A User’s Guide to Essential Anthology Films

This Friday marks the theatrical release of V/H/S, a chilling and genuinely effective found-footage anthology from directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence. (It’s available on demand now.) As scary and unnerving as it is, however, it does fall prey to the seemingly inevitable pitfall of a multi-director anthology film: there are a couple of sections that simply aren’t as good as the rest of the film. When you think about it, it’s bound to happen; even if the filmmakers assembled are all talented, there’s a pretty good chance at least one participant will have difficulty conforming to the short form, or will have trouble measuring up to the others, or just might be off their game. As a result, very few completely great anthology movies have been made — most at least have a couple of segments that don’t fit.

But that’s the joy of DVD: in your living room, you can do the editing job that their fellow filmmakers were too polite to perform. After the jump, we’ll take a look at a few of the best-known multi-director anthology movies, and offer up some viewing suggestions for them.

Twilight Zone: The Movie
DIRECTORS: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller
WATCH: “Prologue” (Landis), “It’s a Good Life” (Dante), “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Miller)
SKIP: “Time Out” (Landis), “Kick the Can” (Spielberg)

When reviewing Twilight Zone: The Movie on its original release in 1983, Roger Ebert surmised: “Spielberg, who produced the whole project, perhaps sensed that he and Landis had the weakest results, since he assembles the stories in an ascending order of excitement. Twilight Zone starts slow, almost grinds to a halt, and then has a fast comeback.” Ebert was right; Psycho author Robert Bloch, who did the novelization of the film (remember those?), reported that the script he adapted ended with Spielberg’s segment — which would have been disastrous for the film, since that twinkly, gloppy, maudlin mess was far and away its worst. That was the surprise of Twilight Zone — keep in mind, this was a big summer release in 1983, a year after the Spielberg double-whammy of Poltergeist and E.T. So kudos to Spielberg for wising up and closing the film with Miller’s gripping tale of a phobic flyer (a great John Lithgow) convinced that there’s a person, or a thing, on the wing of that airplane. Joe Dante, who Spielberg would reteam with the following year for Gremlins, created the film’s other great section, in which Kathleen Quinlan stumbles upon a very creepy family that’s a bit too enamored with their son. Though the brief prologue (with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks) that John Landis crafted is a welcome kick-off, his full segment that follows — in which a bigot (Vic Morrow) finds himself on the receiving end of intolerance — doesn’t work at all, and that’s even without knowing about the notorious helicopter accident that killed Morrow and two young actors during production.