Streaming Pile: Rare Anthologies
With the first example on record dating back to 1919, the omnibus film has been around almost as long as cinema itself. And it makes perfect sense that from the start this format was employed regularly, and most enjoyably, in works of horror and the unexpected. Like the stories of O. Henry and Roald Dahl, these anthologies offer little slivers of nightmares, and their twists are elementary. They sometimes even serve to reveal (multiple) reflections of the fears of an era… The selections below are not necessarily my picks for the best—or delightfully worst—of each decade, but rather tantalizing titles that are harder to come by than the usual suspects. Only two (Destiny and Doomsday Book) are currently available on DVD, yet, with a little patience, all can be found within the VOD universe.
Eerie Tales Richard Oswald, Germany, 1919 (YouTube, in 10 parts; picture quality: surprisingly good)
Less than five years ago this silent film was considered lost, and it presently remains unobtainable in any format, so having to watch it in bits and pieces with an imperfect soundtrack is only a minor irritant. Even in today’s I-must-have-it-now world, there are still cases where beggars can’t be choosers, and even interrupted, this one feels like a real find. (And thanks to the YouTube uploader for graciously translating the film’s German title cards.)
The first-known anthology film is quite clever, especially when taking into account that nearly a century ago certain cinematic gimmicks were in fact innovations. (Yes, even the best of us can lose sight of this…) In the introductory scenes, which of course also act as the film’s connective tissue, two guys and a girl (Reinhold Schünzel, the forever-amazing Conrad Veidt, and Anita Berber, who died at 29 in ’29 before she could make any talkies) step out of their portraits (Death, Devil, and Strumpet, respectively) that hang on the walls of a rare bookshop. The freed rascals rifle through pages and relate some sinister stories—with each of the three actors taking on roles in all of them. The first sees a man fall for a woman who’s being stalked by her abusive ex-husband. But after an innocent night spent in separate hotel rooms, surprising things come to light (237 may be all the rage, but if this film was better known 117 could also be a room number worth seeking out—or avoiding).
In the second story, a roll of the dice decides which of two friends will woo the girl they both fancy. The sore loser ends up killing the winner, only to be tortured by images of his victim, most particularly of his hand, the last of his body parts to succumb to death. The third story is perhaps what is the first of many cinematic tellings of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” to come, and the fourth of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Suicide Club”—both good adaptations of short tales that need no synopsizing. The final story, written by the director, is about the bored wife of a Baron who is much too excited by a visiting knight. When they are left alone, and the wooing begins, a series of supernatural occurrences are set in motion. Eerie Tales may not be a classic of silent cinema, but that’s quite likely only because too few people have actually seen it.
Destiny Fritz Lang, Germany, 1921 (Amazon; free for prime members or $2.99 rental; don’t pay, the quality is the same: okay)
This is an unusual film of its type because it’s not until 30 minutes in that it even becomes apparent stories within a story are about to unfold. The silent, which is set “some time and some place” opens on two small-town lovebirds (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) who unluckily stumble upon Death, and—surprise, your time’s up!—the smitten guy is whisked away. Distraught yet determined that love is stronger than death, the woman tracks Death down. He offers her the chance to get her fiancé back by keeping lit just one of the flickering flames, which represent the souls of three doomed saps, whose sorry tales he relates. Each is ambitious and worldly—set in Persia, Venice, and China, but none are as engaging as the main story that links them, which is another reason why this movie is so unusual: wraparound segments often provide nothing but filler. Destiny is most certainly worth checking out because Bernhard Goetzke just might be the coolest-looking Death in screen history (the iconic Seventh Seal’s Bengt Ekerot included)—and because what film by Lang isn’t?
This is the one decade I struck out on. The only Thirties-made anthology film that I’m aware of is The Living Dead (32), a talkie remake of Eerie Tales by the same director, but I can’t find it anywhere! The search continues for this one… Interestingly, sections of it were reportedly incorporated into 1943’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, an omnibus solely made up of old footage from previously produced films, but that film is known to be lost—and questioned by some to even ever have existed. A later film of the same title—which despite sharing a prophesizing storyteller with the same name are otherwise unrelated—is my choice for the Sixties…
Flesh and Fantasy Julien Duvivier, U.S., 1943 (YouTube; quality: very good)
Duvivier followed up his frothy 1942 Tales of Manhattan with another star-studded anthology film, though one with a more fantastical edge. Robert Benchley, smoking and joking, serves as a narrator, and as in Eerie Tales, physical books provide the stories’ sources. First we are told a moody Mardi Gras–set tale of an “ugly”—well, movie-star ugly anyway—woman (Betty Field), who is given a chance to be “beautiful” in a mask for one night and to attract the attention of her secret crush (Robert Cummings), who previously looked right through her. Next up, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” starring Edward G. Robinson as a man whose fortune-teller foresees love, marriage, but also murder. He decides to take it upon himself to get the killing part out of the way, though he should know better than to play with one’s own fate.
