Welcome to Scared in Segments, a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short-form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
At one point, the anthology format was rather popular in British horror. Amicus Productions — the makers of Tales from the Crypt (1972) and The House That Dripped Blood — had a lot to do with that. On the small screen, Hammer Film Productions provided weekly anthology series such as Journey to the Unknown and Hammer House of Horror. Aside from those powerhouses, there was a similarly themed 1983 film that slipped through the cracks — Screamtime. It nearly became lost to time before the movie popped up on various streaming sites in recent years, but, as any horror fan knows, the best hidden gems aren’t always easy to find.
The Framing Story
Despite the movie being clearly British, the top-level segment is set in bustling New York City. Two troublemakers named Ed (Vincent Russo) and Bruce (Michael Gordon) steal a couple of video cassettes from a movie store (right next to a porno shop, mind you) and then hightail to their friend Marie‘s (Marie Scinto) apartment. Marie explains she’s getting ready for a date; Ed insinuates something else in his deep New Jersey accent when he says, “Oh, you got a date? Is that what they’re calling it now?” Despite her reluctance, Marie allows her uninvited guests to watch the videos before they have to scram.
As with so many other anthologies where the wraparound’s characters are eventually punished for bearing witness to those tales of terror, Ed, Bruce, and Marie don’t come out unscathed.
Jack Grimshaw‘s (Robin Bailey) wife (Ann Lynn) and stepson (Johnathon Morris) blame their problems on the patriarch’s Punch and Judy show. The son, who especially begrudges his stepfather’s puppets, sets fire to his stand one day. This leaves the puppeteer totally dejected as his sole source of enjoyment is gone. Except for one lone puppet, which may or may not be more alive than everyone else realized.
In time, members of the Grimshaw family start to die violent deaths. Is this really the work of a sentient, vengeful puppet, or is another sinister power at play? The stepson’s girlfriend (Dione Inman) arrives at the disturbed home to discover the horrifying truth.
Punch and Judy is a staple of traditional British street comedy. We really don’t see it too often in horror movies, though. And while the UK made some slashers here and there, the trend never caught on like across the pond. Ultimately, that is what this twisted, darkly humorous yarn comes down to. There are the standard killer’s POV shots and stressful chase scenes, and not to mention, a homicidal puppet. One might be hard-pressed to call such a troubling story “winsome,” but there is something undeniably likable about this one.
A family of three moves into a fixer upper. The wife (Yvonne Nicholson) soon becomes the victim of vivid and violent hallucinations that she swears are real. She believes an intruder is murdering people before her very eyes, but there are no other witnesses or any physical evidence to support her claim. A psychic confirms something dubious is going on in the house, yet they don’t exactly know where that source of strangeness is coming from.
Fans generally agree the main attraction of Screamtime is this middle story that is also known as “Dreamhouse.” Michael Armstrong wrote and directed the original 1981 short, which was tacked on to other horror movies shown in theaters. The sequence of scenes was apparently altered when it was added to the anthology, though.
The shocking ending is what really seals this one’s reputation among the movie’s small but loyal fans. Although it doesn’t make the most sense, the payoff outweighs the need for logic. Anyone who has seen this obscure anthology will find it difficult to forget this story. In 2010, the script was adapted to a feature-length film called Psychosis. However, the movie proved that the core concept works best in a condensed form.
The last video tape in Ed‘s possession shows a group of burglars casing a house owned by two elderly women. Thinking that a hidden fortune lies inside, one of the men ingratiates himself with the ladies before he and his fellow thieves break in at night. Unfortunately for the criminals, the women are protected by pint-sized supernatural forces.
Ending with this story is an odd choice; this really feels more like it belongs at the beginning or in the middle. Coming straight off the last segment, a then-contemporary fairy tale about crooks getting their comeuppance at the hands of lawn gnomes sounds childish. That is, more or less, what this one comes down to. That’s not to say there aren’t a few flashes of nuttiness that will leave viewers a bit speechless. The macabre ending of this last piece is also the opposite of adorable.
Anthologies can be and are accused of being nothing but cheap repackages of ideas and material. In contrast, they’re a creative collaboration between individuals. Screamtime certainly feels like it teeters between both notions. The economic and matter-of-fact style will not enthuse anyone searching for something iconic, favorably offbeat, and all-around more fashionable like, say, Creepshow.
In spite of it being simply shot and a tad inconsistent in quality, Screamtime banks on charm and delivers three unique stories. Michael Armstrong and Stanley A. Long, credited collectively as “Al Beresford,” injected some much-needed zeal into their all but lost portmanteau film. Their shoestring and earnest movie are part of what helps keep the horror genre thriving and manifold.
“In spite of it being simply shot and a tad inconsistent in quality, Screamtime banks on charm and delivers three unique stories.”
Right now, Screamtime is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. Discuss the film with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! And be sure to find more horror-anthology recommendation to remain Scared in Segments HERE.