Killtoberfest 4 – #9: Creepshow

In All, Movies by Kyu

“I told you before I didn’t want you to read this crap. I never saw such rotten crap in my life.”

Is Creepshow bad, or is Creepshow not for me? I wonder if this is how the people who didn’t like Grindhouse felt. Both are movies where two talented artists collaborated on a cinematic pastiche of the trashy-but-fun pop culture they were brought up on. Is the difference that I enjoy the low-rent flicks Tarantino and Rodriguez were aping in their movie, but not the schlocky EC horror comics that Stephen King and George Romero bring to life in Creepshow? I acknowledge the possibility that I was just born 30 years too late to be into this stuff. But I can’t help but feel like this film represents both writer and director taking on material far below their usual high standard.

Romero, of course, is the director behind Night of the Living Dead (which I reviewed during Killtoberfest 2) and the rest in that series, as well as an excellent deconstructionist vampire film (Martin) and another King collaboration, The Dark Half (which I also reviewed). To his credit, he’s stayed largely within the horror genre his entire career–too many directors make their bones on an indie horror flick and then graduate to more “respectable” genres–and with Creepshow, Romero really gets to let his horror fandom out to play. Both he and King grew up reading EC horror comics like Tales From the Crypt, and I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to say that each man took something of the opposite lesson from them. If there’s one thing about Creepshow that works, it’s the tension between King and Romero’s opposing approaches to justice.

It’s hard to believe, but Tales and the comics like it were once at the forefront of the culture wars. The owner of EC, William Gaines (who later founded the humor magazine Mad) was called in to Congress to give testimony about the social value (or lack thereof) of comics like this one:

Senator KEFAUVER: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?

Mr. GAINES: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

The results of these hearings? The comics industry created a series of restrictions on content called the Comics Code, Gaines founded Mad as a magazine to get out from under it, and horror comics essentially went extinct. There was no way to continue something like The Vault of Horror under the Comics Code, because these anthology titles relied on gore, grue, and salaciousness to entertain readers, elements that went hand in hand with their consistent reliance on extreme cases of ironic justice. The quintessential horror comic was about an awful, rotten, execrable scumbag of a human being getting supernaturally violent payback for their crimes. In a funny way, despite their vulgar style (and I mean that as description, not insult), these comics were downright conservative. They believed that bad things would happen to bad people, so much so that those bad things might even happen from beyond the grave.

Creepshow features five stories, in between a brief framing device. Two of them are based on existing short stories by King, and the rest he wrote specifically for the film, although one of those three is a fairly close reworking of his short “The Ledge.” King has always been interested in stories where nasty people meet nasty ends, and Creepshow is really just one of those stories after another. What determines the relative success of one of these entries? Primarily, it’s how much we hate the victim and how horrible their end. Let’s break it down.

After the frame story, in which a boy’s father berates him for reading a trashy horror comic, the film proper begins with “Father’s Day,” a story about a wealthy patriarch who comes back from the grave to slay his awful, inheritance-grubbing family. Besides featuring a young Ed Harris, this segment is pretty boring. It actually fails on both counts–the murders are not terribly horrific (one of them gets crushed by a tombstone, I guess), and the victims are a bunch of rich snobs but not nearly as hateable as they could be. Part of the trick to making somebody really, really deserve to die is having them victimize somebody else. If the snobs had spent their time making their servants miserable, perhaps, or if the killer wasn’t just as much of an asshole in life as in death, maybe I would have been more into this. As it is, “Father’s Day” is only interesting in that it introduces us to Romero’s visual style for the film, which mimics the cheesy comic book art through the use of abstract borders, colored light filters, and extremely canted angles. It’s an interesting effect, but it’s so overt that it feels like the film is trying too hard. Something more influenced by the comic book look than direct mimicry might have worked better and been more effective to boot.

Next up, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” I honestly don’t know what I dislike more about this one, which is about a moron of a farmer who touches a meteor and gets infected with a sort of creeping, alien plant life. There’s Stephen King’s pretty terrible performance in the title role. There’s the fact that the entire set-up is built around Jordy being by himself, so that he has to constantly vocalize his thought process. But the main problem is that Jordy is annoying but not hateable–he’s played by both King and the script as a dull-witted bumpkin to the extreme, and the segment is meant to be first funny, then unsettling (it ends with a fully overgrown Jordy blowing his head off with a shotgun). But although the effects are actually really good here, it’s hard not to feel like even this caricature is too simple-minded and good-hearted to deserve this slow, green rot. It’s true, too, that a lot of King’s work just comes off better and more nuanced in prose–and I’m thinking here not of “The Weeds,” which this is based on, but the very similar short story “Gray Matter,” about a boy whose father gets infected by a skunked beer. That one had a sympathetic victim to go with its legitimately vile villain (the alcoholic, abusive father). By contrast, “Jordy Verrill” is a slow, mostly unfunny, not horrifying enough slog to the end.

