The True ABCs of Death: A is for Anthology

 

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Billy Idol “Rebel Yell”

[2] Frank Sinatra “Come Fly With Me”

[3] The Police “Every Breath You Take”

[4] The Spaniels “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight”

[5] Bryan Ferry “Kiss and Tell”

[6] Ray Charles “Hit The Road Jack”

[7] Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons “Big Girls Don’t Cry”

[8] The Sisters of Mercy “Lucretia My Reflection”

[9] Buck Owens and His Buckaroos “Trouble and Me”

[10] Akira Ifukube “Godzilla”

[11] Smokey Robinson & The Miracles “Tears of a Clown”

[12] Daryl Hall & John Oates “Private Eyes”

 

One horror sub-genre I’ll never grow tired of is the anthology. Traditionally these frightful compendiums feature between 3-5 segments, cover a common theme, and are presented with a wraparound to thread these tales of terror together. It’s the ultimate quick win for filmmakers as pacing need not be a concern when each of the stories is up against the timer and, should one segment fail to rally the fear, then there’s another underway on damage limitation duties before you can shake a fist in anger. As a result of this persuasiveness, we are powerless not to play ball and, more often than not, our persistence pays off in the end. Indeed, I struggle to recall a solitary anthology that hasn’t managed to conjure at least one saving grace, regardless of how miniscule that might be.

My case in point would be the wretched Creepshow 3 and I feel obliged to apologise profusely for choosing this particular five-fingered cinematic stink as our opening act but there is a vague method in my madness. You see, Ana Clavell & James Dudelson’s film was such a catastrophic travesty that it’s hard not to think about it without blubbing. However, for as much as I would liken the experience to having the skin of my testicles snagged in a hamster wheel while little Hunca Munca catches up on his moonlit exertion, one of its parts summed up to something more than nothing. The Radio was still a fair degree of shit, but hanging out with AJ Bowen for twenty on the fly helped me forget the ripped ball sack and, dare I say it, the segment just about made par for the course. Shame about the other four bogeys.

My point being that, should you swallow five razor blades and one emerge from your sphincter the very next day cradled in feces and without puncturing at least one vital organ during transit, then it’s not been an entirely wasted exercise. Better yet, it has the whole one-armed bandit attraction to it. You pull the lever and, should the luck of the Romans be upon you, then you may wind up with a string of Lucky 7s and not a watermelon in sight. Take George A. Romero’s Creepshow for example and try and forget the last stanza never happened. Those Brobdingnagian hands of his lovingly crafted a quintet of tales, each one a Lucky 7 in its own right, then handed it over to Tom Atkins to gift-wrap. He may not have been sporting a ‘tache that All Hallow’s Eve but I superimposed my own facial furniture over his holy image using nothing but the power of my mind and felt a tweak in my nuts as I did.

What I’m saying in a roundabout way is that I’d wear my lipstick for George just to plant a big, sloppy one on his brow for making Creepshow and a peck Stephen King on the cheek for putting thoughts in his head. Then I’d kiss Leslie Nielsen’s face all over, the top of Ted Danson’s head (as it’s the only part visible until the tide goes out), blow some lips to Fritz Weaving, Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall, John Amplas, and Ed Harris; and you don’t want to know what I’d do to Adrienne Barbeau, whiny Wilma or no whiny Wilma. Every last one of them were in on the joke and that meant I was invited too courtesy of six degrees of separation. It may have been some way from the first anthology to hit the shelves and I’m not suggesting was it my gateway drug into the horror portmanteau as Amicus sewed that shit up almost ten years previous. But it’s the first I truly cherished and will therefore be eternally special.

Anyhoots, whaddya reckon about us getting this show on the road here? By my loose estimation, there are a fair few dozen anthologies to select from, and a hefty wedge of turf to be covered. Thus I shall do what pleases me most in my everyday pursuits as a star-gazer; cherry pick until my heart is either content or all set to suffer a coronary. To make things fair and just, only one scene from each movie is permitted for the waxing, although rules admittedly make my asshole clench and I reserve the right to change my mind as we go along. Considering we’ve already covered Creepshow in a roundabout way, I say we move on to pastures new and treat this like a vacation of sorts. Just one thing – do you have your passports handy? It’s easier to fly right?

