Collections like V/H/S and The ABCs of Death show that on film, terror is best delivered in small doses. Hopefully, Hollywood learns from them.
Raymond Carver, writer of minimalist and evocative short stories, once described his affinity for that form with the same sparse punch that marked the stories themselves: "Get in, get out. Don't linger. Go on." Carver's stories are emotionally charged dramas of the working class, but his words may be even more applicable to the telling of scary tales. Of the giants in the genre, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft rarely worked outside the short story or novella form, and while authors like Richard Matheson and Stephen King have obviously been active novel writers, there's an argument to be made that their best work is their shortest.
In film and television, horror lends itself to the pithy treatment as well. Television series like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, and Friday the 13th churned out a near-constant stream of condensed horror and suspense tales—often blended with science fiction or fantasy—in various incarnations from the '50s until as recently as the early '00s. Anthology collections of horror at the movies have an even longer tradition, stretching all the way back to the silent era, when German director Paul Leni directed the three stories that made up his 1924 Waxworks.
The years that followed have seen many such collections of shorts, frequently wrapped up in some kind of theme or framing story to give them context as a unit. Even when they were low-budget projects—as horror usually is—they still often featured big stars and directors: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone in Roger Corman's 1962 Tales of Terror, or Ted Danson, Hal Holbrook, and Leslie Nielsen (for once chilling instead of chuckle-inducing) in George Romero and Stephen King's 1982 Creepshow. But as a favored format, the horror anthology has been on the decline. Happily, though, a couple of collections of indie directors look to reanimate it this fall.
One of those attempts, V/H/S, is out now on VOD and in limited theatrical release; the other, The ABCs of Death, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month to generally positive reviews and hits theaters the weekend after Halloween. Neither of these films has household names either in front of or behind the camera, but if Hollywood has any sense, they'll start picking up some of these directors for bigger projects. Then again, if studios knew how to handle horror, they'd still be making anthologies like these to begin with.
Most horror movies that make it to wide release are pure profit machines. It doesn't much matter if they're good or even scary. They're made relatively cheaply, and as long as they can latch onto the latest trend in big-screen frights, with perhaps a few people on the production team from other movies to warrant a "from the makers of..." tagline in the ad campaign, people will pay their money just because it's the only horror flick at the multiplex that week. These films generally aren't screened for critics, and are little more than product to be sold. That's the system that results in insultingly awful films like The Devil Inside, which was hated by both critics and audiences alike, to still give the film's producers a staggering 10,000 percent return on the production budget. It doesn't matter if your audience despises the film if they've already paid you.
That's also a system that shuns inventiveness, since that's synonymous with risk. Directors with a gift for making truly unsettling cinema that doesn't fit inside the box are marginalized: too artsy for wide release, yet ignored by the indie and arthouse moviegoers who assume horror is an inherently unworthy genre—and given the quality of most wide-release horror flicks, why should they think any differently?
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The directors who have come together to make these two films, though, are a collection of filmmakers—some horror specialists, some who are enjoying dipping their toes in the genre—that could change the widespread perception of what horror films are, if only a major studio had the guts to distribute their films widely.
Consider Adam Wingard, who directs segments in both V/H/S and ABCs. Wingard's most recent feature, You're Next, took home most of the top prizes at the 2011 Fantastic Fest film festival in Austin, and Lionsgate picked up distribution for the film. Then they put the release on the back burner until nearly two years after the film had festival buzz, meaning you won't be able to catch it until the end of next summer, when they're releasing it into the movie dead zone of late-August.
Ti West is another young horror phenom, whose House of the Devil should, by all rights, be a modern genre classic. The film has many admirers, but it remains a relative obscurity. West directs segments in both anthologies, and it's one of his images in V/H/S that sent the biggest shiver down my spine. In fact, that segment may embody Carver's instruction of "Don't linger" better than any other in V/H/S; once the characters are established, the main plot of the piece is carried out in a few brief scenes of ruthless efficiency.
"Efficiency" is a word that comes to mind a great deal in reference to V/H/S and ABCs. The filmmakers of the former use consumer-grade technology as the foundation of their pieces, which are supposed to be amateur video transferred to well-worn VHS tapes. The mostly played-out found footage aesthetic has its limitations, and they don't escape all of them. But they do manage to make many of those limitations into the films' strengths, whether it's Glenn McQuaid's teens-in-the-woods segment, in which the supernatural killer shows up as an odd, glitchy video artifact on the final tape, or Joe Swanberg's film, told entirely via dual-screen video chat, which uses the sudden freezes and inconsistency of that technology to heighten the tension. In the case of ABCs, each of the 26 filmmakers assigned to make a five-minute film about a mode of death (each one beginning with a different letter of the alphabet) was given just $5,000 to do so. Studio executives stinging from the bath they took on a film like The Apparition—which cost a hefty-for-horror $17 million to make and then failed to make back even a third of that—might want to pay attention to how much many of these filmmakers can do with so little.
While one hopes that these talented directors can use their tightly crafted shorts as calling cards for bigger productions, it would be nice if this signaled a potential renaissance for the notion of horror anthologies as well. Audiences have a hunger for short films that is rarely addressed: Witness the crowds that show up for collections of Oscar-nominated shorts every winter. Anthologies, while notoriously uneven, can also be audience-friendly, given that viewers don't have to commit to two hours of something they decided 10 minutes in that they weren't going to like. Carrying out sustained dread for 90 minutes is a task that few directors are up to, but short horror needs only a simple central idea, a few minutes of tension buildup, good scares to follow, and a clever resolution. Get in, get scary, and get out.