In 2020, film historians turned filmmakers Kier-La Janisse and David Gregory collaborated on the documentary Tales of the Uncanny, possibly the most thoroughly packed exploration of horror anthology films ever attempted, where they along with 60+ other writers, directors, artists, and other cultural chroniclers testify to the enduring appeal of this storytelling format. And as writer Nathaniel Thompson observed in his review, as the film runs under two hours, even with its body of interviews and hundreds of films discussed, not all aspects of this artform’s history could be delved into.
A particularly interesting unexplored detail in the legacy of horror anthologies is how the output of their production and release would practically explode in the years from 1981 to 1990. Previously, the 60s yielded 5 significant theatrical releases and the pilot for the TV series “Night Gallery,” and the 70s, bolstered by the prolific output of Amicus Productions, averaged roughly 1 per year, along with producer Dan Curtis’ iconic TV movies Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night. But the 80s exceeded both those decades and further, yielding not only over 15 theatrically-released features, but an almost equal number through other platforms. It can safely be said that the 80s were an apex (or should we say slay-pex!) of popularity for the genre. And there’s a few key reasons why this bloody bacchanal took place.
Hail to the King, departed monarchs, and several pretenders
The initial cinematic scare tale offerings began with remnants of the past, such as The Monster Club, produced by former Amicus partner Milton Subotsky, as well as a big screen adaptation of the cornerstone of all fantasy anthologies, the multi-A-list director-driven Twilight Zone: The Movie. But to quote an infamous Frank and Ernest comic strip, someone was writing a lot of Stephen King stories, and they found their way into several omnibus horrors: Creepshow, Creepshow 2, Cat’s Eye, Tales from the Darkside. George A. Romero, who had his fingers on three of those films, also linked up with Dario Argento to bring a pair of Edgar Allan Poe classics to modern times in Two Evil Eyes. Meanwhile, the expansion of multiplex theatres meant more screens to fill, and several dogged independent productions like Jeffrey Delman’s Deadtime Stories, Jeff Burr’s From a Whisper to a Scream, The Wheat Brothers’ After Midnight, and Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales were able to occupy auditoriums during the weeks between blockbusters.
Escaping the premature burial
Because of the appeal and flexibility of the horror portmanteau and the constant appetite for shocks in the cinema, it became a novel way to salvage troubled projects. Christopher Crowe, who had previously created the spooky series “Darkroom” for ABC, had made a pilot movie for another similar series at NBC, Nightmares, which the network ultimately refused to air, finding it too intense for television. Undaunted, Crowe and Universal released it in theatres instead. (Crowe would later have more luck with another TV omnibus/backdoor pilot movie, a modern update of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” that got picked up first by NBC, and then by USA Network) Meanwhile, producer Philip Yordan had been sitting on a pair of poorly-performing films, Gretta aka Death Wish Club and Cataclysm aka Satan’s Supper, along with an uncompleted project called Scream Your Head Off with John Phillip Law, and decided to cut each of them down to about a half-hour apiece, shoot new wraparound footage of God and Satan gambling on a train while teenagers groove to a band, and called the package Night Train to Terror. Other filmmakers who had made scary shorts were able to connect to each other and/or savvy producers, and assemble them into feature-length presentations as Mania, Screamtime, and Night Terror.
A wealth of hell on a shelf
After needing a few years to find the right equilibrium between studios and retailers, and renters versus buyers, video store culture was firmly established in the ‘80s, with all manner of people lining up to bring big black cassettes home for a night, week, or however long they could dodge the late fees. And while ordinary families were renting Hollywood hits and established classics, there was a demographic ready and eager to discover fare that never reached theatre screens. Many labels even touted their “Worldwide Home Video Exclusive Premieres” for the brief amount of time savvy renters figured out the hoopla was code for “busted theatrical project.” So a collection of fright tales was often a safe bet for hungry horror lovers. Sometimes there was a trusted imprimatur, like Starlog Magazine presenting Fright Show, which provided an early credit for Breakdown director Jonathan Mostow. Sometimes, there was a famous name above the title, like James Earl Jones for Terrorgram or Audrey Landers in Freakshow. But often, all you needed was a catchy name like Terror Eyes or Rock-a-Die Baby to get picked up and checked out.
D.I.Y. dying, S.O.V. shrieking
VCRs quickly became more than just machines to tape TV shows and watch movies; manufacturers kept working on how to make them portable, and then market cameras to work with them, so that families could shoot their special moments the same way they used to on Super 8. (And depending on the cringing reaction of certain family members, tape over them too!) And it didn’t take long before emboldened young auteurs took a bold leap with their consumer equipment and close friends to make their own ultra-low-budget gore tales. Horror was one of the first genres to begin producing work exclusively shot and edited on tape, and thus it was even easier to whip together a compilation of tight scare stories, and surprisingly not difficult to find young viewers willing to take a chance on them. A few of these even became bubbling cult faves: Steve DiMarco’s Shock Chamber was aired on cable as one of “Commander USA’s Groovie Movies,” and while at first only a 100 VHS tapes of Chester Novell Turner’s Tales from the QuadeaD Zone were released, the grassroots project kept Turner’s legend alive until his reemergence from obscurity in the 10s!
After the 80s, anthologies were still welcomed by horror fans, but fewer of them were being made by the majors. In the 90s, only 4 reached theatre screens, with another 2 airing on television. However, over the last two decades of the new century, the format has seen a vigorous revival thanks to entries as V/H/S, The ABC’s of Death, and the all-female-director showcase XX. Still, it’s a terrific achievement to consider how much short-take terror was available in a decade that, well, still haunts our collective memory.