Long live the horror anthology film. In the past year or so, it seems as if this classic type of horror flick, one of my favorites, has made a huge comeback, with various anthologies such as Holidays, All the Creatures Were Stirring, and others roaring onto screens to give viewers a mixed bag of terror. Terror Tales is the latest to attempt to join a pantheon of anthology horror classics, yet misses the mark by a mile…
…Written/directed by Jimmy Lee Combs, Terror Tales is an anthology horror flick in which a psychopath (Christopher Showerman) abducts a family of three and passes the time on their way to an unknown destination by telling three chilling tales.
Terror Tales will immediately delight fans with an eclectic cast of familiar horror faces, such as Jennifer Runyon (Carnosaur), Laurene Landon (Maniac Cop), Ari Lehman (Friday the 13th), Helene Udy (My Bloody Valentine), the wickedly fun Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), and more. All of these actors/actresses, including Showerman as “The Driver”, have fun with their roles, bringing with them an entertaining B-horror charm that is enough to keep viewers watching, even when things aren’t going particularly well for the film itself. There’s nothing quite like seeing Landon play a mentally ill mother with a bit of an incest fetish, or Lehman shouting at a deliciously evil Rose as he prepares to burn her at the stake for being a witch. Combs is smart to fill his film with pros whom the horror fan-base will recognize, as they alone make Terror Tales a worthwhile watch.
And it’s a good thing, too, because Terror Tales struggles to do much outside of the entertaining cast. It’s apparent early on that Combs has a rather limited budget, and while budgetary restrictions are never a worthwhile critique, especially when it comes to horror, it can severely hurt the picture when there isn’t much being done to try to distract from that fact. Terror Tales tends to follow a rather simplistic style, shot entirely in drab, basic lighting, and combined with enough mismatched audio, especially when characters are walking about, that it’s enough to take the viewer completely out of the moment. The lighting is what really hurts here. Film is a visual medium after all, and believe it or not, the right lighting can play a strong role in subconsciously creating suspense with some tricky manipulation of shadows and the sort, none of which Terror Tales attempts. It often feels as if we are watching a daytime soap opera, which doesn’t exactly set the mood for a horrifically good time. Also, while the creatures look great, they’re always more effective when hidden by shadows, and not brightly lit by standard, fluorescent bulbs. It’s like shining a spotlight into a dark hallway. There’s nothing to be afraid of once you can see the coast is clear.
Terror Tales also suffers from a pacing issue, which over time begins to bleed the film of any enjoyment. Like a head wound that won’t stop gushing, you can really start to feel the film’s two-hour runtime around the halfway mark. That’s because, with only three stories plus the wrap-around, Terror Tales is arguably much too long. Give credit to Combs for limiting his anthology to just a few stories, as some, like Holidays, can be so overstuffed that the tales aren’t allowed to breathe. Where Terror Tales goes wrong is that, rather than being treated like short, simple vignettes, these three tales, “By Proxy”, “Radical Video”, and “Epidemic”, all play like incomplete features. Each story, while interesting, is overly complex and loaded with so many characters that there is too much to allow for the shorts to pack that neat little punch that most anthology entries do, and they are short to the degree where they come off as incomplete features over anything else.
Many scenes play on much too long, or aren’t needed at all, which hurts the overall suspense of Terror Tales. Again, it isn’t that the stories themselves aren’t effective concepts. “By Proxy” is a tale of madness and regret, “Radical Video” (the best of the three), is an inspired giallo-style tale taking place at a video store, and “Epidemic” involves a national plague of demons. So, there is plenty of opportunity for tension, but between the film’s lethargic style and wandering narratives, the audience hardly ever gets the sense that we are building towards anything meaningful. Where Combs is most effective in creating tension is during the wrap around story, partially due to Showerman’s hilariously sadistic nature, but also because Combs plays these scenes at just the right speed, keeping the audience on edge while wondering what is going to happen to this poor family.
While Terror Tales fails at pacing and creating legitimate suspense, it impresses with effects which have that traditional vibe which we all look for in a good horror anthology. Outside of V/H/S, most horror anthologies, whether “scary” or not, have an over-the-top, practical effects heavy nature that makes these types of movies the number one choice to yank off the shelf when you’re in the mood for a bloody good time. Terror Tales, though lackluster on the gore element outside of a couple wonderfully gruesome moments in “Epidemic”, delivers well-crafted make-up FX that deserves some applause. “By Proxy” best resembles the ingenuity of the filmmakers, with an eerie creature surrounded by expertly designed CGI acting as a sort of supernatural smoke surrounding the beast. Yes, I found CGI in a horror film that I actually really enjoyed. It’s a New Year’s Day miracle! But seriously, the black smoke tendrils emanating from the monstrous being lick and jab at the screen like a nest of snakes, adding an eerie element that CGI often has a difficult time succeeding at which such pro-practical FX fans as myself.
As the poster’s tagline reads, Terror Tales is like some fucked up version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, since this is not a film in which the stories have “happy” endings. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that Combs strictly follows that motto through the entirety of the film, making Terror Tales less of a thrilling joyride and more of a somber, nasty kick to the genitals. This is horror, so fans should not expect everyone to live happily ever after, but there is something a little more sadistic or even hopeless in these stories, a sense that everyone, even the truly innocent, are being senselessly punished. That isn’t a knock against the film itself, but a warning to those who are looking for something akin to the laugh a minute value of Creepshow, this is not that film. I get the feeling that Combs would rather have you sobbing instead. So, if you’re like Pinhead and enjoy the taste of good suffering, Terror Tales may be for you, otherwise, it may be you who is doing the suffering.
Terror Tales releases on VOD on January 8th from High Octane Pictures.
By Matt Konopka