The Element of Surprise in Anthology Horror Film
The subset of films commonly known as anthology horror is comprised of many lesser-acknowledged films within the genre, judging by their absence in most academic works that address the horror canon. Yet anthology horror films have maintained a steady, if understated, presence within the genre: in recent years, films such as Three…Extremes (2004), Trick ‘r Treat (2007), VHS (2012), The ABCs of Death (2012), and even the forthcoming Free Fall (2014) incorporate the segmented structure of anthology horror. Fitting somewhere in between shorts and features, these films remain a covert, but potent, counterpart to the generic tendencies of horror film. My current investment in anthology horror film is not to expound on the reasons for its diminished and overlooked status within the horror genre, but to highlight its idiosyncrasies and situate elements of its unique vocabulary alongside standard (or non-anthology) horror. Since this is an ongoing topic of interest for me, I intend to pursue this study in more detail along several different paths.
Anthology films, also known as portmanteau or omnibus films, can be described as films that consist of short, autonomous segments running anywhere from a handful of minutes to nearly an hour. In his book Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film, Peter Hutchings describes two general categories of anthology horror films. He writes, “In the first group are those films in which the separate stories are not related directly to each other” (135). Films such as Three Extremes… (2004) and Spirits of the Dead (1968), which contain segments connected only by a common theme, fall into this category. The second type “connects its story segments via a link-narrative” (135) – that is, a narrative that unites and simultaneously exists apart from the segments that comprise the bulk of each film. Link-narrative anthology horror films enjoyed brief proliferation in the 1960s-1970s and were primarily associated with the England-based Amicus Productions. The most striking aspect of link-narrative anthology horror is its tendency to downplay horrific or frightening elements in favor of humor, irony, or “fun,” a term borrowed from Linda Williams. While standard horror strives to push the boundaries of shock and fear, anthology horror (unless specified otherwise, any mention of anthology horror from now on will refer to link-narrative) eschews these horrific and frightening elements to prioritize humor and silliness. As a result, it shies away from the extremities of standard horror, still incorporating many stylistic features of most genre films but producing a vastly different effect. In this way, anthology horror films offer a rich tonal contrast to standard horror.
Link-narrative anthology horror films can be difficult to approach in terms of genre because they contain so many subgenres; gothic horror, creature features, and revenge plots can appear alongside one another in a single film. Although anthology horror films can differ greatly from one another because of this diversity, they tend to share characteristics with minimal variation. Most of these films feature a narrator with unusual, often supernatural, qualities – a character whom Hutchings calls the “master of ceremonies” (136). More importantly, each segment in anthology horror films and the overarching story that holds them together conclude with a twist or surprise. These films use these elements to establish a sense of humor, or “fun,” which simultaneously undermines the horror. Looking at Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Creepshow (1982), I will begin to unravel the peculiarities of anthology horror film. Specifically, I will explore how these films emphasize humor through their most defining feature, the surprise.
The general plot of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors goes as follows: Five men are seated within a train compartment, waiting for the train to depart the station. An older sixth man (Peter Cushing) appears outside the compartment, peering in through the window, a dark hat covering his eyes. He enters, sits down, and scrutinizes each member of the car. When the journey is underway, the old man drops some tarot cards, which piques the interest of the other passengers. He introduces himself as Dr. Schreck (terror in German) and, using the tarot cards, begins to reveal their respective futures and subsequent fates. For example, in the tale “Disembodied Hand,” Christopher Lee plays an art critic who is publicly humiliated in revenge for his brutally negative review of an artist’s work. Enraged, the critic sets out to get even and eventually runs the artist over with his car, severing his dominant hand. The devastated artist kills himself, but his zombified hand returns to enact further revenge upon the critic until he drives his car off a highway and loses his eyesight. After hearing the tales, the passengers are reasonably unsettled by Dr. Schreck’s uncanny ability to predict their plans and demand to know his true identity. He responds slyly, “Have you not guessed?” The train passes through a tunnel and Dr. Schreck disappears. The train stops and the five men exit to find themselves in a dark, deserted station. A newspaper falls out of the sky and one catches it, only to read that five died in a train crash. Dr. Schreck reappears near the station gate and turns around to face the men, but he is now a skeleton in a hooded cloak: Dr. Schreck is death, and the passengers are his victims.
