Horror anthology films, also known as portmanteau horror movies, have been a staple of the genre since the 1960s. They combine several short stories -- generally three to five -- into one film, along with typically a "wraparound" or "framing" tale in which a person is relating the stories that we see on screen. Horror anthologies are known for containing morality tales wherein a protagonist commits an injustice that he believes he's gotten away with, only to have the tables turn with a twist ending. The climax of each tale -- and even the wraparound story -- thus tends to be macabre with a touch of dark irony.
Many of the earliest horror anthologies came from Germany. Eerie Tales from 1919 was perhaps the earliest. It includes five tales, one being Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," as well as a framing story about characters reading about themselves in a bookstore. Later, its director, Richard Oswald, would helm The Living Dead (also known as Ghastly Tales), a 1932 anthology that revisits not only "The Black Cat," but also two other Poe works. More renowned is 1924's Waxworks, which finds a poet hired to write tales involving figures such as Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper. Acclaimed director Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921), meanwhile, isn't necessarily considered horror, but its structure -- Death telling three stories of sorrow to a young lover -- and the twist ending no doubt helped shape the format.
In 1943, a pair of American films caught the horror anthology bug. Flesh and Fantasy was directed by French expatriate Julien Duvivier, who had previously mastered the multi-story format in Carnival in Flanders and Tales of Manhattan. Unlike those movies, however, Flesh and Fantasy incorporated supernatural elements that leaned toward horror. Decidedly more horrific -- and less artistic -- was Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, an anthology best known for inspiring a later British anthology of the same name. In truth, the earlier Dr. Terror was simply a cheap collection of snippets from other films, including Bela Lugosi's White Zombie.
The next significant US entries didn't occur until the early '60s, when Vincent Price starred in a pair of adaptations of classic stories: Tales of Terror (1962), which mined Poe for gold, and Twice Told Tales (1963), which used similarly themed works from Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Also during this time, the television show The Twilight Zone was enjoying a six-year run, melding science fiction with mystery and horror, and though each episode contained only one tale, the compact storytelling that generally ended in a moralistic twist would feed into the appeal of later horror anthologies. Indeed, in 1969, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling would go on to write the more horror-inclined TV movie Night Gallery, an anthology that would grow into a well-respected TV show that ran for four years.
After the initial German wave, horror anthologies outside of America came from a variety of places. Edgar Allan Poe once again served as inspiration for a pair of early offerings: 1949's Unusual Tales from France and 1960's Master of Horror (also known as Short Stories of Terror) from Argentina. Neither received much attention, however.
More renowned were Italy's Black Sabbath (1963) and Japan's Kwaidan (1964), which added their respective country's unique flavor to the anthology mold. Both stepped outside of the standard American/British format by not including a framing story and by exhibiting long stretches of silence to not only heighten the tension, but also to showcase the extravagant sets and vivid use of color. Still, the stories tended to be moralistic and dark in tone, falling in line with most anthologies worldwide.
Later, in 1968, another Poe adaptation, Spirits of the Dead, would unite three top European directors -- Frederico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim -- each helming a tale from the legendary poet.
The British Wave
The horror anthology that is remembered as perhaps the most influential of all, however, is the 1945 British release Dead of Night. The wraparound story brings together a group of strangers in a farm house who discover that they have the common bond of experiencing a supernatural occurrence. They each then set about telling their own tale. The success of Dead of Night -- due to the strength of the stories and the effectiveness of the ominous mood -- set the stage for a flood of British anthologies to come.
However, the flood wouldn't arrive for two decades. Film production company Amicus, desperately trying to pry the British horror market from the grasp of Hammer Film Productions, was the primary source of that country's horror anthologies throughout the '60s and '70s. Its version of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, which shared only the name with the 1943 American concoction, was the first, arriving in 1965. The film follows Dead of Night's lead by bringing together strangers exploring their connection to one another, only to lead to a twist ending. Its success spawned a series of portmanteaus from Amicus over the next 15 years, including: Torture Garden, Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Asylum, From Beyond the Grave, The House That Dripped Blood and The Monster Club.
Dr. Terror's House of Horrors proved so popular that Ed Wood-like American schlock director David L. Hewitt tried to capitalize on it by producing a decidedly inferior film called Dr. Terror's Gallery of Horrors, a movie so bad that it's achieved a level of cult fame over the years.