Sometimes known as “portmanteau movies,” anthology movies tell three, four, or five separate stories, often encompassing them or alternating them with a frame tale that ties them together.
From the beginning, anthology movies have been associated with horror.
The very first was probably Tales of Hoffman (Austria, 1911, apparently lost). The second was Eerie Tales (a.k.a “Tales of the Uncanny,” Germany, 1919).
I’ve never been a big fan of anthology movies because viewers inevitably like some stories better than others. It’s virtually impossible for any movie to give us multiple tales that we will enjoy equally. It feels like every anthology movie has a weak link.
It’s also traditional to make one story comical or partly comical. This can add complexity to an anthology film, but it can also dilute the total emotional effect.
Yet some viewers love these films. Like EC comicbooks (a direct inspiration for several of the films), anthology films entertain us by surprising us – with hooks, cleverness, poetic justice, and pleasing shocks.
A few lesser-known anthology films don’t fit the horror pattern, including Dreams that Money Can Buy (USA, 1947, a surrealist film with episodes based on separate dreams), The Illustrated Man (USA, 1969, a sci-fi film with episodes based on Ray Bradbury stories), Tales of Hoffmann (UK, 1951, a musical fantasy), and The Decameron (Italy, 1970, a bawdy comedy with episodes based on medieval poet Boccacio).
But the vast majority of anthology films are horror films, even if mixed with occasional fantasy or humor.
I’ll begin with the first widely-distributed anthology film, Destiny, below. Then I’ll move through the decades into the early 1980s where my territory ends. I count nearly 30 films total, which means it will take me three columns to cover them all!
In this first installment, I cover anthology films up until 1963, before the British production company Amicus reinvented the subgenre.
DESTINY (a.k.a. “The Weary Death,” Germany, 1921)
Before Metropolis, Fritz Lang directed this fantasy-horror picture portraying a sad Gothic Death relating three tales of ancient doomed lovers. Exotic sets and costumes are part of the point, with one tale set in old Arabia and another in old China.
Silent-era special effects include a flying carpet and an army of miniature soldiers.
The third tale (the China one) is partly comical, helping establish the anthology film tradition of mixing horror with camp.
It’s a decent film, but Waxworks (see below) was a broader success.
WAXWORKS (Germany, 1924)
Like its predecessor, Destiny, Waxworks is flawed and dated, offering little palpable horror to a modern viewer. But Emil Jannings (Faust) and Conrad Veidt (Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) are excellent in their respective roles as a deranged Arabian Caliph and a fictionalized Ivan the Terrible. Exotic locations and costumes are part of the fun.
The third and final tale evokes Jack the Ripper but it’s more of a dream montage than an actual narrative. Waxworks is also notable for setting its frame tale within a wax museum – one of the first in a long tradition of wax museum horrors.
Director Paul Leni later worked in Hollywood, where he directed The Cat and the Canary, the groundbreaking “Old Dark House” mystery.
FLESH AND FANTASY (USA, 1943)
We might describe this three-part anthology picture as “dream horror” from its occult atmosphere and premonitions of murder.
The frame, with bar patrons discussing the stories, is forgettable. But the stories themselves are good, especially the middle story featuring Edward G. Robinson as a mild-mannered gentleman who slips slowly into madness.
If one were to shoot someone face to face, he muses, then that would be murder. But if one were to press a button, and a random person were to die thousands of miles away, would that still count? Maybe that would be OK. Perhaps murder is only “a matter of miles.”
The first and third stories are inferior but decent.
French-born director Julien Duvivier also made a non-horror anthology film, Tales of Manhattan, in 1942.
DEAD OF NIGHT (UK, 1945)
Here’s the trendsetting British anthology film, one of the top horror films of the 1940s, most famous for the story of the evil talking ventriloquist’s dummy.
What starts out like an Old Dark House picture turns into a portmanteau picture as stranded house guests tell their tales. A comic tale involving a golf-playing ghost might be out of place, but it gets you to lower your guard so that you can get pleasingly startled by what follows.
The inclusion of comedy helped set the tone for the famous Amicus anthology films of the 1960s and 70s (to be covered in my next column).
While I don’t quite think Dead of Night is overrated, I do advise modern viewers to lower their expectations – at least in terms of horror.
It won’t frighten many people nowadays. But for supernatural surprises it’s still tough to beat. After the evil talking dummy, Dead of Night‘s second-most-famous bit is character actor Miles Malleson’s entreaty: “room for one more!”
THE DEVIL’S MESSENGER (Sweden/USA, 1961)
When you take three episodes of an aborted Swedish TV show and wrap them up in a frame featuring the Devil, what do you get?
The first anthology film of the 60s, that’s what.
All three stories feature vulnerable men tempted by strange women.
Like the women, the stories are strange, especially the one where a scientist falls in love with a beautiful naked woman discovered frozen in ice.
Lon Chaney Jr. plays the gleeful Devil in the frame tale. His age and alcoholism are showing, but he seems to be having a genuine good time.
You’ll have one too.
TALES OF TERROR (USA, 1962)
Roger Corman’s Poe series for AIP is one of the greatest delights for fans of 1960s horror. Several of the Poe pictures had a light touch, including this three-part anthology featuring Vincent Prince in each story – and as narrator in the frame.
I found it weird that Price both narrates and stars, but for most viewers, the more Vincent Price, the better. In the middle episode, Price and Peter Lorre play mutual antagonists bent on each other’s destruction.
Several anthology pictures – most notably Torture Garden which I will cover in my next column – featured a pair of literate but diabolical rival gentlemen who try to kill each other with tricks and subterfuge. This Price-Lorre rivalry might be the best of the bunch.
TWICE-TOLD TALES (USA, 1963)
Here’s a copy of Tales of Terror with a different director, adapting stories by Hawthorne rather than Poe, more downbeat than Tales of Terror, but also starring Vincent Price in each episode.
The picture is slow and somewhat stage-bound, clearly lacking the range of the Roger Corman Poe features.
But it’s refreshing to see Hawthorne’s underrated horror stories adapted rather than Poe’s stories yet again.
And, of course, any horror picture starring Price is worth the watch.
BLACK SABBATH (Italy, 1963)
The title sounds pretty nasty, and it reminds you of heavy metal music, but this three-episode anthology veers more toward the lighter side than most of its brethren. It even concludes with a comic self-referential gimmick.
It’s the only collaboration between legendary Italian director Mario Bava and legendary British actor Boris Karloff.
Karloff introduces the episodes and appears in the third one.
Fans generally consider the picture to be Karloff’s last great moment in horror.
I prefer Bava’s Lisa and the Devil, but Bava himself considered Black Sabbath his best.
The vampire episode is the most famous.