Friday, October 4, 2013

Creepshow

Anticipation was high among horror fans when it was announced that three giants of the genre were going to collaborate together on a film. Author Stephen King, director George Romero and makeup effects wizard Tom Savini decided to pay tribute to the classic EC horror comic books from the 1950s with an anthology film called Creepshow (1982). Coming off the personally fulfilling, but commercial failure of Knightriders (1981), I’m sure Romero was eager to move on to something else and hooking up with King made sense. The two men had originally met over the possibility of collaborating on an adaptation of the author’s novel Salem’s Lot, but when the film rights were sold off to television, Romero moved on.

Making a horror anthology was a bit of a risky gamble at the time. They were all the rage in the 1970s with Hammer and Amicus cranking out films like The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Tales from the Crypt (1972), and From Beyond the Grave (1973), but by the end of the decade they had fallen out of favor. King and Romero wanted to bring these kinds of films back while also celebrating the horror comic books, like House of Mystery and The Vault of Horror that they grew up enjoying as kids. The project was given a decent budget and populated with a mix of up-and-coming movie stars and veteran character actors. While receiving only mixed reviews, it was a sleeper hit.

Creepshow is bookended by a boy (Joe King) being chastised by 1980s horror movie mainstay Tom Atkins for reading horror comic books. The overbearing patriarch throws his son’s issue of Creepshow in the trash and the rest of the film depicts various stories from its pages.


The first story is “Father’s Day” that sees a family of wealthy snobs waiting for their Aunt Bedelia Grantham (Viveca Lindfors), the rich matriarch who is rumored to have murdered her father, Nathan (Jon Lormer) on, what else, Father’s Day. Nathan was a real piece of work, angrily demanding his cake over and over until, out of frustration, Bedelia brains him with an ashtray. It’s Father’s Day again and Nathan (John Amplas) rises from the grave demanding his cake once more. The undead patriarch, of course, evokes Romero’s zombie films, but Tom Savini’s makeup isn’t a rehash of Dawn of the Dead (1979). The look of undead Nathan is in keeping with the exaggerated style of the old EC comic books.

Romero hits us right up front with all kinds of attention-grabbing style: skewed camera angles, garish Giallo lighting (saturating shots in red or blue lighting) and employing split-screen action like the panels in a comic book. He even evokes Night of the Living Dead (1968) ever so slightly when we see Bedelia visit her father’s grave; the cemetery initially bathed in warm, late afternoon light, soon becomes ominously atmospheric.

There is a nice mix of comedy and dread with the former coming from a fantastic moment where we get to see “serious actor” Ed Harris grooving out to some cheesy music with his wife (Elizabeth Regan). I can’t get enough of seeing him dancing so awesomely badly to a cheesy ‘80s song. With the exception of Harris, the rest of the Grantham clan are a bunch of vain, selfish, obnoxious bluebloods that deserve what’s coming to them, which makes their comeuppance at the hands of Nathan all the more satisfying.


“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is easily the weakest story in Creepshow as Stephen King, in an act of unfortunate hubris, casts himself as the eponymous Jordy, a stereotypical dumb yokel who foolishly touches a fallen meteorite and begins sprouting a strange, green moss-like substance that mutates into wild vegetation all over his body. Before you can say Swamp Thing, Jordy and his place are overwhelmed with lush green vegetation. Where the other segments achieve the right mix of horror and humor, this one goes too far over to the comedy side and comes across as too cartoonish.

King’s “acting” is straight out of an Ed Wood movie – strictly amateur hour and not in a it’s-so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. This segment is essentially a one-man show and King just isn’t talented enough to pull it off. Romero does the best he can to keep things interesting visually (Jordy’s place is a marvel of set design), and Savini’s make-up job on King makes you wish that he had done the effects work on Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing (1982).


Fortunately, Creepshow bounces back with “Something to Tide You Over” as funnymen Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen are cast against type as two men at odds with each other. Harry (Danson) has been sleeping with Richard’s (Nielsen) wife Becky (Gaylen Ross). Richard confronts Harry and takes him out to his privately owned beach and proceeds to bury him up to his head, waiting for the tide to come in, much like he did to his wife. It’s a pretty unorthodox kind of revenge as is the plot twist where we see what happens to Harry and Becky after Richard leaves them to die.