What you’re looking at could be the end of a particularly terrifying nightmare. It isn’t. It’s the beginning. Introducing Mr. John Valentine, air traveller. His destination: the Twilight Zone. John Valentine is moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. He’s about to lock himself into… the lavatory. Why is John Valentine about to lock himself in the lavatory you ask? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact he’s currently 20,000 feet above terra firma and flying makes him decidedly edgy. Of course, he knew the risks before picking up his tickets for the red-eye to Los Angeles, but what he wasn’t prepared for was the beady pair of them staring right at him from the wing of the plane in the heat of a violent thunderstorm.

Either he’s suffering from a severe case of aviatophobia, or his grim-faced gremlin friend is one double dare away from doing something way beyond treacherous. But while this cunning little critter is only too happy to reveal its odious intentions to our petrified passenger, it’s far too bashful to let another living soul learn of its whereabouts. Poor John Valentine gets more and more frantic, his adversary more and more impish, and any hope of making it unscathed to the landing strip at LAX, more and more unlikely. Could John Valentine be about to wind up an exclusive member of the “Mile Die Club” along with over 200 other fretful cattle or will this grotesque little Grinch lose its footing, get sucked into the nearest jet engine and turned into monster mulch? And who just did an eggy fart in aisle J?

George Miller’s flavorsome tail-end segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie, appropriately entitled Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, originally aired way back in 1963 with none other than William Shatner buckled in for landing. However, my introduction came via Steven Spielberg and John Landis’ 1983 anthology and who better to play a man teetering on the brink of his sanity than John Lithgow? Sadly, the film is now remembered most for the tragic stunt helicopter crash which claimed the lives of Vic Morrow and two child actors, both of whom had been hired illegally. It’s a shame as it’s one of the finest of all eighties anthologies and only falters slightly through its unevenness of tone. Besides, it put me off flying for a fair few years and, to this day, I’m still more than content not getting the window seat.

If you thought John Valentine was a little highly strung, then how about heavy smoker Dick Morrison for a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Dick is under considerable duress to kick the habit, so much so, that he pays a visit to Quitters, Inc. and signs up for their anti-smoking program. Clinic counselor Vinnie Donatti is quick to point out their 98% success rate and also to explain the slightly unorthodox method they use to “persuade” their clients not to stray from the path of abstinence. It’s pretty simple – light up a smoke and Dick’s wife Cindy will be introduced to their electric shock chamber. What’s a few hundred volts for the greater good?

It gets worse though. You see, the penance for falling off the wagon a second time will be his beloved daughter (who suffers from Down Syndrome) sucking up the juice, a third fail will earn Cindy the indignity of being raped by Vinnie’s goons, and Dick really doesn’t want to know the punishment for four strikes. No pressure then. Dick reluctantly agrees to the terms and leaves Quitters, Inc. a non-smoker. So all’s well that ends well right? Not when the story has been plucked directly from Stephen King’s Night Shift collection it isn’t.

It’s not that Dick sets out to defy orders and, for a while at least, it appears he may finally be free of the dreaded nicotine. However, we all know how stressful traffic jams can be, and where’s the harm in lighting one up on the sly when you find a pack of smokes in your glove box? Alas, what Dick hasn’t entertained is that Vinnie’s boys are keeping a frightfully close eye on their subject and, the moment he exhales his first puff, it’s time for poor Cindy to take one for the team. And boy does she take one for the team.

Lesson learned then? What do you think? Any heavy smokers amongst us should know just how hard it is to refrain because others believe it is time. To be fair, Dick is really trying bless him, and it appears as though he may just have it licked once-and-for-all. But who’s going to know if he sneaks in a few harmless puffs in the comfort of his own home in the dead of night? I mean, it’s not like Vinnie’s goons have his house staked out from the inside is it?

