Horror anthologies are tricky. Not only do they need to keep the audience’s attention through repeated changes in story and tone, but they also need to maintain consistent quality and visual language through these changes too. ‘Nightmare Cinema’ is a generally successful anthology picture that relies heavily on the strong pedigree of its directors.
Featuring five short segments from five different directors, as well a wraparound device to keep the whole thing cohesive, ‘Nightmare Cinema’ starts with the best. Alejandro Brugués’s segment is up first, and is easily the most entertaining of the bunch. It’s a send-up of classic teens-in-the-woods slashers, and it’s hilarious. Just after the film establishes its wraparound framing device (various characters in each segment enter a spooky theater to watch their nightmares on screen), we dive in to see a hysterical woman being chased through the woods. We know what has, more or less, led her to this point in her life, so the context of her particular circumstances is not needed. When she slips and falls on what looks like a burnt corpse of a friend, it’s shocking. Then she slips on the viscera and can’t get up. And she slips again. Brugués’s segment sets the playful, cult-film tone for the rest of the anthology.
From there, we’re taken to a debatably gifted plastic surgeon (from Joe Dante), then a giallo-inspired Catholic school gone horribly wrong (from Ryûhei Kitamura), an atmospheric black-and-white child’s horror (from David Slade), and finally a haunting hospital rumination on death and loss (from Mick Garris, who also directed the wraparound). All of the pieces are quite different, but they somehow fit together nicely. The flow, from funny to ultimately quite heartbreaking, shows the range of these directors as well as the scope that horror can span within a single genre.
Given the disparate topics, it’s very possible that not everyone in the audience will like the film as a whole. Even with that possibility, not a single segment underestimates the cinematic fluency of the audience. There is no over-explaining, or talking down to us, which is a refreshing departure from the typical Hollywood wide-release.
This isn’t to say the film is perfect. It’s hokey at times. Dante’s segment plays out more like a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode than a truly terrifying story, and Kitamura’s arguably tries to shove too many classic horror elements into its very short running time. However, overall the film is a fun way to consume these teeny horror appetizers.