With a sequel to this month's V/H/S already being hurried into production and the release of 26-part, alphabetically-inspired anthology, The ABCs of Death around the corner, the portmanteau horror film as more than simply a fringe subgenre is slowly creeping its way back into vogue in a way unseen since the glut of US productions that followed in the wake of George A. Romero's Creepshow back in the early ‘80s.
Not that they ever really went away. As with many another cinematic genre, fashions change and trends run their course, leaving what's considered exhausted by one generation or marketplace to be spruced up and reappropriated by another. Until, that is, a reconditioned example breaks out, nostalgia for its forebears kicks in, and the whole process once again comes full circle.
So now seems as good a time as any to examine those forebears, to go in search of that most elusive example of portmanteau horror, one made up of parts that equally bear the weight of the whole. If this, more often than not would prove too much to hope for, then which of those examined would serve up brilliant segments in isolation, mini-masterpieces that made bingeing on their less successful accompanying side-dishes more than worthwhile?
The BFI's recent Ealing : Light & Dark season made finding our first example of the former a piece of cake, setting an almost impossibly high benchmark for all that was to follow. From the opening beats of its connecting narrative to the stunningly executed waking nightmare of its finale, few horror anthologies can touch Dead of Night (1945) when it comes to structural complexity and thematic cohesion. It begins with an amuse-bouche of a premonitionary tale, setting the stage for a series of increasingly dark and deranged stories (yet still with space for a deliciously comic divertissement nestled in between), all told to visiting architect Mervyn Johns as a means of getting to the bottom of his extra-sensory case of déjà vu. Taking in flashbacks-within-flashbacks and tales-within-tales, all harking back to the linking narrative, it culminates with one of the most celebrated single sections of any anthology film, as its sceptical psychiatrist tells of a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave, remarkable) who believes his dummy to be conspiring against him. A masterclass in psychological unsettlement, of the four credited directors (all working with master lensman Douglas Slocombe), this closing episode by Alberto Cavalcanti may well be the strongest, but Robert Hamer's The Haunted Mirror represents a 20 minute debut as fine as any of his later feature length successes.
Whilst British cinema can certainly lay claim to the first major wave in portmanteau horror with the arrival of Amicus Studios in the early '60s, the very first examples of the form lie elsewhere. It would take some serious broadening of definitions to allow the French the honour of laying claim to the first horror anthology, with Georges Méliès' La Manoir du Diable (1896) and La Caverne Maudite (1898), whilst later exhibited together, being separate shorts with no intentional link beyond their shared fantastical elements. The Americans get a little closer through the Poe films of D. W. Griffith, The Avenging Conscience (1914) being the clearest contender, even if it's really more of a remix into a single narrative of a few of the author's stories (much like US-based Brit, Charles Brabin's 1915 film The Raven), than the telling of separately defined tales that typifies what we mean when we refer to a portmanteau horror.
To find the first real example, the first of what could in some ways be described as the earliest wave (although ripple would probably be more apt), we need to turn to Germany for Richard Oswald's 1919 film Unheimliche Geschichten, most commonly translated as Eerie Tales. It's here that the template for the genre is set, and whilst later films might play variations on the theme, there really is little to separate Oswald's film structurally from the likes of V/H/S more than ninety years later. At closing time, the portraits in a bookshop come to life, knocking out the proprietor and running amok. The ghost stories they read to each other make up the film’s various episodes, economic dramatisations of short stories by the likes of Poe and Stevenson, choices that prove a wise move given the bum note sounded by the director's self-penned closing section. There's lots of fun to be had with Eerie Tales, not least from Reinhold Schünzel and horror stalwart Conrad Veidt in multiple roles, and whilst it may not be as visually lavish as the two German anthologies that would follow, it's still crammed with more than its fair share of haunting images. The Hand, from contemporary writer Robert Liebman, sees Eerie Tales at its strongest, a séance sequence in which the disembodied appendage of a murdered gambler haunts his killer more than earning the film its title.
