The anthology is a unique subgenre of horror. In addition to the offbeat structures and a predilection for the strange and unexpected, these films generally do as they please. There are of course specific traditions almost all anthologies adhere to, but there is no set rule for how they come together in the first place. Films like Creepshow are made from scratch, but the 1980s saw the rise of a new kind of anthology; the ones pieced together from preexisting material. An early example of this format, sometimes referred to as a “Frankenthology,” is a little-known British chiller called Screamtime.
Michael Armstrong and Stanley A. Long, who are collectively credited as Al Beresford, pooled their previous short films to make 1983’s Screamtime. They then linked them to an original segment filmed in Manhattan. This obscure gathering of the weird and unexplained takes place in New York in spite of its thoroughly British innards. The transcontinental setup only adds to Screamtime’s growing list of quirks. The wraparound begins with two loafers, Ed and Bruce (Vincent Russo, Michael Gordon), lifting three tapes from the Video Shack once located at 49th Street and Broadway, and prominently next to an adult theater. Ed and Bruce immediately barge in on a friend, Marie (Marie Scinto), who is in the midst of getting ready for a “date.” Until then, Marie allows her uninvited guests to watch their haul.
The first video is “Killer Punch”, a domestic disturber about a dejected Punch-and-Judy operator named Jack (Robin Bailey). When things at home become much too sad for Jack to handle, he seeks comfort from his Punch puppet. His refuge from the world is soon spoiled when embittered stepson Damien (Johnathon Morris) sets fire to the puppet stand. Wife Lena (Ann Lynn) then plans to leave Jack and take Damien along with her, but a force inside the house refuses to let them go.
“Killer Punch” is a short and sweet stab at the slasher formula so prevalent in American horror back then. In the subgenre’s early days, it was not unusual to see these kinds of films trade high body counts and indiscriminate carnage for psychological drama and deliberated tension. Jack’s simmering dysfunction finally boils over, and up until the hairy reveal and ending, the audience naturally wonders if the puppeteer’s unrest has in fact manifested as a murderous Mr. Punch.
Ed, whose only takeaway from the first video is, “Dem British movies; I can tell by the way they talk,” pops in the next tape. Although this segment was originally called “Dreamhouse” when it played in theaters back in 1981, here Armstrong’s short is called “Scream House” on the cassette box. Yvonne Nicholson and Ian Saynor respectively play Susan and Tony, newlyweds who move into what appears to be a haunted house. Susan is the first to pick up on the paranormal activity, which includes vivid visions of the home’s sordid history. In time the devastating truth comes out.
Anthologies can have a “get in and get out” attitude about themselves, but so far, Screamtime has been considerate with its pacing and plotting. The second slot, which is arguably the strongest of the pack, boasts appreciable scares and buildup. The outcome is also novel as well as surprising even by today’s standards. If this chapter has one glaring drawback, though, the production values run on the meager side. Nicholson’s character sports the same top in nearly every scene regardless of shifts in time, and the actual slaughter is limply executed. The story proved to be appealing enough to warrant a full-length adaptation; Reg Traviss directed a 2010 film called Psychosis. Anyone who has seen both versions can agree the short is more potent, seeing as the film’s padding only dilutes the big twist.
As Bruce gets to know Marie better back in her bedroom, Ed keeps the marathon going on his own. The last video, “Garden of Blood”, follows a motocross rider named Gavin (played by former pop singer David Van Day), who is in desperate need of money. After he accepts the job of handyman for two spinsters (Jean Anderson, Dora Bryan), Gavin breaks into his employers’ house in hopes of stealing the small fortune inside. If Gavin had been more mindful of the women’s stories about protective garden gnomes and naughty fairies, he might have lived long enough to find better employment.
In terms of segment arrangement, Screamtime could have exercised more thought. The empirical rule for anthologies is to expect inconsistency in the story quality. “Garden of Blood” is without a doubt the film’s weakest link, but Armstrong and Long could have easily remedied that by moving it to the front rather than saving it for the coveted last spot. Following it with the other two offerings, both of which are superior in every way, would have made up for this middling yarn had it played sooner than later. It is much too mild to be the ultimate tale in this otherwise delightful collection.
As is custom with nearly all anthologies containing a wraparound, the main characters are never safe regardless of their distance from the featured stories. Screamtime’s framing device has this in common with Amicus’ strand of portmanteau films. However, Armstrong and Long’s film takes an innovative approach to how Ed, Bruce, and Marie come upon these cursed videos and meet their doomed fates. It all feels like a precursor to more recent anthologies, such as V/H/S.
There is no denying this anthology feels like a quick money grab. Yet, even as low-cost as the film comes across, the content itself is for the most part entertaining and not as uneven as other slapdash compilations that cropped up later. What Screamtime lacks in budget it makes up for in charm.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.