Again, Romero comes up with some fantastic imagery, chief among them the shot of an irate Harry submerged in water, which evokes the watery demise of Shelley Winters’ character in The Night of the Hunter (1955). Once Richard returns home, Romero ratchets up the tension as we soon realize that Harry and Becky are back for some vengeance of their own. Savini’s makeup effects on the waterlogged couple are quite extraordinary and their distorted, watery voices are unsettling. It’s great to see Leslie Nielsen shed all of his comedic shtick to play a fairly sadistic son-of-a-bitch and he seems to relish the change of pace. Few remember that he started off his career playing dramatic roles because he’s so closely identified to his iconic character in the Naked Gun movies.

For me, the best story in Creepshow is “The Crate,” which focuses on Henry Northup (Hal Holbrook), a reserved college professor, and his friend and colleague Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver). Henry is married to Wilma “Billie” Northup (Adrienne Barbeau), a boozy, overbearing shrew of a wife, who shows up to a faculty party drunk and belligerent. Dexter is called away when a janitor (Don Keefer) shows him a crate from an Arctic expedition dating back to 1834. It was stored away under a staircase in the bowels of a building.


Naturally, Dexter and the janitor decide to open the crate and they unleash a ferocious creature that kills the hapless custodian in gruesome fashion (although, restrained for Savini). Pretty soon, Henry and Billie run afoul of the nasty beast as Savini gets a chance to flex his impressive makeup muscles. I can still recall seeing pictures of the crate monster in Fangoria around the time Creepshow came out and being scared by it. At a young, impressionable age, it took me awhile to see the film all the way through, but at least I read the comic book adaptation.

What really sells the horror in this segment is the absolutely sweaty, wild-eyed terrified reactions of Dexter to the two deaths he witnesses. Fritz Weaver does a great job as Dexter, never amping up his character’s anxiety too much and knowing just when to reel things in. Holbrook is also very good at showing Henry’s transformation from mild-mannered professor to calculating husband who plots the demise of his domineering wife. Adrienne Barbeau is a hoot as Henry’s obnoxious wife and looks like she’s having a blast bouncing off of Holbrook’s doormat of a husband. It’s a juicy role that lets the veteran actress vamp it up as only she can.

Finally, the story “They’re Creeping Up On You!” features E.G. Marshall as Upson Pratt (perfect name for his character), an anal-retentive neat freak businessman who lives in a sterile apartment. He’s obsessed with eradicating his place of bugs. It’s an amusing spin on the equally reclusive and germ-obsessed Howard Hughes fused with Ebenezer Scrooge. All Pratt cares about is money and clearing up his “bug problem,” but soon enough the omnipresent cockroaches have their day in a rather fitting finale to this film.


Marshall is excellent as the curmudgeonly germaphobe sealed up in how sterile fortress. He’s a prisoner of his own obsessions. This segment shows what a truly skilled actor can do when he has to carry a segment on his own, unlike King in his story. For anyone creeped out by bugs this segment is particularly disconcerting.

George Romero first met Stephen King when he was approached by Warner Bros. to direct an adaptation of Salem’s Lot, a novel about a small town in Maine that is terrorized by vampires. The two men met in Maine for several days and even though the project fell through, they kept in touch. King and Romero wanted to work together on an adaptation of the author’s epic novel The Stand, but realized that it would require major Hollywood studio funding to get made. In order to retain full artistic control, they decided to make another inexpensive film first that would make enough money to give Romero more clout with the studios.

In the summer of 1979, Romero and his business partner and producer Richard Rubinstein met with King in Maine to come up with ideas for an original film because it would be cheaper to make. One idea was a series of horror “blackouts,” short sketches leading to a major scare. Romero wanted to create five stories in five completely different styles: one in black and white, one in color, one in 3D, and so on. However, they decided that this approach was too experimental.


It was King that came up with the comic book idea and the “Creepshow” title. He wrote and completed the 142-page screenplay in October 1979. The first story, “Father’s Day,” was described as a “deliberate EC pastiche,” according to King. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” was an adaptation of “Weeds,” a short story King published in the May 1976 issue of Cavalier. In fact, “Weeds” was originally written as the first chapter of a novel, but as the story started to spread beyond Verrill’s world, King could not find any more to say. For the film, he decided to change the tragic tone to a more comedic one.

