October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror anthology segments is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Horror anthologies really speak to the gambler in all of us, I think. Who needs to book a trip to Atlantic City when you’ve got a feature-length collection of short horror films where the odds of going, “wow, that was really good!” are 1:6?
Not all horror anthologies are created equal, mind you. And yet even when horror anthologies boast nothing but bangers (an incredibly rare feat, mind you), certain segments always emerge as the stars of the show. On the other hand, you’d be a fool to discount supposed stinkers because sometimes there’s gold in them there hills (looking at you, “The Black Cat” segment in 1962’s Tales of Terror).
Being a fan of horror anthologies often feels like going thrifting: you have to enjoy the thrill of the hunt or you’re going to have a bad time. But let’s say, theoretically, that you were going to make the horror anthology to end all horror anthologies: a Frankenstein-like amalgam of all the best segments from across the format’s history.
Well then, friends, it might look a little something like the segments on this list, which were carefully curated and ranked by the likes of Rob Hunter, Anna Swanson, Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, Valerie Ettenhofer, and yours truly.
10. “The Raft” (Creepshow 2, 1987)
While the vast majority of Creepshow 2 can be described as a sludge pile (sorry!), one segment (about a sludge pile) has unequivocally secured its place in the horror anthology hall of fame. Adapting Stephen King’s short story of the same name, “The Raft,” tells the tale of a group of horny college kids who take an ill-fated Autumnal dip in a local watering hole. Unfortunately for the co-eds, the lake is also home to a seemingly sentient oil slick that corrodes any organic matter that gets in its way. Good thing that titular wooden raft is there to keep those crazy kids safe, right?
A waterlogged siege story that eschews explanations for gargled screams and body horror, “The Raft” is a genuinely frightening heel turn from cheesy high school shenanigans to outright nightmare fuel. Nothing like sloughing skin and milky-eyed facial burns to keep you on dry land… not that that will ensure your safety, it turns out. (Meg Shields)
9. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983)
The original “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is a bonafide classic. Attempting to remake it is a ballsy move… or at least a move born from pure fandom. You can’t do a Twilight Zone movie without it. So, if that’s a fact, you might as well get Mad Max‘s George Miller to direct and tell John Lithgow to out-Shatner Shatner. The paranoia from the show is present, but it’s a lot sweatier. And as much as we must recognize the genius of the TV iteration, the cinematic Gremlin is waaaaaay more terrifying than the white fuzzy dude on the original wing.
Larry Cedar performs the Gremlin as a fidgety, skinny little ghoul. How much delight he takes in Lithgow’s predicament is unclear, but it’s fun to consider the joy the creature is taking in making Lithgow’s passenger look utterly crazy. And, again, Lithgow was born to play manic madmen. (Brad Gullickson)
8. “The Principal” (Trick ‘r Treat, 2009)
When it comes to anthology horror films, you never know whether you’ll get a trick or a treat. But more often than not, the first entry sets the tone for the rest of the movie. In the case of cult favorite Trick ‘r Treat, boy, does “The Principal” set some type of tone. A darkly funny installment that veers from an off-putting and creepy set-up to a series of borderline-slapstick punchlines, it’s also viewers’ first effective indication that the film’s cute mascot Sam (Quinn Lord) is in no way representative of the direction this Halloween set movie is heading in.
Much of the brilliance of “The Principal” comes from the casting of the principal himself. Dylan Baker, a great actor whose face will nonetheless always remind a certain percentage of moviegoers of his stomach-churning turn as a pedophile in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, plays another guy who definitely shouldn’t be around kids. He’s excellent as the creepy principal Wilkins, who is quickly revealed to be a somewhat inept – or at least unlucky – child killer. This segment of Michael Dougherty’s script is also a master class in playing with viewer expectations, as it crams a half-dozen hilarious and bleak story beats into its short run time, making viewers laugh, cringe, and gasp several times over the course of just a few scenes. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
7. “Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (Dead of Night, 1945)
It would be a mistake to dismiss Dead of Night based on its age. Sure, it may not boast any of the goopy practical creature effects from the 1980s or the post-modern gait of the 21st Century. But this Ealing Studios horror anthology has two things that make it well worth seeking out. First off, the film’s framing device is unmatched: an architect arrives at a country estate where he immediately realizes that, while he’s never seen any of these people before in his life, he’s seen them all in a recurring dream. They are all strangers to him. But he is able to predict everything that transpires that afternoon like clockwork…which makes his half-recalled memory that something awful is going to happen all the more terrifying.
In an awkward attempt to ease the tension, the guests share stories of similarly strange and uncanny events, including an especially bizarre story about a famous ventriloquist whose dummy, Hugo, appears to have a mind of his own. An early and unsettling example of identity horror, “The Ventriloquist Dummy” is a genuinely terrifying tale that intermingles themes of fame, substance abuse, and predatory showbiz practices with the supernatural. Grounded by a harrowing lead performance by Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa), the segment muddies the waters on who’s pulling the strings. To boot: its inconclusive conclusion is the stuff of nightmares. (Meg Shields)
6. “Father’s Day” (Holidays, 2016)
As with most anthology films, Holidays is a big bag of ups and downs. But two stand out for their utter (and completely different) brilliance. One is the gloriously sacrilegious “Easter,” and the other is this absolutely haunting tale of a reunion of sorts between a young woman and her long-dead father. Jocelin Donahue stars in writer/director Anthony Scott Burns’ brilliantly told segment that moves viewers through a range of emotions before building to a sequence that evokes feelings of loss and terror (while reminding favorably of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness). It’s a mesmerizing watch. (Rob Hunter)
Related Topics: 31 Days of Horror Lists