Fantasia to Flesh and Fantasy, the Coens to Cavalcanti: anthology films – ranked!

<span>Terry Jones as Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.</span><span>Photograph: Universal/Celandine/Monty Python/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Terry Jones as Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.Photograph: Universal/Celandine/Monty Python/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

21. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

The Meaning of Life is probably closer to the world of TV sketch comedy, rather than ensemble movie, but the Pythons’ gang-show film was a box office smash and won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 1983 (while Víctor Erice’s The South and Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy got zip). With crazy grandiloquence, it took us through all the big questions of existence, and the tragicomic limits of physical pleasure were finally exposed by the restaurant scene in which Mr Creosote explodes. Like John Landis’s portmanteau comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie from 1977, this was full of very chancy, confrontationally bad-taste material that wouldn’t get on television then or now.

20. Waxworks (1924)

There is room for debate as to whether DW Griffith’s Intolerance of 1916 is the first anthology film – though the fact that it intercuts the four parallel stories throughout the action probably means that, strictly speaking, it isn’t. Which leaves the menacing German expressionist darkness of Waxworks from 1924. Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss star as Harun al-Rashid, Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper, these being three prominent waxworks at a museum whose proprietor wants a writer to compose stories about the exhibits – which come to life in the disquieting, dreamlike tales.

19. The French Dispatch (2021)

Wes Anderson delighted his partisans and further exasperated his nay-sayers with this droll anthology picture. Its high concept was to present different tales from a cod-60s French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé, inspired by different articles in a magazine called the French Dispatch – actually, the New Yorker in all but name. Bill Murray is the formidable editor, Benicio del Toro is a convicted murderer and artistic genius whose naked model is prison officer Léa Seydoux. Frances McDormand is the writer who has an affair with Timothée Chalamet’s Che-ish revolutionary leader.

18. Creepshow (1982)

Stephen King will always have a toweringly important part in Hollywood history, and this goofy horror-comedy anthology picture from director George A Romero shows King in an acting role. He also wrote the screenplays for the five mini-films, two of which are based on previously existing short stories: The Crate and Weeds (re-titled The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill), the latter of which has King playing a slack-jawed hillbilly who witnesses a meteorite crashing down on his property. These fables of creepiness are inspired by the horror comics of the 1950s fondly remembered for the moral panic they inspired.

17. Rendezvous in Paris (1995)

In the spirit of René Clair or Max Ophüls, Éric Rohmer presents three delicate and elegantly shaped tales of love in all its wistful yearning and duplicity, set in Paris. The city’s reputation for worldly sophisticated romance has made it the site of so many anthology movies. A young couple find they can’t meet for dinner; a pair of lovers saunter through the city talking; a conceited young painter embarks on an infidelity, somehow triggered by a viewing of Picasso’s Mother and Child 1907.

16. Wild Tales (2014)

Argentinian film-maker Damián Szifron’s scabrous collection of stories is in the spirit of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. The theme is revenge and he is a fierce satirist, attacking the bad-tempered mediocrity and exhaustion of his country’s ruling classes. Airline passengers realise what they have in common; a waitress recognises a customer from her past; a road rage incident escalates; a plutocrat covers up his son’s crime; a bride and groom fall out at the wedding. The showstopper is the first story: set aboard a tense plane, it is a mile-high club of retribution and despair.

15. Invitation to the Dance (1956)

Gene Kelly wrote and directed this bold, even experimental trio of wordless tales which told their stories through dance and dumb-show, combining animation and live action with Kelly starring in each. Kelly is a sad circus clown who falls in love with a beautiful performer; then he is a marine who notices his girlfriend wearing a bracelet, which has passed from hand to hand in a daisy chain of infidelity inspired by Schnitzler’s La Ronde (see below). Finally, he plays Sinbad the Sailor discovering a magic lamp.