“Something to Tide You Over” was inspired by King’s memories of being buried up to his neck in sand as a child and also from a film about Bluebeard the pirate being left to die below the high tide line. “The Crate” was adapted from a short story published in the July 1979 issue of Gallery magazine. The story was inspired by a real crate found under the stairs in the chemistry building at the University of Maine. What stuck in King’s mind was that the crate had been under the stairs for a hundred years and he imagined “something really sinister in there.” The creature in the crate was inspired by the Looney Tunes cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil. For the last story, King originally had a mixture of spiders, cockroaches, beetles, and bugs that did not even exist. However, budgetary constraints forced him to use cockroaches exclusively.

Initially, King was not interested in a framing story to link the five stories because he felt that ones in past horror film anthologies were “silly and contrived.” Romero suggested a comic book as the framing device and King agreed. The Spectre, featured in the prologue and linking segments, was a reworking of the “Old Witch”, “The Cryptkeeper” and other narrators from the EC comic books. Romero used King’s first draft, making some changes with the author’s approval and input during principal photography, which often involved rewriting dialogue.


With King’s script, a rough budget and poster art created by EC comic book veteran artist Jack Kamen, the filmmakers shopped the project around Hollywood. Money wasn’t an issue with studio executives, but rather the content. They wanted creative input, which King and Romero balked at. So, they went back to United Film Distributing, a subsidiary of the United Artists Theater Circuit, who had backed Knightriders. They ended up financing Creepshow’s $8 million budget.

Pre-production began in early 1981 and Romero called on frequent collaborators, like makeup effects artist Tom Savini and cinematographer Michael Gornick. The production set up offices in Penn Hall Academy, an abandoned Pittsburgh grammar school, transforming their gymnasium into a soundstage. Principal photography began in late July 1981. In order to give each segment its own distinct look, King and Romero decided to employ the vibrant color scheme from the EC comic books through heightened, saturated lighting and utilizing stylized backgrounds. With the significant budget, Romero had the freedom to shoot on location as well as on a soundstage. Filming lasted 17 weeks, ending in late November.

Post-production was quite extensive with four different editors working on the five stories, a large amount of optical work, and composing the film’s score. Originally, Romero planned to use music from the Capitol Library (which he also used in Night of the Living Dead). He felt that the music would work well with the film, but assistant director John Harrison noticed the varying degrees of quality in material from the various decades and ended up creating much of the music in the film on a synthesizer. Rick Catizone created the animated sequences that acted as segues between segments in the style of Kamen’s comic book pages drawn for the film.

Creepshow debuted at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and was a rousing success with a distribution deal made with Warner Bros. – the first time a studio would distribute a Romero film. The film received mixed reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “What they’ve done here is to recapture not only the look and the storylines of old horror comics, but also the peculiar feeling of poetic justice that permeated their pages.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The best things about Creepshow are its carefully simulated comic-book tackiness and the gusto with which some good actors assume silly positions. Horror film purists may object to the levity even though failed, as a lot of it is.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “What one confronts in Creepshow is five consistently stale, derivative horror vignettes of various lengths and defects.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “Creepshow is a faux naïf horror film: too arch to be truly scary, too elemental to succeed as satire.” Finally, in his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “The Romero-King collaboration has softened both the horror and the cynicism, but not by enough to betray the sources – Creepshow is almost as funny and as horrible as the filmmakers would clearly love it to be.”


If Romero was criticized for his rather non-descript directorial style prior to Creepshow, with this film the director showed that he could turn on the style with the best of them, cutting loose and having fun with the material. He pays homage to the classic EC comic books from the ‘50s by presenting a series of short stories populated by reprehensible protagonists that get their well-deserved retribution through supernatural means. Most horror anthologies are notoriously uneven in terms of quality and Creepshow is no different. Fortunately, there’s only one segment that isn’t very good and that was down to casting, while the rest of them are populated with familiar faces that seem to be having fun inhabiting their colorful characters, which translates into fun for the audience watching them.

Creepshow helped kick off a new wave of horror anthology films that included the likes of Nightmares (1983), Cat’s Eye (1985), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), and, more recently, Trick ‘r Treat (2007), which, with its mix of horror and comedy and use of garish, vibrant lighting, seems particularly indebted to Creepshow. While it certainly doesn’t contain the scathing social commentary of other Romero films, it is a fun, entertaining romp – a cleansing of the cinematic palette if you will, before he moved on to tackle the third installment of his Dead trilogy with Day of the Dead (1985).


