George Romero and Stephen King’s loving tribute to the glory days of EC Comics.
For some reason, many people seem to think that I hate Creepshow. That’s always been far from the truth. Admittedly, I may have sneered at the people who overrate it – and will continue to do so – but this is a movie that I had a lot of affection for when it first came out and which still holds up pretty well today. It’s certainly not without its flaws, but for those of you in search of a fun, lightweight bit of horror fluff, this is ideal viewing. And if you compare it to the sequels and reboots – official or otherwise – you can certainly appreciate its charms all the more.
The first (and last) of what was planned as several Stephen King / George Romero collaborations, Creepshow is a love letter to EC comics, and in both visual style and narrative, it comes a lot closer to reflecting the ghoulish humour, gory horror and comic book visuals of titles like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror than either the Amicus films of a decade earlier or the subsequent Tales from the Crypt TV series. Romero uses vivid colours (the film often has the visual hues of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno) and comic book graphics both framing certain scenes and in the backgrounds to produce the most authentic recreation of a comic strip ever captured on film – given the lack of digital technology at the time, these scenes are remarkably effective and still hold up well. He also includes animated scenes that feature pages from the fictional Creepshow comic – ads for novelties, letters pages etc – which appear between the five stories that make up the film.
These stories – a mix of King originals and adaptations of his short stories – are all pretty strong. This is one of the few portmanteau movies that doesn’t really have a weak link. The first, Father’s Day, sees a wealthy family awaiting the arrival of Great Aunt Bedelia, who had murdered the tyrannical family patriarch some years earlier. Now, each year on father’s day, she visits his grave. But this year, old Nate is not taking her abuse lying down and rises from the grave to take revenge on his family and get his long-awaited father’s day cake.
With a cast including Ed Harris and Viveca Lindfors, this is a cracking opening tale – simple, humorous, pacey and gruesome. Zombie Nate (played with zeal by John Amplas) is a better creation than any seen in Romero’s official zombie stories – and bears a certain resemblance to the zombie featured on the US posters for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, interestingly. Given that the film was a rip-off of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, I guess we can forgive him if he decided to in turn rip Fulci off! The story sets the visual style for what is to come – highly exaggerated, vivid and cartoonish.
The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill is the most overtly comical of the stories. Starring Stephen King – whose hammy performance probably didn’t do much to help any acting ambitions he might have had – in the title role, this tells the story of a hick who discovers a meteor that has landed on his property. Unfortunately, he gets ‘meteor shit’ on his fingers and soon finds himself – and his surroundings – becoming overgrown with vegetation. With some entertainingly bizarre fantasy scenes (as Verrill fantasises about making a $200 fortune from his discovery), this is the most basic of all the stories here, but a lot of fun nevertheless.
By the time this second segment has finished, we’re still only 35 minutes into the movie. Given the two hour running time, it’s clear that the subsequent stories are going to be a lot longer. And this is the film’s major flaw – there’s a certain degree of padding involved from this point on, especially in Something to Tide You Over, where jealous husband Leslie Neilsen buries his wife Gaylen Ross and her lover Ted Danson up to their necks on the beach and then sits back to watch them drown vis a video monitor. But the couple return from their watery graves to take their revenge.
There’s a lot to commend in this story – Neilsen, in one of his last ‘heavy’ roles before Police Squad finally confirmed him as a full-time comedy star, is on top form and the story is pure EC comics – a bad person getting his comeuppance in a twisted way. But it’s definitely over long – trimming it by a good five minutes (at least) would make the story much tighter and more effective, I suspect.
The Crate too could stand a little speeding up, but the pacing is less noticeable here. The favourite tale of many, this story opens with the discovery of a crate that has been locked away for 148 years. However, the thing that the arctic expedition discovered is still alive, well and – as you would be after all that time – very hungry.
This basic monster story is impressively fleshed out as mild-mannered professor Henry Northrup (Hal Holbrook), informed of the monster’s existence and its consumption of two people by his hysterical colleague Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver) sees the opportunity to get rid of his crude, offensive and alcoholic wife from Hell, Wilma (Adrienne Barbeau). Like many of the best comic strip horror stories, this makes no sense at all (how is having her eaten by a monster going to cause less suspicion than simply killing her himself and disposing of her body?) but it’s a lot of fun thanks to an impressive creature, a somewhat Lovecraftian feel to the story and Barbeau’s gleeful performance as the ghastly Wilma.
The final story, They’re Creeping Up on You, sees ruthless millionaire businessman Upson Pratt (E.G. Marshall) finding a bug infestation in his supposedly germ proof penthouse apartment (a remarkable vision of sterile whiteness. It’s not hard to sympathise with his increasing paranoia as more and more cockroaches appear. And then the lights go out…
Marshall has a lot of fun with his mean-spirited, sharp-tongued character and this story is probably the weirdest of the lot – you’re never quite sure if the bugs are real or just in his imagination, though the impressively grisly ending perhaps clears up any doubts.
Bookending the stories is a tale where Tom Atkins plays an unpleasant and abusive father who snatches his son’s copy of Creepshow from him and throws it in the trash (you’d like to think this was an exaggeration, but if you ever read the letters pages of Fangoria or Famous Monsters, you’d know that this happened a lot in America). Unfortunately, young Billy has already sent for the voodoo doll offered in one of the comic’s ads.
You can punch all sorts of holes into this story – why does Dad not freak out about the monster movie posters on Billy’s wall, how did the voodoo doll get delivered so quickly – but it definitely fits the sense of vengeance and punishment found in the original comic strips. Billy, incidentally, is played by Stephen King’s son Joe, now a successful author himself.
Given its age, Creepshow holds up surprisingly well. Romero has a tendency to make films that are overlong, and this is no exception, but at least the short story format ensures that even the longest tales don’t stick around for an excessive amount of time. A few of the effects have dated badly – the Creep that we see at the beginning of the film is a somewhat rickety dummy and King’s grass-covered body is fairly unconvincing – but on the whole, the movie still looks and feels pretty fresh.
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