The Benchley wraparound is the film’s weak link but luckily a smooth crossover from the second and third stories don’t require his assistance. So as the middle tale is winding down we are introduced to Charles Boyer’s The Great Gaspar, “The Drunken Gentleman of the Tight Rope,” whose tension-filled act consists of him stumbling into the spotlight with champagne bottle in hand, then teetering across the high wire. He dreams of a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) whose earrings distract him, causing him to take a tumble… Shortly thereafter, he meets her on a cruise ship, realizes that she is in fact the woman of his dreams in more ways than one, and then has to face his fears of his nightmare becoming reality. This visually inventive film crackles throughout, but, as is often the case, the best is saved for last.
Three Cases of Murder Wendy Toye, David Eady & George More O’Ferrall, U.K., 1955 (Hulu Plus; quality: sharp)
Here is one of the exceptions: a multi-story film where first is best. The lead-off in a trio of deathly tales—introduced by the dapper Eamonn Andrews—about an artist finishing his masterpiece posthumously, using sinister means of course, is simply stunning, a genuinely chilling little piece of terror perfection. The second story is also quite nifty. It centers on two longtime friends, roommates, and business partners—one shy, the other a superstud. While his pal’s away on business, the one less lucky in love meets and falls for a beautiful woman. It even seems mutual, but when the charmer, who is also a drunken oaf prone to blackouts, arrives home, her attentions quickly shift. The friendship falls to shambles and the girl turns up dead—have his ladykilling ways turned quite literal?
The concluding segment, based on a Somerset Maugham story, stars Orson Welles—trying to do English, I think—as the awesomely monikered Lord Mountdrago, a Secretary for Foreign Affairs described as “brilliant but insufferable.” When he pisses off the wrong politician, revenge—and madness—ensue as the Lord’s dreams are invaded. (This description makes it sound much more exciting than it actually is. Sadly, this one’s a bit of a clunker.) But for the first story alone, it’s unimaginable that this film is so hard to come by.
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors Freddie Francis, U.K., 1965 (Netflix and Amazon, free for Prime members; quality: decent, a bit streaky in places)
Extremely silly but undeniably fun, this has long been one of my guilty pleasures. Eccentric fortune-teller Dr. Schreck (Peter Cushing), aka “Dr. Terror,” employs a deck of Tarot cards (his “house of horrors”) to tell the fortunes of five men who share his train compartment one fateful night. Their varying tales of impending doom cover many of the horror basics, including lycanthropy, vampirism, killer vegetation, voodoo, and the disembodied hand. In addition to Cushing, the powerhouse cast also includes Roy Castle, Donald Sutherland, Michael Gough, and, most amusingly, Christopher Lee, who plays a pompous art critic to perfection. Rumor has it there is a DVD and Blu-ray forthcoming from Olive Films!
Encounter with the Unknown Harry Thomason, U.S., 1973 (Internet Archive and YouTube; quality: passable)
Three mystical tales based on actual events—aka urban legends—make up this half-daft curio. The first sees three obnoxious frat boys play a prank on a dorky classmate that goes fatally wrong. At his funeral the boy’s mother puts a curse on her son’s killers—involving some mumbo jumbo about heptagons (a word that one of the dimwits has to look up!) and the phrase “One by land, two by sky…,” which is absurdly repeated at least seven times over the course of the film. Guess the general vicinities of their demise… Next up is a small Mississippi farm boy who discovers a mysterious hole in the ground that emits smoke and sounds of wailing and moaning. Could this be why his dog didn’t return home? Dad attempts to find out, but his sanity might just never make it back above ground. And finally, a man encounters a disoriented girl on a bridge one foggy night… He offers to give her a lift home and hears of her past—ah, what forbidden love will drive us to do! There’s some truly atrocious acting and dialogue throughout, as well as much scene recycling, complete with an endless and wholly unnecessary closing recap. But because the familiar voice of Rod Serling provides most of the narration—there’s no wraparound story to be found—these sins are slightly easier to overlook.
The Monster Club Roy Ward Baker, U.K., 1981 (YouTube; DVD OOP and currently unavailable for rent on Netflix; quality: very good)
While Dr. Terror’s was the first and arguably best of the Amicus portmanteau films, this one was the last and possibly cheesiest. All you really need to know is that Vincent Price, as the vampire Erasmus, acts as the film’s guide. When we first meet him he’s hungrily snacking on John Carradine, who as it turns out is playing Erasmus’s favorite horror writer (a somewhat fictionalized version of R. Chetwynd-Hayes, whose stories provide the basis for the segments contained here). Erasmus takes him to his favorite haunt, the titular Monster Club (and, really, who wouldn’t want to hang out there?), to provide him with some fresh material in payment for sampling his delicious blood. The joint, still indicative of the thriving new-wave club scene of the late Seventies, is one hopping place! Monsters of all types drink, dance, and even watch pole-dancers strip to the bone.
