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Tales From the Dark Side of Anthologies

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By Nick Schager

IFC News

[Photo: George A. Romero’s “The Crate,” from “Creepshow,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1982]

The only thing better than a deeply terrifying horror film is a deeply terrifying horror anthology. That said, if the latter in theory promises more bang for your buck, it in practice often provides only additional time-filler detritus. With the Halloween season once again upon us, we here at IFC decided to survey some landmark and recent horror collections, and our findings weren’t always pretty — for every superb “Creepshow” or “Kwaidan,” there are twenty turgid “Tales From the Hood”s. Given the sheer number of scary compilations produced over the past 60 years, comprehensive coverage of every great (and not-so-great) example of the form proved impossible. Thus, our apologies to, among others, unsung Amicus gems like 1972’s “Tales From the Crypt” and 1973’s “The Vault of Horror” (both recently out on DVD), 1985’s corny-awesome “Cat’s Eye,” and 2004’s “Three… Extremes,” all of which would have made a more expansive list. And conversely, congratulations to the following five, which in their own special way epitomize the good, the mediocre, and/or the sublimely ridiculous that horror anthologies have to offer.

Dead of Night (1945)

The granddaddy of them all, this 62-year-old Ealing Studios’ production remains the subgenre’s seminal work. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer, this sterling British film binds its five tales via the predicament of Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), who arrives at a manor house and proceeds to inform the guests that they’ve all been part of his recurring dream; when a psychologist expresses disbelief at this paranormal déjà vu, the other visitors tell personal anecdotes of the supernatural. That this framing device maintains an overpowering sense of mystery and dread up until the superb, descent-into-insanity finale is reason enough to sing “Dead of Night”‘s praises. The fact that its individual yarns — including one about a game of hide and seek that leads a young girl to tuck a ghost into bed, and another concerning a race car driver who, after an accident, is visited by death’s coachman — are uniformly efficient and inventive helps makes it an enduring classic. Not to mention that, with the incomparably unnerving “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” about a frazzled ventriloquist and his malevolent wooden partner, it set the template for hordes of (generally less scary, stupider) killer-doll imitators.

Creepshow 1 & 2 (1982 and 1987)

George A. Romero and Stephen King, collaborating on an anthology based on E.C. Comics — “Creepshow” was a horror fanboy’s wet dream when it hit theaters in 1982, and aside from “The Lonely Death of Jordy Verrill,” in which King (trying his best to act) becomes increasingly covered in moss, it triumphantly delivered on its potential. Lovingly faithful to its source material’s macabre humor and fascination with malevolent, vengeful spooks returning from the dead to right wrongs, Romero’s film remains a cheeky and chilling model of how to do horror collections correctly. The same can’t wholeheartedly be said of 1986’s sequel, which was written by Romero (based on original King stories) but lacks its predecessor’s cohesiveness and imaginativeness. Nonetheless, “Creepshow 2” (despite featuring three, rather than five, separate narratives) is far from a failure, in part because “Old Chief Wood’nhead” so perfectly gets the goofy-fearsome E.C. Comics spirit, and also because the money shot of “The Raft” — in which the camera pans up from a sleeping young woman’s naked torso to her face, which is then revealed to be covered in lethal goo — so strikingly conveys the simultaneous excitement and terror of sex.

The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Technically, 1983’s big-screen adaptation of Rod Serling’s iconic TV series — featuring one original story directed by John Landis, and three classic episode remakes helmed by Joe Dante, George Miller and Steven Spielberg — is as much science-fiction as straightforward horror. And the less said about Landis’ pedantic intolerance-is-bad sermon and Spielberg’s wretchedly mushy and condescending “Kick the Can” (featuring Scatman Crothers as yet another “magical negro”), the better. Still, the anthology earns its place on this list thanks largely to its final two, visually electric chapters. In Dante’s “It’s a Good Life,” the director playfully examines the darker side of his beloved Looney Tunes universe, highlighted by Kevin McCarthy’s nerve-wracking what’s-in-the-top-hat magic show. And in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” Miller piles on cockeyed camera angles, turbulent cinematography, and freaky peripheral characters — not to mention the proceedings’ only honest-to-goodness monster — with a tale of an air travel-averse passenger (a profusely sweating, ranting John Lithgow) who’s driven mad by visions of a creature destroying the plane’s wing in stormy mid-flight. Both dispense more anxious, sinister suspense than any routine teen slasher flick. And there’s no getting around the fact that the proceedings’ creepiness is amplified by its now-mythic on-set tragedy, in which star Vic Morrow and two young Vietnamese boys were killed in a freak helicopter accident during production of Landis’ contribution.

Kwaidan (1964)

Masaki Kobayashi’s four ghost stories are adaptations of Japanese folk tales that were collected in 19th-century books by Western author Lafcadio Hearn. Given this strange East-West heritage, it’s no surprise that they consequently exude a chilling sense of unreal dislocation and detachment. Self-consciously aestheticized, Kobayashi’s epic three-hour period piece conveys a haunting sense of the otherworldly, while at the same time frequently — such as with the exquisite “The Woman of the Snow,” originally trimmed for its U.S. release, and restored to its original length on Criterion’s lavish DVD — employing supernatural elements as vehicles for timeless, universal moral inquiries. Exhibiting a distinctly art-house approach to horror, “Kwaidan” features pale female spirits with long black hair, ghoulish figures who superficially foreshadow modern J-horror’s preferred embodiment of undead evil. The last two segments, “Hoichi the Earless” and “In a Cup of Tea,” never completely replicate the rapturous frightfulness of their precursors, even if “Hoichi” boasts the film’s most stunningly unsettling image. And at times one craves a bit less stylized artistry and a smidgen more visceral, gut-churning terror. Yet even if outright scares are somewhat sparse, the thematic depth and formal proficiency of “Kwaidan” is both imposing and gripping.

Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror (2006)

Meanwhile, at the polar opposite end of the spectrum, Snoop Dogg’s second attempt (after 1998’s “Bones”) to fashion himself as some sort of pimpadelic soul-horror icon. Demonic Snoop, joined by a vomiting midget and two vampire hos, introduces gory stories à la the Crypt Keeper, spouting pearls of wisdom such as “Just like I ran the hood… I run the hood of horrors.” I have no idea what this actually means, but one can assume from the ensuing nonsense — involving a woman whose satanically tattooed arm gives her magic spray-painting powers, as well as a pair of wealthy rednecks trying to kill a bunch of African-American vets — that Snoop ran his hood pretty dreadfully. During the course of this fiasco, a thug facially impales himself on his 40-ounce bottle and former Playmate of the Year Brande Roderick literally bursts from being pumped full of caviar. Meanwhile, Jason Alexander makes a brief appearance as a record exec with a British accent, and the realization that the erstwhile George Costanza has been reduced to cameoing in such dreck is — more than all the slit throats and geysers of blood — the scariest thing “Hood of Horrors” ultimately has to offer.

Additional photos: “Dead of Night,” Universal Pictures, 1946; “Creepshow 2,” New World Pictures, 1987; “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1983; “Kwaidan,” Continental Motion Pictures Corporation, 1965; “Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror,” Xenon Pictures, 2006.

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