Its 11:55 pm
I really liked the feedback we got from doing our first Round Table. Reading the various voices from all over was a lot of fun and so I decided to try this format again. I decided to chat about “Anthologies” and invite several new voices to chip in and share their thoughts about the genre.
In assembling this entry,which is basically an anthology in of itself,I found out why this is not a easy medium to tackle. The cheetah and I have tackled a couple of these films ourselves and have had mixed results. In discussing what makes a good anthology,I reached out to several writers whose blogs I enjoy reading to share their point of views about their favorite films and TV series.
Matt Nelson is the man behind the film blog “UNREAL TV” where he reviews a wide variety of indie films,TV series both classic and current and has a fondness for documentaries. You can discover this excellent writer by visiting his blog using the link above.
Every aspect of a television anthology series honors the “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” spirit. One need not go beyond comparing the original “The Twilight Zone,” “Playhouse 90” and their Golden Age peers to either incarnation of “Fantasy Island” to understand this concept. Additionally, even the great ones have episodes that fall all along the Kinsey Scale from the classic “Zone” episodes to clunkers that include “The Fever” about a slot machine absurdly stalking a gambling addict ala “The Jetsons.”
Much of the fun of these shows comes from “ghosts” of Hollywood past, present and future appearing in what can be considered screen tests for the latter. The same is true regarding the writers and the directors who make it possible for that mix of Hollywood royalty, box-office poison, and the folks in the middle of that Kinsey Scale to get their close-ups.
The primary benefit of the most common form of an anthology series is that the stratosphere is the limit. The “movie of the week” can have virtually any style so long as it stays to the general theme of the program. Personal Golden Age favorite (choosing “Zone” is as easy an out as identifying “Citizen Kane” as your favorite movie) “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-1965) perfectly illustrates this model.
This classic in which Hitch supplements his hilarious wry dark-humor laden prologues and epilogues with equally amusing jabs at sponsors is like a box of chocolates in that you never know what you are going to get except that you know that each final twist will be an OMG moment.
This same range applies regarding the obvious theme of the more broadly comedic “Love American Style” (1969-1974). A primary reason that this one makes the Matt Nelson Hall of Fame is that if reflects the Unreal TV spirit of providing needed escapism during a period of major national turmoil. The S1 V1 DVD including introductory voice-over narration that the syndicated episodes lack is a nice bonus.
“Love” also is a prime example of another benefit of anthology series. It is well-known that an episode is the actual “Happy Days” pilot. A very vague memory is of another episode being an unintended pilot for a series that does not make it beyond that stage. The “worst of times” includes that anthology series exacerbate the challenges of making a weekly television program. Every episode essentially is a pilot in that you have all-new players in all-new roles on all-new sets. This prevents the evolution that allows so many programs that face serious threats of cancellation in their early days to become TV Land favorites. One need look no further than “M*A*SH” and “All in the Family” for examples. A doomed attempt to emulate Hitchcock in wrapping up these musings is that anthologies are akin to Thanksgiving dinners in that a good producer devotes a Herculean effort to providing a tasty meal only to have us devour it wolverine style in 30 minutes and be just as likely to hit the road without a word of thanks as we are to declare that we are fully sated. Speaking of being nourished, the following sponsor wants to serve us a plate of spam.
J.A. Sullivan is both a book reviewer and an excellent writer in her right. When it comes to actually perfecting the art of an anthology,who better then ask a writer. I cut my fanboy reading a LOT of anthologies way before I discovered them on TV or the big screen. I am so happy J.A. agreed to share some thoughts with us.
You can find her blog “Writing Scared” by clicking on the link. The cheetah and I highly recommend reading the short story by J.A. called “The Scammer“,with the lights on of course.
Thanks for asking me to join the discussion!
I first fell in love with horror film shorts as a pre-teen, when my dad introduced me to the TV series Tales from the Crypt. Every week I couldn’t wait to see what gruesome tale the wisecracking Crypt Keeper had in store. Some episodes were scary, others were quite funny, and, even through the ones that missed the mark completely, I became smitten with the horror genre.
As I moved into my teen years, I found I enjoyed full-length horror movies more than serialized TV shows. Maybe it was because this was before the time of PVRs, and if you missed an episode you were screwed – back then you couldn’t even look up a summary on the internet! But mostly it was because TV shows were packed with never-ending story arcs, the bad guy slipping through the hero’s fingers at the last moment, and all the other gunk that was used as filler between the one or two action scenes. The only shows that really kept my interest were Tales from the Dark Side, The Twilight Zone, Unsolved Mysteries, and The Outer Limits (the ‘90s version). They were all anthologies of tasty little macabre treats. No filler, no tangents, and no delay in resolving a storyline, even if that meant death for the protagonist.
