This 1982 collaborative effort between two of the great titans of the modern horror genre, director George A. Romero and novelist Stephen King, always risked the possibility that it could never live up to the understandably inflated expectations raised by the yoking together of such illustrious names -- who were working together here as director and screenwriter respectively; but their tribute to, and part-parody of, the 1950s US produced 10 cent horror comics which both director and novelist grew up reading in the post-war American years of their childhoods (and partly credit with fermenting their horror sensibilities in the first place), weathers well on a re-watch, where it now engenders nostalgia as much for the early days of practical animatronic, costume and puppet creature effects in the 1980s as it does for the garishly inked and coloured world of ghoulish sick-humour-as-catharsis in a post-McMartyite world it set out to recreate in movie form.
The titular fictional comic book ‘Creepshow’ -- with its skeletal cowl-wrapped host The Creepshow Creep -- was inspired by three of the most (in)famous lines in a cavalcade of similar horror comic-book publications which proliferated in the US during the period between 1950 and 1954, and all of which were published by the Entertaining Comics Group under the titles ‘Tales from the Crypt’, The Vault of Horror, and ‘The Haunt of Fear’. As cultural historian David J. Skal relates in his book ‘The Monster Show’, these gruesome cartoon paeans to human decay and putrescence recreated the imagery of the ‘danse macabre’ from medieval woodcuts by Hans Holbein, rendering their own celebrations of death and horror in lovingly lurid primary colours where: ‘the “dance” of the horror comics was their ritual narrative formula’. Published by William M. Gaines, the stories contained within these volumes routinely dealt in hysterically overwrought moral satire, couched in sadistic black humour which often times rejoiced in nihilistic destruction of the human body in comic-strip form. This didn’t go down too well with the usual gaggle of self-appointed moral guardians of the period, who quickly came to blame the rise of teenage delinquency during the 1950s, not on changing and uncertain social conditions, but entirely on the terrifying thrills and ‘sick’ humour being disseminated nationally by Gaines’ publications, and the gruesome line art assembled within their colourful pages by his talented pen and ink men. When a strict self-regulating comics code was finally introduced by the industry in the mid-‘50s, the game was up for the E.C. Comics brand, but these titles instantly became collectables; and those readers, such as Romero and King, who’d avidly consumed them in their boyhoods, continued to venerate these publications’ formative influence in their own adult work. For instance, the cartoon splatter and nihilistic satire of “Dawn of the Dead” clearly owed much to Gaines’ formula and to the contorted imagery of the abject which was the speciality of artists such as Graham Ingles.
“Creepshow” represents the first time George Romero was given the benefit of big studio backing (from Warner Bros.) for any of his projects. And having such a cast of established and well-known actors appearing before his camera as he did here was also a new development for a man who usually preferred to work with close friends in a homespun Pittsburgh environment. It was also the first time he’d handed over script-writing duties entirely to someone else on a project. Even if that someone else in this case was Stephen King, this was still a big deal. The two had first been brought together for a meeting after Warner Bros. executives sounded Romero out about directing a theatrical version of “Salem’s Lot”. When that turned into the Tobe Hooper directed TV movie project instead, the two at first thought about collaborating on a big screen adaptation of King’s novel “The Stand” but eventually Romero mentioned that he was keen to make an anthology film, his original idea being something in which each story would have some kind of a connection to the parallel development of the horror genre in film and cinema itself. But it was King who eventually brought up the idea of making a film in the style of the E.C Comics they’d both loved as kids instead, and he produced a screenplay of five original stories (two had previously been published as short stories) working from that consideration, in just sixty days.
The results have always divided fans. Although still a relatively low-budget movie and still largely shot in Romero’s native Pittsburgh (in a former girls’ school converted into a studio), there’s a certain corporate slickness about the look of it which doesn’t always sit well with fans of the director’s more characteristic ‘grungier’ aesthetic, which was a feature in his best works up to then such as “Martin” and “Dawn of the Dead”. Although he’d always been lauded for his distinctive editing style, in this case only one of the five episodes was actually edited by Romero himself, and the sometimes over-the-top cartoony nature of some of the performances irked many. Nevertheless, the film was a success upon its initial release and has been the only movie of Romero’s to ever make it to the number one box office slot … if only for one week!
