Horror TV anthologies feature a range of talent behind the camera, and in their early days, they were one place to find women in creative roles. Ida Lupino directed multiple episodes of Thriller as well as one of the more renowned episodes of The Twilight Zone, and Catherine Turney wrote for One Step Beyond. Nowadays, women are producing anthologies; Mary Laws created Monsterland, and Vera Miao created Two Sentence Horror Stories.
Horror is, for the most part, centered on women, and from time to time, women are given the opportunity to tell those stories. The following five episodes are a sample of women’s directorial contributions to horror TV anthologies on the small screen.
Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984)
The Corvini Inheritance
Hammer Film Productions and 20th Century Fox Television collaborated on Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense after previously coming together for the fellow anthology series, Journey to the Unknown. Also known as Fox Mystery Theater in the U.S., the show was composed of feature-length, standalone suspense tales.
Gabrielle Beaumont‘s “The Corvini Inheritance“, written by future Hammer House of Horror screenwriter David Fisher, concerns a single woman named Eva (Jan Francis), asking her neighbor Frank (David McCallum) to install a lock on her door after a prowler tries to break in. Frank, who works in security at an auction house, instead puts in an elaborate video-surveillance system in hopes of catching Eva’s stalker. Meanwhile, a curious new item is for sale at Frank’s job: a cursed necklace that detects its wearer’s lies.
“The Corvini Inheritance” is a deliberated thriller with a supernatural edge. At first this episode is a straightforward story of a woman and her stalker, but a parallel plot about Frank’s connection to the notorious bauble soon surfaces. McCallum’s character would much rather watch the world through a camera lens than his own eyes. Frank has ulterior motives as he helps Eva; he can now keep a close eye on her activities using CCTV equipment.
“The Corvini Inheritance” is a modification of the “Bluebeard” folktale; an entitled man uses a charmed trinket to reveal a woman’s dishonesty. In addition is a shrewd tale about the effects of a guilty conscience.
The Mother Instinct
Tales from the Darkside and its successor, Monsters, has several episodes directed by women. The latter even included a subterranean horror story, “Far Below”, led by one of the co-creators of the Halloween franchise, Debra Hill. An earlier entry from the same series, “The Mother Instinct“, is directed by Bette Gordon. The filmmaker is best known for the 1983 psychosexual drama, Variety.
In “The Mother Instinct”, a woman with paraplegia (Elizabeth Franz) is visited by her estranged daughter, Sheila (Finn Carter), and her good-for-nothing husband, Nelson (Tom Gilroy). When the couple asks for a handout, Sheila’s mother declines. She then reveals the secret to her temporary mobility and strength: a super enzyme harvested from the melons in her garden. Nelson then wants the enzyme for himself, but Mother (Nature) is not about to let that happen.
Gordon and writer D. Emerson Smith adhere to the horror TV series’ rule of featuring a flesh-and-blood and otherworldly monster in every episode, but they do not make the story’s creature the focal point. On the contrary, “The Mother Instinct” is more concerned with the mother-daughter relationship, and how the parent can make amends with a child who she admits she was not always there for when growing up.
Although Monsters and other vintage horror anthologies are overloaded with black-and-white morality tales, ones like “The Mother Instinct” have a touch more color to them.
Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
The same year Mary Lambert directed the first film adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, she took part in what would be one of the most iconic horror TV anthology to date. And a morbid Tales from the Crypt episode like “Collection Completed” stays on the brain after all these years.
Retirement is a dream come true for some people, but Jonas (M. Emmet Walsh) retired only because he was forced to leave his job after forty-something years. Being home only irritates Jonas; he would rather be working than seeing his wife, Anita (Audra Lindley). Her large collection of dogs and other animals eventually inspires Jonas to find a new (and twisted) hobby of his own.
Jonas resents his wife’s menagerie of pets. Anita dotes on them in a way she does not with him, but the husband never realizes why Anita is more affectionate with her animals. Jonas neglected his wife in all the time he worked, and having no children to be maternal toward, Anita naturally found other ways to spread her love.
Lambert helms a pitch-black comedy that helped establish Tales from the Crypt‘s overall tone. Writers Battle Davis, Randolph Davis, and A. Whitney Brown made only a few small changes to the source material, a story from EC’s The Vault of Horror, issue 25. Aside from a few minor adjustments, the episode “Collection Completed” retains the dark humor of its basis. A real “skin pimpler,” as the Old Witch would say.
Two Sentence Horror Stories (2019-)
Two Sentence Horror Stories continues to be a unique horror TV anthology in the sense that its staff is made up largely of women, LGBTQ+ and POC storytellers. Every episode is unlike the next because the directors and writers are speaking from their personal experiences. The horror element then makes everything more accessible.
Showrunner Vera Miao provides an insightful and heartbreaking segment in the first season’s finale, which itself is a trilogy of self-contained tales. The opener, “Ma“, finds Mona (Wei-Yi Lin), a closeted Chinese-American woman, fighting her feelings for the new neighbor, Erica (Ayesha Harris). Doing so then causes Mona’s frustrations to manifest as telekinesis.
Miao takes a page out of Carrie while holding a mirror to the complicated relationship between Asian parents and children. “Ma” exemplifies the spirit of Two Sentence Horror Stories; it broaches subjects important to those people whose voices and lives are not always covered by popular entertainment.
While Two Sentence Horror Stories can be timely, “Ma” contains timeless themes told with efficacy and emotional precision.
Into the Dark (2018-2021)
Into the Dark gathered a diverse group of directors and writers during its run, and after a short delay, Season 2 of Blumhouse’s strand of horror telefilms concluded with Emma Tammi‘s “Blood Moon“. While the series’ ultimate fate is unknown at the moment, it at least closed on a positive note.
Single mother Esme (Megalyn Echikunwoke) moves to a rural, small town with son Luna (Yonas Kibreab) after hightailing it out of their last one. The mother has a family secret she is desperate to hide, but every full moon comes with the risk of exposure.
Werewolf horror is a tricky subgenre to tackle, seeing as expectations hinge on the beast itself. Where Tammi (director of The Wind) and writers Adam Mason and Simon Boyes‘ “Blood Moon” might lose people is in its subdued approach to shapeshifting. This is a quieter horror-drama replete with midland melancholy rather than a hairy body-count film.
Into the Dark was a lottery quality-wise, and not every story clicks with viewers. “Blood Moon”, more of a low growl than a howl, will surely have its detractors who accuse Tammi’s entry of having no teeth. As compensation for the lack of carnage and lycan action is the beautiful and disciplined observation of a mother, played wonderfully by Echikunwoke, who will do everything to protect her son.
Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories — each one adhering to an overall theme — from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.