One of the best movies I saw in 2011 was Little Deaths, a British horror film with some truly disturbing material and visuals, inspired acting, and a script that didn’t clue you in on how the entire movie would play out from its first ten pages. In other words, it’s the type of horror movie I wish I could see at least once a week, but in reality I’m lucky to see a movie that good once a month. Oh, and it was an anthology film.
Now, given its disturbing subject matter (the middle story in particular) and the fact that it was “foreign”, it’s no surprise that the film went straight to DVD here in the US – such is the fate of a hefty portion of modern horror films. Unless it’s part of a franchise or paid for by a big studio, we just don’t see the same attitude toward theatrical releases for smaller films anymore – did you know that the first two Leprechaun films played on hundreds of US screens? Can you even imagine something along those lines even getting a single city release nowadays?
But even if it was “normal”/American it probably wouldn’t fare much better, because of the fact that it’s an anthology. For whatever reason, these films never really catch on at the box office – 30 years after its release, Creepshow remains the top grossing horror anthology* with a mere 21 million (56 million when adjusted for inflation, about what the much hated Devil Inside pulled in this year). It’s one of the least prolific horror sub-genres on record for theatrical releases, with only about a dozen entries spanning the last 30 years. The last one to have a wide theatrical release was Tales From The Hood, all the way back in 1995.
Of course, any horror fan will tell you that it didn’t have to be that way. In 2008, Warner Bros. greenlit (and presumably read the script for) Mike Dougherty’s terrific Trick ‘R Treat, which offers the best kind of anthology in my opinion – covering different sub-genres of horror (ghosts, werewolves, a serial killer, etc) and having the stories co-exist in one world instead of being presented in a wrap-around like Creepshow or others. Instead it’s more like Pulp Fiction, where you might see a character from the 3rd story walk by in the 1st, and get the context later. Thus, repeat viewings are rewarded, and the fact that it’s a kickass movie to boot makes it a must-see for any horror fan. It’s also the only serious contender for the throne of “Halloween movie king”, which John Carpenter’s Halloween has held largely uncontested for almost 35 years.
And had Warner actually had the balls to release it, maybe it WOULD have taken the title, but alas, it remains somewhat obscure, due to the fact that they dumped it straight to DVD after years of delays (and a few one-off theatrical and festival screenings; I think I’ve seen it 3 times on 35mm!). From what I understand, they weren’t comfortable with the number of kids who are killed (off-screen!) in the movie, which is just amusing right now as Warner rakes in the dough from Project X, in which kids are seen drinking and damaging property and who knows what else sans any real consequence (painted as heroes, in fact), and depicted in a documentary format to boot! So that’s OK, but telling a ghost story about a bus full of kids going off a cliff, in the context of a very unrealistic movie, is way out of line? Plus, if they weren’t comfortable with it, why did they give it the OK before the cameras rolled?
Luckily, the film (and Sam, its sort of mascot) has lived on thanks to revival screenings and even a few shorts on Fearnet, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s yet another anthology film that never got a chance to connect with a wide audience. Would it have been a big hit at the box office? Impossible to tell. There’s no audience in the world more fickle than horror fans; five years later I’m STILL trying to figure out how Grindhouse and The Mist tanked in 2007 while Resident Evil 3 made more than the two of them combined. But considering the film’s low budget, coupled with the absence of a new Halloween movie in 2008 (its original planned release), one could be justified in guessing that it would have at least turned a profit. It also could have been a franchise – Dougherty had other stories in mind, and could have kept making the films for a small amount as Warner raked in the dough from a new franchise (and action figures of Sam!).
Because here’s the thing about anthologies – it’s easier to attract decent talent. Maybe Brian Cox or Anna Paquin won’t be interested in starring in a full length horror movie, but they can come for a few days and have fun, assured that if the film fails they won’t be the one to blame (but can enjoy being part of it if it IS a hit). It’s the rare sub-genre of horror where having names in the cast isn’t a detriment. Slashers are often too paint by numbers as it is, but it’s even worse when you have the star of some CW show in the lead with some no-name playing her best friend. But in an anthology, it’s a terrific time saver, because you only have 20-25 minutes to tell a complete story and thus don’t want to spend too much time on character development. So you put, say, Joshua Jackson in a role. Our familiarity with him from Dawson’s Creek and Fringe makes us instantly like him and side with him, without having to spend 10 minutes or whatever trying to convince us he’s someone to trust. And he’s a big enough “name” to make the movie marketable, but not so big that he’ll break the budget for his few days of work.