14. Flesh and Fantasy (1943)

French director Julien Duvivier – known for films such as Pépé le Moko with Jean Gabin – had actually acquired a reputation in Hollywood as an anthology maestro with his 1942 hit Tales of Manhattan. This follow-up is a trio of supernatural stories, mouthwateringly cast with Edward G Robinson, Charles Boyer (who conceived the film with Duvivier) and Barbara Stanwyck. A mask transforms a woman’s face. A fashionable man-about-town is disturbed by a prophecy (in fact adapted from Oscar Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime). A tightrope walker is terrified by bad dreams. The three stories are linked by two leisured gentlemen talking in their club, played by actor David Hoffman and humorist Robert Benchley; this is a narrative conceit showing us how a particular type of anthology picture feels the need to explain the stories’ miscellaneous existence by presenting them within a certain fictional space.

13. V/H/S (2012)

This raucously over-the-top anthology of gonzo found-footage horror, owing something to The Blair Witch Project and Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, inspired a continuing franchise. At its best, it is satisfyingly inventive and nasty. The linking conceit is that the stories are each on different VHS tapes discovered by a gang of thieves who have broken into a creepy old house and been overcome by a weird compulsion to watch them. The videos themselves show strange and shocking events and even the medium of analogue video feels ancient and uncanny.

12. Kinds of Kindness (2024)

The great absurdist master Yorgos Lanthimos was surely always going to do a creepy anthology and his Kinds of Kindness does everything we’d hope for from him. These are three strange stories from New Orleans, featuring repertory casting; the same faces (Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mamoudou Athie, Margaret Qualley et al) showing up in story after story, as if the universe is repeating the same cosmic joke at their (and our) expense. Office workers, cops, cult members, marine biologists are the playthings of malign fate and callous authority and, as so often in anthology films, the dominant tone is irony.

11. Kwaidan (1964)

These four ghost stories from Japanese auteur Masaki Kobayashi were hailed for a quality rarely accorded to creepy anthologies: beauty and subtlety. It is a superbly and lovingly crafted collection, derived from the 19th-century folk tales originally published by the Irish-Greek (and naturalised Japanese) author Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. Kwaidan approximately translates as “ghost story”. An unhappily remarried samurai returns to his old wife; a woodcutter is murdered by a female spirit or yuki-onna who warns his surviving friend not to reveal what has happened.; a ghost samurai appears to a blind musician; a face appears in a cup of tea. The literary flavour of the final story creates an overarching narrative effect.

10. XX (2017)

An array of film-makers including Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic and V/H/S creator Roxanne Benjamin collaborated on this raucous scary-story collection that set out to challenge the male ethos and aesthetic of horror – the title is a twist on the double-strength scariness and the female chromosome. People start refusing to eat when they see the secret contents of a certain box; a birthday party is the scene of a nightmare; four hikers in a desert encounter the evil spirit depicted in a cave painting; a woman is traumatised by the hold that her sinister school-age son appears to have over people … wait, is this the kid from Rosemary’s Baby?

9. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

The anthology movie so often tends towards twists or scares or black-comic punchlines. Vittorio De Sica found a way to make it convey romantic richness, humanity and warmth, working with his legendary star Sophia Loren and pairing her three times with her equally iconic co-star Marcello Mastroianni. The three stories – their apparent link with the past, present and future is obscure – show Loren as a poverty-stricken black-marketeer in Naples who realises she can’t be sent to prison if she is pregnant, and so accumulates a vast family. Then she is the heartless wealthy wife of a plutocrat, then as a sex worker who vows to abstain from sex for one week when a trainee priest falls in love with her. There is a broad streak of sentimentality, but this is premium-quality Loren.

8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Coens gave us an anthology gem, a collection of tales from the old west (originally intended as episodic streaming television but happily rescued as a portmanteau film). It’s unified by an old book called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, from which the stories are evidently taken, and Scruggs appears in the first one, played with absolute authenticity and conviction by the Coens’ stalwart veteran Tim Blake Nelson. It’s a world of criminals, gunfighters, gold prospectors and travelling mountebanks, featuring James Franco, Liam Neeson and Zoe Kazan. The tone is not ironic or dark, but surprisingly forgiving towards vulnerable, flawed humanity.

