This week's "The ABCs of Death" presents 26 tales of bloody terror in one nifty little package, all held together by the very broad theme of "death." Anthology films are nothing new, though, and often provide both young and seasoned filmmakers the chance to flex their muscles in a short form that allows them to explore subjects or techniques outside their wheelhouse. Sometimes the results are masturbatory or phoned-in, but in every omnibus picture there is usually one segment that everyone agrees was the topper.
Since horror stories are often most effective in short bursts an anthology is a choice way to present them, so here's a list of all the juiciest morsels from the omnibus pantheon. Perhaps some intrepid reader out there can compile them all into one big (highly illegal) MEGA ANTHOLOGY?
'Fantasia' (1940) – 'Night on Bald Mountain'
Yes, it's Disney, but what list would be complete without the most thrilling denouement in any music-oriented movie? Being Walt Disney's (final) attempt to elevate his work to the level of high art, "Fantasia" has some legit scary scenes in it, especially if you're not sexually attracted to hippos, but none more indelible than his interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky's eerie tone poem. It features a massive demon named Chernabog (partly modeled after Bela Lugosi) orchestrating a slew of ghosts and demonic forms above a gloomy castle, inspiring heavy metal albums for generations to come. What stops this fiendishness? Schubert's Ave Maria, duh!
'Black Sabbath' (1963) – 'The Drop of Water'
Before Ozzie Osborne took the moniker for his occult band of miscreants, "Black Sabbath" was a wicked cool Italian anthology (from the amazing Mario Bava) containing three tales of dread that spawned a boom of this type of film in the '60s. That's why there's four of them from that era on this list. The other two segments have threatening phone calls and Russian vampires, but the kicker is the final one about a sleazy nurse who steals a ring off the finger of a dead psychic woman's corpse. Inspired by Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," the woman keeps hearing a monotonous drop of water (really pangs of conscience) that drives her up the wall. What really makes this creeper so memorable is the apparition of the dead woman, whose frozen facial features are F**KING TERRIFYING!
'Kwaidan' (1964) – 'The Woman of the Snow'
Masaki Kobayashi took home a Special Jury Prize at the '65 Cannes Film Festival for this four-part exploration of ancient Kaidan ("ghost story") folklore. All of them have a deliberately studio-bound look to them, with theatrical backdrops representing outdoor locations, and this artificiality makes it all the more dreamlike… or nightmarelike. "Woman of the Snow" has a hapless woodcutter stranded in a blizzard, who meets a strange Yuki-onna, an icy female snow spirit, who agrees to save his butt on the condition that he never tell another soul about it. Year's later he forgets his promise… WHOOPS!
'Dr. Terror's House of Horrors' (1965) – Christopher Lee segment
Amicus was the rival to England's Hammer Studios in pumping out old fashioned B-level horror, usually starring Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee. This one has both, with Cushing as the eponymous Dr. Terror as he reads tarot cards to five men during a long-ass train trip. Their fates are revealed in the form of lurid tales, the best involving Christopher Lee as an uptight art critic who angrily runs down an artist. Later, the artist's severed hand begins a non-stop rampage of revenge against Lee, surviving pokings, fires and burial to ultimately strangle the bastard. Hells yeah.
'Spirits of the Dead' (1968) – 'Toby Dammit'
Euro auteurs Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini joined forces for this trilogy of (loose) Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, originally titled "Histoires Extraordinaires." While the first two fall flat, good ol' Fellini really went all the way with a wild, hallucinatory jaunt about a boozy, publicity shy Shakespearian actor who agrees to do a film in Rome in exchange for a new Ferrari. Thing is, he keeps having visions of a little girl with a ball, and it's driving him nuts and, eventually, across a really rickety bridge. This is Fellini at his surreal, "8½"-like best, with a truly bugged-out performance by pasty-faced Terrence Stamp, who looks like he's been partying for a century.
'Heavy Metal' (1981) – 'B-17'
The French magazine Metal Hurlant (and it's American counterpart Heavy Metal) was one of the first outlets that catered to adult sensibilities in mainstream comics, i.e. blood and tits. Produced by Ivan Reitman, the animated film had 8 sequences inspired by the comics, held together by a wraparound about a mysterious orb that seems to cause evil wherever it goes. This glow-in-the-dark maguffin manages to cross paths with a World War II bomber where everyone except the two pilots has been killed. Soon the pilots discover that their crew are not as deceased as they seem… "Alien" creator Dan O'Bannon crafted this quick little horror piece in the spirit of EC Comics (like "Creepshow"), and there's something compelling about the lonely nighttime setting in the skies above the Pacific.
'Creepshow' (1982) – 'The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill'
There have been many, many, MANY films adapted from the works of Stephen King, but how many of them actually STAR the Master of Horror? George Romero of "Night of the Living Dead"-fame was at the height of his powers when he drafted King to bang out five tales of medium-well horror (just a little bloody in the center), and the result was a hit. Future stars like Ed Harris and Ted Danson both appeared in other segments, but none of them hold a candle to King's hambone bow as slackjawed hick Jordy, who touches a strange space meteorite only to wind up covered in green plant-like gunk. Romero uses tons of Dutch angles and optical effects to recreate the graphic look of old EC Comics like "Tales from the Crypt."
'Twilight Zone: The Movie' (1983) – 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet'
This big budget tribute to Rod Serling's perennial series was soured by the on-set death of Vic Morrow and two children during the shooting of John Landis' portion, which caused a falling out with producer Steven Spielberg and ultimately, the studio turned a blind eye to the other two segments. This resulted in young Joe Dante and George Miller given free reign, with Miller's being the undisputed champ. "Nightmare" remakes the famous William Shatner episode about a destructive gremlin on the wing of a plane, with John Lithgow taking over Shatner part splendidly. Lithgow is out of his head from minute-one, but manages to work himself to fever pitch by the time the monster is tearing out the plane's engine, and Miller (hot off "The Road Warrior") was clearly on top of his game in the suspense department.
'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams' (1990) – 'The Tunnel'
Though he's most famous for his many slice 'em dice 'em samurai chanbara flicks, Kurosawa has a wide range of ability, as you might expect from one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. This collection of brief filmic sketches unfold with steady dream logic, and include a radioactive cloud shrouding Mount Fuji in red or Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh (you read that correctly). The most haunting of the bunch is "The Tunnel," a slow burn horror tale of a Japanese officer walking home after World War II who comes across a dark, foreboding tunnel. He's met by a demonic red dog strapped with explosives, then encounters the ghosts of all the soldiers he sent to their deaths during battle. That's gotta be every commander's worst nightmare.
'Four Rooms' (1995) – 'The Misbehavers'
Okay, not exactly a horror flick, but elements of horror mos def permeate throughout. Made in the wake of the indie movie boom of the mid-nineties, this noble experiment plays like a sitcom version of "Mystery Train," but with four jarringly un-unified visions guiding the mess. Although all of them are tied together through Tim Roth's manic bellhop, the first two pieces by Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell are unwatchable, and then we get to the Robert Rodriguez segment "The Misbehavers." It finds Roth having to babysit Antonio Banderas' two precocious kids, with them stirring up a whole heap of trouble starting with a dead prostitute in the bed. Rodriguez would again emerge the victor over Tarantino in the two-header "Grindhouse," but it should be said that QT's segment in "Four Rooms" may in fact be his worst film, if for no other reason than he stole it wholesale from Roald Dahl's short story "Man from the South."