Anthologies and The One You Need to Watch This Halloween

One of the oldest series formats in entertainment is the anthology. In fact, it’s older than the medium that would make it a cultural phenomenon: television. Anthologies hit Hollywood first with popular radio programs such as Lux Radio Theatre, where actors adapted films and performed them live in front of a studio audience for the radio listener who couldn’t make it to the cinema. Hollywood’s biggest stars would guest on the weekly program and get a chance to play a role they never got to on-screen—Ida Lupino could play Bette Davis’s role in Now Voyager—or play the same role in a new way—William Powell and Myrna Loy could re-adapt their crime-solving Thin Man antics for radio. Genre performances were also popular; the famous Orson Welles The War of the Worlds radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells science fiction novel was an episode of the anthology series The Mercury Theatre on Air.  

The anthology series remained especially popular during the Golden Age of Television in the 1950s, which produced over 100 anthologies during the decade. Actors like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Loretta Young had their own series, Alfred Hitchcock adapted crime and horror short stories, and even corporations like General Electric partook in the enterprise with their own dramas. The most revered anthology series that came out of Hollywood, though, is undoubtedly The Twilight Zone; a work of science fiction dealing with disturbing and unusual subject matter (recently it made a resurgence, thanks to the remake by Simon Kinberg, Jordan Peele, and Marco Ramirez).  

A still from The Twilight Zone episode, “Eye of the Beholder” (1960) – source: CBS

The anthology series has remained a popular form of television since, and while the United States remains its main producer, countries such as the UK, India and even Pakistan are putting their own spin on the form. The ’60s had Rod Serling, and now, if there’s anyone that could claim the title of “King of the Anthology Series,” it would be Ryan Murphy, whose name can be found on the credits of three of FX’s four anthologies: American Crime Story, American Horror Story, and Feud. While most anthologies, like the latter three, present a different story and a different set of characters per season, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror took us back to The Twilight Zone with a different narrative per episode.

Black Mirror was a kind of rebirth for the anthology because, while the style never disappeared and dates back to the Ancient Greeks, it created a frenzy that was never seen by the millennial viewer over a series of its kind. After being purchased by Netflix in 2015, it was all anyone could talk about. Its intelligent and disturbing takes on our relationship with technology was met with positive reviews across the board, even receiving praise from famed horror novelist Stephen King. The reactions of many mimic the reception of a new iPhone or a new Star Wars trailer dropped at D23 Expo, as though it were something never seen or done before. And for millennials, like me, it was indeed something never seen before.

Many were used to traditional television that followed the same story and characters throughout its season, but for those that didn’t grow up in the era of The Twilight Zone, it was groundbreaking; each episode is a brilliant piece of satire that feels cinematic. How Black Mirror was pitched to me by a friend was, “It doesn’t feel like you’re watching a TV show. It’s one new movie after another.” 

A still from the Black Mirror episode, “San Junipero” (2016) – source: Netflix

Netflix isn’t the only streaming service with an original anthology series in its catalogue. Since 2018, Hulu has been home to the Blumhouse produced horror anthology, Into the Dark. But unlike its science fiction counterpart, it has fallen under the radar and its reception hasn’t had the same obsessive energy. Maybe it’s because its format is something the millennial and Gen Z viewer is used to now, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed. While it’s missing the binging capabilities of Black Mirror, releasing only one episode per month, it’s still surprising that it doesn’t have the same hype surrounding it considering it’s produced by the same company behind Academy Award-winning films such as Whiplash, Get Out, and BlacKkKlansman. Into the Dark is of the same smart and topical calibre as Black Mirror, but with added horror and themed around a holiday in the month in which it airs. The show’s most popular episode, “Culture Shock,” made film festival rounds this year, seemingly to amass more viewership, and the episode proves the show deserves it. Under the eye of Gigi Saul Guerrero, it’s a brilliant examination of how the “American Dream” for immigrants has turned into an American nightmare. And the show’s newest episode is bound to get you psyched for Halloween. 

In its all-consuming darkness of nightmares, Into the Dark’s “Uncanny Annie” is in the same vein as Ready or Not in that the narrative surrounds a devilish game. In this case, the episode’s titular game is the most frightening and deadly of the year. Directed by Paul Davis, the episode follows a group of friends who get together on Halloween to play a board game in memory of a friend who died mysteriously the previous year. What starts as the most boring party ever, turns into something similar to Jumanji. Instead of playing your typical party games like “Cards Against Humanity” or “What Do You Meme?” they choose “Uncanny Annie,” a game as dangerous as a Ouija board. Annie isn’t just a name, she’s alive and traps our protagonists in her game—in the dark void of the box she lives in.

In order to survive, they must follow her rules carefully, or they die. As if Spin the Bottle and Truth or Dare weren’t already daunting enough, the group of friends are forced to confess their deepest secrets and face their fears in the shape of the very supernatural beings that have haunted our dreams since tales of horror first reached our ears. There are nods to Bloody Mary, the Grimm Reaper, and Poltergeist, but this isn’t where the horror lies—it’s in the violent and disturbing acts that the friends must commit against themselves and each other in order to play Annie’s game. 

Uncanny Annie
A still from the Into the Dark episode, “Uncanny Annie” (2019) – source: Hulu

The creativity behind the game in how its rules are written and in its design is impressive and makes for an intriguing hour of spooky fun. With the help of the cast and the episode’s writers, Alan Blake Bachelor and James Bachelor, you feel connected to the characters, which is what well-crafted entertainment is supposed to achieve. You feel like you’re at the party, taking part in their comradery, and when the horrors hit, you scream along with them. It feels like the longest hour ever because you’re always at the edge of your seat. It’s a brutal, unpredictable, and shocking piece of television with an ending you won’t see coming.

Halloween is here, folks!  

Published by Sara Clements

Freelance Film/TV critic and editor of Next Best Picture

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