Creepshow connects its disparate tales primarily through the use of animation to imitate horror comics. It begins with a young boy, Billy, arguing with his father, who discovered Billy reading horror comics and believes his son should not be reading such “crap.” At the end of the sequence, Billy’s father places the horror comic, entitled “Creepshow,” where it belongs – in the garbage – and smugly informs his wife, who protested the fight but also disapproved of the comic book, “that’s why God made fathers.” Billy, upstairs, curses his father and smiles in delight when he sees the ghastly character The Creep, who introduces each story in the comic book, appear outside his window. After the animated credits sequence, the first story (out of five) commences, starting with a freeze frame that imitates the first page of a comic book. After this, the segments are divided not by a return to the link-narrative involving Billy and his father, but by the pages turning in the “Creepshow” comic book. The following summarizes the fourth segment in the film, “The Crate”: A custodian finds a mysterious crate in the basement of a university building. He alerts a professor and the two force the crate open, finding inside a murderous ape-like creature that mauls the custodian to death. In a panic, the professor runs to the aid of his friend and colleague, Henry (Hal Holbrook). Upon hearing about the creature, Henry carries out a plot to lure his obnoxious wife, Wilma (Adrienne Barbeau), to the basement of the building, where the creature also kills her. Henry locks the creature inside the crate and disposes of it over a cliff leading to water. However, the final scene of the segment shows that the creature survived the fall and implies that its reign of terror has just begun. After the final segment, the link-narrative resumes. Two garbage collectors pick up the comic book and notice that an advertisement for a mail order voodoo doll has been cut out. Inside the house, Billy’s father suffers from neck pain that steadily worsens. Upstairs, it is revealed that Billy is using the voodoo doll to take revenge on his father, repeatedly stabbing it with relish.
The master of ceremonies – Dr. Schreck in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and The Creep in Creepshow – plays a crucial part in both films. As Hutchings writes, this character “acts as a kind of horror host or master of ceremonies… a sinister but also humorous figure who introduces a tale of horror” (Hutchings 136). In Dr. Terror, Dr. Schreck teases the passengers, enticing them to try their hand at the tarot deck and hiding the final card, inevitably death, from each character after his turn. He also plays with the meaning of his own name – and therefore his identity – with comments such as, “the exact translation [of Schreck] would be ‘terror,’ an unfortunate misnomer, for I am the mildest of men. However, I sometimes foretell things that are frightening.” The terms “terror” and “mild-mannered” are playfully conflated in the embodiment of death. The character of The Creep in Creepshow is presented as a whimsical, though wordless, initiator of each story. However, viewers who are even marginally familiar with the horror comic format or have seen television shows such as Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996), based on and named after an American EC horror comic from the 1950s will immediately recognize the figure of The Creep as an homage to comic book series “hosts” such as the Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper from “The Vault of Horror,” or the Old Witch from “The Haunt of Fear.” These characters are known for their pun-filled, playful, often gruesome quips concerning each tale they introduce. The link-narrative in Creepshow offers a glimpse of this kind of humor in the comic book’s turning pages, with the Creep introducing stories with a ghoulish “Heh heh! Welcome, kiddies…” The segments in Creepshow incorporate several elements of humor that emulate the scary-funny mood that saturates these horror comics. At the film’s conclusion, Billy and his father become part of the comic book itself (or perhaps belonged to it all along).
Most segments conclude with a surprise or twist that leads to the protagonist’s gruesome death or otherwise unsavory fate. The link-narrative of each film, furthermore, also concludes with a final twist. Edward Branigan argues that in order to build suspense, the spectator must know more than the characters (75). In contrast, Branigan defines surprise as the narrative situation in which a character knows more than the spectator. The short lengths of the segments and link-narratives in anthology horror are perhaps better suited to the surprise format, but their general avoidance of suspense and shock is unusual for horror. Because the general narrative structure of anthology horror film does not place much emphasis on creating suspense, most surprises are named so because they are impossible to predict based on the lack of previous clues. These surprises are not necessarily meant to shock the viewer, but often provide a tongue-in-cheek means for the film to directly address the viewer. In contrast, many standard horror films that employ twists tend to preface them with a sense of dread that is not as present in anthology horror. In these cases, the twist is not meant to invite viewers to laugh at (or with) the generic tropes in practice, but rather to shock them. In tandem with Branigan’s notion of suspense, Mike Jones defines shock as “an immediate scare” (103), and states that this “directly relies on the viewer knowing only what the character being scared knows… [that they share] their shock” (Jones 103). However, while this tactic is employed in anthology horror film, Dr. Terror and Creepshow do not always use these opportunities to shock the viewer. Anthology horror films do contain shocking moments, which I call “jump scares,” its twists are dominated by non-shocking surprises. In many ways, this crucial characteristic significantly differentiates anthology horror from standard horror films.
