Anthology horror movies have a long tradition, stretching all the way back to the silent era, when German director Paul Leni directed the three stories that made up his 1924 ‘Waxworks’, although it was probably 1945’s ‘Dead Of Night’ that first popularised these loose assemblages of campfire tales.
The years that followed have seen many such collections of shorts, frequently wrapped up in some kind of theme or framing story to give them context as a whole. Even when they were low-budget projects, they often featured big stars and directors: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone in Roger Corman's 1962 ‘Tales of Terror’, or Ted Danson, Hal Holbrook, and Leslie Nielsen in George Romero and Stephen King's 1982 ‘Creepshow’.
But as a favoured format, the horror anthology had been on the decline... until recently. Indie directors have begun investing more time in the format for films like ‘Trick 'r Treat’, ‘V/H/S’ and its sequels, ‘Southbound’ and ‘The ABCs of Death’ series.
‘The ABCs of Death’ contained 26 different shorts (each based on a letter of the alphabet) by directors spanning 15 countries. Produced by Tim League and Ant Timpson as a spiritual successor to these anthologies, ‘The Field Guide to Evil’ taps nine directors generally known for avant-garde indie fare to create short films based on fear-filled slices of folklore specific to their home countries (there are slight similarities to Matteo Garrone‘s tripartate ‘Tale of Tales’).
It’s important to note that horror film anthologies are notoriously uneven, but can also be audience-friendly, given that viewers don't have to commit to two hours of something they decided 10 minutes in that they weren't going to like. Carrying out sustained dread for 90 minutes is a task that few directors are up to, but short horror needs only a simple central idea, a few minutes of tension buildup, good scares to follow, and a clever resolution. These films reward short attention spans, and often combine the talents (and marquee appeal) of multiple directors and stars. Plus, they offer multiple scary movies for the price of one.
In essence, the only thing you can do for ‘The Field Guide to Evil’ is parse which of its eight segments are more successful at drawing you into the nightmarish worlds of monsters, spirits, demons, and cannibals that the film attempts to capture.
The first segment, ‘The Sinful Woman of Hollfall’ (an Austrian tale of from Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, ‘Goodnight Mommy’) as well as the third segment, ‘The Kindler and the Virgin,’ (Poland – Agnieszka Smoczynska, ‘The Lure’) are both beautifully shot pieces with subtle sound design, a consistent trait throughout the film’s entirety. These two shorts effectively transport/time travel the viewer to their ancient, magical countries.
Unfortunately, as the stories leap from long ago forests, jungles, palaces, and villages, to more modern horror in homes and vacation getaways, ‘The Field Guide to Evil’ overstays its two-hour run-time.
Unfortunately, as the stories leap from long ago forests, jungles, palaces, and villages, to more modern horror in homes and vacation getaways, ‘The Field Guide to Evil’ overstays its two-hour run time. Several of the shorts (‘The Melonheads’, ‘A Nocturnal Breath’ and ‘Haunted by Al Karsi’) feature campy elements or goofy creatures, which work against the film's overall tone. The film establishes a dreamy quality early on, which takes a bigger and bigger toll since, even with monsters and murders, the segments are mostly slow-burn tension (sometime taking forever to make a point, like Ashim Ahluwalia’s ‘Palace of Horrors’) with stinger endings. Some shorts simply don’t make much of an impression at all, like ‘Bitter Is the Earth That Harbors’.
Luckily, ‘The Field Guide to Evil’ finishes strongly with ‘Cobblers’ Lot’ (from Hungary, directed by Peter Strickland, ‘Berberian Sound Studio’), which uses intertitles instead of dialogue (though with sound effects) to create a old-school feel with its silent film frame. Telling a fairy tale of two shoemaker brothers vying for the love of Princess Boglarka, this segment ends the movie on an amusingly demented note.
Overall, the quality of the film is nebulous, and difficult to trace into patterns and arcs: a horror-dream or a familiar nightmare composed of images you’ve never seen before but that feel strangely familiar. At a minimum, ‘The Field Guide to Evil’ provides eight films for the price of one, and an entertaining tour of times and places few other films visit.