The ABCs of Death, which opened in theaters this past Friday, purports to teach a lesson about the many ways to die, but it’s nothing but a remedial class in horror anthology basics, delivering 26 shorts by 26 different directors that each pivot around a letter of the alphabet. It’s a device that creates so much diversity that virtually all cohesion is lost, save for a general lack of terror. That said, ABCs’ failings aren’t unique, as its legion of predecessors — from 1964’s Japanese classic Kwaidan to last year’s found-footage indie V/H/S — prove that crafting a creepy collection remains a far more difficult task than it might initially seem.
Horror anthologies are, by their very nature, prone to unevenness. So how best to offer viewers a multitude of murder and mayhem without resorting to cheap jolt-scare tactics, excessively juvenile gore, or tongue-in-cheek campiness? Here are the wisest, and worst, ways to construct a horror anthology film.
1. To Frame or Not to Frame
Nothing establishes an anthology’s malevolent atmosphere more than the wraparound material that ties together its chapters. The possibilities here are many, from Boris Karloff’s* jokey introductions in Mario Bava’s 1963 Black Sabbath, to the E.C. Comics–inspired animation of 1982’s Creepshow (and its undersung 1987 sequel Creepshow 2), to the intertwining-stories structure of 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat. Most common of all, however, is the tried-and-true strategy (embraced by, among others, 1972’s original Tales From the Crypt, 1990’s Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, and 1995’s Tales From the Hood) of having a film’s various yarns told by one character to others, culminating with a climactic twist or denouement that allows the frame to function as its own chilling vignette.
Alas, aside from 1972’s Asylum — a magnificent British effort in which a psychiatrist hears “incurably insane” patients’ backstories in order to learn which of them is in fact a doctor gone mad — even that basic strategy often feels too corny and predictably twisty for its own good. As with Twilight Zone: The Movie or, even more so, 1975’s awesome TV movie Trilogy of Terror, it’s usually best to keep the overt connective tissue to a bare minimum.
2. Gimmickry Versus Style
While a frame is the glue that holds an anthology’s pieces together, shared aesthetics or subject matter are the other primary means of fashioning a unified horror package. Alas, linking stories through a basic, underlined theme is often the surest means of turning them lame. Both Tales From the Hood and 2006’s Snoop Dogg–headlined Hood of Horror so dimly situate themselves in inner-city scenarios that the films immediately tip over into stereotype-overloaded thug-life parodies. And while V/H/S does its best to wield the found-footage conceit for genuine scares — with all of its supernatural action posited as videotaped “reality” shot with shaky handheld cameras — the proceedings quickly begin to feel like a monotonous stunt devoid of genuine inspiration. Shrewder is simply to unite an anthology through consistently ominous style, be it the languorous pacing and concurrent mood of unearthly horrors bubbling up from unknown depths in both Black Sabbath and Kwaidan, or the ghoulish playfulness that defines the first two Creepshows.
3. Simple, Not Simplistic
The time constraints of anthology vignettes can be both a blessing and a curse, as most ably confirmed by The ABCs of Death, which lives and — far more often — dies as a result of keeping things brief and to the point. That’s never truer than with “X Is for XXL,” a bit about a fat girl revolting against prejudice and media-propagated body-image messages by sawing and slicing off her extra pounds. Didactic one-note punch lines are regularly the norm, as are stories that simply build to their first, most obvious conclusion. The most memorable anthology moments are predicated on clever twists married to unforgettable imagery: Black Sabbath’s “The Drop of Water,” featuring a dead woman’s frozen-grinned visage; Kwaidan’s “Hoichi the Earless,” culminating with a man covered head to toe in evil-repelling script; or Creepshow 2’s “The Raft,” marked by the simultaneously titillating and terrifying sight of a topless beauty turning to reveal a face half-consumed by evil inky goo.
4. Goofiness, Be Gone
Modern efforts like 2004’s Three … Extremes or V/H/S make clear that excessive grimness and gore can be just as tiresome as a bad joke. Still, at least gruesomeness is in keeping with the genre’s prime directive to shock and scare. Black comedy, on the other hand, is a far more difficult trick to pull off and too frequently leads only to scatological silliness, as most tellingly evidenced by The ABCs of Death’s numerous sequences involving toilets and excrement. Whereas Creepshow and Tales From the Darkside (especially the latter’s “The Cat From Hell,” starring a young Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, and Christian Slater) manage the not-inconsiderable feat of drumming up unsettling wit, most stabs at spooky humor are hopelessly blunt. To be sure, dark irony is more than welcome: the iconic closing shot of The Trilogy of Terror; the evil humor of Cat’s Eye’s stop-smoking segment “Quitters, Inc.”; the unreal cartoon madness that erupts out of uneasy domesticity in Joe Dante’s phenomenal Twilight Zone: The Movie contribution “It’s a Good Life.” Still, as a general rule, it’s shrewdest to prize fear over overt funniness.
5. It’s the Dolls, Dummy
If horror films, and anthologies in particular, have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is quite as uncanny as a malevolent doll come to life. In 1986’s sleazeball gem Screamtime — which also, amazingly, features a story about a killer garden gnome — a Punch and Judy doll slays his enemies with a giant wooden paddle. In Trilogy of Terror’s “Amelia” (penned by Richard Matheson), B-movie icon Karen Black squares off against a ferocious tribal Zuni fetish doll armed with a spear and some frantically chomping teeth. Even Twilight Zone: The Movie’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” finds a way to insert into its airplane anarchy a cameo from a weird ventriloquist doll. The most bizarre example of this trend, though, comes from Asylum’s closing tale, in which a psychiatric patient manages to transfer his soul into a tiny mechanical replica of himself so he can murder the facility’s chief administrator. It’s a plot that involves the disturbing-looking miniature somehow opening doors and climbing up onto desks — a bafflingly unreal turn of events which reconfirms the age-old lesson that, when it comes to horror, the more illogical, the better.
* This post incorrectly stated that Bela Lugosi was in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. He was not.