Lewis Teague’s three-pronged 1985 compendium, Cat’s Eye, gets so much more right than wrong and Quitters, Inc. gets things rolling in delightfully blackened comical style. I’d even go as far as naming this my all-time favorite anthology segment and the reason for this couldn’t be more elementary. James Woods is never more mesmerizing to observe than when overly anxious and, while we are desperate to see Dick Morrison succeed, there’s no shortage of fun to be gleaned from watching him wobble.

Moving swiftly forward to 1993, we have John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper’s joint effort, Body Bags, and this was actually intended to air as a television series in the vein as HBO’s Tales from the Crypt before Showtime Networks decided not to pursue it. However, considering they’d already shot three episodes, it seemed a no-brainer to toss in a wraparound story and repackage it as a one-off anthology, particularly given that it boasted a long string of cameos from the likes of Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, David Naughton, Stacy Keach, David Warner, Sheena Easton, Deborah Harry, Mark Hamill, and Roger Corman among numerous others. The end result was patchy and, while The Gas Station was my personal pick of the three short fables, I’ve decided instead to focus on the prologue, The Morgue, as there was something strangely familiar about the coroner on meet and greet duties.

“Natural causes… Natural causes… Natural causes… I hate natural causes! Give me a big stab wound to poke at and then I’m happy”

Carpenter himself was the man on cadaver duties and, needless to say, he took to his rare on-screen role like a necrophiliac at a wake. The playful twinkle in his eye as he got down and dirty with a fresh intake was more than evident, but so too was an evil glint that suggested any stiff was fair game, regardless of whether or not they’d dropped below room temperature.

If I were to drop dead right now, then I’d take great comfort (laced with creeping dread) from knowing that it was he on embalming detail. Granted, his methods here were vaguely inappropriate, but it felt nice just to hang out on an ice-cold gurney and shoot the shit some after spending my entire childhood idolizing the fella and he ensured that our stay was a wrong ‘un.

Speaking of distinguished hosts, who better to play master of ceremonies than the late great Peter Cushing? Kevin Connor’s From Beyond the Grave was one of the last anthologies fired out of the Amicus canon in 1974 and proved the legendary studio still had that uncanny knack for stringing together some beauties. However, for as much as it’s easy pickings here, it just has to be the wraparound, Temptations Limited, as “Offers You Cannot Resist” are even more come-hither when made by one of horror’s true grandfathers.

As the proprietor of this musky old antique store, it was Cushing’s job to provide the sales patter and he delivered rather a sound argument for making those “impulse buys”. Surrounded by all manner of ornate trinkets, each one cursed by him downstairs, he was very much in his element and, when Cushing was happy, we couldn’t help but feel decidedly chipper too.

Okay so some of his items were somewhat defective, but it’s not like he didn’t warn us of the risks beforehand. With the proprietor, it was all about reading in-between the lines, as “oh… and a big novelty surprise goes with every purchase” traditionally meant “you’re going to suffer in a manner most despicable” and his refund policy was none existent.

John Harrison’s Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is regarded by many as the true Creepshow 3 and undoubtedly a certain amount of bliss to be eeked out from such obliviousness. For me it just has to be the final segment, Lover’s Vow, as it resonated on dual levels and inexplicably packed tremendous poignancy in its eventual reveal. It also requested we endorse the emotional pursuits of despondent artist Preston (James Remar) as witnessing a brutal back-alley murder opens a potential door to the happy ending he craves so.

The beautiful Carola (Rae Dawn Chong) is as pure as the driven snow, painted caramel and Preston isn’t about to let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity go begging. In a whirlwind of affectionate nuzzles, they fall deeply in love, exchange their lover’s vows, and make beautiful children to dote on. Moreover, Preston’s career appears on the incline and, for the first time in way too long, the future is looking bright and joyous.

However, nuptials aside, there’s another oath that needs to be abided to and it could promptly shatter his perfect reality if spoken of. Burning slowly and deliberately, the warm glow emanating from Preston and Carola’s exquisite chemistry is at pitch-perfect odds with the long, cold winter before us.

