Anthology horror movies make the most of the format: quickly sketched characters can service a 20-minute story. And a compelling gimmick only needs to hold your attention for the time it takes to tell a short story. Some filmmakers understand how to grab an audience and make an impression with a creepy vignette. To get you ready for IFC’s new anthology series Documentary Now!, here are some of the most memorable vignettes from a few of our favorite scary movies. (Note: some trailers might be NSFW, unless you work in a haunted house.)
13. Trilogy of Terror (1975) – “Amelia”
This made-for-TV movie boasts one helluva gimmick: Karen Black in three suspenseful stories penned by horror-master Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Twilight Zone). In the final chapter Ms. Black plays a sexually repressed young woman who is under attack from a Zuni fetish doll. This very ’70s segment is clearly the best vignette in the movie, as it was the only one to be parodied on The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror.”
12. V/H/S 2 (2013) – “Safe Haven”
The found footage trope can be hit-or-miss, but Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans make it work in this story of a small cult on the brink of “crossing over to the promised gates.” Without giving too much away, an undercover expose goes wrong and quickly becomes a nightmare full of gore and surprising twists. This bonkers 30-minute entry will make you think twice about joining a creepy religious cult.
11. Tales of Terror (1962) – “The Black Cat”
In the 1960s, Roger Corman produced seven films based (however loosely) on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, including the anthology horror Tales of Terror. The film’s best entry pits the refined Vincent Price against slob Peter Lorre in a wine-tasting contest. The two actors play drunk beautifully and create a scene that’s funnier than anything Poe ever wrote. (This version was adapted for the screen by Richard Matheson.)
10. Trick ‘r Treat (2007) – “The Halloween School Bus Massacre”
Unlike the other movies on this list, Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat isn’t a series of separate stories, but a Robert Altman-esque tapestry of interwoven narratives. The five chapters criss-cross throughout the two-hour movies, so it’s hard to isolate any one plot as the most memorable. That said, “The Halloween School Bus Massacre” might be the most upsetting. The story-within-a-story recounts the carefully plotted murder of eight disturbed children whose parents want them disposed of. Sure, it’s not as sexy as the Anna Paquin chapter, but it’s still damn good.
9. Creepshow (1982) – “Something to Tide You Over”
This George Romero and Stephen King collaboration was supposed to set the stage for a film adaptation of The Stand. 33 years later we still don’t have a movie version of King’s apocalyptic story, but we do have Ted Danson left to die on the beach. Presented in the style of an EC horror comic, the vignette stars Leslie Nielsen as a vengeful husband getting revenge on his cheating wife (played by Dawn of the Dead’s Gaylen Ross) and her accomplice (Danson). The murder is as cruel as it is simple: Sam Malone is buried up to his neck and given a fighting chance at holding his breath while the incoming tide drowns him. This was torture porn before torture porn was “cool.”
8. Nightmares (1983) – “The Benediction”
This video-store staple was a compilation of four episodes of a tv series (Darkroom) deemed “too intense for television.” Modern audiences might be surprised to see what couldn’t be broadcast back in the Reagan era. The standout segment stars cult favorite Lance Henriksen playing a troubled priest being stalked by an evil truck with tinted black windows. This segment is clearly inspired by the made-for-TV-movie Duel, Steven Spielberg’s truck movie which served as his blueprint for Jaws. In an odd coincidence, “The Benediction” was directed by Joseph Sargent, who later helmed Jaws: The Revenge. The trailer narration is also done by Percy Rodriguez who you’ll recognize as the voiceover guy from Jaws.
7. Dead of Night (1945) – “The Ventriloquist Dummy”
Some tropes are so played out it’s hard to believe there was a time when they were new. Can you imagine a horror movie where a clown isn’t evil? Or a monkey’s paw that doesn’t deliver sinister ironies? Today’s audiences safely assumed that ALL ventriloquist dummies are homicidal maniacs, but it must have been novel in the ’40s. Dead of Night isn’t the first film to showcase a creepy ventriloquist dummy — that honor probably goes to 1929’s The Great Gabbo. That said, the dummy chapter is one of the best remembered segments in the film.
6. ABCs of Horror (2013) – “J is for Jidai-geki”
Of the 26 short subjects in this anthology of terror, “J” might not be the best nor the scariest, but it is the most memorable. Yudai Yamaguchi’s vignette takes a familiar premise of samurai suicide and gives it a twist. The stylized look recalls Bill Plympton cartoons or MTV’s Liquid Television (in a good way!), and even though the story is inspired by the letter “J,” your reaction will be pure “WTF?”
5. Encounter with the Unknown (1973) – “Untitled Hole Chapter”
This Rod Serling-narrated docudrama presents a set of low-budget mysteries all supposedly based on true stories. (Or urban legends, as it turns out.) The most haunting of these tales centers on an ominous hole in the ground. When a young boy’s dog goes missing in the misty, moaning pit, the boy’s father goes after her and is scarred for life. While the amateurish performances resemble the dramatizations seen in Bigfoot movies of the period, the non-professional acting style gives the film a unique gravitas.
4. Chillerama (2011) – “The Diary of Anne Frankenstein”
This anthology plays like the poor man’s Grindhouse — instead of Tarantino and Rodriguez you get Adam Rifkin and Tim Sullivan. But Hatchet director Adam Green delivers an unforgettable segment with “The Diary of Anne Frankenstein.” (The title sounds like something from a Twitter hashtag war, though famed SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue made the same joke nearly 20 years earlier in SPIN magazine.) Anyway, Joel David Moore (the goofy guy from Shark Night 3D) steals the show as Hitler; instead of speaking actual German he goes through the segment speaking gibberish German. Following in the footsteps of Dr. Frankenstein, Hitler creates a super-soldier (using body parts) with unexpected results. Kane Hodder (best known for playing Jason Voorhees) co-stars as Meshugannah, the monster.
3. Night Gallery (1969) – “Eyes”
Rod Serling’s post-Twilight Zone horror series started with a two-hour pilot movie, the highlight is Steven Spielberg’s entry about a wealthy woman who blackmails her way into an eye transplant. Not surprising is Joan Crawford’s work as the heartless woman. But Serling really delivers by getting a lump-in-your-throat dramatic performance from Tom Bosley as the reluctant eye donor. This vignette was adapted from Serling’s book The Season to Be Wary, his only work that was created for the page and not the screen.
2. Tales from the Crypt (1972) – “…And All Through the House”
Like Creepshow, this movie is styled like a series of EC horror comics, except the stories really were adapted from an actual 1954 Vault of Horror comic book. The most unforgettable image is Santa Claus wielding an axe. It’s become a familiar trope today, thanks for movies like Silent Night, Deadly Night. (And the HBO remake from 1989.) Here, murderess Joan Collins fears for her life while an escaped psychopath stalks outside the house.
1. Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye (1985) – “The Ledge”
Another anthology film from Stephen King, released in a decade with 26 other King works adapted for film and television. So it’s understandable that some films are better remembered than others. Like “Something to Tide You Over,” the story centers around a cuckolded husband trapping his cheating wife and her lover. Here Kenneth McMillan (who King fans might recognize from Salem’s Lot) sends Robert Hays around the ledge of a Manhattan high-rise. Some of Cat’s Eye feels dated or silly, but this chapter will leave you feeling stressed. (Note: the trailer announces Cat’s Eye as Stephen King’s first original screenplay. But Creepshow came first.)