ITHACA, NY -- When I was a kid, we were visiting family friends in Pennsylvania and one night, all of us kids watched a scary movie on WPIX-11’s “Chiller Theater.” Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland, “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” (1965) scared the pants off of the whole gang. It wasn’t one scary story but a bunch of scary stories. When you’re that young, you remember these things like bizarre dreams. And a few years later, when Lee hosted “Saturday Night Live,” I howled when he talked about starring in “Dr. Terror’s House of Pancakes”.
Over the last 12 years, there has been a deluge of fascinating documentaries about regional cinema, film genres and film studios, led by a reliable new breed of documentarians: Mark Hartley’s “Not Quite Hollywood” (2008), “Machete Maidens Unleashed” (2010) and “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films” (2014); and David Gregory’s “Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau” (2014).
Every time I see one of these films, I end up opening a computer file in order to jot down titles of films I haven’t seen. David Gregory’s “Tales of the Uncanny” (Severin, 2020, 103 min.) is like that. It’s a thorough and entertaining analysis of the horror anthology, and ten minutes in, I was making a list of flicks like “Dead of Night” (1945), Roger Corman’s “Tales of Terror” (1962) and “Twice Told Tales” (1963).
Gregory had originally envisioned “Tales of the Uncanny” as a DVD extra, and had interviewed a handful of filmmakers and film historians. Then COVID hit, and he decided to use Zoom to invite many more directors and participants and expand what he had to feature length. The result premieres on Friday at Cinemapolis’s virtual cinema in affiliation with Fantastic Fest.
The roster of interviewees includes film historian David Del Valle, DVD producer Michael Felsher, and filmmakers Jovanka Vuckovic (“XX”), Joe Dante (“Gremlins”), Mick Garris (“The Stand” and “The Shining” miniseries), Brian Yuzna (“Society”) and Larry Fessenden (“Habit”). They have lots of favorite anthologies, and strong opinions.
I’m a DVD and Blu-Ray collector, so I’ve been a big fan of producer Michael Felsher’s work for many years. His company, Red Shirt Pictures, produces fine documentaries and commentary tracks for all manner of genre films, mostly for Shout! Factory. The films he has worked on include “Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight”, “Crimewave” and the film that made him want to make films, the George A. Romero-Stephen King anthology tribute to EC comics, “Creepshow” (1982).
“To have that involvement with “Creepshow” and with George was such a bizarre thing, because that movie was a game changer for me at the age of 10, when I saw it,” says Felsher. “And then, years later to do a documentary about it and then work on the Blu-Ray after that and to get to know George as a friend was such a surreal kind of thing. ‘Creepshow,’ just the artistry that went into that, is to me, to this day, just quite amazing. That movie is just a marvel of craft to me.”
Felsher says that he’s been prepping to be a film historian since he started watching genre movies as a kid, Even so, he admits, “For every anthology I’ve seen, there’s probably five I haven’t even heard of.” Felsher says that anthology films are often made because of budget and volume. “It’s easy for a filmmaker to go out and make a short. Well, if they can make enough of them, they can somehow figure out a way to package ‘em together as a movie.
“Or sometimes shorts have a more interesting life online, because of their short nature. You don’t have to have a 90-minute commitment. It’s a very malleable format in very many ways, and it’s one that’s adapting very well with the way that we watch media these days.”
David Del Valle is a film historian, a former script reader for Cannon Films (he’s hilarious in “Electric Boogaloo”), and a well-known authority on the horror genre. He had a special relationship with horror icon Vincent Price, and has shared several Price anecdotes on home video commentary tracks for Price vehicles like “House of Wax,” “House on Haunted Hill” and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.” Del Valle recorded a proper sit-down interview for “Tales of the Uncanny” before COVID hit, and when I spoke to him, he had just done some ADR recording for the film, highlighting some early French horror anthologies.
“The anthology genre’s a whole kind of interesting genre, because it’s highly unsuccessful in many ways,” he told me. “’Dead of Night’ is probably the most famous, done in the 1940s in England, which had the famous [sequence with] Michael Redgrave ventriloquist segment.
“And that’s the thing with anthology movies,” he says. “If there are three segments, there’s usually one that’s the best, and then you suffer through the other two for that one. You know, in ‘Tales From the Crypt’ (1972), it’s the Grimsdyke episode (“Poetic Justice”) with Peter Cushing.”
Del Valle’s favorite “Creepshow” segment is “The Crate,” “because Adrienne Barbeau was such a bitch in it. It’s like ‘Virginia Woolf’ for the horror crowd.” He likes “The Raft” in “Creepshow 2” (1987), but even he admits that the other two stories are turkeys, a familiar refrain. “My favorite, ‘Spirits of the Dead’ AKA ‘Histoires Extraordinaires,’ brought Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim together,” Del Valle recalls. “What a weird grouping. The Fellini episode, ‘Toby Dammit,’ is brilliant.”
Del Valle feels that the horror anthology is likely the biggest risk for finding financing, because so few have been hits. “When you pitch these things, it’s a very hard sell. Because they look at the track record. ‘Tales From the Hood’ was a little more successful, but that has got a stronger kind of gimmick. The Amicus ones were successful for a while. Of the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe movies, the least successful was ‘Tales of Terror,’ because it was an anthology.”
A movie like “Cat’s Eye” (1985) may not have broken box office records, but I always had a soft spot for it. And it’s clear from the stories and opinions of the people interviewed in “Tales of the Uncanny” that they still have a great affection for the horror anthology. It’s nice to see these films discussed and appreciated beyond the times in which they were made.
One thing is certain: my Netflix queue just got a lot longer.