An Introduction to Classic Horror Anthologies

I’m a big fan of horror anthologies. They make me feel like I’m sitting around a campfire listening to my friends tell a bunch of spooky stories, and sometimes that’s all I want out of a horror movie. As much as I love heady slow burns like Rosemary’s Baby, I don’t always want to sit through a bunch of narrative buildups and character development. There are times when I just want to get right to the good stuff, and when I’m in that mood, the short stories in anthology films are frequently my horror “fast food” of choice.

And when I want to watch an anthology movie, I find that I’m often drawn to the classics. In particular, I have a special place in my heart for the anthologies that predate one of the gold standards for the subgenre, Creepshow. This movie is rightly held up as arguably the best horror anthology ever made, but we sometimes forget that it didn’t create the subgenre. There were anthologies before it, and many of them were excellent. I would even say that some of them give Creepshow a run for its money as the best horror anthology of all time.

So if you’re interested in learning a bit more about these pre-Creepshow anthologies, I’d like to give you a few recommendations. Here are five of my favorites from the 40s to the 70s to help get you started with this fantastic but all too often forgotten era of anthology horror movies.

Dead of Night

A ventriloquist dummy sitting in the shadows

Let’s start with the oldest movie on this list. Dead of Night is a British film from 1945 (don’t confuse it with the made-for-TV anthology of the same name from 1977), and it’s widely considered the grandfather of the anthology subgenre. It’s about an architect named Walter who accepts an invitation to visit a man’s house and consult on a few renovations, and when he arrives he recognizes the house and everybody in it even though he’s never been there or seen any of them before. He says that he’s been having a recurring dream where he goes to that very house and talks to those very people, and this compels the other guests to tell their own paranormal stories that they’ve either experienced or heard about.

The stories are all pretty enjoyable, but there are two clear standouts. First, we have the final segment, which is about an unstable ventriloquist whose dummy may or not be alive. I’m not always a fan of this kind of ambiguity, but it’s done perfectly here. The dummy looks creepy enough on its own, but the fact that you’re not 100% sure if it’s alive just amplifies that feeling and unnerves you almost as much as it unnerves the characters in the story. This segment set the standard that all creepy doll movies are measured against, and few have been able to match it in the almost eight decades since it was released.

The other standout here is the wraparound story. Everything that happens matches Walter’s dreams perfectly, so you know something supernatural is going on. You just don’t know what, and that mystery keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time, waiting to find out what the movie is building towards. Then, when all the stories are over and the wraparound reaches its climax, it completely lives up to your expectations.

I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, so I’ll just say this: it’s a bonkers ending that you might not expect from a film this old, and it wraps up everything that came before it in a really creative and satisfying way. It completely sticks the landing after all that buildup, and it’s a huge part of the reason why Dead of Night is still one of the best anthology horror movies of all time almost eighty years after it first came out.

Black Sabbath

Boris Karloff as a wurdulak, staring into the distance with a piercing glare.

If you’ve only seen one movie on this list, it’s probably Black Sabbath. This is an Italian movie directed by Mario Bava, and it stars Boris Karloff as both the host and a character in one of the stories. It tells a trilogy of unconnected tales that showcase Bava’s skill at creating creepy atmospheres and edge-of-your-seat tension, and like a lot of his work, these are the film’s strongest elements.

All three segments in this movie are good, but the second one, called “The Wurdulak” (in the AIP-produced English dubbed version, it’s the last story), is hands down the best of the three. It’s the one with Karloff, and he plays a vampire for the first and only time in his career. His character, named Gorca, goes off to kill one of his family’s enemies, and when he comes back, he’s a wurdulak, a vampire that feasts on the blood of its loved ones.

From the moment Gorca returns home, this segment is a masterclass in suspense and anxiety, as you’re just waiting for him to lash out at his family. Every moment that passes amps up the tension because you know it has to happen sooner or later, and when it finally does, Bava largely maintains that tension because you know Gorca isn’t done yet. He can still attack at any time, so nobody is safe from his deadly thirst.

