Like Dracula or Jason Voorhees or any other monster too profitable to stay dead forever, the horror anthology film always rises from the grave. It was probably 1945’s Dead Of Night that first popularized these loose assemblages of campfire tales. In the decades since, the genre has repeatedly come back into vogue: in the ’70s, with the EC Comics inspired portmanteau flicks of Amicus Productions; in the ’80s, when the craze overlapped with a boom in horror-anthology television shows like Tales From The Darkside and Monsters; and again this decade, when the success of V/H/S and The ABCs Of Death has inspired a new wave of cinematic short-story collections. The enduring popularity of the horror omnibus isn’t difficult to grasp: These films reward short attention spans, and often combine the talents (and marquee appeal) of multiple directors and stars. Plus, they offer multiple scary movies for the price of one.

If the horror anthology film has a weakness, the equivalent of a wooden stake or an overbearing (and decapitated) mother, it’s that they are almost always, by their very nature, uneven. Whether one director is in charge or the stories have been divvied up among a group, the result is still usually a mixed bag—a couple highlights, sharing runtime with some major lowlights. And even the best horror anthologies usually have at least one minor misfire, one chance for Stephen King to throw on some overalls. If only there was a way to separate the wheat from the chaff, the treats from the tricks, the candy from the meteor shit.

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With Halloween right around the corner, The A.V. Club has done just that. Going back as far as Dead Of Night, we’ve assembled an unranked guide to the best individual segments from horror anthology films—a kind of greatest-hits mixtape of scary shorts, culled from a variety of omnibus projects. Only one entry per film was allowed, meaning that we had some agonizing choices to make when looking at some of the more consistent anthologies. And while we couldn’t actually put these disparate selections together into an easily playable playlist (damn copyright laws!), consider these our enthusiastic suggestions for those looking to construct their own super-sized bootleg anthology film.


“The Telephone,” Black Sabbath (1963)

One of Italy’s finer mid-century anthologies from horror maestro Mario Bava, this trilogy of tales kicks off with a simple, Twilight Zone-esque story of revenge and lies (complete with a Rod Serling-style introduction from Boris Karloff). A woman comes home at night only to begin receiving threatening phone calls, promising she’ll be dead by the morning. That’s all there is to it; she worries, she gets scared, she eventually calls a friend to come help out, and the killer’s “calling the police is useless, I’m too close” deters that option. Instead of snappy dialogue or top-shelf acting, the menace and tone come through in Bava’s striking color schemes, his ’60s-cool jazz soundtrack alternating with more traditional pulsing horror orchestration, all to create an indelible atmospheric chiller. It’s giallo without the gore, perfect for those with a more sensitive stomach. [Alex McLevy]


“The Crate,” Creepshow (1982)

“The Crate,” the second-to-last segment of 1982’s Creepshow, has all the elements for a successful EC Comics story. We’ve got the arrogant asshole in need of comeuppance (Adrienne Barbeau as an obnoxious, verbally abusive professor’s wife), the put-upon target of the asshole’s wrath (Hal Holbrook as her meek husband), and the supernaturally charged solution that will inevitably turn out to be worse than the problem itself (that would be the thing in the crate). Colorful, funny in a mean-spirited sort of way, and arguably the scariest segment of the film as a whole, “The Crate” is the epitome of everything that makes George Romero and Stephen King’s affectionate ode to the scary stories of their youth so much fun. [Katie Rife]


“The Black Cat,” Tales Of Terror (1962)

By 1962, Roger Corman and Vincent Price were on their fourth Edgar Allen Poe adaptation. So they decided to mix things up a bit by making Tales Of Terror, an anthology film combining three Poe stories (four, really) into one movie. Two of the segments reflect Corman’s admitted weariness with the material, but the middle segment, “The Black Cat,” turns a hybrid of Poe’s stories “The Black Cat” and “The Cask Of Amontillado” into a winking romp through the campy side of Gothic horror. Peter Lorre stars as Montresor, a barfly who challenges snobby sommelier Fortunato Luchresi (Vincent Price) to a battle of the palates that escalates into a deadly rivalry. Their initial face off, where Price primly exaggerates the fastidious routine of professional wine tasters as Lorre throws back whole glasses in one gulp, is a comedic delight, with two professional movie villains having a great time poking fun at their onscreen reputations. [Katie Rife]


“Quitters, Inc.,” Cat’s Eye (1985)

