As a child raised on B-grade horror movies on cable and The Twilight Zone, I had aspirations of becoming a horror host. I couldn’t wait to have my own horror pun name and my own local public broadcast show! I carried this aspiration well into my adult life, which is to say right this very second. Alas, I still haven’t worked out that local television deal, so these days I have to settle for throwing on a cocktail dress with a wig and fangs and haunting innocent souls with horror puns.
My attraction to horror hosting no doubt coincides with my love of horror anthology shows. Anthology shows are a tricky beast. There’s so many options: human host or voice over? Weekly themes or unconnected short films? Regardless of the structure, the series must serve as a showcase. Horror is often attractive because of its low budget properties; an effective crew can do quite a lot with little to no funding, which translates well to a tight TV budget. But can you come up with something that is consistently scary on a weekly basis? What about daily? Telling a coherent story in thirty minutes to an hour and exploring new forms of horror to keep your audience happy can be a haunt-ing task. Here are five that I find axe-ceptional. Bwahahaha!
Tales From the Crypt
I mean… yeah. I wouldn’t say this is a no brainer, but I still use “boils and ghouls” to refer to my nieces and nephews on a regular basis, even outside of Halloween.
Featuring ghoulish stories ripped from EC Comics (although, ironically, very few from the actual Tales From the Crypt series), The Crypt was just about the scariest thirty minutes on television for years. And yet I tuned in every week to HBO just to get scared out of my little mind by the rasping, wheezy chortle of my old pal Cryptkeeper. As an adult, I appreciate how consistent the episodes remained for seven seasons. As the episodes were already groundbreaking in their day, most of them have still held up through time. Not every episode is scary as heck, but you can bet your (after)life on any given episode being entertaining and refreshingly boo-riginal. The Crypt also boasted the coolest guest stars and directors from Adam Ant on down to Michael J. Fox. And The Crypt gave us some pretty cool spin-offs like the more sci-fi oriented Perversions of Science (my personal favorite) and the greatest Billy Zane movie of all time, Demon Knight.
Masters of Horror
The opening wails and bloody visuals of this series’ intro definitely colored my Friday nights for a couple of years. Masters of Horror was one of those “if you weren’t there ya missed it” movements.
The nice thing is, the episodes are still available on DVD and Blu-Ray thanks to Anchor Bay Entertainment. Top horror and fantasy film directors like Mick Garris, Dario Argento, and Takashi Miike brought to life teleplays based on short stories from Clive Barker, Ambrose Bierce, James Tiptree Jr, and of course H.P. Lovecraft just for a few. The diverse pool of directors and material led to some boundary-pushing horror TV, probably best exemplified by the infamous episode Imprint which I think will still get you on A Certain List if you try to buy it online. I’m not sure I’m even allowed to describe it. My top recommendation from this series is Dreams in the Witch-House, one of the best Lovecraft adaptations in any medium; naturally, it was directed by the king of the Lovecraft movies, Stuart Gordon. The show struggled in its final season thanks to some executive meddling and budget cuts that ultimately led to its untimely demise, but I think it remained consistent enough to still remain a must-watch little collection of terror.
R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour
This one is good for kids and adults!
The Haunting Hour series is brought to us by the same gentleman that brought us Goosebumps, Mr. R. L. Stine. As a horror anthology aimed at younger viewers, you’d naturally assume this show owes a large debt to the premier spooky show for kids, Are You Afraid of the Dark? But Haunting Hour‘s penchant for dark stories with bad endings, the occasional young protagonist death, and violence put it closer to The Twilight Zone or the ’90s run of The Outer Limits. It gets over on Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps with high caliber writing, great casts, and not being hopelessly tied to any particular decade. Being on The Hub Network is what allowed this show to take the risks that it did but in the end this doomed it as well; when The Hub was bought out by Discovery Family Channel, the powers that be decided the show was a little too grimdark for their family friendly aims and thus The Haunting Hour fell down a mineshaft into the abyss. At least it’s available on DVD. My personal picks from this series are the surreal episode “Sick” and the downright disturbing “Scarecrow”. A little trivia about “Scarecrow”, like many episodes of this show it was written by the team of Dan Angel and Billy Brown, who also brought us…
Don’t (hanging) judge, but when this show premiered on Fox back in 2001 it was immediately the coolest thing on the planet simply for being hosted by hardcore giant Henry Rollins. Let me say that again: Henry bleepin’ Rollins hosted a horror television show.
It simply does not get more legit. Night Visions had some other good stuff going for it: it was edgy and surprisingly graphic for a show that came on at 8 PM on Fox, Henry Rollins looking cool, some pretty good stories and visuals, and a neat little selection of guest directors that included Bill Pullman and Tobe Hooper. Sadly, Night Visions only made it a season before getting caught up in a maelstrom of post-9/11 television standards, shuffling executives at Fox and later the Sci Fi Channel, and of course everyone’s favorite antagonist: money! But for such a short-lived and relatively obscure show, it noticeably influenced several shows like the aforementioned The Haunting Hour and Masters of Horror.
The Twilight Zone (1985-1989)
Time has gotten kinder to the ’80s revival of that giant of anthology shows, The Twilight Zone. Especially after we were all faced with the noughties revival which while not all bad, was not all good either and in a lot of ways that’s worse.
I find myself reaching for the ’80s revival more often these days for the same reason I will reach for the ’90s episodes of The Outer Limits first: it’s familiar, it’s more accessible, more relatable. I get it – The Twilight Zone is a classic. I feel like I’ve marathoned it at least three times a year on multiple stations since 1995 and I can comfortably say yes, there is not a thing wrong with the original series and if you haven’t watched “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, just stop right now and go do that. But that’s the thing: it’s a classic. It’s Olympus. You know all the plot twists and the heavy-handed morals (which, be honest, we still need now). I’ve memorized all the overwrought dialogue. TZ ’85 keeps the same spirit of the original series while still providing something modern, even updating some choice older episodes to show how timeless they were. I liked the two episode format as sometimes I felt like even the thirty minute episodes of the original show stretched too thin. The stories weren’t always terribly complicated but still effective and memorable. Alas, before it really hit its stride this series fell victim to pretty much the same doom that comes to most anthology series including its predecessor: money and ratings! But Rod Serling’s legacy will live on forever in the (bleeding) hearts of many a fan and maybe one New Year’s eve we’ll finally get another ’85 series marathon.