Even though that’s the clear standout of the bunch, I have to make mention of the last segment as well. It’s called “The Drop of Water,” and it features one of the most terrifying corpses I’ve ever seen in a movie. I don’t normally say that visuals alone make something worth watching, but this one does. It’s tough to explain if you’ve never seen the film, but this dead body just looks like it’s waiting for you to fall asleep so it can haunt your dreams. It’s a microcosm of what makes Black Sabbath such a great watch. The plot is pretty standard, but Bava executes the material so well that you can’t help but enjoy the hell out of it.


An evil manequin staring away from the camera in a dark, dim room.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a British movie studio called Amicus Productions made a series of seven anthology horror films. They’re all good, so I’d recommend all seven if you’re a fan of classic anthology horror. Asylum is one of those Amicus movies, and it’s about a man named Dr. Martin who goes to an insane asylum to interview for a job. When he arrives, the head doctor explains that his predecessor had a mental breakdown and is now one of the patients, and Dr. Martin has to interview all of them and determine which one used to run the asylum.

As he interviews them, they tell him how they ended up there, and their stories form the four segments of the film. The one exception is the final segment, which is actually part of the wraparound story. After that final segment, the movie ends with a shocking twist. Dr. Martin finds out who the previous head of the asylum was, but it happens in a way that you will not expect. I won’t spoil it for you, so I’ll just say this about it: it makes the wraparound story the best part of this film.

Don’t get me wrong. Like the previous two movies on this list, the stories in this one are all good. It’s just that the wraparound story is better. In fact, many of Amicus’s anthologies are like that. While their individual segments are good, I find that their wraparound stories are often the main attraction, and this film is a prime example of that. Much like the rug in The Big Lebowski, the wraparound story in Asylum really ties the movie together and gives it a cohesion that lesser anthologies often lack, making it one of the best old school horror anthologies.

From Beyond the Grave

A woman standing behind a candle with her hands out, focused.

From Beyond the Grave is another Amicus anthology, and it’s about a mysterious antique shop called Temptations Limited. Every time someone goes into the shop and buys something, terrible and unexpected things happen soon after they return home.

Like Asylum, all of the segments in this movie are good, but the best part of it is the wraparound story. The owner of the shop is played by the British horror legend Peter Cushing, and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s both unassuming and oddly confident, so you’re never really sure who or what he is. Is he just a normal human being? Is he some sort of wizard or supernatural entity?  You don’t know, and that ambiguity pulls you in and makes you want to stick around till the end to find out more about him. 

On top of that, the wraparound story also puts an interesting twist on one of the most common tropes we find in horror anthologies. Many stories in this subgenre are basically morality tales where the characters deserve whatever happens to them, and the segments in From Beyond the Grave are no different. Everybody who buys something from the shop tries to cheat the owner out of money in some way, and they all pay a terrible price for it.

But there is one exception. The last segment plays around with that concept and intertwines with the wraparound story in a way that subverts our expectations a bit. It’s more than just a straightforward cautionary tale, so it changes things up a bit and keeps the formula from becoming stale, helping to make this another excellent entry in Amicus’s anthology catalog.

Trilogy of Terror

A Zuni fetish doll standing next to a door

Trilogy of Terror is a made-for-TV movie from the mid-1970s that gets by pretty much entirely on the strength of its final segment. The first two aren’t bad, but they’re nothing special. In fact, the first time I watched this film, I didn’t really like them all that much. They both rely on last-minute twists, but they’re rather bland up until then. I only began to enjoy them after I saw the movie a second time and I knew what was really going on.

But the last story more than makes up for the mediocrity of the first two. It’s about a woman named Amelia who buys a Zuni fetish doll as a gift for her boyfriend, but it soon comes to life and tries to kill her. This doll is right up there with Boris Karloff’s wurdulak in Black Sabbath and the dummy from Dead of Night as one of the best monsters in any anthology film. It’s fast, it’s ferocious, and it chases Amelia up and down the house with unwavering tenacity. This is probably the most fun segment in any movie on this list, and it elevates an otherwise middling horror movie to the status of a legit cult classic.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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