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Holding your breath for a long, long time for CREEPSHOW the TV Series

(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in November 2019)

In some ideal little backwater alternative reality, the Wachowskis never made a sequel to The Matrix. (“It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at us. The movie is perfectly self-contained; He’s virtually a God at the end. What more can we say?”) In this Goldilocks paradigm the Chocolate Lime was never invented, Bowie is busy working on his twenty-eighth studio album – which features a rumoured collaboration with Prince - and they only made a single Creepshow movie.

Creepshow (1982) is - along with Dead of Night (1945), Amicus’s Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror (1972 and 1973 respectively) and The Twilight Zone (1983) - one of the better anthology movies. The first collaboration between the sadly missed George A. Romero and Stephen King (who would later go on to work together again on a decidedly lacklustre adaptation of King’s “The Dark Half”), it’s a loving tribute to the old EC Horror comics of the nineteen-fifties.

To those of you unfamiliar with EC’s comics, the most notorious of their output could be found in their horror books, namely The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. These tales frequently saw morally dubious protagonists having poetic justice meted out to them, often drawn in gruesome and grisly detail. As a result of this, the comic book industry became the target of mounting public criticism, with American Psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham campaigning against them due to their “influence on corruptible young minds”. As a result, horror comics dropped in popularity and many publishing companies were forced out of business.

The aforementioned Amicus movies featured direct adaptions of some of the EC titles from the day (of which “Drawn and Quartered”, featured in Vault of Horror and starring Tom Baker is a particular highlight).

Creepshow doesn’t feature any direct adaptations of EC horror tales, but instead features stories directly influenced by the feel and theme of those stories from the fifties. All but one of the five tales follow the traditional EC theme of bad things happening to bad people, with the other – The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill – mostly acting as a cautionary tale/comic relief segment.

The cautionary warning being “Don’t get meteor shit on your hands. And if you do, don’t suck your fingers”.

What made Creepshow a particular standout, even at the time, was the expert direction of George A. Romero. The comic motif features heavily throughout, many of the shots framed by borders with expositional text, or filmed at angles mimicking comic panels. Lighting is used cleverly throughout, scenes often lit with bold, garish colours – aping the basic four colours from old comics. Scene to scene transitions are often done as though the viewer is flicking from one comic page to the next, each story introduced by a comic panel which morphs into live action.

It also features an excellent cast; Hal Holbrook, Ted Danson, a never more chilling Leslie Nielsen, Ed Harris and Adrienne Barbeau (at the time still married to John Carpenter). Stephen King himself also stars (and does an excellent job) as Jordy Verrill in his eponymous segment, and his son Joe Hill (credited as Joe King) stars in Creepshow’s memorable prologue and epilogue sequences. Joe Hill would later return to Creepshow, albeit in a dramatically different way.

Creepshow 2 was made in 1987, but is a considerably weaker movie than the first. Featuring two fewer segments than its predecessor, it looks cheap and clearly didn’t have the same lavish care and attention given to it. “The Raft” is the standout story, but only because it’s the only one you’ll remember once the end credits roll. It feels like a rushed cash-in, and is barely worthy of the name. However, Creepshow 2 would only hold the accolade of worst Creepshow movie for a mere nineteen years.

Creepshow 3 (2006) is an abomination of a movie that shares little with its predecessors other than the title. It’s barely worthy of being called a movie, let alone being commendable enough of sharing any association with the Creepshow brand.

The only interesting thing about Creepshow 3 was that it took a similar approach to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in that all the stories are linked. They’re linked in two ways; one, in that characters from each story interact with each other during the film. Secondly, in that every segment is utter dogshit.

It was announced in 2018 that Creepshow would be revived at a TV series, directed, supervised and produced by Walking Dead producer and special effects guru Greg Nicotero. Of course, since the days of the first movie, the anthology format has been replicated successfully (and sometimes less successfully) on TV on numerous occasions. Even Romero himself had revisited the format with his TV series Tales from the Darkside (1983–1988) and the hugely successful HBO’s Tales from the Crypt which vomited out several spin-off movies, and ran between 1989 and 1996.

Being a huge fan of the original but not having not quite erased the ghastly memory of Creepshow 3 from my cerebral cortex, I was understandably nervous when the opening credits for the TV series for episode 1 of Creepshow appeared. The cheap animatronics on display for the silent cackling host, The Creep, didn’t fill me with confidence.

He honestly looks like a battery-operated decoration you’d pick up from the shelves of Poundland. Sometimes the animatronic Creep is replaced by a cartoon animation but that fares little better, with the quality resembling the cheap cartoon knock-offs of Disney films (“The Not-quite-as-little Mermaid”, “Frozened”) you’d find on the shelves of the same Poundland. Perhaps we’ve all just been spoiled by John Kassir’s excellent (and genuinely funny and charismatic) Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt.

Indeed, some people seem incapable of telling Creepshow apart from Tales from the Crypt.

All The Creep can seemingly do is cackle. You can’t shut him up for the reams of dialogue in his speech bubbles with the title and closing page of each episode, but he’s oddly stage-struck when you stick a camera in front of him. It’s probably for the best because even when he does cackle, his jaws clicks up and down like that particular unconvincing zombie with visible wires from Return of the Living Dead. An effect so bad they used it twice.