In his treatise on the horror film, Mark Jancovich argues that in Dracula (1931), to which “Vampire” in Dr. Terror owes homage, sharing a joke with the audience decreases the film’s power to frighten. He writes, “Lugosi displays a talent for black humor, and relishes lines such as ‘I don’t drink…wine!’ This is both his strength and his weakness. The audience is encouraged to share in the pleasures of Dracula’s wickedness… However, by establishing this relationship between Dracula and the audience, the film lessens his impact as a monster” (Jancovich, Horror 55). In many ways, Jancovich’s argument resonates with the impact anthology horror has on its own audience. However, while it is possible that the makers of Dracula did not intend to make the monster any less frightening, the same cannot be argued for Dr. Terror. Much as each segment and link-narrative culminates in a surprise, which can just as readily be called a “punchline,” many anthology horror films clearly celebrate the joke shared through the connection between audience and onscreen characters. In the final segment of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, “Vampire,” a pair of newlyweds returns from England to live in the American town where the groom, Bob (Donald Sutherland), works as a doctor. Soon after their arrival, the town is plagued by a series of nighttime attacks that appear to be the work of a vampire. It becomes increasingly clear that Bob’s wife is to blame; her proclivity for licking blood from her husband’s wounds, turning into a bat at night, and other unsubtle hints leave little doubt as to her true identity. She seems wary of her husband’s older colleague Dr. Blake (Max Adrian), the only other doctor in town. Dr. Blake catches onto her true nature and convinces Bob to kill her using a wooden stake. When the police arrive to the scene after Bob has committed the crime, Dr. Blake tells Bob that “there’s no such thing as vampires” and orders the police to take him away. As Dr. Blake watches the police car drive away, his eyes flicker to meet the camera as he says, smiling, “this town isn’t big enough for two doctors…or two vampires.” He then turns into a bat and flies away.
In “Vampire,” the audience knows as much as Bob does until the end when Dr. Blake reveals his monstrousness to the viewer. Branigan might argue that suspense would build for the spectator had Dr. Blake revealed himself as a vampire earlier in the segment. However, that approach would diminish the (humorous) effectiveness of the surprise. By eschewing suspense in favor of surprise, Dr. Terror prioritizes a unique interaction with the spectator: Dr. Blake breaks the fourth wall to directly let the audience, and the audience alone, in on the joke. Therefore, suspense, shock, and other elements that could have been used to instill fear – arguably the primary purpose of most horror films – are undercut in favor of a humorous, whimsical conclusion. Dr. Blake, furthermore, is not the only one to address the viewer: in most cases, the master of ceremonies also enjoys that facility. Near the beginning of Dr. Terror, while Dr. Schreck tempts his victims to ask questions about his tarot deck (his “house of horrors”), he tells that the cards can foretell a supernatural destiny for the user. When pressed as to what he means, he replies, “The strange – the weird – the unknown – the terrifying – the mysterious.” When he says “the terrifying,” the scene appears to freeze as he give a brief but suggestive glance directly to the camera before turning back to his fellow passengers. Near the beginning of Creepshow, the Creep turns his glance from Billy to stare directly at the camera and emit a wicked cackle. He then transforms into his animated, comic book form and gestures to welcome the viewer into the macabre world of the horror comic “Creepshow.” Through inviting the spectator to take part, these films indicate a kind of engagement that differs vastly from that formed in standard horror.
In his article “Horrality,” Philip Brophy – writing in the early 1980s – states that the-then contemporary horror film “takes pleasure in killing off everybody” (Brophy 280). Horrality, Brophy writes, is a term he invented to explain the multi-layered, “saturated” textuality and self-awareness of the 1970s and 80s horror film, the fact that it “knows you’ve seen it before; it knows that you know what is about to happen; and it knows that you know it knows you know. And…the cheapest trick in the book will still tense your muscles, quicken your heart and jangle your nerves” (Brophy 279). The horror film knows to elevate the levels of shock and gore to appease the perverse demands of the audience, who will see horror films even when they repeat the same devices to the point that spectators know exactly what to expect. While for Brophy, the horror film plays with the viewer by recycling scare tactics, anthology horror goes one step further: it knows you know and it tells you anyway. Like much standard horror, anthology horror knows that you have seen its plots and characters before, but instead of elevating the shock elements to make the experience more frightening, it turns the tension into a punchline – like Dr. Blake’s big reveal. Again, this is partially due to the length of each segment. Standard horror typically follows one major storyline, which allows it to readily build suspense and, as Linda Williams notes, makes the moments of shock more effective. Anthology horror’s narrative format suits its predilection for delivering surprise in an ironic twist complemented by mild gore or violence.
