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Thirteen Horror Anthologies You Might Have Missed

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The “omnibus” horror film – a feature length collection of cinematic horror stories – is one of the most beloved and respected horror movie genres for many reasons; but most importantly, horror is often very effective in concentrated doses (just check out our excellent short film collection for some great examples), especially with a storyline that's designed to set up one good shock or twist, saving the writer the effort of milking more scares out of a single tale. The field is overflowing with some landmark films, including the timeless 1945 classic Dead of Night (still creepy and funny after all these years); Roger Corman's Poe collection Tales of Terror; a ton of cool flicks like From Beyond the Grave from UK studio Amicus; EC Comics-inspired films like the original Tales from the Crypt (actually another Amicus film) and George Romero's Creepshow; made-for-TV faves like Trilogy of Terror; and stylish international chills like Mario Bava's Black Sunday, Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan and the Poe-inspired Spirits of the Dead. After a brief dry spell when short-form horror migrated to episodic TV and the internet (with FEARnet's own Drew Daywalt pioneering the field of web-based short horror), the feature-length anthology has picked up steam again, with recent arrivals like The Theatre Bizarre and Little Deaths, and new shockers V/H/S and The ABCs of Death scoring big on this year's festival circuit.

Time will tell if these latest entries stack up against their mighty predecessors, but one 21st century omnibus film that pretty much landed instant cult-classic status is Michael Dougherty's supreme Trick R Treat... which, in case you didn't catch our reminder, FEARnet will be screening round-the-clock this Halloween. So I'm guessing you've probably seen most of the films listed above. But do you have any idea of how many other horror anthologies have been made over the years? The list is probably in the triple-digits, and includes not only some seldom-seen gems, but quite a few obscure flicks that are, frankly, probably best left buried. But I'm an equal-opportunity cinema gravedigger, and I've been busy with my trusty shovel lately. Below are ten more obscure omnibus films that stood out of the pile for one reason or another... either for their surprising creativity, or just straight-up WTF wackiness.

 
 
After Midnight
 
This late '80s entry was a late-night cable staple for many years, but dropped off the map for a while before finally finding a new audience on DVD. I almost didn't include it since the stories themselves are not that thrilling... but the framing device is just nutty as it gets, especially when it reaches its bizarre climax. What sounds like the dream college course with a creepy professor (Ramy Zada), who devotes waaaay too much time exploring the concept of fear, goes horribly wrong (or right, depending on where you stand in this scenario) when he offers a handful of his students – including the requisite psychic – to participate in an unusual storytelling session in his home. I have no idea what the hell is up with the ending of this film, so maybe you can rent the DVD and try and explain it to me.
 
 
Alien Zone
 
No one will be able to explain this thing to me. It's one from the “what the hell were they smoking” category: a '70s anthology of tales revolving around a collection of recently-embalmed corpses. Each dead person's demise is recounted in a fairly boring way... that is, unless you count the episode about a school teacher who is haunted by dorky kids, or maybe is just going insane and envisioning weird children with fake fangs so tacky that they make vending-machine Billy Bob teeth look like high-dollar Hollywood dental work. The best-made of the stories involves a duel between expert criminologists, but it doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes intellect to figure out how it's going to end.
 
 
The Burning Moon
 
This early shot-on-video project from notorious German gore auteur Olaf Ittebach is actually a fairly straightforward (though very sleazy) pair of stories – one about a stalker/slasher, the other involving an occult-obsessed priest – as told to a little girl by her junkie older brother. But aside from a disturbing final twist to the framing story, The Burning Moon is best remembered by gorehounds for an outrageously disgusting climactic torture sequence to the second tale which is crude but horribly effective... I won't describe it here, but it's inspired many a death metal album cover, and let's just say it was a long time before I carved the holiday turkey after seeing this one. Make a wish!
 
 
Deadtime Stories
 
This is a silly but ultimately fun and gory '80s offering with a framing story about an annoyed middle-aged guy whose young nephew keeps interrupting his porn viewing by insisting there's a monster in his closet. This prompts the grumpy uncle to tell some slightly more mature versions of classic fairytales (in other words, full of tits and gore) to ease him back to sleep. The highlight tale for me was “Goldilocks and the Three Baers,” about a backwoods serial-killing family whose brutish son takes a liking to a pretty blonde home invader... who has her own special taste for murder. Plus the movie's cheesy theme song is incredibly catchy, and at one point my band was seriously thinking of doing a cover of it... of course we were really drunk at the time.
 
 
From a Whisper to a Scream
 
Horror legend Vincent Price was starting to show a little wear and tear (bless his wicked heart) when this film was released, but he owns every scene of the film's wraparound story as a mysterious history buff narrating a southern town's horrifying secrets to a nosy reporter (Susan Tyrell). The segments are all pretty grim, with standouts including a Civil War-based tale of cannibal children and a flesh-crawling story of a meek man (Clu Gulager) whose obsession with a local woman leads to a totally bizarre and unexpected payback. This one just feels totally sleazy and wrong, but I 
mean that as a compliment. Good twist ending, too.
 
