The pairing of George Romero and Stephen King seemed like a horror-junkie's perverse nirvana. Back in 1982, these two were absolute giants of the genre, occupying two equally dark and disturbing ends of the fantastical spectrum - Romero's the socio-political observations of the breakdown of civilisation, and King's the more fairytale and supernatural jolts of hauntings and monsters. Both were adept at thrusting Joe Everyman into the maelstrom of unbridled horrific situations and seeing just how well they coped. Or failed to cope. And both terror titans had one unique thing in common that would provide them with the perfect impetus to create their cult-cherished anthology collaboration inthat year's Creepshow - a undying adoration of the lurid, graphic EC Comics published in the 50's by William M. Gaines with titles such as Tales From The Crypt and The Vault Of Fear (both of which had anthology movies based on their premise) and that had been strictly taboo, but addictive influences in both men's adolescence.
Backed by the solid and notorious visual style of those gruesome page-turners, Gory George teamed-up with the acclaimed and prolific author deliver the grisly goods with just the same formula. Although fearful and bloody, the comics also had a very rigid moral code that ensured the bad guy always came a serious cropper at the end, no matter how devious his depredations and how cunning he was at covering his tracks. The style was part-traditional Romero black humour and part comic nostalgia, all strung together by King's typically soapish imagination. The two reasoned, during pre-production brainstorming sessions, that if they could make enough money with a mainstream chiller under their names then it would give them enough creative clout with a studio to helm an epic adaptation of King's classic novel, The Stand. Of course, that was a project that has not materialised, although King associate, screenwriter and director Mick Garris would get to make the disappointing TV miniseries, as well as a more elaborate and book-faithful take on The Shining. But whilst proving popular and gaining reasonable critical response, Creepshow was not quite the success that they'd hoped for, being neither scary nor nasty enough for audiences who had, by this stage, experienced Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead and with Romero directing had expected something deliciously grim (especially in view of the fact that regular splatter-expert Tom Savini was on-tap to supply the claret), and it wasn't funny enough for people who had enjoyed the chilling black comedies that successfully walked the tightrope between horror and humour, such as Piranha, Alligator, The Howling or, most pertinently, American Werewolf.
But perhaps it was King, himself, who put the frighteners on the project by setting the sights so high that the movie just couldn't match up. Famously remarking that the Creepshow was intended to “scare people so continuously and so badly that they'd have to crawl out of the theatre” now seems like a terribly pompous misjudgement. Critics weren't so keen on the writer actually taking the central role in one of the stories, either - something that smacked of complete nepotism. They would, however, tend to overlook the fact that King's son, Joe, would also appear in the voodoo-flavoured wraparound tale that topped and tailed the five episodes, or chapters, within ... and was far, far worse a performer. But, I've always had a big soft spot for this endeavour and have enjoyed it many times over the years. Now released on US Blu-ray, the film actually feels fresher and more dynamic than ever before and, perhaps most remarkably of all, it seems to have aged favourably, as well.
“I want my cake!”
The first story, entitled “Father's Day”, is a cosy little familial farce, albeit one that features the rotting corpse of a curmudgeonly patriarch hauling himself out of his grave and seeking retribution on the unsavoury relatives who have scorned him. Famous for sporting an early performance from Ed Harris, who had also starred in Romero's earlier Knightriders, and Viveca Lindfors as the estranged daughter who, driven mad by his incessant demands, had done him in years before. With some appalling disco dancing from Harris and the type of ensemble parlour-room acting that makes you think this piece is composed purely of Pittsburghian amateur dramatists rehearsing for a play, the opening segment still conjures up an air of the macabre when crusty, maggot-ridden old grump goes for a walk in search of his Father's Day cake. Although still the theatrical version of the tale - shorn of a particularly explicit shotgun-blasted noggin - there is a nice atmosphere of dark dementia about it. Lindfors, in a guest appearance, gives the performance her all, as the bitter and twisted and conscience-wracked Aunt Bedelia makes her annual visit to Papa's grave. Savini's zombie makeup is fine - earthy, old and pungent, like a shaggy skeleton, as opposed to the blood-spattered, wounded specimens that populate the Dead films. The punch-line to the story is neat, but slight and, if anything, we could do with a little more carnage. However, there is some great supernatural tension evoked when Harris foolishly goes snooping around the little family graveyard and encounters some supernatural wrath and a truly menacing gravestone that is seemingly possessed.