Looked at again today, “Creepshow” generally holds its own as a campy testament to early 1980s FX-heavy but gore-lite mainstream horror, marking both Romero’s first concerted attempt to break into the mainstream (he has gone on record to admit that he was hoping to spawn a popular franchise with this film, and still has dreams of re-making it as such) as well as make-up maestro Tom Savini’s first real effort to cast aside his reputation as ‘the master of gore’ (attained as a result of innovative work in the slasher genre) and move into monster design and creature effects work instead. The latter project was probably the more successful of the two efforts. But as far away from what dedicated fans wanted from Romero as this may have been, the material that was provided by King is rendered by him in a creatively bright, showy style during the course of a film that does successfully invoke the spirit of the world of E.C. Comics just as intended. Working with his regular cinematographer Michael Gornick (“Dawn of the Dead”, “Martin”), Romero crafts a luridly fantastical mise-en-scène doused in primary coloured red and blue lighting gels which saturate the screen in accordance with the extremity of the emotions being evoked in the stories rather than from any relation to reality.
The opening ‘prologue’ segment sets the visual tone as well as the simplistic but cruel ‘moral revenge’ structure enjoyed by all five of the ‘jolting tales of horror’ King wrote for the project in his mostly effective attempt to ape the punch-line centred style of the original E.C. titles: Tom Atkins (“The Fog”, “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”) plays a foul-mouthed and angry ‘50s-style dad in a cardigan, who throws his horror-obsessed son Billy’s prized Creepshow comic-book out in the trash in disgust while his nervous wife (Iva Jean Saraceni) looks on mutely. The slap mark on the boy’s face from where his dad has just hit Billy hard after his intemperate mention of the mags his father also keeps stashed under his own mattress, sums up the hypocrisy of a man who derides comics as a bad influence, but who himself resorts to violence as a matter of routine. The inevitable vengeance Billy will take on him (the boy is played here by Stephen King’s own young son Joe) when we return to this scenario at the end of the movie for the epilogue, can probably be blamed as much on a childhood spent marinating amongst just these types of attitudes as it can on the authentic voodoo doll Billy has already sent for (with a cut-out coupon in the back of the comic) before his dad got to dispose of the offending item in the trash. From the exquisitely carved Pumpkin head perched like an orangey globe in the kitchen window (naturally these events takes place on Halloween night) to the electric blue lighting saturating the yard outside, this opening introduces us to the colour-coordinated comic strip aesthetics that will dominate the rest of the film; while Savini’s puppet Creepshow Creep ‘horror host’ (the film’s own version of E.C. Comics’ menagerie of narrator host ghouls such as The Crypt-Keeper, The Old Witch or The Vault Keeper) becomes an animated figure in a cartoon title sequence which seamlessly makes use of the Creepshow mag’s cover artwork, created by original E.C. artist Jack Kamen (Ingels was approached but turned down the project), for its stylistic model.
Throughout the picture Romero also makes frequent use of optical effects to enhance the comic-book aesthetic of the film, rendering images as part of a comic strip-style panel grid, incorporating colourful artwork ‘scrim’ backgrounds or assembling illustrated frames around various shots, and using coloured caption blocks to contain narrative information. Slanted ‘Dutch’ angles and animated ‘page-turn’ wipes also contribute to the comic-book feel displayed by these stories, each of which begin with an establishing illustrated shot which is arrived at after we’ve first flipped through the pages of Billy’s discarded Creepshow magazine, which provides us with fleeting glimpses of adverts for joke shop items like X-Ray specs, or muscle-building protein packs, etc., as well as the clearly made up ‘Letters to the Creepshow Creep’ letters’ page, in which terms such as NAUSEATED and TERRIFIED feature prominently in block capitals throughout every single missive printed. Finally we settle on a piece of artwork that’s accompanied by the Creep’s pun-filled introduction as the comic-book image gradually dissolves into the live-action equivalent of the same scene.