How about a long drive home? It just so happens that adulterous career woman Annie Lansing (Lois Chiles) is tearing up asphalt as we speak, after engaging in a little extra-marital sweaty bed sex with a gigolo and cutting it a little too fine. Have you ever attempted to drive in a straight line in the wee hours of the morning whilst chafing? More to the point, what’s the first word that springs to ind when I mention the word “hit”? It’s “run” right? And if not then how about a best of three?

As a hapless hitchhiker (Tom Wright) takes flight across her fender and is returned briskly to sender, she decides no harm or foul in a little moonlit bender. If Annie puts her foot down, she could still make it home to hand rinse her panties before her wealthy husband gets around to sniffing the gusset. Alas, lousy karma travels fast along tarmac, and a certain someone has taken it upon himself to thank her personally for the ride.

To give our excess cargo his dues, he’s nothing if not appreciative and continues to thank the living shit out of Annie like a dog with a bone. But there are certain channels one should take when expressing such immense gratitude and none of them entail constant terrorization. Let’s not bend the fender any more than it already is; Annie should be held very much accountable for her not-so-smooth criminality and deserves a fate most unpleasant. But you tell me? Is she okay. Are you okay, Annie?

Michael Gornick’s Creepshow 2 was a decent sequel, hampered by the studio’s decision to trim the edges. One for the road, The Hitchhiker, sat at the rear of the convoy and revved things up admirably to send the audience out with a screech and the titular tag along shuffled a fine line between deeply heinous and almost impossibly polite. As for this particular hitch, well I was just thankful for the ride too.

Sticking with the eighties for a moment before taking shit post-millenium, I feel duty bound to sing the faint praises of a number of other anthologies doing the rounds during that period. Roy Ward Baker’s The Monster Club from 1981, Joseph Sargent’s Nightmares from 1983, Jeffrey Delman’s Deadtime Stories from 1986, Jeff Burr’s From a Whisper to a Scream from 1987, Jim & Ken Wheat’s After Midnight from 1989, and Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales from 1990 – there’s a dirty half a dozen worth getting grimy over should you find yourself light on options although some are more hit-and-miss than others.

Anyhoots, about the present day. What has changed over the past three decades with regards to the horror anthology? Well, for one thing, general consensus appears to be leaning towards more being more, when I’m altogether sure about if I’m honest. Seldom is five segments now deemed sufficient and it’s not unheard of for the count to reach 26. That said, I can totally appreciate the approach The ABCs of Death takes when hitting up every last letter in the alphabet as attention spans are no longer what they used to be, before we learned how to crush candies and slice fruit like ninjas courtesy of smart phone technology. There are a smorgasbord of options available to me here and the sequel doubles that tally, not to mention all those 2.5 cast-offs. But today’s letter simply has to be X brought to you by Xavier Gens.

Before we commence with X is for XXL, lest we not forget that X is for Xylophone also and the sight of a demented Béatrice Dalle attempting to achieve D minor with her grandchild’s femur hit a note almost too sweet to ignore. However, with obesity levels ever rising and so many fresh pedicures not getting seen, it feels only right that I address the elephant in the room does it not?

It would appear that it’s already too late as words cut deep and drastic measures have been taken to trim those pounds. Not wishing to tip the scales young lady, but aren’t there shady unlicensed surgeons who could relieve you of all that surplus blubber? Have you not considered The Atkins Diet? I hear Robert Atkins used to swear by it.

While it’s wonderful watching you shed all those dress sizes, I’m a little concerned that you may be overdoing it luvvy. Before I forget, do you reckon it would be a bad time for me to mention that I’m actually rather fond of a little meat on the marrow?

The V/H/S series has been jam-packed with highlights and is positively ripe for the picking when it comes to highlights. That said, I’ve always been one to root for the underdog and, while V/H/S: Viral is by far the sketchiest of the trilogy, it also happens to accommodate a bona fide doozy in Nacho Vigalondo’s Parallel Monsters. It’s admittedly not in the greatest company, but that just makes it dazzle that much more brightly. Anyone familiar with Vigalondo’s Timecrimes will already be aware of his fascination for time and space travel. Needless to say, he’s like a kid in a candy store here and we’re only too happy to enable his scoffing.