Will I have anything good to say about this movie? Yes, because the back half of Creepshow starts to see some improvement. Possibly the best part of the movie is the middle section, “Something to Tide You Over,” and there’s one big reason for this: Leslie Neilson. Fresh off his career pivot towards comedy, Neilson delivers the kind of slimy, completely over the top monster of a human being that this sort of story needs. Like “The Ledge,” which would later get adapted in Cat’s Eye (review here), “Tide” begins with a wealthy man getting the drop on his wife’s lover and proposing a devious revenge. The segment luxuriates in the slow awful tension of the set-up, in which loverboy (Ted Danson) will be buried on a beach in sand up to his neck and then left there while the tide comes in. It’s utterly horrifying stuff, filmed with patience and without the visual flourishes that fill the rest of Creepshow, and what makes it truly excellent is just how gleeful (and determined) Neilson is about seeing it happen. The turnabout-is-foul-play twist at the end is almost unnecessary after that.

But this segment illustrates my point about competing visions of justice. In Romero’s world, where a black man can survive the zombie apocalypse only to get shot by the police, the world is a place where “justice” is ironic and horrible, where people can prove themselves heroes or (as in Martin) change their ways, but can’t escape the limitations of their society. King’s universe, however, tends to see the wicked punished and the good escaping bad situations. As the writer of the movie, King ensures that “Tide” and other segments feature a villain’s comeuppance, but as the director, Romero is more interested in the horror of injustice. So the end of “Tide” feels perfunctory; the story can’t top its chilling middle scenes because Romero treats those scenes with more seriousness and energy.

There are a lot of reasons why the next segment, “The Crate,” is awful. But weirdly enough, in a film full of generally excellent effects and designs (no surprise, given that the FX man here was genre legend Tom Savini), the real issue here is simply that the monster in the crate is just really stupid looking. It’s not scary at all. It basically just looks like a monkey with sharp teeth. A monkey!

Plus, you know, “The Crate” fails on just about every other front. A story about a professor who discovers a man-eating monster in an old crate under the stairs, it features another of the film’s annoying-but-not-actually-hateful victims. That would be the professor’s embarrassing drunk of a wife, Wilma (“Call me Billie, everyone does!” she says repeatedly). There’s something really disturbing and misogynistic about the cold-hearted way the professor goes about getting her eaten by the monster; she’s just not that awful of a person, and it seems more like a divorce situation (or even a, “get this woman some substance abuse help” situation) than this. Another issue with the segment is the pacing–it’s one of the longer stories in the film, mostly so that King can wring a variation on one of his favorite templates (and one of my least), where there’s a deadly thing (a car or a crate or whatever) that people continue to blithely blunder into. That repetition does the main story no favors. The other main problem is simply that, having done the deed, the professor (a wonderfully cold and calculating Hal Holbrook) gets away with his crime without a hitch. No fun.

The final story, “They’re Creeping Up on You,” is probably the best, and shows what Creepshow might have been with more imagination and a better commitment to the right worldview. The tale stars the fairly Trump-like character of Upson Pratt (E. G. Marshall), another wealthy, racist, germophobic New Yorker who lives in a towering skyscraper. Pratt’s apartment is practically science-fiction, a pure white, sterile environment designed so that Pratt can communicate with the outside world without needing to make physical contact with anyone. The structure is simple: Pratt has a few conversations, each of which show us that the man is extraordinarily hateful and hateable. Then a sudden power outage leaves him vulnerable to a veritable invasion of cockroaches, the disgusting bugs gradually finding their way into every room and onto every surface of Pratt’s “germ-free” home. There’s the nice implication, left unexpressed, that these bugs are vengeance from either a business rival (Pratt executed a hostile takeover of his company; the man committed suicide) or the rival’s wife (Pratt takes an angry call from her and laughs, mocking her dead husband as weak and foolish). Regardless, we finally have not only the perfect villain but a horrifying demise–as someone who is phobic about both germs and bugs, I find it difficult to watch or even think about. Moreover, Marshall blows King out of the water as an actor in what is mostly a solo piece, carrying on a mumbling, paranoid rant to himself about the bugs and the unhelpful (black) building manager. “They creep up on you,” is Marshall’s refrain about insects, but it applies just as well to his whole attitude toward the human race, all of which he considers to be filthy and lesser creatures. From the unique visuals of the apartment to the gut-wrenching special FX, “They’re Creeping Up on You” truly delivers on Creepshow‘s promise: a vibrant and horrifying story about justice done. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer man.

All horror anthologies are inevitably uneven works, but Creepshow only manages to work a few times during the film. I don’t think the attempt to honor these gruesome, punny comics was a bad idea; but something about the alchemy of King and Romero just doesn’t seem to have worked most of the time. The problem, I think, lies mostly with King, who misses the mark throughout by more often than not “punching down.” Either the film should have stuck with doing creative violence to horrible people, or it should have embraced Romero’s viewpoint of doing horrible violence to people we know don’t deserve it. The twist ending to Creepshow‘s frame story is that, once the boy’s father tosses his comic book in the garbage, the garbage men find it and read it. King and Romero mean this ironically, taking the disapproval of the generation before them as a badge of honor. But at least as it’s presented here, I think Creepshow reviews itself. Sometimes one man’s trash is just that.

Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because you better believe they’re creeping up on Trump. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.