The Sometimes Brilliant, Sometimes Terrible History Of The Anthology Film

With thriller anthology Locker 13 hitting screens this weekend, we’re checking out where the genre came from.

Here’s an axiom that proves true across cinema history: No genre attracts better filmmakers to worse projects than the anthology film. Of course, they usually sound awesome; everybody wants to see a handful of their favorite directors come together to make a movie, at least in theory. The problem is that in practice, the combined results rarely match the quality expected of the directors on their own. You know the saying, “too many cooks in the kitchen”? Well, here the kitchen is the film set and the cooks have cameras, and in the end they often spoil the broth. And yet, strangely enough, filmmakers continue to produce them, and we continue to watch, hopeful that the promise of their pedigree will be fulfilled. Clearly the form has its appeal, because lately the anthology film seems to have emerged once more as a trend, culminating in this week’s release of the years-in-the-making thriller omnibus Locker 13. Whether this one proves successful is anybody’s guess, but we thought we’d commemorate the effort with a look back at the history of the approach.

If I Had a Million (1932)

In classic Hollywood, the anthology film came together quite differently from the collaborative spirit that drives them today: Directors generally exerted less creative control over their films than the producers and studios who’d hired them, so having a half-dozen collaborate on one project was hardly the eclectic process it is now. Nevertheless, the first major anthology picture was a big hit – a Pre-Code comedy featuring a whopping seven directors, among them Norman Taurog, Stephen Roberts, Norman McLeod, and, best of all, the legendary Ernst Lubitsch (whose brief contribution starred Charles Laughton as a faceless office clerk afforded the chance to show up his boss when he receives a check for a million dollars in the mail). The same year also saw a massive hit in Grand Hotel, an omnibus-style comedy featuring a dozen stories and stars but helmed by only one director. Since stars were generally the driving force behind the success or failure of the movies of that era, that one proved to be more widely influential.

Dead of Night (1945)

It was in the mid-1940s that filmmakers learned how well horror lent itself to the omnibus format, which made good use of the short form to roll out shocks and scares in ample number. The idea started with Julien Duvivier’s Tales of Manhattan and Flesh and Fantasy in America a few years earlier, but it wouldn’t be popularized until Dead of Night arrived in ‘45. You can pretty much blame the current spate of horror anthologies (like V/H/S and The ABCs of Death) on this particular British anthology classic, which split its haunted-house spectacle among three directors as a way to kickstart a then-dying genre. Over the decades to come, British production company Amicus Productions would be inspired to produce a seemingly endless string of Dead of Night-style features (which it billed as “portmanteau horror,” because the British are fancy), including well-known B pictures like Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood, From Beyond the Grave, and Vault of Horror. Dead of Night also popularized the framing device as a way of structuring this kind of film — instead of being simply a bunch of short films lined up in order, the anthology film could have one overarching story that involved several component parts.

Boccaccio 70 (1962)

Although the Italians had made a go of the genre as far back as the late 1940s (when guys like Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni were contributing to the L’Amore films), it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the anthology film got a shot of high-art credibility on the international circuit, when four of Italian cinema’s most heralded auteurs — Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio De Sica, titans of film history and superstars in their native Italy at the time — joined forces for this four-part story of morality and love (even better: The parts bring together Sophia Loren and Romy Schneider). Fellini, in 1962, was still reeling from the unprecedented international success of La Dolce Vita, and he brings a similar verve for carnal pleasures (and a mind for existential self-doubt) to bear on his vignette, the first and best of the three. Though on the whole a bit weaker than the films the four directors would release on their own, it nevertheless proved an easy way for producer Carlo Ponti to sell then-chic European imports to American audiences hungry to feel cultured. A precedent was quickly set: The anthology film could serve up class in bulk.

Spirits of the Dead (1968)

Naturally, it was only a few a years later that Spirits of the Dead was released, for which Fellini returned and, this time around, sought to join the Italian sensibility with French and American. On paper, Spirits of the Dead sounds almost too good to be true: A mystery based on the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, co-directed by Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim at the heights of their respective talents, and starring Jane Fonda, Alain Delon, Peter Fonda, and Brigitte Bardot, and, in the English-language release, narrated by Vincent Price! It’s the classic film version of an all-star team. As is so often the case with anthology films, however, the final product fails to live up to the enthusiasm provoked by the names on board: Vadim and Malle, especially, didn’t muster much worthy of the Poe legacy. Today the movie remains remembered, if at all, for Fellini’s marvelous segment “Toby Dammit,” which was so good that it made the rest of the movie suffer by comparison.