 
Grim Prairie Tales
 
One of the few interesting horror films set in the Wild West, this one is distinguished by a super-cool campfire exchange between the mighty James Earl Jones as a gruff, ruthless bounty hunter and Brad Dourif in surprisingly low-key mode as a na├»ve city fellow traveling horseback through dangerous territory. The stories themselves are nothing out of the ordinary, except for one freaky episode involving a pregnant woman seeking the help of a kindly gentleman, with an unexpected and totally insane “what-the-hell-did-I-just-see” conclusion. Well worth checking out, just to watch two great character actors work their magic.
 
 
Necronomicon: Book of the Dead
 
A lot of horror talent went into this Lovecraft-inspired trio of tales, with a made-up Jeffrey Combs portraying Lovecraft himself (with a weird Dudley Do-Right chin, for some reason), whose exploration of the notorious title book of arcane lore reveals short works from three filmmakers including Re-Animator's co-creator Bryan Yuzna. If this was a low-budget effort, it has some surprisingly high production values – especially the first story “The Drowned,” directed by a young Christophe Ganz (Brotherhood of the Wolf). I'm not sure why this film has not received a proper DVD release, but it's still well worth checking out. “The Cold,” based on HPL's story “Cold Air,” is stylish, and the final segment “Whispers” is gruesome as hell.
 
 
Nightmares
 
What began as a handful of leftover episodes for the canceled TV series Darkroom was assembled into a TV movie, then spiced up with a little R-rated knife action on its way to the big screen. Being TV episodes to begin with, the vignettes have that '80s television look, but feature Lance Henriksen as a disillusioned priest tested by a pickup-driving Satan (a riff on Spielberg's Duel) and Emilio Estevez as a teen video game hustler who faces his ultimate nemesis in the unbeatable arcade game “The Bishop of Battle.” Definitely worth it for that sequence alone, which employs some vintage lo-fi CG effects and classic punk tunes by Black Flag and Fear. The batshit final installment “Night of the Rat” will make you laugh until you pee, although I don't think that was the filmmaker's intention.
 
Screams of a Winter Night
 
This one's an early home-brewed concoction based on three urban legends, and despite a rock-bottom budget it does have its fans, thanks to some surprisingly creepy moments, and it does make good use of grim Louisiana atmosphere, at least when you can see what's going on (they couldn't afford too many lights). Of course, there's the oldie about the couple in lover's lane who hear a scraping noise outside the car, but it might have actually been a fresh idea on film in 1979. As a young fella I actually got more skeeved out by one chapter about a haunted room containing a sickly green glow (that must be where the lighting budget went) which has a literally captivating effect on anyone who looks at it.
 
 
Tales from the Hood
 
Clarence Williams III (The Mod Squad) is straight goth pimpin' as a funeral caretaker who guides a group of three criminals through a compilation of four horror tales produced by Spike Lee, each of which puts an urban spin on classic EC Comics fare, from the stories of how all the coffin-stuffers met their demises (inspired by the film adaptations of Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror), all the way down a the morbid moral to each story, with a special emphasis on social issues that is mostly unique to the genre. It's violent and intense, with a compelling third story reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, about an unrepentant sociopath who volunteers for a very unorthodox experiment.
 
Tales that Witness Madness
 
While it's in the same vein as other more respected '70s omnibus film from the UK like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Asylum and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, for some reason this collection is overlooked on most best-of lists. I'm not sure why, because it's fun, creepy, sick and crazy as all hell. The voodoo-based final story, climaxing with a very unorthodox ritual feast, is moody, atmospheric and sinister, but the freaky-deaky award goes to the story of a neurotic woman, played appropriately enough by Joan Collins, who comes to believe that her husband is getting a little extra lovin' on the side... from a tree. A tree that looks a lot like a woman, boobs and all. Yeah, it's like that.
 
 
Trapped Ashes
 
This oddball art-horror collection is noteworthy for being one of the last projects to feature acclaimed director Ken Russell (The Devils, Altered States) who sadly left this world behind recently. While the basic setup is nothing to write home about – a group of Hollywood folks are invited to tour a haunted studio where their guide encourages them to reveal their greatest fears – there are some truly nightmarish vignettes by horror heavyweights like Sean Cunningham and Joe Dante, but the standout by a clear mile is a fairly subdued but compelling piece called “Stanley's Girlfriend” by Monte Hellman (the “Stanley” of the story is a certain Mr. Kubrick). Russell's entry “The Girl with the Golden Breasts” is not the best of the bunch, but it's just plain fucked up beyond all description, so I won't go there.
 
 
The Willies
 
Not a film about male genitalia as the title implies, this is a darkly comic flick capitalizing on the popularity of campfire ghost stories and kids trying to out-gross each other with “You know what would be really sick” routines (definitely a nod to Stand By Me and the literally chunk-blowing tale of “Lard Ass Hogan”). This collection of fun summertime creep tales is narrated by a group of youths (Sean Astin pre-Lord of the Rings among them) who each in turn try to top the others' spooky stories. It's actually a very tame film considering the epic puke potential – except for the one about the kid who builds elaborate dioramas out of dead flies – but it's also got some of the same Stephen King nostalgia that inspired it in the first place.
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