So, it’s not surprising that I became a horror anthology junkie. From as far back as the 1972 movie version of Tales from the Crypt, through all the Stephen King shorts, and recent releases like XX and All the Creatures Were Stirring, I’ve tried to see them all. Some of them are fantastic, others are just OK, and a few, like Deadtime Stories, I wish I’d never seen. What separates the greats from those that should be sacrificed to the film gods? For me it comes down to the overall cinematic tone of the anthology. The individual stories should feel like they belong together.
Take Holidays, as an example. Each short is based on holidays throughout the year – Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Halloween – that’s the premise that’s supposed to hold them together. But when you watch the anthology, none of the segments work in harmony. They each take such a different approach to what is supposed to tie them together, that it falls apart. XX is closer at achieving the magical balance but doesn’t quite meet the mark. In it there are four shorts, all directed by women, and each story has a female main character. Three of the segments have a similar dark and despairing tone, but one of them plays almost as a dark comedy, which makes it stick out and throws the whole anthology off balance. Both Holidays and XX are still worth watching, if you haven’t seen them yet.
One of the best collections I’ve seen, which seems to get everything just right, is V/H/S. (Yes, I know this is not a popular view.) Normally I’m not a fan of found-footage movies, but this film used the technique to amplify the terror and bind the shorts together. While each individual segment is different, the wrap-around story ties them all together in a neat package. I watched this at the suggestion of a friend recently and am so glad I took the chance.
But my all-time favourite horror anthology is Cat’s Eye (perhaps the cheetah will back me up here). Again, all three shorts are different, but the cat running through each one brings a unity to the movie. Perhaps it’s because I’m biased as a huge Stephen King fan, with Night Shift (the source material for two of the three segments) being my favourite short story collection of his. Or maybe it’s because the stories remind me of the quirky Tales from the Crypt episodes that first enamoured me to the genre. Either way, I’ve seen this anthology enough times to quote lines, and to be suspicious of any holes in walls where trolls might enter.
I got really lucky with my new panelist Stacey Bryan. As I noted in my intro to her post about “The Umbrella Academy”,because I crashed and burned in my explaination of what I was looking for this Round Table,I got two segments for the price of one.
Stacey writes the wonderful blog “Laughter Over Tears” and she has a wonderful supporter of the cheetah and myself.
Although the variously strange, frightening, and humorous five seasons of “The Twilight Zone” has been one of my nostalgic favorites for years, I now have something else to compare it to, and that’s season 3 of “Black Mirror,” summarized in an Atlantic article as: “…a British speculative anthology series created by Charlie Brooker in 2011, considers the murky relationship between humans and technology.”
And technology does abound in this series. While “The Twilight Zone” had a number of reality-based stories that didn’t involve the paranormal at all like the man in Time Enough at Last who breaks his glasses at the end of the world or the people who seem to be suffering a terrible heat wave in The Midnight Sun who are actually freezing as the Earth moves away from life-giving Sol, I think the majority of its stories contain some element of otherworldly occultism or magic, something I sometimes missed in season 3 of “Black Mirror.”
But don’t get me wrong. “Black Mirror” had no lack of eerie mystery, tension, and bizarre circumstances which were compelling and thoroughly enjoyable.
I remember over a decade ago when I began hearing stories about people in some European countries who were engaging in the strange behavior of being out, say, at a restaurant, and instead of talking to each other, they’d just text each other back and forth on their phones. What seemed jaw-dropping to me then has pretty much become common behavior everywhere now, hasn’t it?
In this vein, one “Black Mirror” story, Nosedive, stood out in particular for me. In this tale, “liking” something and one-to-five reviews, etc., has mutated far beyond Facebook and Reddit and Amazon. In this version of America, everyone is constantly rated for every and anything, information is instantly synced and disseminated, and your “standing” is public and available for all to see, which of course either positively or negatively impacts your entire life.
I wasn’t surprised to learn recently that China is already well on their way to enhancing that very reality with the development of their Social Credit System (SCS) which they plan to unfurl around 2020.
Per the article, (sic) imagine a system where everyday behaviors (what you shop for, what you read, what activities you engage in) are rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number. “The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance ‘trust’ nationwide and to build a culture of ‘sincerity’”.
And I’m sure the rest of us won’t be far behind.
In the world of Black Mirror, the future doesn’t look that great to me. Technology isn’t the answer to our problems, in my opinion, and these stories only confirm that. I had a good time feeling sorry for those characters and situations existing in a world that looked as distant and alien as it did oddly unsurprising and familiar. And both equally disturbing.
I sort of knew I was getting the hang of this movie review thing once I saw seriously good writers like Pam Lowe popping up to see what the cheetah and I were yapping/meowing about in regards to our latest film/TV show. It gave me confidence that I wasn’t just flapping my lips and that people were reading me.
For me,I completely enjoy reading Pam’s blog “All Things Thriller” which features both indepth film reviews and true stories about the seamy underbelly of America. I always come away from reading Pam’s blog a little wiser and isn’t that a sign of a good writer?
