Shorter Is Scarier: Why Horror Anthologies Need to Make a Comeback

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.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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