The Trouble With Anthologies

The Arts

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.


11 comments on “The Trouble With Anthologies”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    I love ‘From Beyond The Grave’. The title sequence roving around the ‘Old’ Highgate Cemetery, and the tombs of it’s Columbarium, hooked me from the start. Peter Cushing, looking like an antique for sale in his shop, and his sparse dialogue, beautifully played, as always: “Nasty!”; “Shouldn’t ‘ave done that.” etc. Prior to this, Cushing had played Arthur Grimsdyke in ‘Tales From The Crypt’, in a segment that is both moving and sad, and deliciously horrid. Of all the segments of F.B.T.G., the one that really gave me the creeps was the last one, ‘The Door’. It’s such an obvious thing, but so beautifully written. It gave me bad dreams for ages after seeing it. An odd connection between this movie and your mention of Jeremy Dyson. I know that this movie is a favourite of all the members of ‘The League Of Gentlemen’, and if you remove the beautifully disgusting dustcover of ‘A Local Book For Local People’, you will find all sorts of fascinating tat on the hardcover and inside the covers, including labels from ‘Temptations, Ltd.’ (Cushing’s antique shop in the film), and a partially destroyed one, with instructions to deliver to ‘Sir Michael Sinclair’ (The ghoul who built the room on the other side of ‘The Door’). Nice touch.

  2. Denise Treadwell says:

    I loved that film. I went to Highgate Cemetery and I know how it is or was , having to climb over other people’s graves to see those you want to see! It was a fascinating place for me: particularly the prize fighter, whose dog was his primary mourner.

  3. Ian Luck says:

    1974 was the year that all the ‘Highgate Vampire’ weirdness was at it’s height, and scores of people descended on the place – some just interested, others with an altogether more sinister agenda. Terrible vandalism and desecration of the tombs, escalated by the claims of one Sean Manchester, that he had tracked the Vampire to it’s lair, and staked it. Thanks to him, the vandalism got worse, and led to the cemetery being closed and watched by the police, rather in the manner of Stonehenge. Why, I’ve always wondered, was there no similar scares at Abney Park, or Kensal Green, or Nunhead, or Norwood? Abney Park is wonderfully creepy.

  4. Ian Smith says:

    I agree. I found ‘Ghost Stories’ frustrating because though it’d obviously been made with skill, care and intelligence, it wasn’t the film it should have been. The ghost stories themselves felt too brief and inconsequential and the filmmakers seemed to want to get them over with as quickly as possible, so that they could get on with the business of tying everything together and relating everything back to the experiences and state-of-mind of the Andy Nyman character. And the final ‘twist’ ending, as you say, is too weak to justify what’s gone before. (It actually reminded me of the ending of another Jeremy Dyson movie, ‘The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse’.) I know Dyson is a big fan of Robert Aickman and his stories where weird things happen with warning, explanations or denouements and maybe that was the effect he was pursuing with the three ghost stories in this film. However, I doubt if Aickman would have approved of the use of jump-cuts and the nods to J-Horror!

    I agree too that ‘From Beyond the Grave’ is by far the best of the Amicus anthologies, though I have a soft spot for the enjoyably hokey ‘Tales from the Crypt’. Incidentally, my partner — though she loves horror movies generally — has never been able to watch more than five minutes of the ‘Tales from the Crypt’ episode featuring Peter Cushing. She finds the psychological torture inflicted on the lonely, gentle old man in that story just too painful to watch and totally out of kilter with the tone of the rest of the film.

  5. Denise Treadwell says:

    No, I went there 1998 it was overgrown and rather beautiful with all the funerary statues. You have to go with guide, as it easy to get lost, the Egyptian Avenue was amazing , it was unclear if the doorlocks were put on upside-down accidentally or on purpose.

