“Har-ry! The lady fair is waiting for her knight in shining corduroy!”
Whether or not we might remember or care to acknowledge it, the world owes a debt to the creators of EC Comics, the trailblazing, still romanticized horror imprint that thrived throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s. At the dawn of the Cold War, a period that would seize the globe in a vice grip of apprehension for decades to come, EC titles such as The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt subtly defused the steadily mounting popular paranoia in their young readers by getting them to focus instead on stirring yarns concerning implacable, supernatural terrors, in effect teaching them, at a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed increasingly real, if not yet omnipresent, to maybe stop worrying so much about the bomb, a solid decade before Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove took their own crack at it. Sure, EC seemed to say, the world is a dangerous place, but that’s conventional thinking, not to mention boring. The figure floating outside your upstairs window, on the other hand – that shrouded, cackling, skeletal fellow – he seems to mean business. I’ll bet he has some stories to tell. Such brisk and bracing tales of gruesome, ghastly comeuppance, often engineered from beyond the grave, diluted youthful anxieties and fired the imagination, through their initial run and decades of reprints and reissues, of generations of creative types, many of whom would brook enough emotional kinship and common cause to last a lifetime with the same sorts of scary campfire yarns first popularized in EC’s pages. Two of the publishing house’s most ardent fans/acolytes would grow up to be director George A. Romero and author Stephen King. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
Creepshow feels like an artist’s weekend reunion comprised of grown-up kids who once wiled away their nights devouring new issues of The Vault of Horror, under covers by a flashlight’s glow, at summer camp – old friends having fun, and not just horror royalty Romero (Night/Dawn/Day/Land of the Dead) and King (c.v. honestly unnecessary – think of a famous scary story from the last forty years and the odds are probably even that he wrote it) but also makeup effects conjurer Tom Savini (Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead). In 1982, King was only eight years into a career that would see him wrest the horror throne from Poe and Lovecraft on his way toward becoming arguably the most popular genre writer in history, but he was already a mega-star. Prolific to the point of absurdity, King’s short story output would one day rival that of his idol, the brilliant, curmudgeonly fantasist Harlan Ellison, and the idea of a five-part horror anthology entirely scripted by him, directed by noted chronologer of the dead Romero, partially visualized by the frankly demented artist Savini, and inspired by their mutual love of EC lore and desire to update it for a modern audience, was irresistible. The original one-sheet poster for Creepshow depicted “The Creep,” the faux-horror mag’s desiccated, Crypt Keeper-like combination mascot and tour guide*, as the grinning, one-eyed ticket taker at an old-timey movie theater, and proclaimed the film, “The most fun you’ll ever have being scared!” Now those are laudable twin goals – “fun” and “scary” – achievable independently, but no doubt better together. Creepshow attacks them with gusto.
*Also the guy lurking outside Billy’s window on the “Creepshow” magazine cover.
The result is both appropriately lurid and light on its feet, handsome to look at with just a lingering whiff of the disreputable, much of which is attributable to its diverse, accomplished, and not a little appealingly hammy cast, a three parts to one mixture of noted 1970s melodramatics with a healthy dash of (then) encroaching new Hollywood. In a rather brilliant framing device, the titular comic book is discovered by an overzealous suburban dad and tossed into the garbage against his son’s protests. Outside, as young Billy seethes in his bedroom and his contented father settles in downstairs, congratulating himself on his latest piece of outstanding parenting, a storm brews. Wind gusts topple the trash can, spilling the edition out onto the pavement, where its pages spring to life, even dissolving, at the beginning of each new tale, from traditional establishing comic panel to the opening frame of Romero’s adaptation. King’s stories, which comprise the meat of both book and movie, are, without exception, punchy and propulsive popcorn fare, powered by personalities both in front of and behind the camera. I first saw Creepshow at the tender age of nine, and what can I say? Some experiences are formative. Before I ever met hapless Lieutenant Frank Drebin of Police Squad! and Naked Gun fame, I knew Leslie Nielsen as the aggrieved, deadly serious millionaire Richard Vickers, who personalizes revenge against his young trophy wife and the society playboy with whom she cuckolded him in an incredibly novel, and terrifying, way. Long before standout roles in The Abyss and Glengarry Glen Ross, Ed Harris was introduced to me as a spoiled heiress’ boy toy who, after some passive-aggressive pleasantries and twitchy disco dancing, takes an ill-fated stroll through the family graveyard, there coming face to “face” with the last party crasher he should’ve possibly expected to encounter.
The parade of grotesques continues apace, and I’ve barely even mentioned the literal, (rotting) flesh and blood monsters yet.** There’s ‘50s television vet E.G. Marshall, years after he was one of Lumet’s 12 Angry Men and a solid few before becoming Clark Griswold’s grumpy father-in-law, as the vile, misanthropic germaphobe Upson Pratt, a racist, ruthless robber-baron who mocks and subjugates the world’s various unwelcome visitors from behind the hermetically sealed door of his spotless “$3200 a month penthouse apartment,” but falls prey to the only ones for whom his insults and threats hold no sway: cockroaches. Pre-Evening Shade Hal Holbrook provides unexpected nuance as a mousy English professor browbeaten by his obnoxious, emasculating girlfriend (genre icon Adrienne Barbeau heroically overplays “Billie” as a stereotypical baseline shrew, then builds zealously outward), who, upon discovering that a dusty crate tucked into a back corner of the zoology department holds inexplicably bloodthirsty living cargo, seizes upon an unconventional way to solve his domestic issues. Then there’s King himself, as a barn door broad backwoods yokel who makes the mistake of touching a meteorite that hits his property and soon discovers that the grass isn’t only greener on the other side, but also uncomfortably much closer to home. These stories, with their mid-act pivots that play more like inevitabilities than twists, are uniformly too straightforward to rank with the best of King’s written shorts, though they hardly lack juice or spirit. King wrote more direct screenplays than is sometimes acknowledged, including all five here, but I’d still certainly love to read literary treatments of choice Creepshow bon mots like “Father’s Day,” or “Something to Tide You Over,” which traffic in shocks and suffocating dread respectively, but also feature the sort of vengeful, venal characters any author would doubtless enjoy sinking his teeth into.
