Creepshow (1982) ****
I’ve mentioned upon previous occasions the link between horror anthology movies and the horror anthology comic books of the 1950’s. Although the films unquestionably came first (the Germans were making them at least as early as 1924), even a cursory look at the anthology movies made from the 1960’s onward will strongly suggest that comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were a large part— perhaps the most important part— of their inspiration. But not even in the later Amicus anthologies (some of which actually took their titles from the old E.C. magazines) is the connection so explicit as it is in Creepshow. This film, directed by George Romero from a screenplay by Stephen King, represents a conscious effort on both men’s parts to translate the E.C. horror comics they read in their youth to celluloid as directly and completely as possible. Some may find the result off-putting, especially in its quirkier flights of visual stylization, but no one can deny that Romero and King have accomplished exactly what they set out to do.
The E.C. angle is established immediately by means of a framing story in which a young boy (Joe King— and if you’re thinking this kid looks more than a little like Stephen King, then there’s a very good reason) is caught by his father (Tom Atkins, from Night of the Creeps and Maniac Cop) reading a horror comic entitled Creepshow. The boy’s mother (The House that Cried Murder’s Iva Jean Saraceni) attempts to intercede, but it does no good. Dad becomes increasingly angry and abusive, finally slapping the boy across the face and taking the comic book outside to throw it in the garbage. It is within the pages of the discarded magazine that the following five tales are to be found.
First up is “Father’s Day.” At a big-ass house out in the country, the surviving members of the Grantham family have gathered to observe a somewhat macabre tradition. There is a new member of the party this year, as Cass (Elizabeth Regan) has recently gotten married to a man named Hank (Ed Harris, of The Abyss and Needful Things), and her aunt Sylvia (Carrie Nye, from Screaming Skull and Too Scared to Scream) and brother Richard (Warner Shook, of Knightriders) take a few minutes to explain what the whole business is about. The house had previously belonged to bitter and cantankerous clan patriarch Nathan Grantham (John Lormer, from The Boogens and Destination Space), and for many years, he lived there alone with his daughter, Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors, of A Bell from Hell and These Are the Damned), and a servant or two. Nathan kept Bedelia tightly under his thumb in what Richard describes as “a real Freudian relationship,” but that relationship turned triangular when Bedelia met a man (himself old enough to be her father), inciting a fury of jealously from Dad. Mr. Grantham arranged a “hunting accident” that claimed the life of Bedelia’s aged beau, then went right back to terrorizing her in his accustomed fashion. But one Father’s Day about twenty years back, Bedelia finally had enough. Burning with resentment over her lover’s death and driven to distraction by Nathan’s hectoring demands that she bring him his Father’s Day cake, Bedelia snapped, and bashed the old man’s head in with a marble ashtray. Sylvia— who hated her beastly old great uncle nearly as much as Bedelia did— helped rig the scene to suggest an accident rather than a murder, in return for which Bedelia gave her the Grantham mansion and rather more than her fair share of Nathan’s estate. But Bedelia, consumed by guilt, has insisted upon returning to meditate over her father’s grave in the old family cemetery each year on the anniversary of her crime. This year, however, there is going to be a slight break with tradition. This year, the late Nathan Grantham means to have his Father’s Day cake…
In “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” the titular borderline-retarded country boy (Stephen King himself) sees a meteor fall to earth in his backyard. Daydreaming about how much money the space rock will fetch him “up at the college,” Verrill makes to scoop the meteor up out of its crater, but all the venture gets him is some nasty burns on the tips of his fingers. Verrill tries dowsing the meteor with cold water, but to his horror, the sudden change of temperature causes the extraterrestrial stone to crack open and split in two. “Reasonably” concluding that nobody would be willing to trade hard cash for a broken meteorite, Jordy gives up for the moment and slumps back into his shack to watch wrestling on TV and think about gluing the meteor back together in the morning. Verrill is going to be busy with other concerns come dawn, however, for the meteor was hollow, its interior filled with some mysterious blue fluid. That fluid contains the spores of some alien plant life that will quickly overgrow anything it comes into contact with— “anything” including even slow-witted bumpkins from central Maine…