The first of King’s five tales, “Father’s Day”, is the most light-weight and predictable of the bunch, but also easily the most stylistically attuned to the E.C. Comics vibe. It’s reliant on vivid, gaudy lighting effects, archetypal ‘cartoony’ characters and a ‘sick joke’ denouement that was characteristic of the approach often taken by these horror comics during their heyday. In it Carrie Nye plays Sylvia Grantham, the impeccably huskily-voiced matriarch of a family of idle nouveau riche (and seemingly channelling both Maggie Smith and Tallulah Bankhead in her performance), who gathers her fellow inheritors of the family’s millions -- brother Richard (Warner Shook) and daughter Cass (Elizabeth Regan), who brings along her plaid shirt-wearing new husband Hank (Ed Harris) – at the ancestral home to commemorate the anniversary of the birth and death of the venal extortionist and racketeer Nathan Grantham (Jon Lormer) who provided them all with their thoroughly unearned riches in the first place. The party await the arrival of eccentric drunkard, Aunt Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors), who, so Sylvia has it, murdered the crusty old scoundrel on his birthday after being driven finally loopy by his ill-tempered demands for Birthday cake. However, Aunt Bedelia’s anniversary tipple, consumed whilst stopping for a yearly revelry at the family graveyard, where she proceeds to direct her still-raw ire at her former husband’s tombstone, results in the rotting, maggot-infested corpse making an unexpected appearance from below ground, whereupon the zombified patriarch sets out to make sure his birthday is celebrated in just the way it should have been before it was so abruptly cut short – with a thematically appropriate birthday cake!
With its rich palette of irrational primary colours and a set of stereotypical stock character performances by the cast (witness Ed Harris’s and Elizabeth Regan’s hilariously funky-kitsch disco dancing) headed by Lindfors’ theatrically cartoonish turn as the whisky swigging, granny specs-wearing Aunt Bedelia, this enjoyably absurd tale delivers a wonderfully gooey parody of the sort of decayingrevenants that would’ve frequented the artwork of the E.C. cannon (and were proving especially popular at the time this film was made in the work of Italian Godfather of Gore Lucio Fulci). Here the design is given especially maggot-ridden form in Tom Savini’s graphically gruesome makeup job for the Uncle Nathan corpse zombie, worn by former “Martin” actor John Amplas. Whether depicted crushing the skull of one of his descendants with a piece of heavy funerary statuary, or twisting one of their heads from their neck while screaming his macabre catchphrase ‘Where’s my Cake!’, Uncle Nathan’s zombie uncle from the grave is a typical example of the twisted, bleakly humorous moral satire which underpinned much of E.C. Comics’ approach to its material: his heirs have benefitted from the wealth provided by Nathan’s ill-gotten gains down the generations without doing anything to earn any of it; but now their acceptance of their inheritance of his fortune also bequeaths to them his retribution, when he returns to continue the Birthday celebrations so rudely cut short by his impromptu murder all those years ago. The final image presents a typical gory joke tableau, completely indicative of the E.C. Comics spirit.
Even more cartoonish and over-the-top in its execution is the second tale, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”, adapted from a previously published King story called ‘Weeds’ -- which stars Stephen King himself in a virtual one-hander (with a little help from Bingo O'Malley who plays all the subsidiary incidental roles) as a dungaree-clad yokel living in a run-down shack in the sticks, who discovers an alien meteorite in a crater on his land. Thinking this find could make him rich (although his idea of rich consists of a couple of hundred bucks) the oafish Jordy pours some water on the glowingly hot alien rock – which turns out to have been the very worst thing he could have done: alien spores carried to Earth by this alien rock use this as nourishment to sprout vividly green spiky shoots and grass-like alien mould on everything with which they come into contact – which pretty soon is the whole of Jordy’s shack, every single piece of faded, broken and stained furnishing inside it … and Jordy himself! Gradually Jordy finds everything in his tiny world as well as his ungainly body mutating into a single alien plant-like life-form that starts out as ugly itchy blisters on his fingers, but then turns into a series of gruesome green growths sprouting all over different parts of him and all over his house.
This love-it-it-hate it tale stands or falls on what one thinks of King’s deliberately cartoon performance -- full of exaggerated country bumpkin gestures, with larger-than-life eye-rolling and grimacing and a silly accent. Romero directed him to act the part like Wile E. Coyote from the “Roadrunner” Looney Tunes cartoons, so one can hardly blame the novelist himself for the approach taken. Since King is the only one who is seen on-screen for most of the story’s run time he tends to get the blame for undermining the gruesomeness with goofy acting, but Romero directs the tale’s fantasy sequences (in which Jordy imagines what might happen to him if he visited a Doctor with his complaint; or when he deliriously communes with his dead father in the bathroom mirror) in an even more unreal and comic-surreal manner – so the whole segment is meant to be seen as an outlandish live-action cartoon, and King performs his role extremely effectively.
