Ever since the earliest days of telling scary stories around the campfire, horror has thrived in the short form, and horror anthology movies are almost as old as the horror movie genre itself. Also known as “portmanteau” films, the earliest of example of a horror anthology movie was probably Paul Leni’s 1924 silent film Waxworks, in which a writer imagined stories for several historical figures in a wax museum, including Jack the Ripper.
The horror anthology film reached peak popularity in the 1960s and ‘70s, when studios like Amicus produced a whole parcel of portmanteau horror flicks such as Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, The House That Dripped Blood, The Vault of Horror, From Beyond the Grave, and others. But the art form is far from dead—indeed, as this list illustrates, we're in the midst of a horror anthology movie resurgence.
The following selections span pioneering works and cult horror classics to modern-day anthology nightmares you need to see. Some are helmed by the same director while others (especially the more recent entries) showcase a range of talents. A few of the entries employ a framing story that attempts to tie all the different narratives together; in others, each segment stands (or falls) on its own.
So sit back, relax, and queue up the best horror anthology movies available now. These freaky flicks are sure to terrify over and over again.
Dead of Night (1945)
One of the earliest anthology horror films is also one of the best. Made by Britain’s Ealing Studios shortly after the lifting of the ban on production of horror films which occurred in Britain during the war, Dead of Night left its mark on countless British horror flicks that came after. Not only does it include one of the only cinematic adaptations of ghost story writer E.F. Benson, it also provided the blueprint for pretty much every creepy ventriloquist dummy movie that has been made since and inspired astronomer Fred Hoyle’s steady state model of the universe. How many horror movies can say that?
Black Sabbath (1963)
While Black Sabbath wasn’t an immediate hit for legendary Italian director Mario Bava, with one reviewer at the time calling it “three short films botched together,” it has since been recognized as a classic of the form and genre. The Italian and American cuts of the film place the three segments in different orders, and for optimal effect, I recommend tracking down the Italian cut, if possible, where the fantastic “Drop of Water” segment is last rather than first.
Two masters of horror join forces, with director George Romero adapting stories by Stephen King. In front of the camera you can find everyone from King himself to Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Leslie Nielsen, Ed Harris, Ted Danson, and Stephen King’s son, author Joe Hill, to name a few. But what really makes Creepshow stand out are the EC Comics-style visuals that the film employs to accentuate its morbid (and often morbidly funny) storylines.
Tales from the Hood (1995)
Decades before Jordan Peele rocketed to the top echelons of horror royalty with Get Out, Rusty Cundieff was already combining classic anthology horror atmosphere with a social conscience, focusing specifically on the African American experience with Tales from the Hood. It was a modest success at the time and became a cult hit in the years after its release. Perhaps sadly, much of Tales from the Hood feels as topical today as it did in 1995 …
Three … Extremes (2004)
Actually a follow-up to the 2002 film Three, which was released in the United States as Three Extremes II, this film features short segments by three masters of horror and suspense from three different Asian countries. Director Fruit Chan represents Hong Kong with the stomach-churning “Dumplings,” which was expanded into a feature-length film in 2006; Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) represents South Korea with the deconstructionist “Cut,” and Takashi Miike (Audition) closes out the film from Japan with another disturbing yarn, “Box.”
Trapped Ashes (2006)
Joe Dante directs the wraparound story about a group of people on a Hollywood studio tour who become trapped in a House of Horrors and have to tell their own scary stories to escape. The Mario Bava-style lighting and effects of the wraparound may be the standout in this under-the-radar anthology, but other segments are directed by Ken Russell (The Devils, The Lair of the White Worm) and Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th), among others.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Maybe the ultimate Halloween movie, Trick ‘r Treat follows various plots that weave in and out of one-another over the course of one bloody Halloween night in a small town. Veering from killers to werewolves to ghost stories straight out of some R-rated version of Goosebumps, Trick ‘r Treat covers all of its seasonal bases, while also introducing a pitch-perfect mascot for the holiday in the form of the diminutive Sam.
The Theatre Bizarre (2011)
An obsessed young woman comes to an abandoned theater where a marionette-like master of ceremonies (played by Udo Kier) presents six horrifying tales inspired by the classic French Theatre du Grand Guignol, including an adaptation of the classic Clark Ashton Smith story “Mother of Toads” by none other than Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil). As the tales continue, the young woman finds herself in the grip of a strange transformation in this underseen anthology produced by Severin Films.
V/H/S 2 (2013)
Released in 2011, the original V/H/S made a splash on the horror scene with its brutal stories and throwback aesthetics, but it also came under criticism for its treatment of women and LGBTQ characters. The sequel ditches at least some of the problematic elements of the original, while bringing some new talent behind the camera, including Gareth Evans (The Raid) and Timo Tjahjanto (May the Devil Take Us) who collaborate on the film’s most memorable segment.
Extraordinary Tales (2013)
The only animated film on this list, Extraordinary Tales finds a perfect marriage between various animation styles and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Bringing to life five of the master’s most famous stories, each one is narrated by a different celebrity, including Christopher Lee, Julian Sands, Bela Lugosi (by way of archival recordings), Guillermo del Toro, and Roger Corman.
Five interlocking stories follow individuals on the run from strange floating creatures—not to mention their own regrets, fears, and failures—on a desolate stretch of highway somewhere in the desert. The segments in Southbound bleed into one-another in a way not found in many horror anthologies (Trick ‘r Treat, above, notwithstanding), creating a whole that’s weirder and more satisfying than its parts.
Ghost Stories (2017)
Adapted by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman from their stage play of the same name, the framing narrative will make-or-break Ghost Stories for most viewers. Even for those who don’t care for the ending, though, there’s no denying that this British film about a professional skeptic tasked with debunking three ghost stories is filled with unsettling moments and creepy imagery.
The Field Guide to Evil (2018)
From the producers of ABCs of Death, this anthology has as its logline a catalog of horrifying folklore from around the globe, for values of “around the globe” that actually include a surprisingly narrow longitudinal span. Still, there’s a welcome international flavor to this collection of eight creepy folktales (and filmmakers) from Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Poland, Turkey, and the United States. While the segments have a lot of commonalities that can bog down the film as a whole, the world folklore angle helps The Field Guide to Evil stand out.
Featured still from "Ghost Stories" via IFC Midnight