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Spotlight on: Horror Anthology Films
Cat's Eye
Creepshow 2
Dead of Night
Necronomicon: Book of the Dead
Night Gallery
Tales from the Crypt
Tales from the Darkside: The Movie
Tales from the Hood
Twilight Zone: The Movie

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Anthologies are terrific for people with short attention spans. Each episode is generally half an hour at most in length with no pesky character development to follow and a nice tight ending (often with a twist or moral lesson). They remind me most of campfire stories, where everybody takes a turn around the fire, telling their favorite, scariest story. (In fact, some anthologies have centered around just this activity.)

Episodic films like this give directors opportunities to make shorter films of a similar theme and link them together with a "wraparound" story -- giving the audience, in effect, several movies in one. These have proven to be relatively successful at the box office and on video (possibly from the misconception that the viewer is getting a bargain at three or more for the price of one), and one film -- Creepshow -- even rated a sequel.

An early entry in this genre came from England's Ealing studios, probably best known for their madcap comedies starring Alec Guinness (The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets). In the opening scene of Dead of Night, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arrives in the driveway of a country house. Upon being welcomed by his host, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), he seems to "remember" everything the man is going to say to him, though he knows he has never been there before.

As he introduced to everyone, he states that he recognizes all of them from a recurring dream he has been having that eventually turns into a horrific nightmare. They are fascinated by his story and each in turn proceeds to tell his or her own similar experience.

Each person relates their supernatural experiences and the stories are all good in their own way, keeping the level of tension high (excluding the fourth one, a comic tale showcasing the talents of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, best known for their characters Caldicott and Charters in such films as The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich).

The fifth tale, however, is the highlight. It concerns a ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave), whose career is actually run by his dummy, Hugo. Hugo shows great interest in partnering with a rival ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power). This upsets Frere, who shows every sign of being in an abusive and codependent relationship with Hugo. This tale is a knockout is Dead of Night is worth viewing for it alone. Redgrave gives a tour de force performance, all wide, vacant eyes and cold sweats as he fights to prevent Hugo from leaving him. The story of a ventriloquist's dummy with a separate personality has since been done and redone (William Goldman's Magic, for example), but never as well as here.

The film ends with a most definitely nightmarish conclusion that confirms Walter Craig's worst fears. With combined direction of Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton, and Basil Dearden from a script by John Baines and Angus MacPhail (from stories by themselves, H.G. Wells, and E.F. Benson), this is one of the best anthology horror films ever made.

From 1950 to 1954, EC (Entertaining Comics) produced a string of sensational horror comics. With names like Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, these were certainly not the type of entertainment originally intended by publisher William Gaines' father, founder M.C. Gaines, when he created EC as "Educational Comics."

But despite a 1954 Congressional hearing linking the comics to juvenile delinquency (or perhaps because of it), these comics would become some of the most popular and influential comics of all time. This format seemed especially suited to the horror anthology genre, and it wasn't too long before someone would exploit its potential.

In 1972, director Freddie Francis (an Academy Award–winning cinematographer of higher-budget films like The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Innocents) released the first attempt at adapting the comics to the screen. His Tales from the Crypt stars Sir Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper (a long way from the animatronic cackler from the HBO series), who mysteriously gathers five tourists for a "storytelling" session where he tells their own stories to them, much to their shock and amazement.

Their stories are direct adaptations from the comics. The best one ("Poetic Justice") stars Peter Cushing as a retired dustman who is being run out of town by a young rich guy because Cushing is lowering the property values. Joan Collins stars in one as a woman who murders her husband while trying to keep her son from finding out, and as a murderous Santa Claus prowls around outside.

Also included is a blatant rip-off of W. W. Jacobs' classic "The Monkey's Paw," with a more gruesome element added, of course. And rounding out the film are a tale of an adulterer in a car accident and a suspenseful bit involving the new caretaker in a home for the blind. Altogether, they combine to make an above-average film with a nice twist ending.

It doesn't take a genius to guess that author Stephen King was a fan of these comics in his youth. He was such a fan, though, that he paid homage to them in Creepshow and Creepshow 2, based on his own original stories but remaining true to the comics' style, including the requisite twist endings and puns in the titles.

Creepshow is, as could be expected, the better of the two and is probably the second best of the genre (after Dead of Night). It's a fan's tribute and it works because King doesn't try to improve on the originals, merely pay homage to them. Working with director George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), King also retains the sense of poetic justice that pervaded the comics (and, by turn, the Tales from the Crypt anthology). Sure, bad things happen, but always to bad people, or at least people who have recently done a bad thing.

Five tales also comprise the first Creepshow, which begins with a wraparound of a boy being caught reading a Creepshow comic book, which is immediately thrown in the garbage. The tales feed off simple fears like drowning ("Something to Tide You Over"), and warn of messing around with the unknown ("The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill," which stars author King in the title role).