  6. Ian Smith says:

    Correction: I should written, “Robert Aickman and his stories where weird things happen WITHOUT warning, explanations or denouements…”, not ‘with’. The great man has probably been rotating in his coffin since I wrote that.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Denise – my favourite memorial there is the beautifully sculpted lion that marks the grave of the Victorian ‘Menagerist’, George Wombwell. I learnt about this, oddly enough, from the third of Charlie Higson’s ‘Young James Bond’ novels, ‘Double Or Dare’, which is incredibly violent. If you go to the ‘Old’ cemetery now, you have to go as part of a tour conducted by the Friends Of Highgate Cemetery. They are not keen on the supernatural associations the site has, and will say so, should anyone bring it up. The incredible work they have done there, freeing areas from rampant growth, is their main achievement, and I expect that they are annoyed that visitors would rather talk about ‘vampires’, rather than their saving of the site from nature. In the near future, I’d like to visit both cemetery sites again, especially the new one, to visit the graves of Douglas Adams, and George Michael, both of whom made the 1980’s a bit more fun.

  8. Rh says:

    On From bytg,cant help feeling Jennifer Saunders owes much to madame orloff!

  9. Jay Mackie says:

    I can watch the only two decently strong Amicus anthologies Vault of Horror and From Beyond The Grave til the cows come and I always get something different each time. The music, filming locations, casting, and stories.All spot on and beautifully done to stand the test of time.I never forget the first time I ever saw it on ‘normal’ tv as the ITV Saturday late night horror film in 1985 when they used to programme gems like this. I was such an unscared ten year old and all it did was fuel my lifelong fire for reading and watching horror! A very atmospheric and wonderful piece. Totally agree with you though Chris. Nothing has really come close since and I’m a little surprised to see a revival of this format re-emerging in recent years. The much awaited XX by all female directors was good but underdeveloped in places and left you wanted more I felt I don’t know about your feeling on it, but I think for all the hype it was too brief and we were short-changed somewhat.There were some cracking ideas and great imagery though.
    I have almost all of the British ‘Prince of Chill’ Mr Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes short story collections amassed over the years – becoming very collectable now, some rarer that others ,and becoming so hard to obtain even through all the usual websites. He wrote a wealth of deliciously strange stories all with his very individual, and very English style old fashioned language and atmosphere. I find them very enjoyable in their unnerving and heavy oppression.I do think he’s massively underrated and it’s scandalous how his wonderful output of short stories has remained out of print and nobody has bothered to reprint in updated versions or digitise them. I find their mood very similiar to some of the stories of Ramsay Campbell. I’d love to hear your opinion on Ramsay’s prolific short fiction Chris?

    I do think a lot of your stories would have transferred well to a similar Amicus-style portmanteau treatment Chris…I was thinking of some of the Bureau of Lost Soul stories like Hot Air and Jumbo Portions; from Flesh Wounds,The Most Boring Woman In The World and The Young Executiv and from Sharper Knives, On Edge and Last Call For Passenger Paul. Six gems of stories , great for an anthology movie! The latter is my favourite of all of your short fiction Chris. That last page with it’s really strong mental imagery of a bewildered blond man standing in a burnt out building about to be killed and skinned by a band of primitive and barbaric Chadian natives wearing their special ‘cloaks’ has stayed with me forever! Fabulously creepy and uncomfortable stuff which is hard to get out of your head. Surely the sign of a good story and surely must count as one of your many short triumphs Chris? I know you said you’ve often felt like it’s really difficult to pen the perfect short story you’re happy with on so many levels but this one surely pleased you?
    While we’re on the topic of turning your fiction into film (why oh why oh why hasn’t this happened more when I think of all the crap out there which has made it to film over the years!!) I think Breathe and Plastic would have made brilliant movies.
    Hopefully someday your excellent ideas will deservedly grace our screens Chris…

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Douglas Adams’ grave is a lovely thing. I found a photo of it somewhere and, yes, would like to see it in person.

  11. porl says:

    Dont forget “Screamtime” – I love it! (Mr Punch!!) and it often gets overlooked.

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