The whole malady which befalls the unfortunate Jordy Verrill (which is reminiscent of the fate of astronaut Victor Carroon in “The Quatermass Xperiment”) is intrinsically unpleasant and also odd enough on its own to withstand this approach, but the story only succeeds at all because of the excellent production design of another Romero regular, the late Cletus Anderson. His design for Jordy’s shack and its careworn, neglected, shambolic interior -- with its antiquated furnishings and dusty scatterings of untended bric-a-brac, tells us everything we could wish to know about the way Jordy Verrill has lived his life since the death of his father three years earlier: the unpleasant yet ludicrous fate meted out to him is merely an allegorical illustration of the fact that he has allowed himself to vegetate in isolation on his rundown farm, leaving his home to fester uncared for and himself to sink into poverty through inactivity and fecklessness. This cruelly humorous story highlights yet another aspect of the E.C. Comics’ morally judgemental world!
“Something to Tide You Over” features the ever watchable Leslie Nielsen as a rich and vindictive businessman called Richard Vickers, who discovers his wife Becky (played by “Dawn of the Dead’s” Gaylen Ross) has been having an affair with a younger man (a pre-“Cheers” Ted Danson) and decides to take a prolonged and deadly form of revenge on them both. Mostly filmed on location on a beach in New Jersey, Danson’s Harry Wentworth finds himself literally digging his own grave at gun-point in order to find out what happened to his lover. Vickers’ perverse scheme involves burying Wentworth up to his neck in the sand, then playing him a live feed from a stretch of beach farther on down the coast where Becky has been subjected to the same fate. Unfortunately, the tide is already coming in fast along that particular stretch of the coastline and Wentworth realises that he is to eventually meet the same demise as her, but only after first being forced to watch the drowning of his lover on live video feed! A typically evil but spare E.C. Comics scenario is given a bit more flesh on its bones thanks to the great interplay between Nielsen (who makes an unexpectedly convincing straight man) and Danson in the tension wracked dialogue scenes which take up the majority of this piece. But, of course, there’s a ghoulish denouement in the offing, and it involves perhaps some of Tom Savini’s most effective zombie make-up ever (and provides a prototype for the ‘Bub’ make-up seen in “Day of the Dead”), in the form of the bloated, swollen and wrinkled living corpses of Harry and Becky which make an unexpected house call at Richard Vickers’ high-tech luxury beach-side mansion house, just when the scheming husband thinks he’s gotten away with his elaborately conceived plan of revenge.
“The Crate”, another previously published story, involves mathematics professor Henry Northrup (Hal Holbrook) finding an unusual way to dispose of his uncouth virago of a wife Wilma (Adrienne Barbeau) after the Janitor (Don Keefer) at his University discovers an mysterious padlocked packing crate that has lain unopened since the 1830s under an old stairwell in an empty part of the University campus. Wilma delights in getting drunk and embarrassing her placid professor husband with her socially inappropriate behaviour at the University’s polite social gatherings, where everyone discreetly feigns not to notice her relentless string of foul-mouthed anecdotes and insults. Henry can only seek solace in imagining murdering her in public -- to the applause and congratulations of his peers! The crate turns out to house a reclusive, bizarre-looking ape-like creature with a deadly serrated row of drool-dripping teeth and a large appetite to match its shy, retiring ways -- and is first reported to Henry’s best friend at the University, Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver), the Dean of the establishment who appears to have a habit of getting slightly too friendly with some of the female students. After several gruesome deaths occur right in front of Stanley while he attempts to investigate the contents of the crate, the shaken man confides in his friend, who immediately spots a way of disposing of Wilma once he’s contrived a way to get her into the same proximity as the creature’s darkened stairwell lair.
This fun segment is considerably enlivened by a subtle performance by veteran actor Hal Holbrook (“The Fog”), who brings an undercurrent of homosexual desire to his relationship with Stanley which adds another level to the suggestion of brinkmanship that develops between them, and also brings further allegorical associations to the theme of this indestructible ‘creature’ who remains hidden inside a box and wants to remain in the shadows, but who erupts from time-to-time with violent destructiveness – a fitting symbol for the suppressed and possibly repressed Henry Northrup, who confines his violent urges to fantasy and perhaps his true sexual inclinations as well. The monster itself afforded Savini his first big chance to create a large-scale creature effect (which was nicknamed ‘Fluffy’ by the crew) and appears in brief, frenetically filmed snatches of gory action, doused in the film’s trademark comic-book style red lighting effects.