“That's a meteor. I'll be dipped in sh*t, if that ain't a meteor!”
The second story, based loosely on King's short work “Weeds”, published in a copy of Cavalier in 1976, is the one that comes in for the most amount of flack. “The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill” is quintessential early King, so quintessential, in fact, that King takes on the title role of the simpleton farmer who foolishly pokes and prods a fallen chunk of alien rock and, before he knows it, transforms into a humanoid shrub with severe depression. With the terrifically monikered Bingo O' Malley playing his disgruntled and ever-derisory late father in flashbacks that cement our Jordy's ill-fortune and lack of the requisite wits to change things around, the tone is one of comical tragedy more than outright horror. It is, however, a typical EC-type of filler-tale - eerily memorable and decidedly odd. This oddness is, of course, reinforced by King's determinedly over-the-top performance that seems to consist of massively exaggerated gurning, eye-rolling and hand-claps to the mouth gestures. But what most critics failed to grasp was that King was clearly having a ball, and this larger-than-life caricature was a concerted play on his own intricately created and resolutely tangible literary characters. I find his laboured expressions and shrieking grievances highly amusing. A great moment comes when the “seeded” Jordy attempts to take a bath and, removing his denim dungarees, discovers that the spread of the alien spores has reached somewhere already fertile. “Oh God, not there!” he wails in helpless torment. I'm even tempted to believe that Vincent D' Onofrio's “bugged-out” farm-boy in Men In Black hails from Jordy's lineage. Savini's makeup, sadly, is a bit of a let-down. Rolled into what looks like a green shag-pile carpet, our Jordy isn't exactly the most convincing of mutations. In a long line of plant-transformees - including Richard Wordsworth's doomed astronaut in Hammer's excellent The Quatermass Xperiment, various rural denizens in Jack Cardiff's The Mutations and the shambling monstrosity in Doctor Who And The Seeds Of Doom - King's is certainly the least skin-prickling. But the tale does carry a great little coda, reminiscent of the last shot of Hitchcock's The Birds, that shows what may well be the beginning of the end of the world - although this only makes you think that more exciting adventures lay beyond the Verrill farmstead.
“I can hold my breath for a looooong time!!!!!”
Things take a considerable step up in the next tale.
Leslie Nielsen's obsessively jealous TV producer plots a humiliating revenge for his wife Becky (Dawn Of The Dead's Gaylen Ross) and her lover, Harry (Ted Danson), but winds up having the last laugh expertly and nastily turned upon himself in the thickly redolent “Something To Tide You Over”. Brilliantly marrying macabre merriment and unearthly dread in one enormously satisfying package, King's story has a wickedly spiteful Richard Vickers (Nielsen), burying Danson up to his neck in the sand at a secluded beach as the tide is coming in, his only company a TV set that shows him his elicit lover is in exactly the same predicament somewhere further down the shore .... only placed a little bit closer to the sea, so that he has the desperate fortune of being able to to see her drown first. As Vickers retires from the scene of his exquisitely constructed torments to his luxury beach-house, he is blissfully unaware that the watery wraiths of the doomed lovers will come calling for him during the night. As tales of poetic justice go, this is purely by the numbers, but it gains vigour, as well as humour, by virtue of its juggernaut simplicity. There are shades of the excellent Sleuth, from the pen of Anthony Shaffer, about the baiting and the entrapment of Vickers' victims, and in the delicious black comedy of role-reversal and sadistic lampoonery. The gross-out factor enables Tom Savini to get back on track with some of his most accomplished and unusual zombie makeups, and we can even see the foundation stone of Day Of The Dead's hysterical demise for the slobbish soldier Rickles (played by Ralph Marrero) as Nielsen's mind clearly snaps when it appears that the bullets he fires into the soggy bodies of the briny undead won't do him any good. Seaweed-draped corpses pointing barnacle-encrusted fingers of accusation are a supreme visual delight, to be sure, but just listen to those waterlogged lungs belching out ominous threats of retribution. Although we sympathise with the drowned ghouls, the pair of wretches become possibly the second most memorable image of the movie, after the notorious fan-favourite, Fluffy, of course, who we will get to meet in the next, and best, story.
