Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities — a marvelous compendium of streaming deadtime stories — emphasizes everything that lures me to horror anthologies. It feels like a reinvention of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, highlighting everything I appreciate about the format. One might balk at calling Cabinet of Curiosities an outright horror anthology, more a miniseries? Still, the decadently morbid and dazzlingly darkened atmosphere under del Toro’s oversight draws rich atmospheric throughlines. Del Toro’s program calls to mind grim grab bags like A Christmas Horror Story, the V/H/S series, Southbound, and all the subgenre classics fans already laud.
If you think horror anthologies are just scattered collections of short-form storytelling and that’s all, consider yourself open to reeducation. Horror anthologies are often maligned because — like other subgenres such as found footage — horror anthologies can become fallback “easy to make” titles. Individual scripts only need to stretch minutes versus hours, and funding can be inexpensive, while the format correctly or deceptively promises more horror bang for viewer bucks. Thanks to countless examples of careless, uncontrolled anthologies that dust off some discarded, early-career short films and sloppily stitch them together, horror anthologies have largely earned an unfortunate reputation as wasted genre space.
As is typical in my writing, I disagree with this reductive assessment.
Anthologies — horror or any genre — pave avenues for filmmakers to test bolder ideas or showcase themselves without tackling feature debuts. Their packaged deal is an exercise in curation when assembling creative teams and a challenge in asserting continuity between segments. This year alone sees David Bruckner helming a Hellraiser reboot after building a reputation with additions to The Signal, V/H/S, and Southbound, or the return of overnight horror icon Art The Clown — a creation first seen on screen in the Halloween assortment All Hallow’s Eve. Horror anthologies discover fresh talents at lower stakes, keep the door open for filmmakers with massive gaps between feature releases, or allow well-known filmmakers to tinker with nuggets of ideas that never begot feature translations.
Look at Alejandro Brugués, the Argentinian maniac behind 2011’s hilarious zombie comedy Juan of the Dead. Brugués hasn’t followed with another feature since, but has contributed segments to The ABCs of Death 2, Nightmare Cinema, 50 States of Fright, and Satanic Hispanics. Or David Slade, who — despite helming the ferocious 30 Days of Night and biting Hard Candy — never returned to the horror genre after 2010’s The Twilight Saga: Eclipse until 2018’s Nightmare Cinema (opting for TV gigs in between). Anthologies are important tools for seeking new talent like how Anthony Scott Burns stole Holidays with “Fathers Day,” but remain equally necessary as support systems that keep talented voices in horror circle conversations.
In a way, there are no bad horror anthologies — only bad anthology producers. Maybe that’s unnecessarily pointed (playing off “there are no bad dogs, just bad dog owners”), but it’s also mostly true. I use del Toro as an extremely positive example.
Cabinet of Curiosities promotes horror filmmakers hand-picked by del Toro as voices seen but not heard enough. David Prior, hot off the heels of the coldly released The Empty Man. Panos Cosmatos, a blistering visionary who’s probably been many a studio executive’s nightmares. Catherine Hardwicke, “The Twilight Director” who deserves more recognition than to be pigeonholed with such a classification. Cabinet of Curiosities exists so del Toro can use his influence, outreach, and reputation for unselfish good, in the same way Jordan Peele relaunched The Twilight Zone or uses Monkeypaw to platform other Black creators. It’s Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, for example — not Jordan Peele’s (and he’ll be the first to say so).
Del Toro welcomes and assures his audience with introductions to each episode, personalizing his relationship with the filmmakers he’s selected. Cabinet of Curiosities goes out of its way to establish intimacy between “mastermind” and players (chess piece seized statues are a cute touch), representing one of the best usages of horror anthologies. Del Toro’s giddiness as a champion begins each episode with this seal of approval for what’s to come, uttered by a contemporary master himself. Horror anthologies, in the proper nurturing hands, can relaunch careers or be softer launchpads on the backs of household names. Of course, that’s only sometimes the case.