**Of “Creepshow’s” twenty-seven either lead or prominent supporting players, only seven make it through the proceedings alive and/or intact. Of that plucky few, two are outright predators – one of whom was already technically dead – two are supernatural converts who quickly develop a taste for carnage, plus a straggling maintenance man who survives only because he has the good sense to stay on the impersonal side of Upson Pratt’s apartment door.
While its highest profile participants arguably perform the heaviest lifting, it’s important to note Creepshow’s prevailing quality as a whole. In an era that, powered by the post-Friday the 13th “slasher” boom, saw a market-flooding influx of dimly lit, cheaply made, oft-interchangeable Canadian quickies, Creepshow sticks out from the horror crowd in uniformly positive ways. It is well edited and boasts eye-catching, detail-oriented production design. Moonlit nights flood windowed interiors with deep and enveloping oversaturated blues, and transitions between scenes are sometimes accomplished as live action comic panels rushing from one to the next. As the wind flips the magazine’s pages forward in between stories, the camera briskly pans past other staples of the monthly comic, such as a fawning “letters to the editor” section and several miscellaneous ads for gimmicky products – including an impressive-sounding “authentic voodoo doll” conspicuously missing its mail-in coupon – that totally nail the feel and tenor of the times once E.C. stood astride. The manse-adjoining graveyard multiple characters disappear into – which forever instilled in me a fondness for the underused, delightful visual conceit of “cemetery fog” – is so effectively rendered and lovingly maintained that you wouldn’t enter it alone on a bet. As the characters in the Grantham household depicted in “Father’s Day” begin to dwindle in number, even they seem instinctively reticent to venture outside. Of course, it almost wouldn’t be a Romero film without a murderous, reanimated corpse, and the late Nathan Grantham – I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here unless you suffer under the misapprehension that Creepshow’s murderous puppets were operated by Jim Henson rather than Tom Savini (though now I’m intrigued!) – stands as my first and probably still favorite ever. I think what hooked me was not merely its striking look – cobwebbed, soiled, and moldering, the very picture of shambling decay – but its unearthly voice, pitched somewhere between a rumble and gargle, with a vaguely metallic edge.
Each segment offers Savini a specific and engaging makeup design challenge to rise to, whether plotting the grand unveiling of not one but several walking dead, visualizing the weird and hungry beast lurking in Holbrook’s crate, or turning King’s naïve bumpkin from white trash to anthropomorphic greenery. Beyond director Romero’s facility with striking individual shots – as of a looming headstone positioned precariously above an open but still technically occupied grave, or of a pre-Cheers Ted Danson underwater, buried in sand up to his neck and, you’ll forgive me, clearly in over his head – Creepshow soars on his thorough, unsurprising command of mood. In “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”, King’s star turn, the steadily building unease is every bit as auditory and environmental as it is straightline visual, whereas the finale, “They’re Creeping Up on You,” is overly beholden, despite the presence of more than enough vermin to enter the term “Cockroach Wrangler” into the Hollywood professional lexicon, to whipcracking, often comic, dialogue and crackerjack, often comic, timing. The enterprise is held together by the well-chosen cast, which nobly and reliably seeks, often in little more than a cup of coffee’s worth of screen time, to personalize the mayhem, making motivations clear and injecting life into a procession of characters that is almost to a man certainly living on borrowed time. As the odious corporate raider turned unwitting roach motel Pratt, the imperious Marshall, performing something of a one-man/ thousand bug show, undoubtedly has the most to, ahem, chew on, but the cast is replete with performances – Carrie Nye’s arch, chain-smoking socialite, Fritz Weaver’s suave academic turned gibbering mess, plus the aforementioned other stars – worthy of applause, if not a curtain call.
Nothing this accomplished happens by accident, of course. Interestingly enough, given the competition, it’s composer John Harrison who is without a doubt the production’s secret weapon and quite possibly its MVP, scoring five very different unfolding scenarios – six if you count the drama between Billy and his dad – with unerring verve, and conjuring up a memorable sonic trick for almost every occasion, particularly in the marvelously morbid Nielsen vs. Danson soap opera, and arguable movie highlight, “Something to Tide You Over,” where he not only augments understated floor-creaker passages with full-on choral banshee vocals that build to an oppressive, almost operatic climax, but slyly repurposes the public domain ditty “Camptown Races” into a trudging, nerve-fraying dirge worthy of accompanying ghouls returning to call on the deserved/unlucky from a watery grave. Harrison’s insistent main title piano score, with its ghostly choir singing accent arias, pulls off the tricky feat of sounding simultaneously elegant and completely unhinged. It is the sound of normalcy steadily unraveling, and proved difficult to extract from my head even days later. The film itself lingers in the subconscious with similar tenacity. This summit meeting between genre titans and old friends turned out to be worth the hype after all, a pleasant and pleasing modern tribute to an invaluable era of genre storytelling it obviously treasures too much to consider bygone. Based on these results, who exactly is in a position to argue? We were all little kids hiding under the covers once, after all, scared of what might lurk around the corner or beneath the bed, yet strangely secure in the one bit of unconscious knowledge that armored us against the dark of night, unreasonable parents, and the big, bad world alike.
“The Creep” was on our side all along.
“Creepshow” (1982) 3.5/4 stars