“I drove out there with the remains of three human beings - well, two human beings ... and Wilma.”
“The Crate” is, by far, the strongest and most satisfying of all five chapters. And certainly the most fondly recalled. Featuring The Fog's Hal Holbrook as Henry Northrup, the hen-pecked and harassed husband of whining alcoholic bitch from Hell, Wilma (“Oh, just call me Billie ... everybody else does!”) played by Adrienne Barbeau, the story concerns the discovery of a mysterious wooden crate found tucked away in a dusty, cobwebbed and long-forgotten corner of the Horlicks University by a dedicated caretaker ... and, more importantly, what lurks within it. Marked up as being a find from an Antarctic research expedition over 1834, well over a hundred years before, the caretaker and Henry's academic friend, Professor Dexter Stanley, played by Fritz Weaver, can't resist prying the lid off the crate and taking a peek inside. What they unleash is a furious combination of fur and fangs, a bizarre monstrosity, part-ape, part-shark, that has been living in the box all this time, and worked up one hell of an appetite.
Culled from King's earlier short story, first published in a 1979 issue of Gallery and somewhat evocative of Eugenio Martin's Spanish-UK co-production Horror Express, “The Crate” is expertly directed by Romero, who finally finds something that he can really sink his teeth into. Pathos, caustic relationships, dark repression and resentment and a superbly vicious mean-streak provide plenty of bite in the longest episode in the movie. The story works enormously well in two separate directions. We have the thing in the box mystery, of course, but there is also the wonderful dynamics of the Northrups' insidious marriage, both strands eventually dovetailing together in a sickly demented spiral, but marvellously acute in their own individual rights. Henry's deviant fantasies of murdering the ever-aggravating Billie are tremendous crowd-pleasers, the notorious instance of a Magnum .44 round (no doubt reminding Holbrook of the time he played Dirty Harry's boss-cum-assassin-chief in Magnum Force) blowing her brains out against a tree to the warped applause of party-goers - “Bullseye!” congratulates Romero's own wife, Christine Forrest - one of the most amusingly evil moments in the film.
Holbrook is excellent as the perpetually put-down Henry. You can truly feel his shame and embarrassment at Wilma's behaviour and completely understand how such a gleefully malicious scheme of vengeance can evolve inside his head once he finds out about the ever-hungry Tasmanian-style Devil in the faculty's hidden realm. Barbeau, complete with brazen bangles all-a-jangle, a beauty-spot and an impenetrable perm, is still incredibly attractive, no matter how venomous her mouth may be - regular readers will know how potent an impression the one-time Mrs. John Carpenter had on my hormonal early teens - but she makes an awesomely annoying human variation on the very thing that is picking bones out of its teeth in the crate. Yet it is perhaps Fritz Weaver who makes the shudders really come alive with his frenzied reactions to the horrible predicament that they find themselves in. I love the way that he babbles and blurts out a hysterical account to a disbelieving, and equally luckless student (played by Robert Harper), of what has just happened to the caretaker, his voice going literally stratospheric. Always a dependable supporting actor, Weaver doesn't get the recognition he deserves. He nails this performance completely. Initially confident but understanding - look at the way he even bags a fit young co-ed at the opening faculty lawn party - and sympathetic of his buddy's plight, yet painfully restraining of his own anger at Billie's antics, he then loses it all and becomes a jibbering wreck - and all of this is an utterly believable progression of character.
“He wanted to measure the bite-radius. I guess he got his chance!”
