CreepshowA column article, Shot For Shot by: Charles Webb , Matthew Fantaci
Matt: In 1954 EC Comics, best known for their horror titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, was taken before a Senate committee -along with many other comic companies of the day- and blamed for rampant juvenile delinquency across America. So began the industry's self-imposed Comic Code Authority, and the end of the best horror and crime comic label in America.
In 1982, Stephen King and George Romero, each horror masters in their own right, were looking to work together on a movie. An idea was thrown around to do a tribute to the glory days of EC. Just like the comic, the movie would be an anthology of horror stories each introduced by a skeletal figure wearing a cloak. Even comic book advertisements would be used to make the audience feel like they were turning the pages of an actual comic book. Creepshow was born, and became a sleeper hit at the box office and a cult horror favorite.
This film holds a special place in my heart. Not only because it was the first horror movie I had ever seen (at a ridiculously young age) but because it captures the experience of an EC comic book so well. This movie, better than any other, translates the format of a comic book to the big screen.
Charles: I have a place in a nasty part of my heart for this little nightmare as well – it was the origin of my lifelong fear of cockroaches (did you know that there is no specific word for that fear?).
Personal terrors aside, the film was also one of the building blocks in my horror education alongside the first Nightmare on Elm Street and Psycho. Creepshow represented Stephen King and George Romero at the height of their respective cultural power with a film that mined the youthful preoccupations of the writer and made a case for the anthology – that tricky cinematic beast that's often difficult for filmmakers to wrangle.
Matt, when we discussed this title prior to this review you were very excited to talk about it in a wider forum (as was I). Many of you out there may still have some of the images seared upon your brain to this day from the movie and some of you might have never seen it (we hope you'll rectify that before this Halloween). The movie spawned two sequels (one okay, one direct to DVD and widely unseen) and likely helped usher in television creepers Tales From the Crypt and Tales From the Darkside.
But in spite of its descendants and imitators Creepshow is still one of the best horror anthologies of all time.
Matt: I agree. Anthology films, and short story collections in general, are a difficult breed. Even if you manage to collect a strong group of stories, how do you link them to create a cohesive whole?
Stephen King's answer was to create a wraparound story that bookended five horror tales. In it, a young boy (played by Stephen King's actual son, Joe Hill, who would later pen his own horror comic aimed at kids, Locke & Key for IDW) is reading a horror comic titled "Creepshow." His father, a sort of stand-in for all the criticism EC received in the 50s, takes the book away and throws it in the trash. The audience is then invited to "read" the comic, as the pages turn for us. Each story begins as a drawing complete with dialogue balloons, and slowly fades into a live action image that starts to move.
This technical device is one of the most memorable parts of the movie for me.
Charles: You never lose the sense in the viewing that you're experiencing genuine EC horror stories (albeit with then-modern trappings). Like the recent Trick 'r Treat(2009) it even uses comic-style visuals, inserting caption boxes during transitions or vignette to vignette transitions using actual comic art by EC veteran Jack Kamen.)
One of the flourishes I remember most vividly was the lurid color overlays used in some of "shock" scenes. You've got these visuals that evoke the comic page without being slavish and extreme about it.
I should qualify something, though: Creepshow wasn't the first EC-influenced anthology film. You had Vault of Horror (1973), featuring Tom Baker with an especially odd beard and of course Tales From The Crypt from the year before which was, for the time, a very upmarket affair featuring a very young Joan Collins and a still old Peter Cushing.
What Creepshow added to the mix was the referential nature. It wasn't spawned from an existing title but in its execution it was able evoke the comic reading experience.
Plus, that cast. What a cast...
Matt: We've got the expected names for this kind of fare, such as Adrienne Barbeau and Stephen King himself. And then we have the ones that come completely out of left field and deliver the goods with gusto. Highlights include EG Marshall as a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited captain of industry with a crippling case of OCD and Leslie Nielsen (that's right) as a cuckolded husband with a bitter sense of humor. For years I have hoped that some bright-eyed director who was a fan of this movie would cast Nielsen in a villainous role again because the man knows his evil. Nielsen uses the same offhanded tone used in his comedy, downplaying everything to a level of normalcy no matter how absurd. Here, instead of underscoring the joke, it serves to heighten the tension. And EG Marshall's performance might be even more of a tour-de-force simply because his short tale, "They're Creeping Up On You," is a veritable one-man show.
So what are these five eerie tales about?
