I’m going to start this blog by just stating that I’ve still yet to see a huge number of portmanteau or ‘anthology’ horrors but due to being excited about V/H/S wanted to take a look at those I’ve enjoyed most. I’m grateful to any lovely people who can suggest any others to watch, either on the comments here, or on Twitter @caitd5. Likelihood of spoilers is pretty high.
Arguably the first portmanteau horror is Dead of Night and despite its release in 1945 is still thought of highly to this day. It does hold up well, threading together the stories, blended with elements of comedy and the ever-spooky ventriloquist dummy and builds towards a shocking climax. It sets the scene for future portmanteau films by weaving together the stories in an interesting way, preventing what could be a simple film gimmick into a successful, enjoyable and yes, at times scary piece of work. This pioneering work clearly inspired the work of Amicus studios throughout the 1970s as they adapted horror comics into films starring some of the biggest names in horror.
One of these comic adaptations is The Vault of Horror and contains my favourite segment of any anthology horror (so far) ‘Midnight Mess’ and also my second favourite ‘The Neat Job’. The framing device for the film involves a group of men (including Dr Who star Tom Baker) entering a lift, that instead of taking them to their desired floor opens out to a basement room where chairs are arranged in a circle. The men all take a seat and begin to tell tales of strange dreams they have had in which they meet their demise. While the content has certainly aged the stories have a camp, dark humour to them and the sense of the grotesque that I really love. The idea of blood on tap, direct from the neck of a still-living human being remains a horrifying idea, as does the frustration and anger of a housewife who, unable to keep up with her husband’s meticulous sorting regimes decides to kill him, chop him up and store him in carefully labelled jars.
The segment ‘The Neat Job’ clearly inspired the Dawn French segment of the Psychoville Halloween segment in which the tale is modernised to include the perils of improper recycling. Creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith use the anthology formula in order to set-up a variety of different stories that would be unable to fit into the Psychoville storylines but still, through a bit of clever writing, manages to further and set-up the second series. It’s a device the pair used alongside Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss for The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special to use some of their characters in a different way while still remaining true to the worlds they have created. Mark Gatiss also used a form of portmanteau story telling in his fantastic series Crooked House, that moves through different times of the house and the effect it has on its inhabitants.
The thing I really love about anthology horrors is that they allow for a wide variety of horror themes. It can deal with the supernatural, serial killers or any other sub-genre of horror in small chunks. Most anthologies include paranoia, revenge, betrayal, grief and obsession which are integral to the nature of horror. For example, in ‘The House That Dripped Blood’, one of the stories concerns a horror author who begins to see his serial killer creation Dominic around the house, often attacking his wife. This theme of obsession and the dark interests of those who work in horror works well as a story opener. The sight of Dominic is one of the more genuinely creepy things within the often camp nature of some of Amicus’ output.
Another great thing about the anthology horror is the line up of cult and horror names involved in the productions. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Denholm Elliot, Anna Massey, Tom Baker and Vincent Price have all been a part of one or more and the format often allows them to play against type. A good example of which is found in ‘The House That Dripped Blood’ where Christopher Lee appears to be playing the role of a villain before a twist in the tale showcases his talents in a different way. Of course, the performances that conform to their usual roles are just as fun, with Vincent Price explaining the breeds and cross breeds of various monsters in ‘The Monster Club’ being a particular highlight.
So that’s my little ramble about anthology horrors, inspired by the fact that V/H/S is out soon, the format of which (if successful) could allow new directors to collaborate with others and hone their craft by working on smaller tales, but with the creativity to weave them together. My only problem with V/H/S is that its another found footage film and they really have outworn their welcome, but at least there’s a little change to the format and the handover to a variety of directors should inject some life into the genre. Plus, who can argue with how cool that poster is?
Thanks for reading and as already stated at the start of the blog all suggestions for more anthology horrors are welcomed, either here or on Twitter.