One doesn’t usually look to horror anthologies for great acting; premise tends to be the real star, overshadowing whatever the cast can wring out of one-dimensional characters and severely abbreviated runtimes. But in “Quitters, Inc.,” the first of the three Stephen King vignettes that make up 1985’s Cat’s Eye, James Woods earns his top billing. Adapted by King from one of his own short stories, the segment casts Woods as a longtime chain-smoker who goes to the title agency for help in breaking his habit, only to discover the company’s rather unorthodox methods, which include nonstop surveillance and some extreme penalties for falling off the wagon. It’s a dementedly inspired conceit, but it wouldn’t work half as well without Woods’ miniature master class in anxiety, disbelief, and withdrawal—the way he spends most of his screen time mentally weighing the consequence of taking a puff against how damn good it might taste. Of course, for modern audiences, there’s a new satisfaction in seeing this particular actor, now fond of blowing a different kind of smoke, suffer for his sins and our enjoyment. [A.A. Dowd]


“Meet Sam,” Trick R Treat (2007)

While the entirety of Michael Dougherty’s time-hopping anthology of stories unfolding over the course of one Halloween night succeeds at evoking the spirit of old-school campfire tales, the last segment best captures the macabre sense of All-Hallows’-Eve fun. Brian Cox stars as the resident old grouch of a small neighborhood, scaring away trick-or-treating kids by dressing up his dog as a monster, then pocketing the sugary treats they drop as they run in terror. Soon, he’s visited by Sam, a little being wearing a grinning burlap mask and footie pajamas, who teaches the cantankerous grinch that the rules of Halloween aren’t to be taken lightly. Set entirely within the old’s man dusty house, it’s a classic home-alone scary story that earns its scares the old-fashioned way: through ghoulishly entertaining slow-build frights, until it hits a practical effects-assisted conclusion that will leave you smiling as wide as the mysterious Sam’s mask. [Alex McLevy]


“It’s A Good Life,” Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

“Kick The Can,” Steven Spielberg’s dreadful contribution to Twilight Zone: The Movie, argues that there’s a mischievous kid lurking inside every adult. As if to prove the point, Joe Dante unleashes his own anarchic inner child in the vastly superior segment that follows. Based, like most of the film’s stories, on an old Twilight Zone episode, “It’s A Good Life” strands a schoolteacher (Kathleen Quinlan) among the terrorized surrogate family of a 10-year-old boy with the ability to reshape reality to his whims. Dante amps up the dark comedy of this domestic hostage situation—the grownups nervously scramble to placate their preadolescent ruler—while also unleashing some truly incredible special effects. Who is this enfant terrible but a stand-in for the director himself, using his powers to drop live-action people into cartoons, drag cartoon monsters into the live-action world, and subject everyone to his personal obsessions? Dante’s diabolical imagination ends up salvaging the whole project; after two duds, his entry is as darkly exciting as a hideous rabbit yanked from a top hat. (Incidentally, George Miller’s film-closing remake of “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” is also superb.) [A.A. Dowd]


“Blind Alleys,” Tales From The Crypt (1972)

The portmanteau specialists at Hammer House Of Horror rival Amicus Productions had fully developed their signature style by 1972’s Tales From The Crypt. Although the film kicked off the wave of EC Comics adaptations that would eventually bring us the HBO series of the same name, only two of the film’s five segments are actually based on issues of the Tales From The Crypt comic book. The final segment in the film, “Blind Alleys,” is one of those. It’s a very mannered, very British take on EC’s ironic morality tales, starring Nigel Patrick as Major William Rogers, a military man who takes over a home for the blind populated mostly by the elderly and infirm. Rogers’ leadership style is to cruelly freeze and starve his charges while he lives in luxury; the residents’ eventual revenge takes a sadistically inventive approach to torture that presages much later films like Saw and Hostel. [Katie Rife]


“Amelia,” Trilogy Of Terror (1975)

There was a time when “Amelia” was considered one of the scariest half hours ever conceived for television. It snuck up on viewers, putting a razor-edged punctuation mark on Trilogy Of Terror, an ABC movie-of-the-week directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis and featuring Karen Black in four different roles. After two forgettable psychological horror scenarios, along comes a Richard Matheson corker about a terrified wallflower (Black, in a one-woman show that got her typecast in genre roles going forward) fighting for her life against the screaming, pointy toothed Zuni fetish doll she brings home to her high-rise apartment. Many of the killer-doll movies that followed (including, especially, the Puppet Master series) owe a debt to this intense, single-location battle royale. And if “Amelia” no longer looks, after Tales From The Crypt and American Horror Story and The X-Files, like the height of TV terror, it still carries a big lesson on the power of sequencing: End with a big enough bang, and your middling anthology film may become a cult favorite too. [A.A. Dowd]


“The Woman Of The Snow,” Kwaidan (1964)