Savini's pet-creation of the beast, nicknamed Fluffy on-set, is truly nightmarish. Eminently savage and considerably jolting in its sudden appearances - hairy, taloned arms hauling the hapless into its gore-drenched box, a insanely-molared maw rending crocodile-sized chunks out of vulnerable necks - he is also afforded some degree of actual personality. Heard grunting with exertion and seen only in shadow as he drags his crate back to his quiet little corner in the bowels of Romero's very Miskatonic-inspired University, and chittering with almost cute jungle-like chirps and chuckles whilst safe in his fetid, shadow-draped nest, we actually come to sympathise with him. Visually presented as a cross between a midget-werewolf and Lionel Richie at Halloween, he becomes a truly original and very striking monster. Created via cable-controlled mask, animatronics and puppetry (courtesy of latex-smothered Darryl Ferrucci), he nevertheless generates a very real sense of fear and dread. Responsible for the film's goriest moments, Fluffy can't help but win us over. But the strange thing is that, despite being the best staged, directed, written and performed tale in the collection, and the one that we really would like to see more of, “The Crate” is actually the most perfectly contained short story. It offers mystery, intrigue, horror and rock-solid characters. We get just the right amount of background - vague hints about how the crate got there in the first place - and an ending that is typically comic-book and traditional in terms of ghoulish mini-sagas. Interestingly, it also concludes with two perhaps distrustful characters engaged in a symbolic game of chess after encountering something clearly unearthly ... echoes of the same year's The Thing, maybe.
“How many men have you destroyed? How many men have you killed, you monster?”
“Only the stupid ones. Only the ones who handed me a knife and then stretched out their throats.”
The final episode is often cited as a fan-favourite, but is possibly the one I find the least enjoyable. In “They're Creeping Up On You”, E. G. Marshall plays the obsessively hygienic business tycoon Upson Pratt who, in his clinically cleansed penthouse suite high above New York City wages a war on both the bugs that seem hell-bent on invading his sterile fortress and the bemused service personnel at his beck and call. Symbolically, it appears that he derives equal pleasure and amusement at putting down both forms of life. Upon hearing about the suicide of one of his bullied and brow-beaten competitors, and his own part in causing it, Pratt seems to care not one jot ... and this callous indifference proves to be the catalyst that marks his downfall as a veritable army of cockroaches then inveigle their way into his kingdom, circumventing every defence he has in place and undermining his control over his empire. When a power-cut ensures that he is then left helpless in his own prison with an avalanche of the scurrying critters, King and Romero opt for the quick-fix, easy-wince phobia that they know the majority of audience members will be feeling at the sight of creepy-crawlies on the rampage.
Although famous for its deliciously gruesome cockroach-reveal - a terrific showcase for Savini's skin-crawling prowess with dummy's, bugs (in this case, the big, bat-guano-loving strain from Trinidad) and offal - the lead character is so dislikeable that nothing we see him suffer will ever be enough, and his drama, somewhat lacking in tension and dynamics, loses the momentum that “Something To Tide You Over” and “The Crate” so marvellously began to build. Basically a one-man show, with Marshall delivering an admittedly barnstorming performance, the episode is perfectly suited to the format, yet I believe that it would have served the film a lot better if it had been shunted to an earlier slot.
With the wraparound story depicting genre stalwart Tom (The Fog) Atkins as an overbearing and exasperated father condemning his son Billy's (Joe King) actual comic-book of Creepshow to the bin - where it is happily seized by the flippant garbage-men, one of whom is played by Tom Savini - the film does have a splendidly dark overall denouement of twisted patricide and black magical retribution. But, as I alluded to earlier, the bookend segments are woefully hampered by the child actor - who is simply awful.
Production values are excellent, though.