This would hardly be a proper E.C. tribute without at least one criminally horrid pun, and Creepshow meets that obligation with “Something to Tide You Over.” We have here one of the truly classic E.C. horror premises, as well-to-do beach bum Harry Wentworth (Ted Danson) is confronted by the older man whose wife he’s been screwing. Richard (Leslie Nielsen, from Prom Night and Spaceship) is not even a little bit happy with Harry right now, and he’s got a giant revolver that says Wentworth is going to shut his yap and listen politely while the wronged man speaks his piece. Actually, Richard has a little more than speaking in mind; he’s also brought along a little tape recorder, on which he plays a few seconds of his wife, Becky (Gaylen Ross, of Madman and Dawn of the Dead), frantically begging Harry to come and save her from whatever fix Richard has concocted for her. It’s an A-plus revenge scheme if ever I’ve heard of one— with the pistol ensuring his enemies’ compliance, Richard buries first Becky and then Harry up to their necks in the sand of his private beach, a significant distance below the high-tide line. Maybe, if they’re very lucky, the waves themselves will free the illicit lovers. More likely, they’re both totally fucked. But I believe we all know by now that the grave— even a watery grave— always has a revolving door in tales of this sort, and that Richard has by no means seen the last of his amorous victims…
The next story, “The Crate,” hinges on an equal and opposite form of marital dissatisfaction, although that won’t be apparent for a while yet. It begins with Mike the janitor (Don Keefer, of The Car and Candy Stripe Nurses) down in the basement of Amberson Hall (the science building of some New England college or other), flipping a coin to decide what to clean next and losing control of his quarter on its way down. The man follows his errant coin until it rolls through the steel grate closing off the crawlspace under the nearby stairwell, leading to an unexpected discovery. There’s a wooden crate under the stairs, bearing the stencil of an 1834 Arctic research expedition.
Mike picks up the phone and calls biology professor Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver, from Demon Seed and Messiah of Evil) to report his find. Stanley is at a tiresome faculty party with his best friend, another professor named Henry Northrup (Hal Holbrook, from Rituals and The Unholy). Said party is made even more tiresome than it would have been under its own power by the presence of Northrup’s shrewish wife, Wilma (Adrienne Barbeau, of Swamp Thing and The Fog)— but just call her “Billie;” everyone does— and Dexter is thrilled to have an excuse to leave it. Once at Amberson Hall, Dexter and Mike drag the crate out from under the staircase, manhandle it onto a workbench in the basement chemistry lab, and set about opening it up. Stanley’s best guess is that the crate will prove to contain dried-out plant specimens or some such thing, but he’s about as wrong as he could be. The specimen inside is animal rather than vegetable, and what’s more, it’s still alive! The creature— it looks kind of like a cross between a baboon and a baby Allosaurus— makes short work of the janitor, but eating Mike does keep the thing busy long enough for Dexter to escape from the lab. Upstairs, the visibly frazzled Stanley encounters Charlie Gereson (Robert Harper), one of his grad students. It takes some doing, but Charlie is eventually able to get a coherent explanation out of the professor. Unfortunately for Charlie, his scientific curiosity takes over at that point, leading him to go down to the lab himself and investigate. The crate monster has dragged its box back under the stairs by the time Gereson goes hunting for it, and the would-be scientist meets his end in a valiant attempt to measure the bite marks on Mike’s discarded, mutilated shoe. With Charlie dead, Dexter turns to Henry Northrup. Henry, in turn, instantly sees the opportunity which a man-eating monster presents for correcting the biggest mistake of his life— won’t it be fun to see Billie try to hen-peck the crate thing into submission…?