SOURCES


Gagne, Paul R. “Creepshow: Masters of the Macabre.” Cinefantastique. September-October 1982.


Further reading: Check out Sean Gill's excellent take on Creepshow over at his blog.

9 comments:

  1. totally forgot that ed harris was in this, knew everyone else... thank you for the post. where is my cake?
    Visiting part of the "Countdown to Halloween"

    Jeremy H.

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  2. Thanks for a lively, informative review, JD. My won favourite segment is Something To Tide You Over, though I most certainly share your enthusiasm for The Crate. Some terrific work by Tom Savini, and even the Verrill section grows on me the more I see it.

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  3. I was never a huge horror fan when I was a kid, but my buddy at school was. One day he invited me and another friend over to watch some scary movies. He picked "Creepshow" and "Vamp". So this flick is kind of special in it's own weird way to me. My first full blown horror flick. I have to say "The Crate" made the biggest impression on me, and is still my favorite. But when I recently revisited the film "Something to Tide You Over" was filled with some excellent dark humor that I had forgotten about. All in all a fun and funny horror flick and a nostalgic 80s favorite.

    Thanks for reviewing it and including some of that very interesting behind the scenes info.

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  4. Super fun movie, love the spooky bookends to the movie, with the kid looking at that floating skeleton thing on the window...plus, the kids delight when he sees it I think is the most disturbing thing about it....and of course, seeing Leslie Nielsen playing a villain so well!

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  5. Nice piece J.D., I love this flick. It's certainly a top tier horror anthology for me, which is a subgenre I've always had a soft spot for. I'm a big fan of the Amicus stuff also, but there's a much drier sensibility at work in those and they really couldn't care any less about capturing the essence of the old comics they're ostensibly drawing from; the Romero on the other hand does a tremendous job realizing that grotesque EC aesthetic.

    I disagree with you about Stephen King though, I genuinely think his is a brilliant comic performance. It's so exaggerated and over the top that it bypasses any camp potential and lands in the realm of the same kind of pure expression of mania that I associate with a Jerry Lewis. I think it also works productively for the material, in that the final moments of the segment become suddenly so dour and hopeless, his voice reduced to that pathetic gurgle, for me the sudden shift is like a punch and makes the ending more stark and haunting than if it all had rather been anchored by more low key, straightforward acting.

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  6. My brother and I have a running joke between us using the "I want my cake, Bedelia!" line. :)

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  7. An awesome and thorough write-up, and thanks for the shout-out!
    In terms of King's performance, I do still think it possesses a kind of boneheaded genius, and the the comedy sort of prevents complete despair... can you imagine, say, a Harry Dean Stanton-type slowly decaying into a suicidal plant-man? I'd probably be weeping uncontrollably and consequently be unable to fully enjoy Leslie Nielsen torturing Sam Malone in the next segment.

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  8. Man, I haven't seen this movie in, like, forever. Thanks for reminding me to watch it again.

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  9. Jeremy [Retro]:

    Thanks for stopping by!


    Steve Langton:

    Thanks! Yeah, The Crate segment is so well done - easily the highlight of the film, for me.


    Roman J. Martel:

    Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, a friend of mine got me into this film during a great summer where I really got into the horror genre in a big way and this was one of them that really stuck with me.


    Francisco Gonzalez:

    Yeah, Nielsen did a really good job playing a nasty guy. It still amazes me how good he is in it. Yeah, the bookends in the film are good. Always good to see Tom Atkins in there!


    Drew McIntosh:

    Thanks for stopping by. Yeah! I do love Amicus' anthology films. They really knew how to do them back then, but, as you so rightly point out, they really didn't capture the EC horror comic vibe like King and Romero do on CREEPSHOW.

    You make quite a good defence for King's performance, but it still bothers me to no end. I do agree with you about his character's final moments. That's where the segment really hits you hard and delivers the goods.

    Great observations!


    Caffeinated Joe:

    Nice!


    Sean Gill:

    Thank you, my friend!

    Good point about King's performance. I guess the over-the-top nature of it balances out the utter despair of what happens to his character.


    Joshua Raymond:

    You are more than welcome!

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