Enhanced with a garish colour scheme that lifts primaries and soaks the image with wild lashings of shadow-morphing hues, and effortlessly seguing, thanks to animation from Rick Catizone, from comic panels to live action, and vice-versa, for each story transition, Creepshow was ahead of the game when it came to 2D adaptations. We would have to wait a very long time indeed for movies to fully embrace the vigour, style and energy of comic-book illustration - if we discount actual animated offerings like Heavy Metal, for instance. Until the likes of Sin City , 300 and Watchmen came along, movies would use the printed page merely as a springboard for inspiration, or merely ape the action that it presented as best they could. Romero wanted to bring the panels of the old EC line to life, and he does his utmost to inject such vibrant and uber-cool mechanics into the film with the animated “Spectre” book-ending the film and virtually flipping the filmic pages of the anthology over for us, and by having characters and the final twists that ensnare them vividly captured via primary-boosted freeze-frames that blend into the pages of the boy's lashed comic. We even have split-screens and panel-slides bestowing a certain level of panache to the flow of the film. Originally, Romero had wanted to shoot each tale in a different cinematic way - colour, black-and-white, even 3D options were considered - but the concept was deemed too expensive and possibly too distracting for the audience to cope with. Although this was audacious thinking for a director who, up until Creepshow, had been mostly reliant on practically television-style shooting, set-ups and colour-schemes, with hindsight, such ambition would have been creatively suicidal.
But another strong element about the production is the music from John Harrison, former bass guitarist for Ry Cooder and a multi-faceted filmmaker, himself. Working with Romero next on Day Of The Dead, the composer writes his scores to match the style and the mood of each story. For instance, “Father's Day” is melancholic and menacing but with a distinct aura of the satirical, whilst “Jordy Verrill” is openly comical, absurdist and circus-like. Then he brings on some more intense dramatics for “Something To Tide You Over”, concocting cues not unlike the music for a TV whodunnit along the lines of Murder She Wrote or Columbo. “The Crate” is a wonderful tour de force of warped horror stylings, ferocious staccato piano-pounding for the beast's attacks and some great little mysterioso elements and light-hearted bridges for the strained situations of the Northrups and the rapidly unhinged Professor Stanley. “They're Creeping Up On You” provides a multitudinous excuse for scurrying, scampering and furtive motifs, replete with delirious organ-playing and wild electronica from the Prophet 5 synthesiser. Harrison maintains a core “sound” for the film, at large, but it is how he fashions each individual tale that makes his work so appealing. Sadly underused as a composer, his track record does not really have much else to celebrate. But this showcase certainly reveals that he is both talented and versatile and that Romero's original intentions to use only “library” music - a common trait of the director's - was definitely ill-conceived.
Overall, Creepshow aims for a mixture of shudders and giggles. It never terrifies and never offends. Although Romero unleashes his beloved undead in a couple of stories, the emphasis is far removed from the gut-munching variety that he made his name with and each tale is imbued with a likeable, although somewhat intimate gusto. The portmanteau style is something that Amicus made its speciality in the sixties and early seventies, and even if Milton Subotsky put a miserable nail in the coffin of such episodic comeuppance with The Monster Club (1980), Creepshow revealed that there was plenty of life in the old short-hop, gore-hound yet. King's love of the short story and the intimate character study of everyday people encountering the small-scale supernatural works well with Romero's blackly comic cynicism. We can sense King's optimism of good triumphing over evil cross-pollinated with Romero's joy for poetic justice and, as a consequence, we become complicit in murder, revenge and the simple harmony that can be derived from seeing irascible miseries getting their just desserts. The formula was a winner, although at the time the film came out, theatrically, such a concept was well past its sell-by date and easily overlooked in the wake of American Werewolf, The Evil Dead, The Thing and Poltergeist, perhaps even seeming quite tame by comparison. Even the following year's The Twilight Zone: The Movie fared better despite only having two of its four tales being any good and really only one stand-out segment in “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet”, though this can be put down to the fact that it favoured fantasy and sci-fi over outright horror and appealed to a much broader cross-section. Oh, and it had Steven Spielberg's name attached to it - which just had to help.
But Creepshow is actually the superior movie.
The Romero/King collaboration would go on with the director bringing a finely atmospheric adaptation of the author's The Dark Half to the screen, but Creepshow epitomises the pair simply kicking back and having a bit of fun and, despite a couple of missteps along the way, still provides a very enjoyable and totally authentic comic-book aura of dark entertainment.