Oswald would revisit the same material thirteen years later in the shape of a quasi-remake, tantalising glimpses of which can be found online, despite the film being frustratingly unavailable in any format besides a long out of print, unsubtitled German VHS. From the information available on this 1932 version of Unheimliche Geschichten (including a recent article by critic David Cairns for MUBI), it appears to mischievously pay tribute to the most famous of early portmanteau horrors, Paul Leni's Waxworks (Die Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924).
Despite its fame, Waxworks is no masterpiece. With its veering tone and awkwardly weighted structure, its principal pleasures lie in its set design and imitative Expressionist style. Sharing more than just its acting talent with the earlier, superior The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), it's less a showcase for Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss (as well as a portly Emil Jannings) as it is for Leni's stellar art direction, and would be his last film in Germany before decamping to the States to make the celebrated haunted house picture, The Cat and the Canary in 1927.
For the very best of the German anthologies, we have to somewhat loosen what constitutes our definition of horror. It's a concession worth making though when it leads us to Fritz Lang's fantastic Destiny (1921). At its most hypnotic during the opening and closing sequences which bookend a trio of tales, it's a film of exquisite melancholy and achingly beautiful visuals. With more than a slight case of the Dreyer’s about it, Destiny tells of Death's arrival at a quiet hamlet, where he makes a bid for an annexe of land next to the village cemetery, walling it up as a portal to the spirit realm. When he takes the life of a young, newlywed man, his distraught wife poisons herself in an attempt to barter for his return.
Summed up in the direct translation of its original title, The Weariness of Death (Der Müde Tod), the Reaper lays bare the curse of his task, of man's hatred for him. He tells the young woman that if she can save any of the three lives (which make up the three history-spanning tales) with which he presents her, he'll reinstate that of her beloved. When all attempts fail, Death allows her a final chance. If she can provide him with the life of another, he'll let her husband live. Resolutely sombre, yet rapturously transcendent in its final moments, Lang's ravishing film is a little-seen masterpiece as deserving of attention (and a UK DVD release) as his more famous and celebrated silent works. If the horror anthology began with Oswald, it was without question first mastered by Lang.
It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that American filmmakers would get in on the act in any meaningful way, despite a few dispiriting attempts en route. A few would arrive in direct response to the Amicus explosion, but the first examples of US productions appeared two years before Dead of Night in the form of 1943’s Flesh and Fantasy and the missing, presumed lost frankenthology, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (a cut-n-paste job that stitched the likes of Unheimliche Geschichten and Der Golem to Dreyer’s Vampyr).
Originally consisting of four tales adapted from Oscar Wilde, Flesh and Fantasy was cut down by French director Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko) at Universal’s behest, with one of its segments ultimately expanded into the synchronistically titled (though unrelated) feature film, Destiny (1944). If a cast list that includes Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and Charles Boyer (who also produced) initially whets the appetite, it’s a disappointingly inconsistent affair, all linked by a framing device so naff even Duvivier can’t bring himself to return to it after the second episode (“You’ve been having nightmares? That reminds of this book. Let me read it to you”).
The opening episode may possess images that pre-empt Georges Franju’s 1960 masterpiece Les Yeux Sans Visage, but its story of a woman who becomes impossibly beautiful through wearing a porcelain mask proves blunt and ungainly in its ‘beauty lies within’ denouement. Likewise a dull final section that sees Barbara Stanwyck telegramming her performance as a wanted woman who falls for a tightrope walker with performance anxiety. Only the central tale of the remaining trio really comes to life, as Edward G. Robinson is told by a fortune teller in London that he’s about to commit a murder. With his battling conscience delivering interior monologues through twisted shadows and skewed reflections, Robinson has some great scenes, especially those shared with the excellent Thomas Mitchell, Duvivier building the fog-enveloped, noir atmospherics into a haunting crescendo of fatalism.
Coming soon : Part Two - Milton Subotsky, Amicus and the British Wave