The first, "Father's Day," is about a spoiled bourgeois family who sit around on the day in question, telling the tale of Aunt Bedelia and the emotional suffering she endured living with her father, Nathan, a tyrant of a man who really, really, really wanted his Father's Day cake. Of course, Bedelia kills him Nathan and that's just the beginning. A young Ed Harris makes an appearance as the new in-law to this most disturbed and disturbing family.
"The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill" is about a man who finds a downed meteor from outer space, and dreams of big rewards but instead finds himself the butt of a cosmic joke. Stephen King stars in this one as the ill-fated Jody.
In "Something To Tide You Over," Ted Danson is taught a lesson by Leslie Nielsen about messing with another man's wife. I don't want to give anymore away, as this has become my favorite revenge scheme in all of moviedom.
"The Crate," is about two friends (played wonderfully by Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver) who are both professors at the local university. One has a problem with his abusive, drunk wife. The other may have an even bigger problem hiding in an old crate in his school laboratory.
Lastly, there is "They're Creeping Up On You." EG Marshall is a cold-blooded capitalist who will step on anyone to get what he wants, be it an employee or a roach. His employees aren't really a problem, but those damn roaches...
Charles: Of these I think the last is the one that remains in the cultural memory the most. The idea of a hermetically-sealed Scrooge getting his comeuppance via creepy crawlies is an image that's hard to shake.
Now about Nielsen – before The Naked Gun and Police Squad! marked him in this generation's mind as bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin, he had a pretty varied TV and film career usually as the straight man.
I think what makes the movie work so well is that it takes all of the actors to a real place of pitch-black comedy, with the moral of the story being to not act like an abusive jerk (or in Jordy Verrill's case to not be such an idiot). This is the greatest breadth of performances in a Romero movie – one where he's working with a cast of established and talented character actors.
I wouldn't go so far as to say they're all slam dunks – well, King is the only weak link as I always found his character to be the most grating of the lot – but the movie has an appropriate level archness to it that draws you in. You want to see the bad people get what's coming to them in each segment because each actor sells it, from Neilsen's cold-as-ice husband to Barbeau's abusive wife.
Of course, the movie wouldn't work if not for the kinds of segments chosen to populate the film. King brings the killer zombie/ghost story, the revenge tale, the monster, the creepy crawly story, and even the apocalyptic sci fi parable. It's like a snapshot into the stories that formed Stephen King the horror writer.
Of course he's revisited these stories more or less "straight" since then and it's easy to see how the horror comics of his youth influenced some of his storytelling (although King, dealing with the long form actually has to make his characters, you know, sympathetic). You can see some of the common threads, though, in books like Misery, The Tommyknockers, Cell, The Dark Half, and so on.
As an aside, I would love it if King took another stab at a tongue-in-cheek horror anthology like this.
Matt: I think it's important to note that the movie is successful in recreating the EC Comics experience; however, the experience isn't incredibly scary. I was scared out of my mind when I first saw Creepshow, but I was also 7 or 8 at the time. Those looking for a fright fest along the lines of Nightmare on Elm Street will be disappointed. That said, there are a few genuine creeps to be found. The last story (as Charles said) will make you start itching regardless of how old or how jaded a horror fan you are.
I'd say the only weakness the movie has for me, lie in the performances of both Stephen King and his son (sorry King family).
Would you agree?
Charles: The Kings? Not so good. Scary? Well, the question is who is this movie targeting? I'm squarely of the opinion that despite the R rating this movie was tonally and conceptually intended for all the 10-13 year old boys out there to see.
There's this outsize, baroque quality to the whole thing with every element being oversold (in a good way) to the viewer. I think part of why it's big, colorful, and mad is because it was supposed to appeal to the young (who didn't really get to see the movie until it hit cable and video).
Any final thoughts for our readers about the movie, Matt?
Matt: You're absolutely right about the age group. Although some might argue about its appropriateness for teens the movie is aime squarely at them.
I don't remember the first time I saw E.T. or Muppets Take Manhattan, but you can bet your booties I remember my viewing experience of Creepshow. And I credit this movie with not only making me a devout horror fan, but possibly a more dedicated fan of films in general. If you're past puberty, this film may not hold the same magic for you that it did for Charles and I when we first saw it. But hopefully you will be entertained.
Charles: So to all our readers out there with young kids (say, 10 and up), I guess we're saying introduce them to horror the right way this Halloween (who needs to see It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown for the umpteenth time?).
Also... Behold! The Neilsen!
If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of Charles's work at Monster In Your Veins