Horror anthology films have the good fortune of hosting several stories. Audiences can find something to like even if the entire collection is not up to par. As for anthologies on the small screen, usually these series are limited to one story per episode.
Focusing on only one plot at a time has its advantages; the full attention makes for better writing. Yet, variety also has value in anthology shows. A multi-storied episode, such as the following five, can keep the audience just as engaged, if not more entertained.
The Twilight Zone (1985-1989)
Gramma/Personal Demons/Cold Reading
Unlike the original show, episodes of the 1980s Twilight Zone revival were divided into two or three segments during the first two seasons. Season Three then saw the series adapt a more standard format.
This episode from Season One kicks off with its strongest offering; Barret Oliver from The Neverending Story plays a boy deathly afraid of his ailing grandmother. As his mother leaves the house during a stormy night, Georgie stays behind with the namesake of “Gramma“. Stephen King‘s short story provides the basis for this creepy chapter. Without giving too much away, the opener accumulates a glut of dread without showing too much of the sickly woman who strikes fear into her grandson’s heart.
“Personal Demons” finds an aging TV writer (Martin Balsam) in distress when he sees demons wherever he goes. Of course they are invisible to everyone else. Showing too much of the creatures gradually dulls their effect, but this middle story is a creative way of inspiring someone who suffers from writer’s block.
The last tale steps away from horror and runs toward absurdity. Taking a page out of the War of the Worlds incident from 1938, the humorous and imaginative “Cold Reading” follows a 1940s radio show where everything read aloud materializes inside the studio.
Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction (1997-2002)
House of Shadows/One Hand in the Till/Teasdale’s Motor Car/ The Vision/The Grave
The challenge of Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction was determining the authenticity of five different stories. The series is not thoroughly horror, but the genre appeared in just about every episode. Even if a vignette was not exactly scary, it was at least weird.
The most suspenseful portion of this Season Four episode is served up first; a house-sitter experiences the scare of a lifetime in “House of Shadows“. The TV continues to switch to video of a man mixing concrete in a strange room. The sitter then recognizes the footage’s location.
“One Hand In the Till” features a case of astral projection; a father does the impossible to prevent his son from making a huge mistake. In “Teasdale’s Motor Car“, a man’s dream car becomes the source of his nightmares. “The Vision” is a classic case of someone trying to stop a portent coming to pass. Finally, “The Grave” is a low-key ghost story about a wronged dead man whose cemetery plot remains grass-free so long as his crooked wife and ex-partner are alive.
Of all the stories presented, host Jonathan Frakes claims only two are based on factual events. Both of these supposed incidents occurred sometime in the 1980s, according to the show.
Night Visions (2001)
After being rerun on the now-defunct Chiller network, Night Visions slipped back into obscurity. Today it is unclear if the 2001 show will see the light of day again. It would be a shame to have an anthology of this caliber be forgotten.
Fox simply had no faith in Night Visions, and as a result, it was discarded without much afterthought. The Sci-Fi Channel briefly came to the rescue in the days before the Syfy rebranding; several stories were compiled into a standalone feature called Shadow Realm. This collection includes “The Maze” and “Harmony“, which originally aired together as one episode in 2002.
Tobe Hooper does something odd in “The Maze”, and it is not the kind of oddness he was known for. Hooper actually gave the protagonist, played by Thora Birch, a happy ending with no dark strings attached. Her character is a shy college student who is afraid to step outside her comfort zone. Yet, getting trapped in a frightening alternate world after entering a hedge maze on campus scares her into changing. Hooper and writer Steve Aspis take the road less traveled in Night Visions; they leave on a hopeful note rather than a bleak one.
Meanwhile, “Harmony” is the complete opposite of the previous short. Timothy Olyphant‘s car breaks down in a small town where music is forbidden. Rulebreakers are also unduly punished. When this outsider challenges the status quo and questions the townsfolks’ unusual beliefs, he gets the rudest awakening. The conclusion of this tale is an all-timer for Night Visions.
Two Twisted (2006)
There’s Something About Kyanna/Finding Frank
Two Twisted is a sequel to the 1996 Australian anthology Twisted Tales, and it is produced by actor Bryan Brown. The stories in the 2006 show are paired up, with two to each episode. The premiere starts off with a seaside haunter called “There’s Something About Kyanna“.
Melissa George‘s character has moved into a secluded beach house along with her husband (Sandy Winton). The home, named Kyanna by its architect, has a secret underneath its beautiful exterior. Unbeknownst to its current occupants, this secret is why the house was on the market for so long.
The problem with having several standalone stories in one episode is the inevitable comparison. “There’s Something About Kyanna” is merely average when put up against something like “Finding Frank“, but scheduling it first helps smooth things over. The most glaring problem, though, is the underwhelming twist.
“Finding Frank” is definitely the better of the two segments. The title character (Garry McDonald) is set to retire from his security job, and on his last night, he is menaced by an unknown threat inside the building. The outcome is genuinely shocking.
Black Mirror (2011-2019)
Black Mirror is a large reason why anthologies are in fashion again. While it is unclear if the series will return in the near future, creator Charlie Booker helped revolutionize how people view self-contained narratives on television today. For many, his work is the new gold standard.
Booker switched things up in the finale of Season Four by having a trio of sub-stories as well as a wraparound. In “Black Museum“, Letitia Wright‘s character has time to waste as her car recharges, so she takes a tour of a nearby medical museum. The tour guide (Douglas Hodge) presents his one and only guest with three bizarre cases, with each one more disturbing than the last.
The first exhibit relates to a doctor (Daniel Lapaine) who tested an experimental implant; the device allowed him to feel others’ sensations. The doctor eventually becomes addicted to pain — be it someone else’s or his own. From body horror to sadistic violence, this segment does everything in its power to make the viewer uneasy. The next story recalls a comatose mother and wife (Alexandra Roach) whose consciousness is transferred to a part of her husband’s brain (Aldis Hodge). While this tale comes across as lighthearted, it still works in a sad ending.
The final case criticizes those who find pleasure in other people’s misery. In this piece, a death row inmate’s holographic image (Babs Olusanmokun) is available for torture at the Black Museum. How everything then wraps up only reaffirms how pessimistic Black Mirror is.
Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories — each one adhering to an overall theme — from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.