1. Amazing Stories
The Twilight Zone opened the floodgates for all sorts of strange and wonderful anthology shows. One of the best was Amazing Stories, which was produced by Steven Spielberg and ran from 1985-1987. It’s virtually forgotten today, despite featuring tons of stars in episodes directed by the likes of Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, among others. (Tim Burton and Brad Bird collaborated on an animated episode, “Family Dog,” that spun off into a short-lived CBS series.) Both seasons are streaming on Netflix now for anyone looking for an offbeat ’80s gem.
2. The Hitchhiker
This series ran for several years during the early days of HBO when their biggest show was 1st and 10, aka that football sitcom that starred Delta Burke and O.J. Simpson. Hosted by a wandering stranger who exposes America’s dark soul, the show’s frequently creepy vignettes featured such notable stars as Kirstie Alley, Bill Paxton and Jerry Orbach.
3. Perversions of Science
During the ’90s, HBO tried to replicate the success of Tales from the Crypt with this twisted (and very short-lived) sci-fi anthology series. But without The Cryptkeeper’s wonderful puns, the show failed to find an audience. (Perhaps the creepy “sexy” robot host scared people off. Gotta love those ’90s computer graphics!) The show did have an excellent theme song by Danny Elfman, who clearly was legally required to write the opening music to every quirky show during the ’90s.
4. Tales from the Darkside
This Tales from the Crypt-esque series was originally intended to be a small-screen adaptation of the George A. Romero anthology horror flick Creepshow. But instead of adapting classic E.C. horror comic book stories, the writers of Tales from the Darkside drew from stories by Stephen King, Harlan Ellison and other genre fiction greats. Seth Green, Bradley Whitford and Christian Slater are among the stars who got their start on the series.
Slater also appeared in the 1990 Tales from the Darkside movie, which is most notable for containing Romero’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Cat From Hell” story. (Also, Debbie Harry from Blondie plays a witch who kidnaps a kid for her dinner, only to get distracted by his three macabre tales.) Because of its connection to the Creepshow series, many fans consider Tales from the Darkside: The Movie to be the unofficial third outing in that franchise.
5. Freddy’s Nightmares
Even Freddy Krueger got into the horror show hosting business with this 1988-1990 syndicated series. Freddy’s Nightmares was notably different from most anthology shows in that characters from random segments would often crossover. Freddy himself was the star of several installments (the first episode actually reveals his gruesome origin) and many episodes featured some variation on the sort of twisted dreamscapes featured in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. No battles with Jason, sadly.
With its mix of horror, comedy and occasionally titillating plots, the 1988-1990 syndicated series Monsters was far closer to Tales from the Crypt than its many competitors. The opening sequence, featuring a sitcom-esque family of monsters sitting down to watch TV together, set the tone for a series that gave early roles to the likes of David Spade and Matt LeBlanc.
7. Dead Man’s Gun
Before Homeland (heck, before Weeds), Showtime was heavy on anthology shows like Red Shoe Diaries (ask your creepy uncle, kids) and this short-lived Western that followed one cursed gun as it passed between different owners. The gun, which was “touched by evil,” was the thread that connected a series of disparate Western tales narrated by Kris Kristofferson. Daphne Zuniga, Rick Schroder and Meat Loaf were among the unfortunate cowpokes who came across the titular gun.
Surprisingly, this wasn’t the only show about a traveling gun that hit the small screen during the ’90s. In 1997, ABC aired an anthology drama that followed the various owners of a .45 semi-automatic pistol. In a move that would never happen today in a million years, they just straight up called the show Gun. Despite being produced by filmmaker Robert Altman, who drew stars like Martin Sheen and Jennifer Tilly, Gun only lasted six episodes. But, hey, at least both of these shows made it on the air. If a show whose primary star was a deadly weapon came on the air today, the Internet would probably collapse from the collective freakout.
8. R.L. Stine’s The Nightmare Room
Despite being adapted from a series of books by R.L. Stine, The Nightmare Room never achieved the popularity of fellow kid-friendly horror anthology series Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps. Which is surprising, considered it featured stars like Amanda Bynes, Drake Bell and Frankie Muniz in spooktastic stories that played on childhood fears. (It was also narrated by the late, great James “Uncle Phil” Avery.)
