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Horror Anthology Shows Have Always Been TV at Its Best/Worst

The latest version of ‘Creepshow’ proves the world has been missing sometimes-scary, sometimes-cheesy short-form horror for too long

It takes a lot of digging to find the true roots of Creepshow, a new horror anthology series debuting on Shudder this week. Its most direct ties belong to the 1982 film Creepshow, written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, a film that produced two sequels. But King and Romero were already paying homage to an earlier tradition: the creepy horror stories published in EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror in the 1950s — gory, twisty tales of shambling corpses and murderous lovers that made a deep impression on a whole generation of creators like Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and of course, Romero and King. 

But EC Comics’ roots run deeper still. They took some cues from Dead of Night, a 1945 film that helped popularize the anthology horror movie. Yet even that isn’t the first example of the form. Because before Dead of Night, there were the horror short stories published in publications like Blackwood’s. And before that, campfire tales and so on, all the way back, most likely, to creepy cave drawings.

In other words, there’s long been an appetite for brisk, scary stories that don’t always end happily — perhaps especially those that don’t end happily. It’s also okay if they veer into cheesiness and traffic in outrageous twists — sometimes it’s even better if they do. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a collection of dark folk tales that’s served as many a kid’s first introduction to horror stories since its 1981 publication, mixes genuine chills with outright groaners. But it’s been a while since we’ve had much to feed that appetite on television, even as horror anthologies have thrived in movie form (most recently via an adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).

The first episode of this year’s Creepshow, which features two stories, jumps in the deep end of that tradition, stirring memories of a time when late-night channel-flippers could switch from one tight, scary story to another thanks to a wave of spooky series that crested with HBO’s Tales From the Crypt. Running for seven seasons between 1989 and 1996, it took its cues, and sometimes its stories, from EC Comics, putting familiar faces through grim, darkly funny tales directed by a rotating wheel of filmmakers that included both horror veterans and executive producers Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, and once, Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Featuring a healthy budget, movie-quality production values and a horrific, pun-happy host, Tales From the Crypt was the most thoroughly realized version of a form that had been developing for a while. It put a gloss on the sort of horror anthology introduced by lower budget 1980s series that had begun creeping into the late-night hours since the start of the decade, usually on syndicated stations trying to fill the sleepy hours after prime time but before infomercials. These series didn’t let cheap sets and questionable lighting get in the way of a good story — or more often than not, a bad one.

Horror and television had enjoyed a happy relationship to this point, and virtually every horror anthology series owes a debt to Rod Serling, creator of the frequently horror-centric The Twilight Zone and its macabre follow-up, Night Gallery. Also in the mix: the many horror anthology films that appeared in theaters in the 1960s and 1970s, from Mario Bava’s 1963 classic Black Sabbath, to the Italian omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, to the many horror anthologies released by Britain’s Amicus Pictures in the 1960s and 1970s, including Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, which brought EC Comics stories to screens nearly 20 years before HBO and a decade before Romero and King drew on them for inspiration. Even TV movies got in on the act; the 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror scarred a generation of young viewers by pitting Karen Black against a murderous Zuni fetish doll.

Still, it was Creepshow that directly led to the boom in 1980s horror series, starting with the Romero-created Tales from the Darkside, which ran for four seasons between 1983 and 1988 (and led to a follow-up movie). Tales from the Darkside began as a Creepshow series — an idea now coming full circle — but shed the name and the film’s trappings over rights issues while still drawing on the same well of classic horror devices for inspiration. With its obvious budgetary constraints — starting with a synth score seemingly performed on a secondhand Yamaha — and love of twists, Tales from the Darkside set the stage for what was to come. This included maintaining a level of inventiveness that, at the series’ best, overcame its limitations. 