Masaki Kobayashi’s classic Japanese horror anthology Kwaidan is a deliberately paced, theatrically staged movie that has more in common with traditional kabuki theater than contemporary horror films. Throughout the film, Kobayashi uses folkloric archetypes to create slow, creeping psychological horror, and the relationship between humans and the supernatural is at its most intimate in the chilling “The Woman Of The Snow.” With a palette of icy blues and a sharp, piercing soundtrack, Kobayashi evokes the eerie stillness of a forest blanketed with snow to tell a slow-burn tale of revenge, as a young woodcutter spared from death by hypothermia promises to never reveal his encounter with the beautiful, otherworldly woman who saved his life. Ten years later, he tells his beloved wife the tale… [Katie Rife]


“Lover’s Vow,” Tales From The Darkside: The Movie (1990)

The Japanese folktale that inspired “The Woman Of The Snow” gets a modern update in “Lover’s Vow,” the fourth and final chapter in 1990’s Tales From The Darkside: The Movie. Written by Beetlejuice’s Michael McDowell and with monster-movie luminaries like Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and Dick Smith on special effects, “Lover’s Vow” puts a grittier, more adult spin on the normally kitschy horror subgenre of EC Comics adaptations. James Remar stars as Preston, a bohemian artist whose life is spared by a gargoyle after he stumbles upon the creature eviscerating drunks in an alley one night. That same night, he meets Carola (Rae Dawn Chong), the woman who will eventually become his wife. Like the hapless woodcutter in Kobayashi’s tale, Preston can’t help but reveal his secret to his lover and best friend, although the consequences here are significantly more grotesque. [Katie Rife]


“Safe Haven,” V/H/S 2 (2013)

Second time was the charm for the V/H/S series. Though part two jettisoned much of the stylistic variety of its predecessor, it also ran with what worked best about the original, offering four relentless found-footage freak-outs. The best of the bunch—and, by extension, of this whole franchise—is “Safe Haven,” in which a team of documentary filmmakers make the very unwise decision to infiltrate a Heaven’s Gate-style commune. What happens inside plays to every rational and irrational fear audiences might have about hermetic cults, as a vague sense of growing unease eventually explodes into total batshit chaos. Co-director Gareth Evans also made the ruthlessly violent new action classic The Raid, and here he simply truncates and genre-twists that film’s strategy of constantly escalating intensity. It’s a half-hour roller coaster of horror, frazzling your nerves on the way up, then stealing your breath during the long, nightmarish drop. [A.A. Dowd]


“Untitled fifth story,” Fear(s) Of The Dark (2007)

The more real or plausible a horror story feels in the telling, the more effective it usually is at scaring the viewer. So consider it a high compliment indeed that the final segment of Fear(s) Of The Dark, an animated French anthology of scary stories, manages to unnerve so powerfully, despite being little more than a bluntly effective series of simply rendered black-and-white illustrations. Indeed, for the majority of Richard McGuire’s tale of a man seeking respite from a blizzard inside a (seemingly) abandoned house, the entire screen in engulfed in black, the rare moments of illumination provided only by his striking a match, stoking a fire, or lighting a candle. Those fleeting instances reveal little more than what’s a couple of feet in front of the man, and as he explores the house, our own claustrophobia increases, walls and corridors appearing and disappearing from the faint light with his movements. It’s near-silent, and by the time the tale hits its dark conclusion, this starkly drawn story has also animated a potent sense of unease. [Alex McLevy]


“Box,” Three…Extremes (2004)

Japan’s insanely prolific (and prolifically insane) Takashi Miike has made a lot of movies—maybe as many as 100, if the campaign behind the upcoming Blade Of The Immortal is to be believed. In that vast body of work, “Box” is a haunting highpoint: a kind of ghost story told in whispers and flashes. Though it’s either the first or last chapter of a uniformly excellent Asian omnibus project called Three…Extremes (the order was shuffled for the American release), there’s nothing especially extreme about this story of a former circus performer tormented by the specter or her deceased twin sister. In place of grotesque gore, like the kind featured in some of his features, Miike offers striking, disquieting imagery: a circus tent on fire, a tree standing lonely in a snowy pasture, someone buried alive in plastic. Building to a surprising twist ending, “Box” comingles dreams, memories, and emotional trauma into a phantom of pure atmosphere. And did we mention it’s scary as hell? [A.A. Dowd]


“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” Dead Of Night (1945)

Ealing Studios tapped four notable directors for one of the finest and most influential of all horror anthologies. A group of people at a country home recount a number of uncanny or supernatural stories to one another. And while nearly all of them are successful and memorable—from the morbid to the darkly comic—the final stand-alone segment, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” is the most resonant. An iconic use of the haunted-doll trope, this Alberto Cavalcanti-directed tale of a ventriloquist and his seemingly sentient (and malevolent) dummy has stood as a touchstone of the subgenre—everything from the Anthony Hopkins-starring Magic to recent offerings like Annabelle owe the British horror sequence a debt. Martin Scorsese has placed it among his best horror films of all time; the dastardly dummy, Hugo, is a big reason why. [Alex McLevy]