Note - There will NOT be any spoilers revealed for 10 Cloverfield Lane in this article. It’s safe to read if you’ve yet to see the film. -KF
When you go to see a film, generally you’re there to see one story unfold within the world that’s being presented. It’s singular, even if it’s a story that traverses far and wide. When a film adopts the anthology format, it shows you a series of shorter stories in that add up to a suitable run time for a mainstream theatrical release. There’ve been films that embrace this format, and It seems that horror is the genre that utilizes it most fluently.
The Twilight Zone ended up with a film adaptation in 1983, featuring such talents as Steven Spielberg, John Landis, and George Miller directing the different segments of the film. Each story was based on a familiar episode from The Twilight Zone TV series. Creepshow (1982) used old Horror comics and TV shows (a la Tales From the Crypt) as a major influence. It was very campy, but also endearing in it’s over the top homage to all the different places a scary movie can take us. It moved through illustrations and comic book panels to take the audience onto the next story. More recently, the V/H/S series has been a mostly well received take on the horror anthology concept. Instead of a cinematic experience that switches focus and plot, the first V/H/S (2012) uses a collection of tapes that a group of burglars find and watch. Each tape contains another bizarre happening (a run in with a vampire at a night club, a haunted house, a zombie encounter) all shot in found footage style. A few years before, the Bryan Singer produced Trick ‘r Treat (2007) felt in many ways like a more modern and amped up version of Creepshow. It was by no means a remake, but it approached it’s terrifying tales with a similar sense of fun. This time, the gore and ghouls were much more realized and scary, but there was still room for some Halloween humor.
A typical anthology presents a handful of stories to you that are only related due to the subject matter and the film hey exist in. But some anthology films take the opportunity to make their stories connect (Trick ‘r Treat does this very well). While Sin City (2005) is seen more for it’s faithful effort in adapting the Frank Miller graphic novels, it tells stories from five different books. It drops us in and out of these stories at times that lead us to see all these stories as one. All the characters in this ultra noir comic book world are affecting each other in some way. The city itself is the backdrop for all the insane crime and deception that happens in the film/books.
While the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino film Grindhouse (2007) was considered a failed experiment, it was an interesting form of anthology that played with a lot of ideas. It was made up of two films, one horror/sci fi gore fest (RR’s Planet Terror) and a car chase horror flick (Tarantino’s Death Proof). The films were very different from each other, but the stories still intersected mildly. Earl McGraw, a character that’s popped up in Kill Bill, From Dusk til Dawn, and a few other projects affiliated with these filmmakers appears in both films. It’s a strange thread that runs through them both, but it’s admirable as a cinematic landscape. The films are purposely scratched up and damaged looking. Between the two films, there are several fake trailers for other films in the vein of the 1970s cinema exploitation films being paid tribute to. It’s a world of grunginess and unrefined cinema.
All the films mentioned thus far have been films made up of shorter stories. There is another form of anthology that is quite possibly being explored by JJ Abrams’s Bad Robot production company. This past weekend, 10 Cloverfield Lane released in theaters. This film was announced out of nowhere as a spiritual sequel to the 2008 found footage monster film Cloverfield, produced and conceptualized by Abrams. While the film is stand alone, there are ways to link it to the 2009 film, but they are a bit of a stretch. It’s very possible that's because this is not a sequel in the sense that we’re used to. Abrams has revealed in an interview that if 10 Cloverfield Lane is received well enough, he has a plan for some sort of series continuing with the Cloverfield moniker in the title.*
It could result in a very interesting type of film series that would be refreshing in the current crop of films we are seeing. 10 Cloverfield Lane plays very much like an episode of The Twilight Zone. A small scale mystery with an ominous but very unidentified bigger threat lurking right outside. What if the people you’re trapped with are more dangerous than the supposed foe you’re hiding from? The film pulls the feeling of being trapped and people being monsters very successfully.
Rather than trying to figure out how the events in 10 Cloverfield Lane coincide with the 2008 film, maybe we should embrace it as an installment of a series that wanders from one sci-fi/mystery story to the next. Common themes and motifs could link the films, while each individual film embarks on it’s own story. Imagine movies that exist under an umbrella, and that umbrella is casting a shadow over all of them. It’s not a “cinematic universe” in the sense that the films will explain and/or play off of each other, but they can all have a similar flavor and tone that makes for a compelling series.
An anthology film can invite you into a world that feels bigger than the theater. Within the dark screening room, you’re entering into another portal. This viewing experience has been tailored to take you all over the map, like a collection of short stories by your favorite horror author, but with direction and color and movement.
While anthologies are not a new idea, there are plenty of opportunities for films to use this structure in new ways. This is one more way that the film form can grow and change.