There's nothing subtle about any of the stories but each episode is as good as the next and makes for a completely satisfying experience -- for those with strong stomachs.

Creepshow 2 begins to show signs of wear early, however. One negative sign is that there are only three stories taking up the 90 minute viewing time -- a sure sign of bloat. Scripted by George Romero from stories by Stephen King (another sign, the popular author apparently wanted some distance from the project), this film is directed by Michael Gornick, the cinematographer on the original.

The first ("Old Chief Wood'nhead"), about a revengeful cigar-store Indian, is simply laughable and it's sad to see the eminent George Kennedy in such a thankless role. The second, an adaptation of King's short story "The Raft" (from his Skeleton Crew collection) is merely mediocre with a bad special effect.

The only one really worth viewing is the last, a take on the old "hitchhiker" motif used since the days of radio (and best exampled by Lucille Fletcher's Suspense radio play starring Orson Welles). In this "Hitchhiker," a woman on her way home from an adulterous affair sees a hitchhiker too late to stop and slams into him. In order to further soil her karma, she flees and is pestered by said hitchhiker for the remainder of the picture. It plays better than it sounds.

After the filming of the adaptation of King's novel Firestarter, Dino De Laurentiis asked King to write another script for star Drew Barrymore. Cat's Eye was the eventual outcome. Three stories are tied together by the activites of a tabby, who is present in each. The first is adapted from King's short story "Quitters, Inc." (from his Night Shift collection) and involves James Woods' attempt to quit smoking. The incentive is through harm -- not to himself but to his wife. Next, the cat travels across town to a man (Kenneth McMillan from Dune) who has just found his wife's lover (Robert Hays of Airplane!) and challenges him to walk all the way around a tall apartment building on "The Ledge."

Finally, the cat is found by Barrymore, whose parents tell her the urban legend that cats steal children's breath. The cat saves the day, however, when it is discovered that what's really stealing little Drew's breath is "The General," a gremlin that lives in her wall. All three episodes are effective in their own way, and the length is not an issue. Timing and character are focused upon, taking this above the typical horror fare.

Stephen King has certainly done his part, but probably the best-known name associated with the anthology genre is Rod Serling, the creator of two mysterious and much-loved television series, The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.

Each episode of the Night Gallery series always centered around a painting; Serling would tell the story behind it. The 90-minute pilot is no different. The first tale ("The Cemetery") even uses a painting as a plot device. A greedy nephew attempts to speed along the inheritance of his rich uncle's fortune and a painting on the stairway changes as it predicts his fate. Roddy McDowall is quite good in this role and the painting device is surprisingly effective.

Steven Spielberg made his directorial debut on the second tale, "Eyes," about a blind woman (Joan Crawford) who spends her life's fortune to be able to see again -- but only for a short time. A particularly devious twist makes this the best of the three. Crawford's performance is also worth viewing. The third tale about a Nazi ("Escape Route") is all right but nothing particularly special. All Nazis in films get their comeuppance, so there are no surprises here.

Somehow, though, altogether the film works. I think the presence of Rod Serling has something to do with that. The man simply has a certain way about him that makes him riveting, even his voice. On The Twilight Zone's lesser episodes, he was often the best thing about them. And with the success of The Twilight Zone in reruns, you knew someone would come up with the idea of making it into a movie. (Adapting television for film isn't a new idea, after all.)

Unfortunately, the four segments are uneven. The terrific narration by Burgess Meredith is the only thing that ties them all together. Somewhat surprisingly, the two by "superstar" directors John Landis ("Time Out") and Steven Spielberg ("Kick the Can") are the weakest, while relatively new-kids-on-the-reel Joe Dante and George Miller are the best.

Dante adapts "It's a GOOD Life," the story of a child who holds his family hostage with threats of supernatural consequences. In the television show, it was being banished to the cornfield (from where no one ever returned), but here they have updated it to include several references to television. One character's punishment is to be sent into a particularly violent cartoon. Dante is obviously having a lot of fun with this, but that level of fun is inherent in his work.

Taking a more workmanship approach, and coming up with the jackpot, is Miller, who is given the task of adapting Richard Matheson's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," one of the more famous episodes from the series. John Lithgow is now the terrified passenger who sees a strange creature on the wing of the airplane, tearing away pieces of the wing. Lithgow is perfect, showing full-out terror (without mockery) but making us laugh at the same time. This in itself, as a short film, is almost Oscar-worthy is its perfection. It makes me wish they had jettisoned the rest and just released this one.

In the late 1980s, George Romero (of Creepshow) attempted to bring back the anthology series with his television production, Tales from the Darkside. I, for one, was impressed. It had the right tone of scary/funny in the proper balance along with good scripts and actors. Of course, they had go to and mess it up by turning it into a movie.

None of the stories in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie are anywhere near as good as those on the series. I think they only used the ones they couldn't show on television. But restraint makes for innovation and creativity, none of which is shown in these three tales.