The final tale, “They’re Creeping Up On You”, is another near one-hander, this time starring veteran actor E. G. Marshall (“12 Angry Men”) as modern day Scrooge-like businessman Upson Pratt, who takes active delight in the suicide of the business rivals he’s shafted, while living like Howard Hawkes on the top floor of a high tech apartment block in a pristinely white, germ free minimalist suite of rooms full of computerised germ-monitoring and communications equipment that enable him to run his affairs in a safely sterile environment while completely cutting himself off from all direct human contact and an outside world he largely despises. The idea here is a simple but effective one, involving the gradual invasion of Upton’s hermetically sealed, cotton-glove-wearing world by, at first, merely a handful, but eventually thousands upon thousands of scurrying, crawling cockroaches, which go on to infest every corner of his highly polished kingdom.
This is pretty much a one note deal, but it has undeniable effectiveness in building the volume of that one note, born from the fact that, in those pre-digital days of practical effects or nothing, Romero and his crew were obliged to actually use two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand live cockroaches on set, imported especially by entomologists from caves in Trinidad, where the bugs apparently live on and in bat faeces! The roaches represent the inadequacy of Upton Pratt’s obsessive cleanliness to make up for the moral corrosion years of shielding himself from all face-to-face contact has resulted in, leading to a hardening of the soul and a lack of empathy for the people whose lives his business practices routinely destroy. The increasingly agitated Pratt combs every corner of his perfect apartment in a futile attempt to discover the source of this vile infestation -- but the truth is revealed in a payoff whose metaphorical intent reveals the truth that corruption comes from the inside, not from an outside source. Unfortunately, the tales that are told in the extras on this disc about Romero and the grew attempting to ‘work with’ the roaches on set, sound much more traumatic and create a much more disturbing picture than the effects dummy prop, utilised in the final climactic scene, is capable of demonstrating -- so the payoff turns into something of a let-down, with the thousands of imported bugs (which could only be filmed for seconds at a time before being replaced, because they would simply scurry into every nook and crevice in the room and disappear within seconds of being exposed to the light! Euechk!!) pictured scuttling out of an unconvincing fake dummy of the lead actor.
“Creepshow” was a sleeper hit despite a fairly hostile critical reception at the time, and it has developed and retained enough of a cult following in the thirty years since to justify this anniversary Blu-ray edition. The HD transfer is first rate, and the film now looks immaculate – with all those scrim-related lighting effects allowing it to look every inch the brightly exaggerated live action comic-book it was always intended to. The extras are also plentiful and are headed by a commentary track by George A. Romero and makeup effects artist Tom Savini. The background established here is complimented and expanded upon in a 90 minute documentary, “Just Desserts: The Making of Creepshow”, in which Romero, Savini, composer of the excellent score and assistant director John Harrison, and the artist/illustrator Bernie Wrightson, are joined by every actor and crew member who was available to be interviewed at the time the documentary was made in 2007.
Actors Tom Atkins, Ed Harris, Bingo O’Malley, Adrienne Barbeau and David Early are joined by editor (on the Jordy Verrill segment) Pasquale Buba, animator Rick Catizone, producer Richard P. Rubinstein, key grip Nicholas Mastandrea, grips Nick Tallo and Marty Schiff, and script supervisor Joanne Shoe in this fascinating tour of the production of the 1982 classic. In addition documentary maker Michael Felsher brings together a collection of interviews he conducted at the time (but that didn’t make it into the finished documentary) and some more recently conducted interviews, with people who were involved but who had not been available when the original interview sessions were recorded, for a second commentary track which fills up all but the last ten minutes of the movie. Here, actor John Amplas, director-of-photography Michael Gornik, property master Bruce Alan Green, assistant make-up effects artist to Tom Savini (and the man inside the ‘Fluffy’ costume) Darryl Ferrucci and illustrator Bernie Wrightson contribute more recollections from the set. The disc also includes 30 minutes of “Behind the Screams” VHS footage shot by Savini and his team as they worked on their effects during the making of the film; some deleted scenes derived from a faded work-print; a TV spot and a theatrical trailer; and a comprehensive stills gallery featuring hundreds of photographs that cover every aspect of the production and its subsequent marketing.
This is a might haul for the “Creepshow” fan and provides a fantastic celebration of a film that was born to celebrate nostalgia, and which now has amassed quite a considerable amount of its own. Recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!