The Trouble With Anthologies
The BBC created a tradition of filming a classic ghost story for Christmas (the best of their choices is now out in a collectors’ Blu-Ray edition) and the same problem that bedevils written anthologies is magnified on film. Some stories simply fail to create the intended effect, leaving weak spots in the overall series or feature.
The UK has a long history of portmanteau films featuring several stories, starting with ‘Dead of Night’ (1945) and Terence Rattigan’s ‘Separate Tables’ (1958). The emphasis was mainly on supernatural anthologies, none of which were horrific (most were laughable). From ‘Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors’ to ‘The Monster Club’ they suffered from weak scripts and cheap production values, the only artistically successful one being ‘From Beyond the Grave’, with its rock-solid story selection and the marvellous pairing of Donald and Angela Pleasance. Yet all of them are rather charming, an old-school endorsement of the unexplained.
Bill Gaines’ excellent EC Comics spawned a couple of UK film anthologies, ‘Tales from the Crypt’ and ‘Vault of Horror’, which work better than most simply because the delineation of characters is suitably cartoonish. How difficult is it to create a full-blown supernatural tale in just over 20 minutes? I was once commissioned to write a new episode for the revived ‘Twilight Zone’ series and despite being handed Rod Serling’s style-bible of Do’s and Don’ts I couldn’t hit my mark. Then Harlan Ellison was brought in and knocked it out of the park on his first try with a brilliant tale of a man who loses his language. Harlan was famously ‘difficult’, but I believe talented people have earned that right.
The ‘Curse of the Weak Story’ in anthologies means that usually only one or two tales are any good. In the ‘Twilight Zone’ movie, two of the stories are terrible; the one that resulted in Vic Morrow’s death and the treacly Spielberg care-home tale, and two are brilliant; John Landis’s ‘ eerie story of a child who can control the world, and George Miller’s tale of a paranoid passenger on a stormy flight.
There have been portmanteau collections (ie one author) notably from Robert Bloch and R Chetwynd-Hayes. Now we have the traditionally-styled ‘Ghost Stories’ from Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. I was a big fan of Nyman’s under-seen psychological drama ‘The Glass Man’ and I love Dyson’s work, but neither the stage version nor the film of ‘Ghost Stories’ did it for me. There were no weak tales because there were no strong ones.
The stories were beautifully acted, the atmosphere was superb, the introduction of Judaism into the supernatural was a welcome change, but the chills were built around audio stings and jumps, and none of the stories concluded satisfactorily because of the wraparound story. This was meant to give meaning to what had gone before, but uses a hoary old cliché far past its sell-by date – and I know the makers aren’t famous for writing women’s roles but there are no women in this film at all, which simply looks weird. I wish I could have been parachuted in there as a script doctor – the film got so many other elements right. If anyone who’s seen it can explain the feeding of cat food to the baby or the boy’s creepy parents I’d be obliged – it could be my failure to understand.
My very first book of short stories had a wraparound structure in which an architect is forced to see how London can spawn disastrous events. I used this structure across the sequel (not published in the UK), in which the same architect suffers at the hands of New York.
Filmed anthologies have always been tricky to pull off – very few are well scripted – but they were once financially desirable from a production point of view. The Amicus portmanteaux could hire big names for a couple of afternoons and pay them cash, and shoots could be divided into sections. Perhaps it’s time for someone to get one completely right.