Way too much screen time is dedicated to on-stage musical performances; the remainder is spent on three somewhat snoozy monster tales. We are introduced to a shadmock (part vampire, part werewolf), another full-breed vampire (and a vampire hunter played by Donald Pleasance), and a horde of flesh-eating hoogoos (human-ghoul hybrids). Fun transmutations aside, there’s just not enough Price on show, though what we do get is quite satisfying—he even boogies down a little!
Tales from the Hood Rusty Cundieff, U.S., 1995 (Netflix; quality: very good, though not widescreen; DVD OOP and currently unavailable for rent)
I recently revisited this film for the first time since its release and have to say, it looks better than ever. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s violent, it’s nasty, it’s socially relevant and of course racially driven—it’s the reason I got on this anthology kick in the first place. Produced by Spike Lee during a wave of gang culture in the mainstream, this one should be a lesson to others in that there isn’t a weak spot in the entire freak show. When three punk-ass losers arrive at a funeral home to secure some quick drugs they instead get an earful of horrific tales from the flamboyantly demented mortician (Clarence Williams III), with the dead bodies in residence providing the source material.
Corpse number one: a rookie cop who turns a blind eye to his fellow policemen’s murderous brutality is driven to the bottle and slight madness by guilt. But then, from beyond the grave, the black politician he sees killed asks for his payback assistance… The identity of corpse number two is obscured till the story’s end, but the plot goes that a teacher (played by the director) becomes concerned with a new student who’s regularly covered in bruises that he insists come from a terrible monster. He goes to the boy’s house one night and discovers just what that monster is…
Story number three is triggered by the interference of a creepy doll that falls to the floor. It is just one of the “Negro dolls,” holding the spirits of murdered slaves, responsible for haunting an awful politician and ex-KKK member, gamely played by a sleazy-haired and spray-tanned Corbin Bernsen, in his prized plantation house. (Sorry, Quentin Tarantino, I haven’t braved your latest film—I wanted to walk out on the trailer alone—but I’d take this slave-revenge tale over yours any day.) Corpse number four: Crazy K, a cold-blooded gang killer, who is caught after a bloody shootout and sent for rehabilitation—Clockwork Orange–style—and perhaps even redemption. But he’s a hopeless cause… Tales from the Hood has spawned some unbelievable monstrosities like 2006’s Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror and 2012’s Barrio Tales. Accept no imitations.
Terror Tract aka House on Terror Tract Lance W. Dreesen & Clint Hutchison, U.S., 2000 (YouTube; quality: pretty good)
The 2000s: not exactly the most thrilling decade for horror anthologies. I waded through a lot of truly unwatchable crap before finding some worth celebrating. From the first seconds it was obvious this was a keeper: the film opens with a worm eaten by a bird killed by a cat, who is in turn crushed by a car then mauled by a dog. Welcome to Terror Tract and let the carnage begin… It features John Ritter (!) as an obnoxious and desperate real-estate agent who takes two newlyweds on a tour of potential dream homes. (The real-estate downturn of the 1990s was just starting to abate the year this film came out…) But each has a twisted little backstory.
House number one boasts the lewdest: a guy catches his wife cheating with a neighbor and devises a plan to dispose of them that even his own death will not deter him from carrying out. In the backyard tree of house number two, a little girl finds a monkey—yet bafflingly, the dilemma isn’t why the hell there’s a random monkey on the loose wearing a cute red bellboy outfit, but whether the daughter can keep him as a house pet. Little Bobo seems the perfect playmate for the child, but her father’s not buying it—and sure enough, the evil critter begins wreaking havoc on the family. Good fun turns somber for the concluding segment in which a young man claims to have psychic connections to a serial killer known as the Granny Killer, a raging lunatic who dismembers his victims while wearing an old-lady mask. Finally, some genuine scares!
Doomsday Book Yim Pil-sung & Kim Ji-woon, S. Korea, 2012 (Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, Sony Entertainment Network, etc.)
Not wasting any time on a wraparound, this film unfolds as three separate stories that perfectly capture our current age of fear and apocalyptic anticipations. The first and third are directed by Yim Pil-sung, and the centerpiece by the quite dazzling Kim Ji-woon, who proves that in addition to extreme violence and explosive action he can also do meditative equally impressively. The opener depicts a frightening chain of pollution, whose resulting bad meat turns Korean BBQ customers into zombies. (Highlight: an unsettling transition from revolting-looking grilling beef to a tongue darting into another’s mouth.) Not two days after watching this film someone suggested that we eat Korean BBQ—I said not a chance!
Doomsday’s middle segment is a beautifully told, highly disturbing story of an AI-inhabited future and one robot in particular that has enraged its makers by becoming enlightened. The film concludes with an oddball comic tale in which a family is forced to move into their fallout shelter for 10 years after a fast-moving meteor hits the planet. Ridiculously, it turns out that a giant eight ball, something generally known for predicting the fate of the future, may be the cause of the destruction. More fathomable, it’s suggested that a child could order the end of the world online. A depressing thought, though the story does end on a somewhat hopeful note. Perhaps, after all, there will be a next generation of anthology films to come…