Seven years before HBO brought EC Comics’ 1950s-era horror strips to life for their long-running anthology series “Tales from the Crypt”, Stephen King and George Romero delivered their own homage to the style with Creepshow. The former served in the role of screenwriter with two of the five chapters being adaptations of short stories he had written previously. The latter took his spot behind the camera to orchestrate King’s madness and mayhem with the help of special effects legend Tom Savini, each tale proving to be a mixture of black comedy and the macabre. Add some comic-esque borders and intertitles to uphold the aesthetic of the medium they sought to mimic and I had to look at the rating again. How was this thing not for kids?
One could argue it kind of is despite the R-rating as its oft-goofy lilt lends everything a pulpy “Twilight Zone” feel. Besides a lot of swearing and copious amounts of blood, the material is actually pretty tame when compared with the horror genre’s most disturbing installments. Creepshow is therefore positioned as a gateway of sorts for youngsters, its inspiration’s original target audience. But why skew only to that age and alienate adults when the kids who read this stuff in the 50s were now forty-something parents with children of their own? More than nostalgia, King and Romero’s brainchild could supply these fans the opportunity to share the rebellious content that used to get them in trouble with the sons and daughters surely invested in the present-day’s punishment-inducing equivalent.
This explains the bookends starring King’s own son Joe Hill as Billy, a reader of these comics who has smuggled an issue into his room. There’s a relatable aspect to this act of possessing something you’re not allowed to have and taking the inevitable fallout when Mom (Iva Jean Saraceni) or Dad (Tom Atkins) get wise to the situation. It’s a rather endearing depiction of family life that hasn’t changed despite the passing decades. Kids see themselves in Billy and his knee-jerk reaction to fight back against a form of oppression that seems asinine when compared against the truly horrible things he could be doing. And parents see their former selves in him along with their present selves in the parents. It’s consistently over-the-top, campy, and fun.
Sadly the chapters are a mixed bag. While this is the point insofar as being inclusive to all horror audiences, you can’t help feeling some simply don’t go far enough. The quality and tone do improve as things move along, though. I went from eye-rolls to boredom to legitimate interest and investment. And those that didn’t work for me personally surely will for others. One could even say the film serves as a slow burn able to span years. Show your kid one story here and another there. Space them along his/her unique path of maturation to render the whole an excuse to hang out, eat popcorn, and laugh or jolt at the events onscreen. Be the “cool” parent and start them around age ten (or younger depending).
“Where’s my cake?”
Father’s Day isn’t without merit. It simply lacks teeth and depth. The whole consists solely of exposition as Hank Blaine (Ed Harris) is told the dark history of his new wife Cass’ (Elizabeth Regan) Aunt Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors). Cass, her brother Richard (Warner Shook), and their mother Sylvia (Carrie Nye) all appear as though they are hiding something sinister despite their transparency in telling this tale of murder, a potential for more than a decomposing homicidal zombie that had me waiting and waiting until the end came with nothing but blunt force trauma.
The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill arrives next with its “Twilight Zone” scenario rendered as hillbilly farce. This single character chapter is a version of King’s short story “Weeds” and stars the author himself as the titular farmer fantasizing about the money he could make selling a meteorite that fell to earth just outside his door. I found myself laughing more at King than the premise or jokes, his hammy performance enough to declare the vignette a must-see for all the wrong reasons. Hopefully the prose has a bit more meat to it because what’s onscreen possesses little in the way of substance. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to fear for Jody’s wellbeing or that of the world, but it’s presented too quaintly innocuous to care about either.
Something to Tide You Over is my favorite of the bunch. In no small part a result of the plot’s simplicity, this warped Saw-lite revenge scenario sings thanks to an unhinged dramatic turn by Leslie Nielsen that still retains his trademarked humor below the surface. His Richard Vickers just discovered his wife Becky (Gaylen Ross) is having an affair with actor Harry Wentworth (Ted Danson). Enraged to the point of even-keeled ambivalence, he ambushes his victim with threats of harm to Becky. Unable to do anything but comply, Harry willingly puts himself in a life or death situation that begins with a tinge of technological omniscience before settling into the supernatural. No matter who our focal point is at any given time, palpable claustrophobia takes hold.
“What are friends for?”
The Crate is the second chapter adapted by a King short. To look at it as a whole is to acknowledge many positives: the humorously acrimonious relationship between a passive husband (Hal Holbrook‘s Henry Northrup) and drunkenly domineering wife (Adrienne Barbeau‘s Wilma), the creepy one hundred-year old crate found in a darkened college corner containing unknown horrors, and the unraveling of a nonplussed academic lothario (Fritz Weaver‘s Dexter Stanley). A lot goes on to connect these three threads and their collision is deliciously dark in its immoral quest for victory over personal demons, but they unfold as though two parallel stories rather than an interwoven tapestry. Focus is squarely on the Northrups and then on Dexter and then back. And the transitions are never fluid.
It’s a shame because I really got behind so much that happens. I’ll even fearlessly applaud the monstrous Tazmanian Devil wreaking havoc with impunity despite its Muppet-like construction. My guess without having read the original story is that King found trouble transferring it from the page to a visual medium. He gets so invested in the set-up that he doesn’t realize how lost we are when the man we thought was the star disappears so unceremoniously. What should be a natural progression forward ends up stilted. It’s almost as though Dexter’s entire nightmarish journey was created after the fact to provide Henry a reason to finally act on his violent impulses. The result is great, but the clunky road there can’t be ignored.
“They creep up on ya”
They’re Creeping Up On You rounds out the quintet with another one-man show (besides voices over loudspeakers). By far King’s most “Twilight Zone”-inspired episode—the (supposedly) hermetically sealed setting of a non-descript time and place possessing more psychological mystery than the physical sort—it centers on billionaire philanthropist curmudgeon Upson Pratt (E.G. Marshall) as he wanders about his ivory tower with bile in his mouth and power on his lips. He’s a man who is used to getting what he wants through fear; one who’s keen to smile at the demise of a competitor, his scruples nonexistent. You couldn’t therefore blame someone for doing something to pay his abuse back. And nothing would work better than unleashing a hoard of cockroaches within his “germ-free” abode.
Chaos for those unfortunate enough to inhabit his volatile orbit emboldens his own personal mood, the suffering of the little people a delight even if he wasn’t the one orchestrating it. This joy is crucial because it’s needed to combat his frustration at the odd bug crawling around his floor and desk. One becomes two and two become ten as the chaos he wrought comes back upon him in full force. King and Romero use Pratt to provide a stirring metaphor on man’s negativity and ego manifesting in the real world as his own destroyer. Couple that message with some grotesque creature effects at the very end and Creepshow finishes on a high note—the best result an inconsistent anthology can hope to achieve.
Watched in conjunction with Season Three of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.