The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

The ’40s and ’50s occasionally yielded an omnibus comedy or drama from an American or British studio, but for the most part the format never really caught on as a viable mode for domestic filmmakers. But in just a few decades, the landscape changed in Hollywood: Directors began to look like household names and some even qualified as celebrities in their own right, which suddenly made the prospect of selling a film on their combined merits an appealing proposition in the same way it had for foreign auteurs. Most of us of a certain age were likely introduced to the anthology film format in the early 1980s with the arrival of The Twilight Zone: The Movie, which not only brought the beloved television series to the big screen, but did so under the aegis of three of the period’s best American directors: Steven Spielberg, John Landis, and Joe Dante (that it starred Albert Brooks, Dan Aykroyd, John Lithgow, and Burgess Meredith didn’t hurt, either). Although the production became notoriously associated with the accidental deaths caused in the filming of the Landis section, the film as a whole was a great success, earning generally positive reviews and grossing nearly $30 million.

New York Stories (1989)

That financial success made it seem to American producers like the omnibus format might actually work. As a result, naturally, we soon saw a lot more. New York Stories must have seemed, in 1989, like the high-brow alternative to The Twilight Zone’s low-brow offering, bringing together three of American cinema’s most illustrious names: Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, each of whom, it was thought, could do no wrong (Godfather III wouldn’t be released until the following year). The results were mixed to bad, however. Woody’s section, a lightly comic farce called Oedipus Wrecks, was nothing more than an amusing trifle, taking the Jewish anxiety for which he was already famous and expanding it into his main subject. Scorsese’s Life Lessons starred Nick Nolte as abstract artist with relationship problems, like a slightly less tortured version of a Bon Jovi music video. Coppola’s, meanwhile, was a total strike out – co-written with Sofia Coppola (long before she could make a decent film of her own), it features one of the most irritating little girls in cinematic history. The Washington Post, reviewing the film upon its release, called it a “spectacle of spoiled indulgence,” and it’s hard to think of a better description. It proved to be a good example of how just one weak segment can spoil an entire anthology effort, and how even hiring three massively talented filmmakers can still result in a failure.

Four Rooms (1995)

By 1995, most of the young American indie directors who had made their careers at Sundance were bona fide hot commodities, and Hollywood was eager to give them a platform for whatever they were inclined to do. Thus Four Rooms was born: Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino would deliver a hotel-set short based around a harried bellhop on New Years Eve (played by Tim Roth). Four Rooms is a good example of what might be called the “showcase” anthology: A film that brings a lot of different kinds of talented filmmakers to show off their work in one self-contained dose. The problem in this case was mostly that the talent couldn’t cut it: Anders and Rockwell, as would be more obvious today, were completely outclassed by Rodriguez and especially Tarantino, the latter of whom nearly saved the project by capping it off with one of his most hilarious and satisfying works. In general, though, Four Rooms was a bomb – critically savage and dismally attended, it more or less singlehandedly killed the anthology film in America for over a decade.

Three… Extremes (2004)

Here was another “what could go wrong?” scenario: As the so-called “Asia Extreme” horror genre was reaching the height of its popularity, it seemed a reasonable idea to bring three of its most prominent directors together for an omnibus that could show off the range of their talents. It was another “showcase” effort, no doubt inspired by the genre had been developing at the time. The end result? Three… Extremes, co-directed by Fruit Chan, Park Chan-Wook, and Takashi Miike, which in fact proved to be just one extreme: Icky violence. Really just three short films thrown together arbitrarily without any unifying theme or framing device, each section of Three… Extremes actually suffered from the context. Any one of these shorts might have seemed shocking or transgressive on its own, but together they were merely exhausting. They wanted to show off the genre, but it had the opposite effect and made the genre seem uninspired. 

Tokyo! (2008)

The only problem with Tokyo!, a little-seen anthology film featuring shorts by Leos Carax, Michel Gondry, and Bong Joon-ho, is that Leos Carax made such an awesome segment that it’s hard to care about anything around it, despite Gondry and Bong being great in and of themselves. Carax, mind you, hadn’t made a film in about 10 years, and so his comeback was bound to excite: Here he delivered “Merde,” which starred the inimitable Denis Lavant as a green-suited maniac roving the streets. Just watch it. Trust us.