The anthology format is nothing new in the film world, and literature has been compiling short stories into one volume for centuries. With one or two authors/filmmakers lending their name to it, they compile in necessary sequential order short stories/films that give standalone fear, working together to create the ultimate horror experience.
We’ve all grown up on a diet of mild horror in the anthology format – from watching Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, slowly graduating to The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits’ more intense episodes, we are used to seeing stand alone condensed stories that give us the beginning, middle and end in quick succession (but not always in that order). In recent times, TV has moved away from this format in favour of shows that are more focused on creating stories that have arcs, but its film that has begun to lead the way for this format that has done more for the reputation of the horror genre than most successful films.
The beauty of the horror anthology format is the limited time frame given. Think about it: a great idea can be stretched thin if given the opportunity to be made into a feature film, whereas in the anthology format there is a limited time frame in which to start and end the story. With a refined running time and often a restricted budget, the best can be produced. The smaller time frame allows for the story to be told with no need for fill or sacrifice, and in doing so some of the best horror has been produced. You can’t help but look at some films and think that they would have benefited from a much shorter running time. There are even concepts for TV shows that sound far too stretched for multiple episodes and instead would best serve a shorter running time within an anthology series.
Mick Garris, director of many Stephen King TV adaptations created a TV series in 2005 called Masters of Horror. This series brought together some of horror’s most famous directors, gifting them a one hour slot in which to produce their own short horror film. Given complete creative freedom and with no standard limitations normally established in the world of TV, directors such as John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento and Tobe Hooper directed one hour short films ranging from Angels to Zombies. The series was superb, with gems including Jenifer by Argento and Cigarette Burns by Carpenter. This project brought together directors from all over the world and proved the success and artistic integrity of this format. Brought back for a second series, it introduced audiences to other horror directors – some newbies like Brad Anderson and stalwarts like John Landis, all of whom brought their own spin on horror using the tight running time. It worked. Sadly Showtime, the television producers funding the project didn’t renew for a third series but the eponymous Lionsgate did, producing Fear Itself, essentially exactly the same as Masters of Horror just a little more toned down.
And then there’s film. There’s not much commercial appeal for the anthology format when talking about a cinematic release. Blame it on audience concentration span or call it what you will, but there’s something about the anthology format that doesn’t sit well – or make audiences sit – at the multiplex. Yet there have still been films released recently that utilise this format and they have been some of the best horror shorts I’ve ever seen.
The one thing that anthology films manage to do is show content or story ideas that wouldn’t normally appease a mainstream audience or would feel out of place as a full length feature film. The restricted running time and shooting limitations enable the filmmaker to concentrate on the story and the direction and this produces terrifying results. V/H/S is a perfect example of this – most of the short films after watching them kind of leave you thinking ‘what the fuck?!’. Even the main segment that surrounds the short features is chock full of crazy imagery that leaves you peering through your fingers.
V/H/S is a perfect example of how this format can apply itself to the horror genre in film. It opens with a group of lads that are vandalising car parks and abandoned buildings, even molesting girls as they walk past. They are filming it all for their own perverted enjoyment. At night, we see them breaking into a house in search of a video tape. All this is being recorded, including them finding a dead body positioned in a room full of televisions and stacks of VHS tapes. We’re told through the eyes of one of the group that they are to collect a video tape – they don’t know what’s on it but they are being paid a handsome sum to collect it. As part of the group search the basement, one of them sits in the room in front of the dead guy, pushes in a tape and presses play.
The segments of film we see each tell a completely different story and none of them are linked except for the fact that all of them are on VHS and all in this one room. Tales from a flesh eating winged woman to a macabre tale of love, a camping trip gone wrong to the wrong house at Halloween, this short films craft superb horror and tension in their allotted time. And the perfect thing about this whole film? They follow the golden rule of found footage films: establish a reason to film. The use of cameras are incredibly inventive, from camera glasses to a nanny camera mounted in the head of a bear costume, all of them give a perfect explanation as to why they are filming but more importantly that when shit goes down, they give a reason why they keep on filming.
These shorts also craft impeccable ‘what did I just watch’ horror. Some of them – especially 10/31/98 – create entries that are literally the stuff of nightmares, featuring scenes that mainstream films wouldn’t dare to show.
I truly think the future for the success of horror and for its reputation to continue when creating new and unique entries lies in the anthology format. V/H/S is on its third entry this year, and the just as unique ABC’s of Death is currently in the process of producing a second film. Masters of Horror showed that the classic horror directors of our time are still able to produce new, unique and terrifying entries. The restriction of pleasing the mass audiences is removed with the anthology format, and with it comes the ability to push the boundaries of fear and taste to the dark recesses of our mind – therein lies our saviour for the genre.
TOMORROW: Horror Masterpiece – Scream