I grew up in the 70s in a single parent household. It was my mother, my brother and me. Things were a lot different then. For instance–this is no slight against my mother; she was a wonderful Christian woman and role model–my mom would sometimes send me into the 7-11 to buy her a pack of cigarettes. She didn’t like to do this. She felt guilty about it so, on those rare occasions, she would give me extra money to get candy and a coke. There was always a comic book carousel by the checkout counter so sometimes I’d get one instead of a Kit Kat or a Nu Grape. Inevitably I’d pick up “Creepy,” Ghost Story” or “The Unexpected.” My mom would give me a sideways look–she didn’t like me to read comic books, especially those comic books–but she wouldn’t say anything. I had the upper hand because of the cigarettes. Anyway, those comics were my introduction to anthology horror/suspense.
Then there was Night Gallery.
Night Gallery (1969-1973) was a horror/supernatural/macabre anthology television series, created by Rod Serling. It was similar to and inferior to Serling’s brilliant, groundbreaking series The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone was before my time and we didn’t have cable so I didn’t really watch it until I was a young adult. Night Gallery, on the other hand, was NBC prime time. My mom hated it–I had to beg and plead to watch it–so that made me love it all the more.
So, like any good anthology series, Night Gallery had a memorable host–aka the greatest, most memorable, most mimicked anthology series host ever. Oh yeah. His name? Rod Serling. Of course.
I thought Serling was very handsome. Always impeccably dressed, speaking in that unforgettable, hyper-enunciated but stiff lipped cadence, he was ridiculously, endearingly sincere as he described paintings in the gallery that captured a moment in a nightmare. That moment depicted in the painting was the climax of the nightmare, it’s evolution and consequences revealed during the episode. The paintings were composed by artist, set designer and prolific television director (Smallville, X-files, Bones, Max Headroom, etc.,) Thomas J. Wright. Consequently, the sets were often Gothically grandiose, contributing to the show’s eerie, early 70s, existentialist vibe.
Serling was a notorious workaholic. He also smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. Due to exhaustion and deteriorating health, Serling didn’t demand full creative control of Night Gallery–and it showed. While there are many iconic, much lauded episodes of The Twilight Zone —A Game of Pool, The Hitch-Hiker, Time Enough at Last to name a few–Night Gallery is not nearly as memorable. But there are gems here. The pilot, a three segment episode, the length of a TV movie, starring Joan Crawford in her last performance and directed by Boris Segal, (Omega Man) Barry Shear (Across 110th Street) and Steven Spielberg (Duh) is excellent and almost holds up to the expectations The Twilight Zone subjected it to.
Night Gallery episodes,The Cemetery, (season 1, episode 1) Green Fingers (season 2, episode 43) and The Caterpillar (season 2, episode 22) are my favorite personal favorites. (Warning:The Caterpillar–about a man who seeks to off his romantic rival with an earwig is prone to induce nightmares and nausea and, maybe, even worse…)
Ahhh,now its my turn…..and I’ll start my segment by saying that while there are some excellent anthology films like “Creepshow”, “Trick r’Treat”, “New York Stories” and “Sin City”. The made for TV film “Trilogy of Terror” is still considered a classic of the genre almost 50 years after it aired.
But in my opinion,films are too limited to do justice to antholgies. J.A. Sullivan mentioned a film called “Holidays” that the cheetah and I actually reviewed. She also mentioned “V/H/S” which contains one truly great story and thus showcases the weakness of film anthologies,either they are too jammed with stories like “Holidays” or in “V/H/S” ‘s case- have only have one story worth telling but often have a limited time.
This is why TV is clearly the best medium and the track record bears it out for anthologies. There have been hundreds of series produced for TV since the format came into play during the 1950s. Now TV didn’t invent anthologies,radio shows were the do showcase the genre and one of the most famous series regardless of the medium was the CBS Mystery Theater which ran for 8 years and 1,400 episodes and still has a place in my heart.
But among all the series that I watched,the series I think is the best example of what an anthology should be was the revival of “The Outer Limits”.
The original series only ran for 2 years and lasted for 49 episodes. I’ll be honest,I never understood how or why it always mentioned in the same breath as “The Twilight Zone” because it never came close to being that good.
The revival series lasted 7 seasons and 154 episodes and it was (and is) amazing. It started out on Showtime and it featured A-List casting that lasted throughout the series.
The stories were smart,timely and in many cases,they connected during course of the series. (you know,like “Black Mirror”) While sci-fi stories seem to be the main storytelling element,many other topics were covered as well.
Themes like immigration,birth control,war,pandemic,peace and tolerence were all explored in depth.The stories were fresh and original and they definitely did NOT always end with the good guys winning. Each episode was an hour which really seems like the right amount of time to tell a good story,I know that even The Twilight Zone expanded into an hour as to give the story room to breath.
I always was the opinion that The Outers Limits took the best elements of anthologies,including a fantastic Kevin Conway as The Voice,and created a classic series.
Its too bad that this series hasn’t gotten a proper home release because it sure deserves one.
How about you? What anthology series is your favorite? We want to know…..so leave a comment below. Also please consider following the blogs and writers featured on the Round Table…