe works. More renowned is 1924's Waxworks, which finds a poet hired to write tales involving figures such as Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper. Acclaimed director Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921), meanwhile, isn't necessarily considered horror, but its structure -- Death telling three stories of sorrow to a young lover -- and the twist ending no doubt helped shape the format.

American Scares

In 1943, a pair of American films caught the horror anthology bug. Flesh and Fantasy was directed by French expatriate Julien Duvivier, who had previously mastered the multi-story format in Carnival in Flanders and Tales of Manhattan. Unlike those movies, however, Flesh and Fantasy incorporated supernatural elements that leaned toward horror.

Decidedly more horrific -- and less artistic -- was Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, an anthology best known for inspiring a later British anthology of the same name. In truth, the earlier Dr. Terror was simply a cheap collection of snippets from other films, including Bela Lugosi's White Zombie.

The next significant US entries didn't occur until the early '60s, when Vincent Price starred in a pair of adaptations of classic stories: Tales of Terror (1962), which mined Poe for gold, and Twice Told Tales (1963), which used similarly themed works from Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Also during this time, the television show The Twilight Zone was enjoying a six-year run, melding science fiction with mystery and horror, and though each episode contained only one tale, the compact storytelling that generally ended in a moralistic twist would feed into the appeal of later horror anthologies. Indeed, in 1969, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling would go on to write the more horror-inclined TV movie Night Gallery, an anthology that would grow into a well-respected TV show that ran for four years.

Foreign Fear

After the initial German wave, horror anthologies outside of America came from a variety of places.

Edgar Allan Poe once again served as inspiration for a pair of early offerings: 1949's Unusual Tales from France and 1960's Master of Horror (also known as Short Stories of Terror) from Argentina. Neither received much attention, however.

More renowned were Italy's Black Sabbath (1963) and Japan's Kwaidan (1964), which added their respective country's unique flavor to the anthology mold. Both stepped outside of the standard American/British format by not including a framing story and by exhibiting long stretches of silence to not only heighten the tension, but also to showcase the extravagant sets and vivid use of color. Still, the stories tended to be moralistic and dark in tone, falling in line with most anthologies worldwide.

Later, in 1968, another Poe adaptation, Spirits of the Dead, would unite three top European directors -- Frederico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim -- each helming a tale from the legendary poet.

The British Wave

The horror anthology that is remembered as perhaps the most influential of all, however, is the 1945 British release Dead of Night. The wraparound story brings together a group of strangers in a farm house who discover that they have the common bond of experiencing a supernatural occurrence. They each then set about telling their own tale. The success of Dead of Night -- due to the strength of the stories and the effectiveness of the ominous mood -- set the stage for a flood of British anthologies to come.

However, the flood wouldn't arrive for two decades. Film production company Amicus, desperately trying to pry the British horror market from the grasp of Hammer Film Productions, was the primary source of that country's horror anthologies throughout the '60s and '70s. Its version of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, which shared only the name with the 1943 American concoction, was the first, arriving in 1965. The film follows Dead of Night's lead by bringing together strangers exploring their connection to one another, only to lead to a twist ending. Its success spawned a series of portmanteaus from Amicus over the next 15 years, including: Torture Garden, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Asylum, From Beyond the Grave, The House That Dripped Blood and The Monster Club.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors proved so popular that Ed Wood-like American schlock director David L. Hewitt tried to capitalize on it by producing a decidedly inferior film called Dr. Terror's Gallery of Horrors, a movie so bad that it's achieved a level of cult fame over the years.

Creepshow and Beyond

The only notable American anthology during Amicus' run was 1975's made-for-TV Trilogy of Terror (featuring the now-iconic killer Zuni fetish doll), but after Amicus' run ended in the early '80s, the onus of maintaining the horror anthology tradition shifted to the US. Picking up the mantle in 1982 were horror legends George Romero and Stephen King. With King writing and Romero directing, Creepshow rejuvenated the demand for anthologies.

They two added their own campy, fun spin to the genre, gaining inspiration from 1950s horror comics.