Not all horror anthologies feature multiple directors. Everything from Rusty Cundieff‘s Tales from the Hood, Michael Dougherty‘s Trick ‘r Treat, to Ryan Spindell‘s The Mortuary Collection boasts a single filmmaker exploring multiple tales. These collections display the importance of thematic continuity, especially wraparound fade-outs and lead-ins. Cabinet of Curiosities is structured as episodes, so these examples bring us into the feature-length world of horror anthologies — much harder, and yet Trick ‘r Treat is recognized through pop-culture merch, everlasting tattoos, and retrospective screenings as a Halloween staple. Cundieff, Dougherty, and Spindell emphasize momentum throughout a flowing story that divides into chapters yet feels wholly intact. Horror anthologies can’t just be tossed-together hopefuls of leftover shorts from film festivals or filmmaker collectives who think horror anthologies are the quick answer to fame.
For every A Christmas Horror Story, there’s a Deathcember or Holiday Hell. Deathcember utilizes the “advent calendar” approach by dragging for over two hours as producers exhibit zero conscience for consistency, regarding no desire to hold filmmakers to similar, meshing standards. Holiday Hell feels like a student film tangle of shorts that unevenly duplicate holiday representation or, in some cases, don’t even feel like holiday horror? Shoehorned because they take place during winter snowfall and stick a few Oriental Trading Company decorations on walls? But hey, horror anthologies only need to meet the qualifications of multiple stories within the same feature wrapping — right? Wrong, a billion times over. Somewhere, horror anthologies were stamped with the stigma of discombobulated amateur cohesion on trash budgets. Movies like Holiday Hell are why.
Something akin to The ABCs of Death understands the assignment better, putting a $5,000 cap on filmmakers who are assigned a letter of the alphabet — then are challenged to film a standout death scene. Segments are held to agreed-upon ceilings, and their gimmick sustains with a plethora of interpretations from “L is for Libido” to “Q is for Quack,” made by filmmakers blazing a trail on the indie horror scene (Timo Tjahjanto, Ti West, Adam Wingard, Ben Wheatley, etc etc). Where Deathcember seems less concerned about how pacing fails length and construction wonkily lurches forward, The ABCs of Death and its sequel shave timing wherever possible (West’s “M is for Miscarriage” lasts count-on-one-hand minutes), reflecting on subgenre pitfalls. Anyone can cobble together a horror anthology — but not everyone should.
Wraparounds are the undersung heroes of horror anthologies, often disregarded by confused minds. Doomed are the horror anthologies that play segments back-to-back without stoppages or defined introductions, leaving end credits to spell everything out. Without wraparounds, momentum is more jagged than careening off Mount Everest after a misstep, bashing your head on every rocky point until the bottom. Wraparounds tell us why we’re rifling through V/H/S tapes, flipping through a fable book of nightmares, or listening to William Shatner as an alcoholic radio DJ. Better yet, they prevent audiences from feeling like they’re hitting a brick wall every time a segment ends, transitioning audiences while providing relevant storytelling that thickens all-important and previously mentioned cohesion. The best anthologies comprehend the importance of fluidity, utilizing wraparounds as more than mechanical checkpoints.
As a form of protest or representative correction, anthologies can more freely support causes like amplifying unrepresented voices (XX, Satanic Hispanics, Horror Noire) or exposing injustice (Give Me An A). XX features only women, Satanic Hispanics Latinx filmmakers, Horror Noire Black creators, and Give Me An A will be a knives-out response to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. Anthologies of this nature aren’t hampered by the stringent studio norms that have long decided who gets seats at what tables. Creativity thrives in these scenarios, often born from tableside chats between like-minded individuals who haven’t been given the opportunities others have. Anthologies are as much a proof of concept as they are sources of entertainment.
So how did we get here from Cabinet of Curiosities? I’m a passionate horror anthology defender, well beyond namesake favorites like Creepshow, Trilogy of Terror, or Tales from the Crypt. It’s unfair to chastise an entire subgenre based on its worst efforts or belittle what promise exists (like Nightmare Cinema or Scare Package). Guillermo del Toro understands horror anthologies’ significance, impact, and opportunities, which reminds viewers that these anthologies are more than their lesser sums. Horror anthologies have helped kickstart the careers of your horror heroes, allowed veterans to color outside Hollywood lines, and explored creative abandon while appeasing shorter-form boundaries.
The problem will always be filmmakers who learn the wrong lessons from others’ successes or think they’re choosing the “quick and simple” route (prevalent in any subgenre). It all comes down to passion, ambition, and expertise — maybe we should leave horror anthologies to the professionals and proper backers from now on.