Same goes for the other side of the camera. Last fall saw the release of Chillerama**, which boasted the direction of four genre filmmakers. Not only did it have a pretty fun cast of genre vets like Lin Shaye and Richard Riehle and cameos from the likes of Eric Roberts and Ron Jeremy, but it also had the luxury of a lengthy production shoot, with one segment being shot/edited (and screened!) before another had even really started. Had it been shot like a traditional movie over a 3-4 week schedule, they wouldn’t have had the ability to hit so many locations or assemble so many actors. And the multiple director concept makes sequels an enticing prospect – one or two could return and the other slots could be filled by other like-minded folks, allowing for a revolving roster of talent that could potentially turn it into a franchise that doesn’t have to worry about one person’s availability.
Another reason I’m surprised that there aren’t more anthologies coming along is that they all have a great shelf life. The Creepshows show on TV all the time, with the fragmented stories making for terrific opportunities for commercial breaks, as well as allowing for audiences to watch even if they came in late or have to go out before it’s over. Maybe you don’t have time to watch all two hours of Bride of Chucky on its umpteenth airing on USA, but you can always watch a segment or two of Creepshow 2 on TBS. Not to mention that they make attractive DVD purchases for similar reasons – anthologies are great to put on during parties, as they offer up easy in/out points for folks who might want to take a break from mingling. And the best ones don’t really date; obviously the “look” of the film and the technology will improve, but the stories are usually simple and universal enough to stay relevant for a while, and few are ever made to cash in on trends – there’s no meta “hip” anthology film from the late 90s that would fit in with the now-obnoxious I Know What You Did Last Summers of the day. In fact, the best are homages to older concepts and ideas: Creepshow is a tribute to the EC comics of the 50s, for example, and those comics continue to be reprinted today. They’re also usually less age-specific; Trick ‘R Treat is a love letter to an annual holiday that everyone celebrates, featuring a cast that includes children and adults in equal measures. It’s not “aimed at” anyone except people who love movies. And even if they ARE a bit “niche” – Tales From The Hood largely targets urban audiences, for example – doesn’t mean they can’t work on everyone else; I thought it was great (at the time at least, been a while since I've seen it).
Lastly, they also inspire fun discussion after the movie; folks will debate which was the best story or even if they were in the “right” order (“They should have saved that 2nd story for last, it was the best one!”). The worst movies (any genre) are the ones where you have nothing to say after, but those are rare in the anthology world – even something as dreadfully awful as the two volumes of Deadtime Stories (the first was so bad I vowed to quit HMAD on the spot if the 2nd was worse; luckily for the site’s fans it was marginally better) can be discussed at length, unlike those forgettable DTV slashers where I have trouble coming up with four paragraphs for a review.
So now I’m just waiting for a big studio release that can re-ignite the anthology genre. As good as Little Deaths or Trick ‘r Treat are, they can’t ever hit the mainstream the way something like Zombieland or Paranormal Activity can. The upcoming V/H/S sounds like a terrific addition to the sub-genre, but Magnolia isn’t likely to put it on 3000 or even 300 screens. There was a time that zombie films were just as unsuccessful at the box office, until Resident Evil and 28 Days Later proved there was money to be made there – let’s hope something can do the same here. Christ, if “found footage” can be part of a recipe for surefire box office success, there’s no reason that the anthology can’t as well.
*Box Office Mojo lists Twilight Zone as a horror anthology – it’s a multi-genre film so I don’t count it. They also have Grindhouse on the list, which isn’t an anthology but two complete films released together. Either way their box office wasn’t much more impressive anyway.
**In the interest of full disclosure, I did some minor work on the film no one will care much about.