Finally (or almost finally— you know we’re going to have to revisit the framing story for a nasty little twist, right?), we have “They’re Creeping Up on You.” There’s hardly any plot to speak of this time around— just a steadily escalating struggle between hygiene-obsessed corporate raider Upson Pratt (E. G. Marshall, from Vampire and The Lazarus Syndrome) and the cockroaches infesting his supposedly germ-proof penthouse apartment in New York. More than any other segment in the film, this one goes for the gross-out, and if you hate bugs anywhere near as much as Pratt does, it’s sure to get under your skin when the roaches get under his skin…
Creepshow is quite simply the best horror anthology movie I have ever seen, and the only movie George Romero directed during the 1980’s that matches the quality of his classic work from the previous decade. Every second of its running time radiates an abiding love for the horror comics of the 1950’s, and the frequent use of comic-inspired imagery (split-screen shots that are matted to look like side-by-side comic book panels, opening and closing shots that dissolve between animation and live action, harsh primary-color lighting, etc.) is one of the few distancing techniques I’ve seen that added something special to a film, rather than detracting from it. The tone of both King’s writing and Romero’s direction captures E.C.’s signature style perfectly; indeed, only rarely did the comics themselves manage such an adroit balance between pitch-black humor and sheer misanthropy. Some might complain that Creepshow displays a marked lack of originality, at least in the writing (the same can hardly be said of the direction or production design, both of which were like nothing else on earth in 1982), but it seems to me that to do so misses the point completely. Yes, all of these stories (with the possible exception of “They’re Creeping Up on You”) had, in their essentials, been making the rounds for more than 30 years by the time of Creepshow’s release, but in an homage, you can have originality of handling or originality of subject matter, but not both— otherwise it isn’t an homage anymore. Creepshow opts for originality of handling.
As with most anthology movies, some of the segments in Creepshow are decidedly better than others, but none of them is a total dud. The framing story is mostly a throwaway, but it serves its purpose by getting the audience into a proper comic book mood. “Father’s Day” suffers a bit from following a premise that Tales from the Crypt, Haunt of Fear, and the rest used so often that it was pretty well beaten into the ground by about 1952. But the very ubiquity of the “revenge of the living dead” plot in those magazines makes it an absolute necessity for King and Romero to riff on the shopworn theme here, and they do so reasonably well. Most significantly, “Father’s Day” reverses the usual dynamic by making the man who becomes the avenging zombie a total shitheel, so that audience sympathy lies mostly with his killers and eventual victims (even if those victims are pretty insufferable characters in their own right). Nathan Grantham is the dad from hell if ever there was one, and it takes all of five seconds for us to want to see him dead. His inevitable victory when he comes back as a telekinetic and inhumanly strong zombie thus leaves a completely different impression from what we’re used to seeing in the pages of Creepy or Eerie. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is the most openly comedic of the five major stories, and it contains some brilliantly witty moments. It also benefits from skillful use of background music inspired by (or possibly actually lifted from) 1950’s monster movies— vapid brass fanfares alternate with weird theremin warbling until you feel like you should be watching the screen through a windshield speckled with gnat carcasses, ensconced within 3600 pounds of chrome-bedecked Detroit steel. Unfortunately, Stephen King’s acting is dreadful, and the segment works in spite of his performance rather than because of it. The final three segments are the real winners. I would say that “Something to Tide You Over” recalls E.C. at its best, except that E.C. was never that good. The method of Richard’s revenge against his cheating wife and her sleazoid lover is just skin-crawlingly sadistic, and no one who hasn’t seen Creepshow would ever believe that Leslie Nielsen could be so threatening. Also, although it’s a small touch, I love how the undead Harry and Becky don’t show up on Richard’s surveillance cameras except as a cloud of seaside mist. “The Crate” is maybe even more dazzling, so much so that you barely notice the patent absurdity of the creature being still alive despite having spent 147 years locked in a wooden box under a staircase, presumably without access to either food or water. It offers the movie’s best admixture of humor and horror, together with top-notch performances from all of the principal players. Watching it for the first time in a great many years has given me a whole new level of respect for Adrienne Barbeau. Then, bringing up the rear, “They’re Creeping Up on You” rivals even Bug as the roach-hater’s ultimate nightmare, and concludes with what might be Creepshow’s most striking image. A wildly atypical project for both of its primary creators, Creepshow manages to stand out as much for its quality as for its peculiarity.
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