Sometimes, a movie is just too much of a commitment. You’re tired, you’re distracted, you’re unfocused. You want to watch something, but you also don’t want to have to devote your attention to a full-length, two-hour story. You want something snappy, something quick and punchy, something that can keep your interests in short, controlled bursts.
I understand this feeling all too well. I love movies, but sometimes they can be exhausting. After a long day a work or school (or just, you know, living), it can be tough to keep your mind attuned enough to the screen for a lengthy narrative. But you want to watch something, right? Otherwise you’ll have to work on that novel you’ve been ignoring for three months, or, god forbid, socialize with your family.
So what to do? Well, if you’re a reader, you’ve already learned the solution to a similar problem ages ago: Not in the mood for a novel? Read a short story! A concise, snappy, easily digestible bit of entertainment that you can process without getting bogged down on complex plots and characters. Hell, read two or three! Quick snacks, instead of a full-course meal. Much, much easier to manage.
Enter the Anthology Film. Yes, the solution to your attention-deficit issues is essentially the filmic equivalent of a short story collection. Just like a tired Stephen King reader turns to Nightmares and Dreamscapes over The Stand when they want a quick hit of that spooky goodness, you too, dear viewer, can get your horror movie fix in convenient, bite sized chunks!
“But why go through all the trouble watching an anthology when I could just watch a few episodes of a TV show instead?” Well, because my snappy little intro here falls apart if you think about it too hard, so don’t be such a smartass.
Here are some of my personal favorite horror anthologies. Watch them all the way through, or check them out piece by piece!
Pretty much the grandfather of all horror film anthologies (predating John Landis’s Twilight Zone movie by a year, and not killing anyone in the process), Creepshow is a bizarre, darkly funny collection of stories from the minds of genre geniuses Stephen King and George Romero. The individual segments vary wildly in premise, like all good anthologies tend to do, and range from tales of zombies to mysterious monsters locked in crates, killer cockroaches, and alien weeds. But what they do all have in common is tone: They’re creepy, they’re sardonically hilarious, and they all have Romero’s trademark satirical snark. Plus, they all feature excellent practical effects by legendary artist Tom Savini. This is easily one of the most fun collections on this list, and I’d even recommend checking out the sequel as well. Recently, the franchise has been revived as a series on horror streaming site Shudder, and while I haven’t personally been able to check it out yet, I hear great things!
Best Segment: “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” Redneck Stephen King being slowly killed by an evil extraterrestrial moss. It’s exactly as great as it sounds.
This is a weird one, because I hesitate to call it good, necessarily. It’s such a strange film that it somehow defies classifying it based on its quality alone. But it’s so interesting that I feel like it would be a crime not to include it on this list. Set on a nondescript highway somewhere in the American Southwest, Southbound tells several odd, interconnected stories of supernatural occurrences happening up and down this mysterious, nebulous stretch of road. All of the stories share elements with each other, and bleed into one another in an extremely clever and satisfying way. This is a rare anthology where each segment actually occurs within the same universe as the others, with characters from discrete vignettes popping up here and there in other stories, all done by different directors and creative teams (as is typical with the anthology format in recent years). The result is a moody, atmospheric collection of shorts, which by the end of the film’s runtime will leave you with a lingering, hard-to-place sense of uneasiness that’s hard to come by with a lot of its more polished contemporaries. Definitely give this one a go when you’re by yourself.
Best Segment: “The Accident.” A hit-and-run late at night, a panicked commuter, and an eerily uncaring and possibly malevolent 911 operator make this easily the most unsettling segment of the film.