Enter the arguably great Alfonso (Gustavo Salmerón), a scientist on the cusp of a truly monumental breakthrough. He has devised an interdimensional portal of sorts in his basement and it would be positively obscene not to try out the goods right? On one side of the void is his life as he knows it now, with his beautiful wife Marta (Marian Álvarez) upstairs and primed for a “quickie”. On the other side of the void is his life as he cannot help but take a sneaky peek at, with his beautiful wife Marta upstairs and primed for a “quickie”. So what we’re dealing with here are two worlds mirrored right? Well, kind of.

The first sign that something isn’t exactly kosher is the gigantic blimp spotted overhead and sporting an inverted cross. The second are the two men who he manages to piss of by recording this anomaly, both of whom have no qualms with revealing their true form to Alfonso. However, what he may not have accounted for is the demonic version of himself who has entered his home realm and the Marta proposing that “quickie” on this side of the divide has some rather unorthodox seduction methods and a vagina that curiously resembles the Great Pit of Carkoon at feeding time. Quick Alfonso, tell her you’ve got a headache.

Epic Pictures’ 2015 ten-piece, Tales of Halloween, managed quite the feat when presenting its audience two fistfuls of fables without a solitary dud to be discerned. Granted, some entries were better than others, but everyone worked to the brief and the result was a festive treat that was nothing short of fiendish. However, one tale in particular stood out like a razor blade in a candy bar and that impish delight, my good friends, was Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Night Billy Raised Hell.

Cheeky young scamp Billy is having a whale of a time trick or treating but it appears his luck is about to run out when he knocks on the door of the mildly spooky Mr. Abaddon (Barry Bostwick). Not so as Mr. Abaddon may be old (and quite possibly Beelzebub incarnate) but he hasn’t forgotten how to play a practical joke or two in honor of Samhain and kindly takes little Billy under his wing as his very own partner-in-crime.

The pair proceed to cause all manner of merry hell at everyone else’s expense, Mr. Abaddon reverts back to a child while his pint-sized associate does all the dirty work, and there’s even time for him to schmooze the ladies, sly old fox that he is.

Their door-to-door antics are truly a joy to behold but the real hidden treasure lies in a deliciously dark and mean-spirited ending that reinforces my belief that children be seen, not heard, and riddled with bullets as we fade to black for the purpose of guilt-free cinematic pleasure.

2011 horror comedy anthology, Chillerama, pays affectionate homage to the drive-in movies of yesteryear and my choice here isn’t based on personal preference, so much as my need to celebrate the 1950s as, without E.C. Comics, we’d never have had Creepshow. Adam Rifkin’s Wadzilla riffed affectionately on the monster movies of old and the creature in this feature was a spunky one for damn sure.

Desperate to snag himself the woman of his dreams but hamstrung by a woefully low-sperm count, loveable sap Miles Munson (Rifkin himself) pays a visit to his local physician, Dr. Weems (Ray Wise), who suggests a new treatment to top up his numbers. Nothing ventured, the equivalent in gain right? The odd random case of “classic vein twist” (shooting testicular discomfort) is one thing, but sooner or later it’s statistically unlikely for Miles not to shoot off a few rounds and, the thing about sperms, is that they’re only programmed to head in one direction. You guessed it, it’s off to the nearest babymaking compound post-haste for our dainty little wriggler.

Isn’t that just adorable. Our iddy-biddy tadpole has found itself some place warm and cosy to burrow and, while Dr. Weems may well have some vaginal reconstructive surgery on his busy caseload once our toothy newt finds whatever it’s searching for, at least the little fella has a wag in his tail. That said, there comes a time in every boy’s life when he must become a man, and with that, we bid adieu to Wadzuki and a “top o’ the mornin’ to you” to the irrepressible Wadzilla. Mercy me, they grow up fast don’t they?

Fret not citizens of New York as mankind still has one hope of contraception and her name is the Statue of Liberty. You think the old girl doesn’t grow tired of holding that poxy torch above her head? Is she not permitted the tender touch of another from time to time after putting in such a long shift? Could this be Wadzilla’s own special way of standing up for patriotism? Does that star-spangled banner yet wave? Most critically, is this not the land of the brave? Go on son, just a quick in-and-out before she realizes Donald Trump got elected and wades off into the sunset.

