The Evolution of Anthology in Film and TV
Once rooted in Horror, Anthology has advanced into a multidimensional style.
Anthology is something that I grew up on, whether it be a collection of Alvin Schwartz short horror stories or taking a trip to The Twilight Zone; the idea of a connected collection is something that has always been appealing. What an anthology is able to do revolves around the contribution of multiple creators, as each is able to interpret the overarching thematic or narrative in their own way. This collection can vary in form/interpretation, and is something that can vary in each episode. This, however, is not the only form of digital anthology, as we see an increasing number of television shows following the serialized anthology approach. This has spawned as an evolution of the classic form that eventually transformed into a more detailed observation of a narrative or thematic element. Here, we will look at the early stages of stylistic collaboration, and how the anthology has become the go-to structure in modern television.
The Horror Anthology
Starting with the obvious, the genre of horror and the concept of an anthology tend to go hand in hand. While the anthology has been a part of other genres, none have been as polarizing as it’s impact in horror. Going all the way back to 1921, Fritz Lang was one of the first to pair the two together with Destiny, a silent film observing a woman who has three attempts to save her husband from death. Other horror anthologies in film soon followed, and not just in America. Mario Bava created a cult classic with Black Sabbath (1963), a disturbing trio that featured Boris Karloff as the film’s navigator, a trend that would be used in the majority of anthologies. This paved the road for anthology horror films, but the true impact came from anthology series, in which each episode holds a new plot and is unique in style. The first and the most recognizable series of the bunch is The Twilight Zone, the “Godfather” of horror anthology. Created by Rod Serling, who also acts as the show’s guide through the unknown, The Twilight Zone showcased the perfect fit that gave horror the opportunity to be spontaneous and original in the comfort of one’s own home. The surreal, black and white observation of the beyond ran for five seasons in it’s original run, with a revival coming in 1985 and 2002, as well as a film interpretation, which features a segment directed by Steven Spielberg. Iconic and memorialized in horror history, Rod Serling’s anthology essentially gave the blueprint to bring digestible fear directly to one’s home, keeping the viewer’s attention week after week.
The copycats came quickly as we saw shows like The Outer Limits, Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt continuously be produced, but these were more than just clones and rehashes. Each new addition to the anthology genre offered something new and fresh, giving a spin that hadn’t yet been seen. Shows like Tales from the Crypt became iconic in their own fresh generation of fear seekers, and the crypt keeper acted as a guide similar to Rod Serling and Boris Karloff. This trend also continued to bleed into films with horror icon George A. Romero getting in on the action with 1982s Creepshow. Sadly, good things cannot last forever, and the horror anthology began to wear thin and much like anything, over stayed it’s welcome. With clone after clone, the average viewer grew tired of the broken structure, craving something more serialized that gave the actions occurring more dramatic weight. The anthology had reached a crossroads and saw the dilemma to either adapt or be lost forever.
Predictably, the hit television horror/sci-fi anthology died out as people began to crave a horror that could not be shown on television, and new methods were being created to structure a narrative. Other genre filmmakers saw this as an opportunity to change their own worlds, and the ones that participated we’re some of the greats. New York Stories (1989) gave an example that this structural approach can be used in other capacities with directors Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese captaining the ship. This stylistic decision continued to move into other genre’s in order to survive, giving us films like Four Rooms (1995), partially directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, and again gave filmmakers the chance to collaborate. This is where the anthology was reborn, moving away from the “crypt keeper” mentality, and giving the connection between segments a more distinguishable divide, acting as a platform for the collaboration of the independent filmmaker.
Sometimes an idea is just not feature length, and rather than stretch it out for something that isn’t there, the indie driven anthology brings filmmakers vision together with a loosely connected narrative. Anthology eventually has worked its way back into horror, but this time from a new perspective, producing film series like The ABCs of Death (2012), which gives us 26 different shorts— each a letter of the alphabet, and directed by filmmakers all around the world. Other franchises like V/H/S (2012) are similar in approach, but are more grounded in their attempt of tying the collection together. These anthologies essentially act as a collection of their own, as they have become the hub for up-and-coming horror directors to get noticed and attached to larger projects. Horror auteurs like Ti West, Adam Wingard, Justin Benson, and plenty more have used these anthologies as a means to get their shorts noticed. This collaboration of filmmakers not only gives the opportunity to showcase one’s talent, but also gives a varying group of perspectives. The overarching narrative gives connection to different interpretations of the same thematic element, while still offering something different with each passing segment. With episodic anthology having again found success in film, television saw a new form of anthology catch fire in terms of popularity.
A Modern Approach
A trend has erupted in modern television, the audience no longer wants to wait until season eight for the climax of a show. Instead, a season has a beginning, middle and end of its own, with the next season sporting a completely new plot. So, instead of the episodic anthology of shows like The Twilight Zone, we’ve moved into a serialized anthology where the show can change season to season. This approach is taken in shows like American Horror Story and True Detective, as a season concludes itself and the next begins with a fresh take on the overarching story. American Horror Story has moved from Asylum to Coven to Freak Show, but despite all the variety, the show still manages to keep its fan base intact. Shows like True Detective demonstrates the problems with this modern structure because a change of filmmakers, characters, settings, etc. can often divide the viewership; and if the audience is divided in the direction of future seasons, it can be hard to maintain steady ratings. This has not made television shows shy away from this structure, however, because it is seen as an essential reset button. Sure, a season might not live up to its predecessors, but the next one might! This is opposed to a simplistic television show structure where if you don’t like a show after the first few seasons, you probably never will. Shows like AMC’s The Terror and Hulu’s newly released Castle Rock look to continue the serialized anthology, and seem to be doing fine so far.
Fortunately, we live in an age of film where the now varying anthology structures can coexist. The episodic anthology has began to, again, make a comeback, and ambitious Netflix projects have led the way. Black Mirror is a modern Twilight Zone, of sorts, and brings the anthology into a more focused sci-fi realm and plays off of our fears of technology. Tales from the Crypt has heard talks of a reboot, and with all the attention on anthologies and streaming services, maybe that isn’t such a bad idea. Guillerimo del Toro is also putting his fingerprint on anthology with his horror anthology web television series, 10 After Midnight, a Netflix original series that will feature episodes directed by both himself and a group of up-and-coming horror filmmakers. These examples again show that the anthology has evolved and produced new forms, but also maintained the originality and collaboration that makes the form impactful.
As long as filmmakers seek collaboration and exposure, anthology will always have a place in Hollywood. The quickly shifting attention span of the modern television audience is only going to get worse, as the overabundance of content continues. So, I can see why shows are beginning to change their structure into something more exciting. However, no matter the direction anthology takes, it will always have a home in horror, which was introduced from the very beginning as a match made in Heaven.