When Mary Laws set out to create “Monsterland,” her horror anthology series on Hulu, she drew inspiration from the concise, unnerving fables of British playwright Caryl Churchill.
“She knows how to tell a scary story,” said Laws, who has a playwriting background. “She refuses to give the audience a break.”
Accelerated terror in a fleeting time frame: That’s the revved-up engine that drives “Monsterland” and other new horror anthologies out this spooky season. Hulu’s “Books of Blood” assembles three tales inspired by Clive Barker’s short stories. “The Mortuary Collection,” on Shudder, is a compilation of darkly antic narratives. Quibi is shutting down, but its blood-and-guts series “50 States of Fright” was one of its successes.
Sam Raimi, an executive producer of “50 States of Fright,” said the best short-form horror is “designed like a great campfire tale.”
“It’s something you can really get goose bumps from in a brief amount of time,” said Raimi, the director of the “Evil Dead” movies. “I like the precision that it takes for a filmmaker to hold the audience in its grip.”
For makers and watchers, the anthology — the storytelling equivalent of a box of chocolates — nicely squares with pandemic-era home viewing habits. With little need for subplots, secondary characters or extensive character development, anthologies are snackable.
“Over the last several months a lot of us have evaluated what we find scary,” said Greg Nicotero, the creator of Shudder’s anthology series “Creepshow,” based on George A. Romero’s 1982 horror-comedy anthology film.
New wrinkles in the format
Some new anthologies take a fresh look at the format. Josh Ruben’s horror-comedy “Scare Me” stars Ruben and Aya Cash as writers trying to outdo each other telling scary tales.
“It’s a black-box play, essentially,” Ruben said of his film, now on Shudder.
Then there’s the streaming feature-film anthology. As Hulu did with its “Into the Dark” series, Amazon’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” bundles four “unsettling” movies by a diverse group of filmmakers. Four more films are to come next year.
“Instead of building a whole new campaign for eight individual films, we do one campaign,” said producer Jason Blum. “It allows for efficient marketing, but it also lets the viewer know what they’re getting.”
The horror anthology is in its third heyday, according to Amanda Reyes, editor of a history of made-for-TV movies, “Are You in the House Alone?” Starting in 1959, “The Twilight Zone,” Rod Serling’s groundbreaking series, “kicked off the idea of anthology as social commentary,” she said. In the ’80s, shows like “The Ray Bradbury Theater” and “Tales From the Darkside” reflected Reagan-era anxieties through old-fashioned monster stories. More recently, shows like “Black Mirror” and a reboot of “The Twilight Zone” use short-form fictions to reflect 21st-century traumas.
“Dealing with heady issues under the guise of genre helps you ingest them better,” Reyes said. “The anthology never allows you to get comfortable with what you’re watching. People like that.”