7. Mystery Train (1989)

Like Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, Jim Jarmusch’s anthology movie’s unifying high concept is the hotel where at least some of each story takes place. The other unifying concept is the figure of Elvis Presley; it’s a very music-centred film. In Far from Yokohama an Elvis-obsessed Japanese couple arrive to commune with their hero. In A Ghost, an Italian widow has a strange encounter and in Lost in Space, a British guy called Johnny (but also called Elvis) finds himself in a desperate situation. This is an anthology movie with a narrative technique used occasionally by portmanteau features generally – giving a character from one story a cameo in another.

6. Immoral Tales (1973)

There is an element of eroticism (or at any rate implied promiscuity) in the Schnitzlerian tradition of anthology films. But Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales is a rare example of out-and-out filth: four raunchy stories of explicit sexuality from old Europe, with a projected fifth story developed to feature-length as Borowczyk’s notorious The Beast. Borowczyk is the supreme master of high-end Euro art-porn of the 70s and 80s, which aspired to something other than smut, and these stories are intriguingly strange and exotic and literary. This particularly applies to the story of the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory, played by Paloma Picasso, daughter of Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot.

5. La Ronde (1950)

Pure anthology magic in this frictionless classic comedy from Max Ophüls, adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s racy stage play. The setting is Vienna of the early 20th century. Ten scenes, 10 inconstant couples, connected in a daisy chain of sex, taking us from the lowest in society to the highest. A streetwalker gives a soldier sex on the house; this soldier goes on to date a chambermaid who is seduced by her employer’s son; he then has an affair with a married woman, and so it goes on. The narrator is the incomparably dapper Anton Walbrook, recounting these saucy encounters as he spins jauntily around on a fairground carousel that at one point symbolically stalls when one character suffers a certain gentleman’s dysfunction. This probably inspired Jack Rosenthal’s quasi-portmanteau film The Chain, with house removal workers taking us in stages from London’s roughest areas to its poshest – and then back to the roughest.

4. Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

British horror studio Amicus produced no fewer than seven horror anthologies from the 60s to the 70s, and it all started with this one, directed by The Innocents cinematographer Freddie Francis. The narrator is the creepy Dr Schreck, played by Peter Cushing, who gets his tarot pack out in a train carriage and tells the fortune of the five saucer-eyed passengers. It all unfolds in the succeeding five stories and the whole thing is rounded off with a sixth segment, effectively a coda, which ties it up with a satisfyingly gloomy twist.

3. Fantasia (1940)

Walt Disney’s soaringly ambitious musical-animation anthology first grew from an idea to make Mickey Mouse the madcap hero in Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; the project grew in size and approach, with a much more idealistic and higher-brow attitude. The master of ceremonies, effectively the conductor, is Deems Taylor, who introduces each segment in front of the orchestra: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (the Mickey Mouse adventure), Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Fantasia had an educational mission that was later taken up in spirit by Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and the TV broadcasts of Leonard Bernstein.

2. I Am Cuba (1964)

Mikhail Kalatozov’s groundbreaking Castro-ist masterpiece is made up of four distinct, fierce stories of what led up to the Cuban revolution. They are connected by a narrative voiceover that says: “I am Cuba … the Cuba of the people.” The fluid and daring handheld camerawork of his cinematographer, Sergey Urusevsky, is mesmeric. A young Cuban woman sells sex to a callous rich American; a tenant farmer is exploited by the American United Fruit Company; a rebellious student at the University of Havana plans an assassination; and finally a farmer is prevailed upon to join the revolutionary movement. A thrilling selection of stories in which there is no hint of flippancy or irony.

1. Dead of Night (1945)

It is still the greatest anthology film. Directed by four different Ealing film-makers, it is the collection in which there is the most satisfying mix of individual stories (even including a lighthearted comedy, a golfing tale with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), but it also has the most terrifying stabs of fear and the compelling overarching narrative premise. An architect arrives at a country cottage and, astonished, tells the people assembled there that he has seen them all in a dream; then these guests recount strange things that have happened to them. The most famous story, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, is probably The Ventriloquist’s Dummy, with Michael Redgrave being terrorised by his insolently grinning doll. But there is a real chill in the story of the injured racing driver who has a prophetic dream (or vision) of a Victorian hearse driver who tells him: “Just room for one inside, sir!” This collection, with its eerie deadpan payoff and creepy promise of interconnection between the stories will still make you quiver with fear.

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