Michael Emanuel’s Clowned from 2012 anthology Scary or Die raised the game considerably of what was otherwise a fairly so-so five-piece. Bizarrely enough, it’s running time equated to almost half of the film’s overall length and could easily have been extended into a full-length feature, such is its majesty. It tells the tale of drug dealer Emmett (Corbin Bleu in a role a million miles from High School Musical), whose life takes a swift turn for the big top after he is bitten at his baby brother’s birthday party by a cannibalistic clown called Fucko (Domiziano Arcangeli).

With a name like Fucko, it should come as no great surprise that the bite soon turns septic but that is the least of Emmett’s concerns as his body begins to undergo certain “changes”. His clothing no longer fits, shoe size shoots up from a 9 to a 26, and the scent of human flesh becomes too strangely enticing.

Emmett has two choices – he either waits around until the urge to chow down on his little brother’s skull-cap becomes too powerful to resist or slaps a burlap sack over his head and walks the streets in search of the elusive Fucko so he can lift this infernal curse. Clowned is a masterful vignette, features an astonishing performance from Bleu, and strikes the ideal balance between outright horror, gut-busting dark humor, and genuinely moving tragedy.

Meanwhile, The Theatre Bizarre from 2011 is very much worth tracking down, if only for Jeremy Kasten’s effortlessly unnerving Grand Guignol-inspired framing segments alone. However, given that I have a weakness for anything whatsoever involving eyes, it just has to be Karim Hussain’s Vision Stains placed beneath the microscope. If you ever watched Bigas Luna’s 1987 head tripper, Anguish, and found the close-up retinal tampering all too much to stomach, then your sore eyes may not thank you for the sights Hussain exposes you to.

Vision Stains follows a writer with psychopathic tendencies (Kaniehtiio Horn) as she scours the streets for straggling bums to slaughter. However, this is far more than a simple search and destroy mission as she injects any fluids extracted from her victims’ peepers into her own, in order to be provided exclusive insight into their final thoughts. By doing so, she has plenty of fresh material for her journal and there’s one less homeless person on the streets so, in her own twisted justification, everyone wins. The thing is, with the eyes being the prize here, how much sight is too much? It’s no coincidence that my last eye test was back in 2011, let’s leave it at that shall we?

As I write this, with Father’s Day but three days away, it feels fitting that I end with a short tale that touches on that very celebration. Last year’s Holidays struggled to leave its mark and missed as much as it hit. However, Anthony Scott Burns’ Father’s Day raised the bar considerably at around the midway point and this hauntingly effective little number got it bang on by casting Jocelin Donahue of The House of The Devil fame for the lonely role of Carol.

After receiving a mysterious package from her long-lost father, she sets off to find him, following his own audio instructions through ear phones. We actually spend most of the duration in transit but it never once feels like Father’s Day is losing direction as pops is always on hand to guide us and Burns takes full advantage of Donahue’s striking features to send us into a wandering daze. Of course, it’s all got to lead somewhere but I won’t be opening that door as what lies behind it is for Carol to know and you to find out.

I guess it’s around about that time where we wrap things up and I do so with great reluctance as I’ve barely skimmed the surface here. Southbound, All Hallow’s Eve, Little Deaths, Trapped Ashes, A Christmas Horror Story – just a handful of more recent anthologies more than worthy of your inspection and head back for some seventies Amicus while you’re at it as they will never steer you wrong. Don’t even get me started on Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat as I’m hanging my head in shame for not shoehorning that little festive feast in but that’s the great thing about anthologies as you can dip in and out at will and there are literally dozen upon dozen to choose from. In a world where people no longer stick around to witness the end of an extraordinarily long fart; I’ll take every last quick fix that’s coming to me.

Click here to read B is for Beheaded

 

Truly, Really, Clearly, Sincerely,

Richard Charles Stevens

aka

Keeper of the Crimson Quill

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