Trick r’ Treat
Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat is my absolute favorite Halloween film of all time. Like all the other entries on this list, it tells several several self-contained, but interwoven stories, all with a pronounced horror flavor to them. The difference here is that A) It’s all done by the same director, giving them all a distinctively cohesive sense of tone and style, and B) the film is set on Halloween night, celebrating the spirit of the holiday itself, which makes it for perfect October viewing. Each vignette is super charming and atmospheric, with equal parts humor and macabre, and all interplay and cross paths with one another in just about the most organic way I’ve ever seen in an anthology. And, like all good horror shorts, they all have unpredictable and deliciously satisfying twists that make them all seem incredibly fresh, despite their initial, clichéd appearances. The highlight is the film’s mascot of sorts, Sam, who’s an adorably creepy manifestation of Halloween’s original, more pagan origins, and pops up from time to time whenever someone gets their comeuppance. I promise you, it’s a fantastic little film, one that is certain to get you in the mood for pumpkins and costumes more than any other on this list.
Best Segment: “Sam.” I just love that adorable, creepy little bastard so, so much.
Whereas Trick ‘r Treat focuses on a central theme and a uniform stylistic venture, V/H/S (and by extension, its sequels) is instead meant to showcase a wide range of subjects and styles, all while being very loosely connected by a spinal, relatively inconsequential frame narrative. Each film in the franchise is composed of four or five individual found-footage-style horror shorts, all done by different creative teams, which are meant to all exist in the same shared universe through a series of mysterious VHS tapes found by each film’s respective frame narrative characters. The quality of the shorts vary, but they all represent drastically unique tones and approaches to some classic and some very unique genre subject matter. Slashers, haunted houses, alien abductions, and dates from Hell are all given equal time to shine in each of these films. The experience is disjointed and inconsistent at times, but they each have some solid scares, and are worth seeing simply for the way that they exhibit so many different rising talents in the industry, some of whom (like Adam Wingard and Radio Silence) have become major players in subsequent years. The third entry in the series, Viral, is the weakest of the bunch, but even that has a gem or two. And with this year’s V/H/S/94 set to premiere on Shudder, hopefully they can keep the train rolling on this fun, eclectic collection of spooky segments. (Check back in later this week for more on that!)
Best Segment: “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” (V/H/S) and “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” (V/H/S 2). I’m a sucker for alien abduction stories, and these two do it better in 10 minutes than most major productions manage in 2 hours.
Masters of Horror
Okay, this one is technically cheating a bit, but I make the rules here, so deal with it. Masters of Horror isn’t a horror film at all. Rather, it’s a series that aired on Showtime between 2005 and 2007 that delivers on the same general idea that some of the other films on this list adhere to: Let’s give a bunch of talented horror filmmakers a small amount of money and have them all create their own little horror shorts. Only here, there’s two main differences: The “shorts” are all around an hour long each, making them a fair bit lengthier than the segments in other films on this list, and the “filmmakers” tasked with creating entries for the collection here aren’t up-and-comers. These are horror heavyweights, absolute masters of their craft, hence the name of the series. Everyone who’s anyone in horror at the time took a stab at creating something for the show, from Halloween’s John Carpenter to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, all the way up to more contemporary creatives like Rob Zombie and Guillermo del Toro. Again, as with most anthology collections, not every entry is a winner, but when they hit, they hit hard. Honestly, some of these shorts (many of which were ultimately released as individual films) represent some of the best output that a few of these directors have had in decades. If you can find it streaming anywhere (it was on Tubi, last I checked), definitely check it out if you want some meatier, but not quite feature-length, short stories to whet your appetite for the terrifying and the deranged.
Best Segment: “Cigarette Burns” (Directed by John Carpenter). Carpenter is probably my favorite director of all time, so I’m naturally a bit biased here. But this installment is fantastic on its own merits as a meta, intelligent rumination on film as an art form, and its effect on those involved with the craft. Definitely a standout in a sea of other, excellent choices.
That’s it! Honestly, anthologies are sort of a dime-a-dozen, as any two-bit amateur filmmaker can string together a group of friends to add their own installments to a collection. Seriously, go browse the pitiful horror sections on Prime and Tubi, you’ll see dozens of them. But all that watered-down garbage only serves to make the truly remarkable stuff shine even brighter, and I think these five represent the best-of-the-best. Some honorable mentions include The ABC’s of Death and All Hallows’ Eve, so check those out if you’re still thirsty for more.
And of course, if you have your own favorites, I’d love to hear them!