Anthology horror re-appropriates many elements typical of standard horror for its own purposes. In a longer version of this paper, I argue that much of the fun in seeing anthology horror films lies in seeing an everyday evildoer punished – many of the characters who get it in these films deserve it. Yet the punishment is usually so excessive that it becomes ridiculous and laughable. The fact that the evil figures are normal humans, rather than monsters or otherwise inhuman characters, resonates with a theme that has since become pervasive in horror: it reminds the spectator that anybody can be a monster. Here, I simply aim to emphasize anthology horror’s primary deviance from standard horror in its use of surprise. Because no suspense precedes them, these surprises are arguably neither scary nor all that shocking for the viewer. Instead, they generate laughter and enjoyment. Anthology horror film diminishes or even eradicates the suspense and shock that standard horror films use to inspire real fright. I intend to delve further into the idiosyncrasies of anthology horror film, partially with an intertextual investigation of them with reference to horror comics and the short film. Furthermore, I believe that considering anthology horror film in terms of its power to withhold its fearful elements, rather than embracing and pushing their boundaries, opens a rich discourse about how horror films engage with viewers. Along these lines, I aim to continue exploring how the ends of anthology horror are ultimately at odds with and conspicuously removed from the horror tradition.
Branigan, Edward. Narrative Comprehension and Film. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Brophy, Philip. “Horrality – The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films.” The Horror Reader. Ed. Ken Gelder. New York: Routledge, 2000. 276-284.
Hutchings, Peter. Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.
—–. “The Amicus House of Horror.” British Horror Cinema. Eds. Steve Chibnall & Julian Petley. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 131-144.
—–. The Horror Film. England: Pearson Education Limited, 2004.
Jancovich, Mark. Horror. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1992.
—–, Ed. The Horror Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Jones, Mike. “Shock Horror: Genre, Audience and the Anatomy of Fear.” LUMINA: The Australian Journal of Screen Arts and Business 7: 2011. 96-106.
Williams, Linda. “Discipline and Fun: Psycho and Postmodern Cinema.” Reinventing Film Studies. Ed. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams. London: Oxford University Press, 2000. 351-378.
- The sheer amount of genres present in most anthology horror films lead me away from defining these films as a subgenre of their own, but I believe anthology horror films invite rich opportunities for discussion in terms of genre. [↩]
- Tales From the Crypt is also the title of a 1972 anthology horror film from Amicus Productions. [↩]
- I compiled the image below from two stills that I took from this scene. The image as it appears here is not visible in its entirety in the film; furthermore, the pan across the image is too quick for any viewer to read the text during the film’s natural unfolding. The text reads: “Heh, heh! Welcome, kiddies… I don’t know about you but I’m feeling a bit edgey! Maybe I’m still feeling the effects of our last story, or maybe it’s because I haven’t been out in a long time. That’s it! I’ve got that boxed in feeling. Heh, heh! Which reminds me of another tale in my lurid lexicon. A little fear fable called… “THE CRATE.” [↩]
- For example, recent films such as All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) and Sinister (2012) employ twists intended to shock their audience. Whether or not these twists are humorless is debatable, but neither film delivers these twists in such an overtly – and gleefully – tongue-in-cheek manner as many anthology horror films. Another general avenue of interest for me is how horror films engage and distance their audience. For me, questions that these films bring up include the following: does the intensity of the horror serve to push audiences away (by forcing viewers to cover their eyes or driving audiences to ameliorate the experience by reminding themselves that “it’s only a movie”) or to draw them in by thrusting identification with suffering characters upon the viewers? Along similar lines, what sort of engagement do anthology horror films initiate with their audience when they deliver a “punchline” which their invite the audience to enjoy? With whom, exactly, does the audience identify in anthology horror film? [↩]