A slew of similar American productions followed throughout the '80s and into the '90s, including a sequel to Creepshow in 1987. King also worked on 1985's Cat's Eye, which used an ominous cat to tie its stories together, while Romero teamed with famed Italian horror director Dario Argento on 1990's Two Evil Eyes -- again, Poe-inspired. Fellow horror masters John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, meanwhile, jumped into the fray in 1993 with the TV movie Body Bags. Other noteworthy efforts from this time include feature film versions of the TV shows and Tales From the Darkside (which itself was created in the '80s as a continuation of Creepshow), as well as an "urban horror" semi-parody entitled Tales From the Hood.

Since the '90s, American anthologies have died down in prominence, but the rise of Asian horror as a whole -- from Japan to Korea to China to Thailand -- has meant an influx of Asian anthologies.

The one that has made the biggest splash in the US is Three...Extremes (2004), a collaboration between major directors from Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. The film in many ways embodies Asian horror's penchant for serene, high-concept yet edgy and controversial material. 

Modern Resurgence

Perhaps spurred by the cult following earned by 2009's , a slew of independent horror anthologies sprouted in its wake, headed by three films in the V/H/S found footage series and two films in the ABCs of Death franchise, which each featured 26 stories -- one for each letter of the alphabet.

These and other anthologies over the next few years -- including All Hallows' Eve, Tales of Halloween, A Christmas Horror Story and Southbound -- attracted an impressive lineup of up-and-coming and established genre directors like Neil Marshall, Darren Lynn Bousman, Ti West, Lucky McKee, Eduardo Sanchez, Adam Wingard, Eric England and Nacho Vigalondo, making these films a valuable showcase for horror talent.

Notable Horror Anthologies:

  • Eerie Tales (1919)
  • Destiny (1921)
  • Waxworks (1924)
  • Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1943)
  • Flesh and Fantasy (1943)
  • Dead of Night (1945)
  • Tales of Terror (1962)
  • Black Sabbath (1963)
  • Twice Told Tales (1963)
  • Kwaidan (1964)
  • Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965)
  • Dr. Terror's Gallery of Horrors (1967)
  • Torture Garden (1967)
  • Spirits of the Dead (1968)
  • Night Gallery (1969)
  • The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
  • Asylum (1972)
  • Tales From the Crypt (1972)
  • From Beyond the Grave (1973)
  • Tales That Witness Madness (1973)
  • Vault of Horror (1973)
  • Trilogy of Terror (1975)
  • The Uncanny (1977)
  • Monster Club (1980)
  • Creepshow (1982)
  • Nightmares (1983)
  • Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
  • Cat's Eye (1985)
  • Deadtime Stories (1986)
  • Creepshow 2 (1987)
  • The Offspring (1987)
  • After Midnight (1989)
  • Grim Prairie Tales (1990)
  • Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
  • Two Evil Eyes (1990)
  • Body Bags (1993)
  • Necronomicon (1993)
  • Tales from the Hood (1995)
  • Trilogy of Terror II (1996)
  • Campfire Tales (1997)
  • Quicksilver Highway (1997)
  • Strange Frequency (2001)
  • Three...Extremes (2004)
  • Dark Tales of Japan (2005)
  • Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horror (2007)
  • (2008)
  • Amusement (2009)
  • Deadtime Stories (2009)
  • Trick 'r Treat (2009)
  • Chillerama (2011)
  • Little Deaths (2011)
  • Barrio Tales (2012)
  • Scary or Die (2012)
  • (2012)
  • (2013)
  • All Hallows' Eve (2013)
  • Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear (2013)
  • A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
  • Mexico Barbaro (2015)
  • Tales of Halloween (2015)
  • Southbound (2016)
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Your Citation
Harris, Mark H. "Horror Anthology Movies 101." ThoughtCo, Feb. 29, 2016, thoughtco.com/horror-anthology-movies-1873208. Harris, Mark H. (2016, February 29). Horror Anthology Movies 101. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/horror-anthology-movies-1873208 Harris, Mark H. "Horror Anthology Movies 101." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/horror-anthology-movies-1873208 (accessed November 22, 2017).