Six Weeks of Halloween 2020: Horror Anthologies

The weather grows colder, leaves are falling off trees, gourds are being mutilated and put on display along with all manner of decorative corpses, headstones with ironic puns, and ornamental cobwebs. And of course, the (pumpkin) spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly signifiers can mean only one thing: it’s Halloween season! Given the real-life horrors we’re dealing with in 2020, I couldn’t be more thankful. I much prefer the vicarious thrills of horror movies to actual pandemics and ever-encroaching partisan politics.

Here at Kaedrin, we celebrate the season with a virtual cornucopia of horror movies (and books), pretty much nonstop for the six weeks leading into Halloween. Why six weeks? Well, it used to be two weeks better than most people’s horror movie marathon (which was usually confined to October), but more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon these days. We’re trend setters, is what I’m saying.

It’s traditional to start the marathon with something a little more heady and respectable. Older movies, foreign movies, you know the drill. In the past, we’ve tackled Silent Horror (twice!), some Criterion Collection curated horror, and lots of Italian horror. This year we’re going to tackle horror anthologies.

It’s a topic we’ve covered before, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The biggest challenges for horror anthologies are that, by their very nature, they can feel inconsistent or disjointed. Anytime you have multiple stories crammed into one package, some are bound to be better than others. It can also be difficult to suss out a common theme, sometimes leading to weird tonal shifts. What we have this week are three anthologies, two from the UK and one from Japan. Not the stuffiest of week 1 material, but I assure you, we’ll get to trashier horror soon enough. All older than I am. Let’s dig in:

Week 1: Horror Anthologies

Dead of Night – While not the ur example of a horror anthology (you’ll have to go back to silent era classics like Waxworks and Uncanny Stories for that), this is nevertheless an influential trope codifer and popularizer of the form. An architect looking for work goes to a country house where he meets several strangers that are eerily familiar to him… because he has a recurring dream (nay… nightmare!) about them. Intrigued by the mysterious circumstances, each member of the group shares an unexplained story from their life as a way of assuaging the anxious architect.

Dead of Night - Ventriloquist and Dummy

Highlights include a segment about a haunted mirror that reflects room where a murder was committed and a story about a ventriloquist with a sinister dummy. Both are uncanny and influential, while still retaining a power unto themselves. For instance, you’ve almost certainly seen a take on the ventriloquist segment before, but this one doesn’t lose its punch because of that. Even the shortest segment, “The Hearse Driver”, could probably be traced all the way up to the Final Destination series. While there are some neat effects here (I particularly like the effects in the haunted mirror segment), this movie is much more about mood and atmosphere than effects or gore.

Unlike a lot of horror anthologies, the wraparound story about the architect actually concludes with a bang. Most wraparound stories are mere conceits that frame the various stories and don’t even try to reach a climax. But the ending makes Dead of Night more than the mere sum of its parts (which is, again, something that most anthologies don’t even try to do). Well worth a look, especially for fans of the format. ***

Asylum – In the sixties and seventies, Amicus Productions made a series of horror anthologies that were inspired by, you guessed it, Dead of Night. This one has an inspired, if a bit silly, wraparound story. A young psychiatrist is interviewing for the head position at an asylum. As a test, he must interview four patients and figure out which one of them… is actually the doctor he would be replacing!

Peter Cushing in Asylum

This movie has a great cast that elevates the material, which, unfortunately, does need elevating. That might be a bit of an overstatement. Written by Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame), each segment is reasonably well done and entertaining enough. They just don’t quite stand out amongst the throngs of anthology stories. I suppose there are a few memorable visuals. Body parts wrapped in butcher paper. Even the little boxy automatons one of the patients makes are interesting, if a bit goofy. (How does it scale the wall like that? Never you mind!) The cast sells even the most ludicrous bits though. Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Britt Ekland, and Charlotte Rampling stand out.

Like Dead of Night, the most intriguing segment might be the wraparound. It’s a reasonably well executed take on the form and well worth checking out for students of the genre, but other Amicus productions (notably Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror) are probably even better examples. **1/2

Kwaidan – Early Japanese take on horror anthologies, this one doesn’t even bother with a wraparound story. And yet… these four tales hang together pretty well. The archaic Japanese word “Kwaidan” translates as “Ghost Story”, and sure enough, this movie adapts several Japanese folk tales about ghosts. Clocking in at just over 3 hours long, it does move a bit slowly and at least one of the segments is perhaps unnecessary. On the other hand, it’s a stunningly beautiful film and one of the segments is an all-timer.

In “The Black Hair”, a poor, down on his luck Samurai leaves his wife to marry into money… with predictably tragic results. At first, this seems like a simple drama, but the supernatural elements show up later and get things going well. It’s definitely a story that will make you think of past choices (you know, the ones that haunt you). Definitely an influential segment, you can see bits of this in the J-Horror boom of the 90s.

The Woman in the Snow from Kwaidan

“The Woman in the Snow” is about a woodsman who gets caught in a blizzard. His life is spared by a ghost, but only if he never tells anyone about the incident. I think you can see where this is going, but the story manages an ironic twist (though one you will probably guess as it takes its time getting there). Probably the most beautifully photographed segment of the film, filled with snowy landscapes and an otherworldly sky. The whole film is obviously shot on a soundstage with painted backdrops, but the production design is so great, and the colors so striking that it’s hard to argue.

Hoichi performing for ghosts in Kwaidan

“Hoichi the Earless” is about a young, blind musician who is asked to perform for an audience of ghosts. This segment is basically a feature length movie of its own, and definitely the best of the bunch. Again we’re treated to striking visuals, this time mixed with a musical treatment of battles from the distant past. The segment carries more thematic heft than the others too. It forces us to confront what we owe to the past, and how much we should let that dictate our present.

“In a Cup of Tea” is the shortest segment of the anthology, and probably the least necessary. A man sees a reflection of a stranger in his cup of tea, only to become haunted by the reflection. It’s a fine segment and it shares the production design and visual prowess of its brethren, but coming as it does after the strongest segment, it pales in comparison.

All in all, this is impeccably crafted, almost poetic stuff. Each segment is gorgeous and visually stunning, and they all share a certain thematic similarity about the past’s influence on the present. However, it is rather long and slow moving. As mentioned above, you could really separate one out as a feature unto itself, and leave the others as the anthology. Still, even as it is now, it’s an artistic achievement, if not a mainstream one. ***

So there you have it, week 1 in the can. Stay tuned, for we’ve got some Horror on Computer Screens coming up later this week. Then comes the horrors of Week 2. If you’re still hungry for more, check out Zack’s Film Thoughts, as he’s doing six weeks of his own.

2 thoughts on “Six Weeks of Halloween 2020: Horror Anthologies”

  1. I saw Dead of Night years ago and wasn’t impressed with it. Might be due for a re-watch. Though doesn’t it have a Christmas sequence? Maybe better served for December, haha.

  2. Dead of Night is one of those movies that almost suffers due to it being such an early example that everyone has cribbed from. Things that it’s good at have been copied so many times that it might seem like a lesser example… It’s certainly possible that I was so ready for the Six Weeks of Halloween that I just really responded to it more than it deserved, but again, I can appreciate the clear influence it’s had on future anthologies (I even watched a couple other Amicus productions that are clearly influenced by DoN).

    One of the segments definitely takes place at a Christmas party, though it’s not like super-festive or anything… As a whole, probably not holiday focused enough, but certainly appropriate!

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