The wraparound concerns a little boy trapped in a cage by a woman (Deborah Harry) who is preparing to cook him. He distracts her by telling her these stories. Adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "Lot 249" stars Steve Buscemi, Christian Slater, and a young Julianne Moore in a tale of a mummy rising from the dead. (Note to the filmmakers: do not adapt any story for a young, modern horror audience that is over one hundred years old.)

"The Cat from Hell" is from Stephen King (his name does keep cropping up, doesn't it?) and was originally slated for Creepshow 2. William Hickey gives a wonderfully creepy performance as the crotchety old man (something he would spend the final years of his career playing), but otherwise this tale is simply an excuse for the gruesome special effect at the end (strong stomach alert).

And "Lovers Vow" is a message film and that message is "keep your promises." Really the whole point of the story is the "surprise" ending, which I predicted about halfway in. If you can find videos of the series, pick them up greedily. But skip this mess.

A really good modern anthology film came from Rusty Cundieff, the director of the stunning rap mockumentary Fear of a Black Hat. Tales from the Hood is a selection of horror tales with racial overtones. Clarence Williams III stars in the wraparound as a funeral director touring some gangbangers through the institution, showing them corpses laid out for burial, and explaing how they died. This innovation alone impressed me immensely. It is obvious that Cundieff is bringing a fresh eye to what was a tired genre.

The first tale, "Rogue Cop Revelation," is a simple "revenge from beyond the grave" vignette so familiar to this genre. A black activist is murdered by a white cop to keep certain seedy activities secret, and said activist returns to have a little fun at the cops' expense, including the black cop who didn't rat on his "brothers."

The second, "Boys Do Get Bruised," is a stunning look at a real life situation with a fantastic twist. Young Walter comes to school and his teacher (Cundieff) notices bruises that Walter says came from "the monster." In a subplot, Walter learns that if he draws something and then hurts the picture, it hurts the subject. The two come together in a satisfying ending.

Third is a twist on the familiar "haunted doll" tale perfected in Richard Matheson's story "Prey." A former KKK member (Corbin Bernsen) is running for governor and learns that many dolls (representing the souls of dead slaves) are hidden throughout his property, a former plantation. These dolls come together to give the candidate his "KKK Comeuppance."

The fourth and final is also the true shocker. Crazy K, shot in a street brawl, is arrested but given a chance at freedom if he will participate in an experimental rehab. With shades of A Clockwork Orange, K is treated to a slideshow of blacks killing blacks and lynchings. In the clutches of his madness, he finds himself being confronted by his victims. "Hard Core Convert" lifts its ending from Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," but the filmmakers are able to put all these pieces together into an original tale that speaks volumes about black-on-black violence while being entertaining and disturbing. The ending also takes us smoothly into the culmination of the wraparound story, its revelation lifted straight from the Tales from the Crypt movie reviewed above.

Somehow, Cundieff manages to keep things moving and the political content remains just on the surface--not bludgeoning us with its message. Tales from the Hood is a good example of the kind of creativity necessary to keep the anthology genre strong.

Necronomicon: Book of the Dead is another example of a good modern anthology film. Even more than E.C. Comics, Stephen King, and Rod Serling, the name that comes up when horror writers list their influences is that of H.P. Lovecraft. This film adapts three of his stories and perennial Lovecraft-film favorite Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) plays the author in the (now apparently obligatory) wraparound story involving Lovecraft's discovery of the titular tome.

"The Drowned" is the first story copied by Lovecraft from the book, and it concerns the inheritance of Edward De Lapoer of an old mansion on the shore. After their death in a shipwreck, his ancestor Jethro uses the Necronomicon to raise them from the dead. Based on the results, I would not suggest this course of action. Nevertheless, the modern De Lapoer decides to do the same for his beloved killed in a car crash. Really, people, come on! Did none of you read "The Monkey's Paw"? Raising loved ones from the dead is never a good idea. They're never the way you remember them and, often, will simply eat you for their own undead nourishment. Better to let the dead lie.

The second story is the best, and was adapted and directed by Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf). Emily Osterman, new to Boston, rents a room in the same building as the mysterious Dr. Madden (the inimitable David Warner) and discovers the reason why everyone is surprised that he is still alive. A surprising sexual twist makes this one more shocking than the others, plus it features Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away, It) as an interviewer being told the story.

The third is the most gruesome but the least entertaining, though it does feature a fine lead performance from Signy Coleman as Sarah. Burdened by a lot of silly exposition involving the relationship between two police officers, the story concerns Sarah, who is involved in a car accident is herself rescued. She would have been better off in the car.

Personally, I have always enjoyed anthologies, not least of all because it gives one the opportunity to press the pause button after one segment without breaking any story momentum. When well-done, almost nothing compares; when badly done, at least the disappointment is brief, and each segment has it's own opportunity to redeem itself.

Portions of this review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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