Strong material helped. Two episodes adapted Stephen King stories while others drew on Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, John Cheever(!) and others. It also served as a kind of grad school for film professionals attempting to cross over into directing features, including make-up artist Tom Savini and Jodie Foster (directing an episode co-written by Bob Balaban, who made his own directorial debut with the series’ pilot). Savini’s second episode as director, “Halloween Candy,” is fairly typical of the series: A mean old man refuses to give out Halloween candy, only to find himself menaced by a vicious monster whom he mistakes for a trick-or-treater. Also involved — cockroaches and a twist ending that doesn’t really make sense. 

But making sense is only a secondary concern for TV horror anthologies, especially those trying to stretch ideas and money across full seasons while making room for some creative special effects. “Halloween Candy” is pokey at times, but it does feature a memorable monster and a desiccated corpse not easily forgotten — the sort of intense imagery that could haunt a bleary-eyed late-night viewer long after the details of the plot had faded from memory. 

When Tales from the Darkside ended, producer Richard Rubinstein kept the ball rolling with another syndicated horror anthology, Monsters, which ran from 1988 to 1991. As its title suggested, and its opening credits confirmed, the series put the emphasis squarely on monsters, which found themselves thrust into every type of story it tried to tell. In the middle of a not very convincing set, some American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War scramble into some tunnels. Guess what they find there? Monsters! A pair of soldiers find themselves tortured by what they’ve done after launching missiles that help start a nuclear war. Against all hope, they make contact with some fellow survivors. But, uh oh, monsters! And so on. Effects legend Dick Smith helped oversee the inventive monstrous creations, and the series more or less lived up to the caliber of its predecessor. In other words, it was wildly inconsistent in quality, but consistently fun to watch.

Not fun to watch, however: the highest-profile entry into the filed before Tales from the Crypt. Premiering to much fanfare in October 1988, Freddy’s Nightmares brought the blade-gloved killer of the Nightmare on Elm Street series to the small screen — sort of. Anyone hoping for a TV extension of the Elm Street movies ended up staring at the screen in confusion. Though Freddy (played by Robert Englund, who also helped develop the show) hosted, he only occasionally played a role in the stories. And when he did show up, he usually found himself in the middle of one of the series’ typical dull plots, and stranded in episodes that tried to replicate the atmosphere of one of the Elm Street movies on a much smaller budget. A typical episode featured two stories, but the series’ two seasons failed to produce much that proved memorable. (Its franchise rival had better luck with Friday the 13th: The Series, a non-anthology series about a shop filled with cursed antiques that had absolutely nothing to do with the film series beyond its title.)

Though unavoidable for years — to the point where they were fair game for spoofing — the horror anthology more or less faded away after Tales from the Crypt went off the air. The Showtime series Masters of Horror made an earnest effort to revive it for two seasons in the mid-2000s, even luring John Carpenter out of semi-retirement to helm an episode in addition to Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, Larry Cohen and others. 

Horror anthology movies, on the other hand, thrived in the meantime. The 1995 film Tales from the Hood has justly become a cult classic, and in the 21st century, films like V/H/S and The ABCs of Death have allowed up-and-coming directors to showcase their talents in short-form stories. They’ve also helped confirm that the short horror film remains a viable form, and that compactness and horror work well together. Some scary stories need 900 pages to unfold, as Stephen King has proven; others need to last as long as a turn around a campfire (as King has also helped prove).

Creepshow gets that, even if its first installments seem to be working out some kinks. The first episode includes “Grey Matter,” an adaptation of an early King short story, and “The House of the Head,” adapted from a story by Bird Box author Josh Malerman. (It’s also something of a family affair: Greg Nicotero, who worked with George Romero, directs “Grey Matter,” while King’s son Joe Hill pens a later episode. Old hands like Savini and John Harrison — director of “The House of the Head” and formerly Romero’s composer and assistant director — all make contributions.) The former doubles as a metaphor for alcoholism and leans heavily on grody, largely practical special effects sure to delight fans of old fashioned gore and mutating flesh. The latter sustains a sense of dread to tell the story of a creepy dollhouse that doesn’t really pay off but finds some striking moments along the way. 

Neither is spectacular, but both feel just right for TV, which has been missing a series like it for too long — a show that provides a chuckle and a jolt as the lights dim and we drift into darkness.