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Thursday, October 29, 2020

10 Twisted Horror Anthology TV Episodes Perfect for Halloween

Tales From the Television looks back at standalone episodes from various TV anthologies. Each collection of stories, every one based on a specific theme, is proof that even the small screen can deliver big frights.

The power of anthologies rests in their potency — the ability to entertain in a limited amount of time. This sounds easy in theory, but as anyone who’s ever created short fiction of any kind, they know otherwise. World-building, scaring, and enthralling audiences with so little time on the clock is never easy; standalone segments have to earn their existence more than longer features do.

One thing that certainly makes the traditional horror anthology show so attractive — the kind where the episodes are self-contained and disconnected to any kind of overarching plot — is the twist. This staple of bottled storytelling makes or breaks, accentuates, and immortalizes. While most episodes have this basic feature, some twists remain better than others.

The Twilight Zone (1959): “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”

Rod Serling’s influential anthology gave a voice to unspoken concerns and progressive ideas that weren’t being expressed too often, if at all, on television at the time. The Twilight Zone also never forgot to entertain nor did its themes replace storytelling. A remarkable episode like “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” captures paranoia and xenophobia in under half an hour, and the witty ending is hard to forget.

State troopers investigating reports of a UFO discover footprints leading out of a frozen pond and to a nearby late-night diner. Inside, the passengers of a bus parked outside are each suspected of being the alien intruder. One by one, they’re cleared until the real culprit is revealed.

The Frighteners (1972): “Bed and Breakfast”

“Bed and Breakfast,” from the non-supernatural British anthology The Frighteners, meticulously unfurls the characters’ ulterior motives before setting loose a twist that no one could have foresaw. Audiences will be shocked by both the revelation and conclusion.

A couple driving through the countryside late at night stops at a remote house. After affixing a sign to a tree that claims the place is a B&B, the man and woman practically invite themselves into the owners’ home and demand a room for the night. The elderly residents begrudgingly allow the couple to stay, but they soon regret their generosity as their guests have sinister intentions.

Tales of the Unexpected (1979): “The Flypaper”

Although Roald Dahl’s work was the original basis of this anthology, the show quickly found inspiration elsewhere. “The Flypaper” continues the series’ history of tragic and harsh outcomes for the characters, but the episode is especially eager to please those looking for more brio in their dark twists.

News of a serial killer stalking children has a small community on edge. A girl is forbidden from talking to strangers, but on her way home from school, she’s approached by a suspicious man who she fears might be the murderer. The girl evades him thanks to the help of a kind woman, but that won’t be the last she sees of the man.

Tales from the Darkside (1983): “The Cutty Black Sow”

For four seasons, George A. Romero, Richard P. Rubinstein, and the rest of the Darkside staff gifted audiences with the most bizarre stories to ever grace television. Not every episode was as successful as the next when it came to surprising twists, but “The Cutty Black Sow” totally catches viewers off guard. This Halloween-set story delves into Gaelic folklore and uncovers a malevolent entity fairly unheard of outside of Europe. Screenwriter Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice), whose only directed work in the series is “Seasons of Belief,” does a faithful job of adapting Thomas F. Monteleone’s short story about family obligations and ancient evils.

Before she finally passes away, Jamie’s great-grandmother asks him to prevent her soul from being claimed by a horrific demon called the Cutty Black Sow. The creature then stalks the boy as he stays home alone on Halloween night.

The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985): “The Emissary”

This episode understands scares don’t necessarily equal horror. In fact, “The Emissary” is seemingly wholesome with no hint of anything nasty on the horizon; the story plays things close to the vest and gives viewers a nice surprise. Another bonus is the thoroughly autumnal setting — carnelian leaves decorate the town, jack-o’-lanterns sit idly in the background, and talk of trick-or-treating can be heard. And before anyone accuses Bradbury of siphoning the popular 1983 work of another renowned author of horror whose name shall not be mentioned to avoid spoilers, they should remember the short story this episode is based on, was first published in 1947.

A young, sick boy who can’t go outside has a dog who fetches him everything his heart desires. This includes a caring teacher who changes the child’s life in an astounding way.

Tales from the Crypt (1989): “House of Horror”

Filmed inside the derelict, looming house previously seen in Nothing but Trouble, “House of Horror” feels like a greatest hits collection of other Tales from the Crypt episodes. There are also several familiar faces here: Kevin Dillon, Wil Wheaton, Brian Krause, Meredith Salenger, Jason London, and Keith Coogan. This offering blatantly plants the makings of its first twist, but as the episode nears an end, you realize there’s more to the story.

A fraternity on probation is approached by a new sorority on campus; the frat is asked to become their affiliate. The pledgemaster instead asks the sorority members to accompany them to their pledges’ final ritual at an off-site location: a creepy, old house supposedly haunted by an ax murderer’s ghost. The initiation doesn’t go quite as well as everyone expected seeing as the venue isn’t exactly empty.

Goosebumps (1995): “Welcome to Camp Nightmare”

It’s pretty common for anthology stories to end things with a cliffhanger that suggests the characters are still in trouble; the same can be said for R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. “Welcome to Camp Nightmare,” however, seeks some resolution while still raising more questions. The startling ending is essentially lifted from classic Twilight Zone, too.

Billy is having a miserable time at summer camp, but his experience only worsens with news of a horrible creature, Sabre, prowling the woods. There is also a cloud of mystery surrounding the “Forbidden Bunk” that may have something to do with all the disappearing campers.

Night Visions (2001): “A View Through the Window”

Actor Bill Pullman pulls double duty in his segment of Fox’s Night Visions; he both stars in “A View Through the Window” as well as directs it. The episode focuses on the military investigating an anomaly in the middle of the desert: an idyllic, lush farm, surrounded by an invisible force field, appears out of nowhere. Pullman’s character becomes so intent on finding an entrance into this strange world that he never stops to think what the other side could be like. It’s a guileful “the grass is greener” kind of story accented with an unkind ending.

Inside No. 9 (2014) – “The Devil of Christmas”

It seems unconventional to watch anything Christmas-themed outside of December, but horror also isn’t contained to one season. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s acclaimed anthology is thoroughly eclectic; their stab at holiday horror features one of the show’s biggest rug pulls and some of the show’s best pastiche work.

In this Christmas special, a man (Derek Jacobi) provides audio commentary as the audience at home watches a ‘70s movie called “The Devil of Christmas.” The film sees an unpleasant fate unfold for the actors, who are playing an English family vacationing at an Austrian chalet.

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits & Monsters (2018): “Goatman Cometh”

This short-lived anthology from stand-up comic and director Bobcat Goldthwait was largely comedic, but episodes like this are dipped in horror. The series’ creator is no stranger to the genre since he directed the Bigfoot movie Willow Creek; his distinct sense of humor is writ large in God Bless America. “Goatman Cometh” puts Goldthwait’s twisted mind to work and the results are wickedly fun.

Melissa Joan Hart plays a single mother who’s desperate for her young son to fit in and make friends. When she invites a few of his classmates over for a backyard campout one night, the kids are attacked by the infamous Goatman that preys on local children. Of course, things are not what they seem and the characters uncover something far more menacing than a supposed cryptid lurking in their neighborhood.


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