Anthologies of Interest
Anthology movies are a bit of an odd duck in the movie world. They seem to persist despite not really being embraced. There’s never really been a golden age of anthology movies, and despite the fact that there are a lot of them around, they don’t typically get as much attention as movies that follow a more standard format. Having a handful of short films tied together with a unifying theme might be too threadbare, plot-wise, for some people. Or perhaps getting to know characters for less than a half hour before they meet their fate or escape their predicament simply leaves the audience disengaged. Whatever the reason, anthology movies often get dismissed by critics or ignored by the public, which is a shame because there are a ton of them and a solid number are wildly entertaining.
One plausible reason for why people are hesitant about anthology movies is that the segments are often done by different directors. Here is where the risk is run in regards to quality; some of the segments will be great and others will fall flat. Never mind that a common complaint about movies in general is something along the lines of “the second act dragged” or “it was inconsistent.” When people see a movie so clearly partitioned, the weak segments become more noticeable.
While it’s impossible not to have a few spots here or there that could be improved upon, the problem is if the anthology film stumbles more times than it works, the few exceptional pieces get lost with the weaker ones. V/H/S (2012), and its arguably weaker sequel V/H/S 2 (2013), certainly suffer from having the cheesy or poorly constructed shorts outnumber the creepy and interesting, if not particularly scary, ones. In these two movies, the only theme that connects all the stories is that they’re all found footage, and for a lot of people, your humble narrator included, the concept of found footage rings a little false and wears a little thin. It often feels forced to have characters constantly filming and filming with enough know-how to give us all the visual information we need.
Another reason anthology movies might be overlooked is that they tend to be genre pieces, chiefly horror. Dead of Night (1945), considered the first anthology movie (although the argument could be made for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance), is a rare and beloved anthology movie. Photographed in clean black and white in a beautiful manor on the English countryside, Dead of Night has a simple framing device of strangers meeting in a house and telling frightening stories. There’s a few ghost stories, an evil ventriloquist dummy, and a haunted mirror segment that feels like a proto-type for a Twilight Zone episode. Actually, several of the shorts would have fit perfectly well alongside another Rod Serling creation and it’s hard to believe that Dead of Night didn’t inspire him along with countless others. Martin Scorsese sings its praises and director Christopher Smith claims to have been thinking of Dead of Night’s strange circular narrative when he made Triangle (2009).
A less beloved but still great movie is another set of horror shorts called Tales from the Hood (1995). Tales from the Hood uses a framing devices like Dead of Night except that only one person is telling the story: a suuuuuuper weird funeral director Mr. Simms (Clarence Williams III in a wonderfully campy turn) who allegedly has drugs to sell and has three drug dealers eagerly waiting for him to stop talking and simply sell them the drugs. The stories in Tales from the Hood have larger contexts about life in a disenfranchised community. This is a movie produced by Spike Lee and its primary cast, writers (Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott), and director (Rusty Cundieff) are all black, so it makes sense that these segments have more a social bite to them then something like Dead of Night.
That edge, having frightening events attached to a larger problem, is what draws fans to Tales from the Hood. It remains a cult favorite, the fate of many anthology pictures, but unlike a movie like Creepshow (1982), Tales... wasn’t well-reviewed when it was released and has had very little fanfare since. Some of the stories from Tales... are haunting rather than scary, like the final segment "Hardcore Convert" that presents a man with a second chance reminiscent of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. While there are stories that deal with monsters and evil dolls, the two bookends of the movie deal with people’s actions and how we react to the more realistic horror of the world. My guess is that horror audiences showed up ready to tuck into a gross-out fest like Creepshow or any of its sequels and got too much reality. Which confuses me because I thought that’s why we all liked horror but whatever…
Most anthology movies are not only horror; they’re over-the-top bizarre horror such as the aptly titled but not terribly strong The Theater Bizarre (2011). There’s lots of cheese and camp to go ‘round in the horror world and it’s an easy world for cranking everything up to eleven. In Wild Tales (2015), real life is the horror. There’s no spirits or evil animated anything; it’s just stories about tragedy and anger and all the shit we put up with.
Wild Tales was written and directed by Damian Szifron and all the segments in it are spectacular. There is literally no weaknesses and each short ends with some horrific punchline. A few of the punchlines are genuinely funny; a few are devastating. It opens with a plane filled with people who all slowly find out that they’re all linked via one man and said man is flying the plane while nursing a grudge against of all them. It’s upsetting to watch these completely innocent people come to terms with their situation due to someone’s over inflated ego, but it’s also a riotous moment of wish fulfillment too. I doubt most of us would have as many grudges as the unseen person flying the plane but we’ve all dealt with uncontrollable feelings of betrayal or anger, imagining the world is being mean just to us, and how many weird ways have we all thought of righting those perceived wrongs?
The rest of the movie follows in that dynamic opening’s footsteps. There’s a story about a man getting fed-up with parking tickets and taking drastic action, an incident of road rage and culture clashes that ends poorly to say the least, and a wedding that will just make you giddy from the disastrous hot mess it all devolves into. Maybe it’s due to the soap opera-like storylines (to say nothing of the gorgeous locations, composition, and cinematography) that Wild Tales was critically received as well as it was. It’s impossible to guess where the stories are going because they go so far outside of a normal person’s reaction and into some fantasy world where the craziest situation can always afford to get crazier.
I can’t even say that I wish anthology movies would make a comeback because they’ve always been around and they’ve never actually had a heyday. I wish there were more of the high quality anthologies movies being made more regularly, where the stories are weird and interesting, the effects and technical aspects are well done, and the movie itself is visually engaging. Nowadays, with so many new filmmakers emerging all the time, anthology movies seem like a great idea to showcase a variety of work in one shot, like the ABCs of Death has done in recent years. Until then, I suppose we’ll all have to rewatch Wild Tales till we get sick of it. As if that could ever happen.