One of the reasons Black Mirror has been so embraced by people–on top of the fantastic writing and heartbreaking performances–is the very structure of the series: it’s an anthology.
This is nothing new for television; anthology series have been around since nearly the beginning of the medium, and horror (or dark sci-fi) themed ones have been around nearly as long. We’re not just talking about The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Tales from the Crypt here either. To give you some timeless terrors in this, the month of Nerdoween, here are seven horror anthology series you might not have heard of, but definitely need to watch.
One Step Beyond – (1959-61)
Most people point to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which ran from 1959-1964, as the granddaddy of the modern, network anthology horror series, but it was actually beaten to the punch by about 10 months by this series, which has the rather unwieldy full title of Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond and ran for 96 episodes on ABC. The show was hosted by John Newland, who also directed 74 of the episodes, and it has to be said, he’s not the most magnetic of hosts, but he is very committed to bringing these stories to the screen. Guest actors included the likes of Cloris Leachman, Warren Beatty, and Christopher Lee. While most of the writers on the show were people you probably wouldn’t know, a few episodes were written by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont and one by early Doctor Who writer Ian Stuart Black.
Thriller – (1960-62)
Following The Twilight Zone, it was pretty necessary to have a more magnetic host for your series, and it was pretty hard to get a horror host better or more distinguished than Boris Karloff. For 67 episodes on NBC, the man with the most haunting voice of all time took viewers into tales of the macabre and suspenseful. More than the often sci-fi twinged Twilight Zone or the crime-based Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller went down the avenue of straight-up horror, and had writers like novelists Robert Arthur Jr., Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), and Robert Bloch (Psycho). Big name directors like Ida Lupino, Arthur Hiller, and Paul Henreid made the episodes look incredibly dynamic for TV budget, and Karloff himself appeared as an actor in five of the episodes in addition to his hosting duties. It’s a pretty damn scary show.
Tales of the Unexpected – (1979-88)
You probably wouldn’t know it if you’re only familiar with his work in children’s books (or maybe you would given how twisted some of them are) but English author Roald Dahl‘s short stories are some of the darkest, most macabrely funny things you could ever hope to read. And people wanted them on TV! We’ve already told you about his short-lived 1960 TV series ‘Way Out in which he hosted TV adaptations of some of his shorts–and they were very, very upsetting–but in 1979, Britain’s ITV network launched a new series, also hosted by Dahl and adapting his stories, and it ran for a whopping 112 episodes. And each episode had an unexpected twist ending, much the same way Tales from the Crypt did. It’s pretty genius, and Dahl is a suitably wry host who doesn’t seem like he’d have such a wicked sense of humor.
Hammer House of Horror – (1980)
After the demise of Hammer Films in the mid-1970s, it seemed that Britain’s once-venerable horror film powerhouse would be gone forever. This was not the case, of course, and in 1980, the studio launched a 13-episode ITV anthology series called Hammer House of Horror which gave fans another chance to get everything from witches, werewolves, and ghosts, to devil-worship and voodoo, and also non-supernatural horror themes such as cannibalism, confinement, and serial killers. Hammer’s undisputed star Peter Cushing made an appearance in the episode “The Silent Scream,” about a former Nazi continuing human experimentation. The scariest episode, though, was “The House That Bled to Death” in which a haunted house literally rains blood down on an unsuspecting child’s birthday party.
Ray Bradbury Theater – (1985-92)
I can’t think of a writer that more deserved to be the focus of an anthology series, it’s Ray Bradbury, who is one of the most lauded and prolific sci-fi and speculative fiction authors of all time. Starting as two 3-episode miniseries in 1985 and ’86, HBO ended up making five more full seasons resulting in 65 episodes total. Bradbury wrote and hosted each and every one of them, adapting some of his best loved short stories and novels, including (but not limited to) “A Sound of Thunder”, “Marionettes, Inc.”, “Banshee”, “The Playground”, “Mars is Heaven”, “Usher II”, “The Jar”, “The Long Rain”, “The Veldt”, “The Small Assassin”, “The Pedestrian”, “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl”, “Here There Be Tygers”, “The Toynbee Convector”, and “Sun and Shadow”. This show is flatly awesome.
Freddy’s Nightmare – (1988-90)
For people not alive or conscious in the ’80s, there’s really no way to quantify just how popular and ubiquitous Freddy Krueger was. He was THE face of horror, and Robert Englund‘s portrayal became so beloved that people couldn’t wait to see the inventive, dream-like ways he’d murder teenagers in their sleep. Weird. This was brought to TV in the late-’80s, but in a bit of a different way. Freddy became the Crypt Keeper-like host of an anthology series, though some of the episodes did feature him as part of the story, and a lot of them mentioned Freddy as being somehow responsible for the scary phenomena, even if he wasn’t directly seen. The very first episode “No More Mr. Nice Guy” directed by the late, great Tobe Hooper gave us an illustration of Freddy’s backstory, as a child murderer who was let off because of lack of Miranda Rights, only for the parents on Elm Street to get fiery revenge.
Friday the 13th: The Series – (1987-90)
You’re probably thinking, “Oh, they did the same thing with Jason Voorhees as they did with Freddy Krueger.” No. This was originally going to be called The 13th Hour, just an anthology horror series, but producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. thought the title was bad and since he was the producer of the Friday the 13th movies at the time, he retitled it, even though it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the film series. Pretty tricky, Frank. The actual series followed a group of antique hunters tracking down accursed items, and each item is in the possession of various people who are affected by the curses in different ways. A little more X-Files than your average anthology series, but nevertheless effective as such.
What are some of your favorite lesser-known anthology horror series? Let us know in the comments below!