You can currently catch episodes of The Nightmare Room, like the one above in which a young Shia LaBeouf is haunted by an evil doll played by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse, on the Chiller network.
Originally broadcast on ABC from 1981-1982, Darkroom took on a second life when Syfy (then the Sci-Fi Channel) aired it during the ’90s. (Billy Crystal, Rue McClanahan and a young Helen Hunt were among the stars who stepped into the Darkroom.) The show is best remembered today for host James Coburn’s eerie voiceover from the opening credits:
“You’re in a house. Maybe your own…maybe one you’ve never seen before. Do you feel it? Something evil. You run, but there’s no escape…nowhere to turn. You feel something beckoning you…drawing you into the terror that awaits you in the Darkroom!”
10. Nightmare Cafe
Wes Craven was behind this NBC horror anthology which was like The Love Boat, if The Love Boat took place in a cafe haunted by Robert Englund. The man also known as Freddy Krueger played Blackie, the cafe’s ghostly owner who warned viewers, “Touch that remote…and you die!” Blackie was joined by a deceased cook and a waitress, who were given a second shot at life by helping wayward travelers with their own moral dilemmas. Despite a horror comedy tone that was, as Craven dubbed it, “The Twilight Zone meets Cheers,” Nightmare Cafe lasted a mere six episodes.
11. The Ray Bradbury Theater
During the ’80s, HBO gave author Ray Bradbury his own version of The Twilight Zone, which he hosted and wrote pretty much every episode of. (Many episodes were adaptations of classic Bradbury stories like “The Jar” and “A Sound of Thunder.” ) The USA Network picked up the show for seasons three through six, which explains why it got cheesier and more low budget over time.
With everyone from William Shatner to Lucy Lawless appearing on the series, it’s a wonder that it’s virtually forgotten today. Curious parties can pick up the complete DVD set relatively cheap on Amazon.
12. Ghost Stories
Here’s a scary tale for ya: from 1997 to 1998, Fox Family Channel aired a horror anthology show narrated by…actor Rip Torn! (We dare you to stare at his mugshot without cowering in terror.) Every episode, which Torn narrated with all the vigor of a man just roused from a drunken slumber, told some heavy-handed morality tale with a Tales from the Crypt-esque twist. And as themes go, “ghost stories” is pretty generic. They couldn’t have gone with something more creative? Like, say, “Ghost Cafe,” for example?
13. Night Visions
Hosted by Henry Rollins — who isn’t exactly scary but can be pretty intense, we guess — this short-lived serial of supernatural tales briefly aired on FOX as an attempt to cash-in on the success of The X-Files. It later moved to The Sci-Fi Channel, back when they cared about airing stuff that actually appealed to sci-fi and horror fans. Actors like Bill Pullman and Brian Dennehy did their best in episodes directed by horror masters like Tobe Hooper and Joe Dante.
14. Spicy City
HBO was big on anthology series during the ’90s and also dipped their toes in the adult animation waters with the popular Spawn cartoon. In 1997, the network tapped edgy animation auteur Ralph Bakshi, the man behind Fritz the Cat and Cool World, to create an adults-only cartoon that could compete with South Park. (We’ll let you figure out who won that particular battle.)
Nightclub hostess Raven introduced viewers to noirish tales about clones, crooked cops and virtual reality boot knockin’. It was all very “racy” in that ’90s late-night cable way that seems super tame by today’s standards. Still, it’s a fun show for Bakshi completists and fans of oddball sci-fi animation.
15. The Hunger
Though it borrowed its title from the 1983 David Bowie/Susan Sarandon vampire movie of the same name, this series was very much an anthology that dealt with all sorts of horror. Since it aired on Showtime during the ’90s, that meant plots that often dipped into softcore territory. Horror authors like Poppy Z. Brite and Graham Masterton contributed scripts, while Daniel Craig and Lena Headey were among the future big names who turned up in bit parts. Really though, this one is mostly worth revisiting for Bowie’s entrancing intros. The man who fell to Earth should host everything.