The series kicks off with Gray Matter by Stephen King, in which the most memorable quality is the fact it stars both Adrienne Barbeau and Tobin Bell (of “Do you want to play a game?”/Jigsaw fame). The tale itself, based on a 1973 short story by Stephen King, is an icky and gruesome enough story of body horror with some impressive effects work, but is fairly mediocre. The ending feels abrupt and at odds with the rest of the story with some jumps in logic that feel as though you’ve dropped off to sleep and missed three or so minutes of explanatory dialogue.

The House of the Head by Josh Malerman is infinitely better, being perhaps one of the single best episodes from a horror anthology I’ve ever seen. Focusing on what can only be described as a haunting in microcosm, it’s brilliantly original and genuinely chilling.

Overall impressions after the first episode were, on the whole, good. The important thing was that – Unlike the abhorrence that was Creepshow 3 - it felt like Creepshow. The comics’ vibe was ever-present, including the familiar panel changes, lighting and shot framing – and a decidedly average episode was lifted up by a phenomenal second one, so lasting memories were good.

The quality dips in Episode 2, which brings us two tales – Bad Wolf Down by Rob Schrab, and The Finger by David J Schow. Bad Wolf Down is an average WWII Werewolf story livened up by both the appearance of the ever-excellent scenery chewing Jeffrey Combs and some impressive flick-book style transformation effects; a special effects cost-cutting exercise with an effective (and thematically consistent) solution. The Finger is a somewhat more entertaining tale of regenerating monsters and dwindling sanity, shot like a stage play with fourth-wall breaking narration directly to camera, much like The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill from 35 years previous.

Episode 3 sustains the unexpected trend of a weak first episode propped up the second in the form of All Hallows Eve by Bruce Jones and The Man in the Suitcase by Christopher Buehlman. All Hallows Eve quickly moves from being unnerving to annoying, with a signposted unsurprising ending. The Man in the Suitcase is considerably more interesting, feeling like it wouldn’t have been out of place in Tales of the Unexpected. It’s filled with the blackest of humour, and satisfies both the EC traditions of “careful what you wish for” and “You’ll get what you deserve.”

Episode 4 is the weakest episode yet by far, which is disappointing considering that the first story (The Companion) is by the usually reliable Joe R. Lansdale. It’s well directed and beautifully lit, but – like its monster - ultimately hollow. Lydia Layne’s Better Half fares little better, basically being nothing but a good excuse to see Tricia Helfer in something again after Galactica. However, it achieves little more than squandering an intriguing premise.

We revisit the archaic territory of the classic supernatural tale “The Monkey’s Paw” in Episode 5 with another visit to what must surely be a familiar horror trope by now. They must be giving away enchanted wish giving monkey paws in Aldi by now, surely? They seem ten-a-penny. Night of the Paw feels longer than the other episodes, given a bit of time to breathe. Bruce Davison seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as an ill-fated mortician, but an excellent set-up (and some wonderful performances) end abruptly at a conclusion that makes little sense to what has come before. Times is Tough in Musky Holler is more successful, dropping us into an alternate zombie infested world with little explanation, culminating in some gruesome practical effects work. Creepshow seems to be work best when it’s not trying too hard – Times is Tough… is a simple story with a simple premise that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

At the time of writing this, there’s only a single episode left for Halloween. Hopes are high, with one tale written by Joe Hill, and the other by Paul Dini (of Batman the Animated Series fame) & Stephen Langford.

As I’d intended to allude to in my Ginger Nuts of Horror Tales of the Unexpected article, this kind of anthology format is very forgiving for a couple of reasons. If there’s a particular story that doesn’t appeal, there’s only a short wait for another one. Secondly, because of the brevity of each tale, you’re willing to forgive a lot of what came before if a story has a half-decent ending.

The quality control in the Creepshow TV series seems considerably better than that of Tales from the Darkside, but it’s still far from perfect. That said, even at its worst, it’s still eminently watchable and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next series – which, given Creepshow’s success on Shudder, is a foregone conclusion.

Creepshow has a lot in its favour, namely in the some of the excellent writers that have worked on it. I’d love for some brave showrunner to begin to mine the excellent short stories from the Borderlands book series, but until then, the weirdness and unpredictability of Creepshow will suffice.

And anything that banishes the memory of the poorly acted and directed travesty that was Creepshow 3 can only be a good thing.

Recommended viewing/reading:

Creepshow by Stephen King, Bernie Wrightson and Jack Kamen; A loving tribute to the horror comics of the 1950s, Creepshow is the graphic adaptation of the form, featuring art by Bernie Wrightson (Swamp Thing) and cover art by the acclaimed Jack Kamen, one of the original EC comic artists.

The Zombies that ate Pittsburgh by Paul R. Gagne; if you can get hold of a copy (which is a challenge in itself) this is an excellent read. Being a comprehensive behind-the-scenes book on the complete career of George A Romero, there’s a host of reading about both Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside. If you’ve any interest at all in the work of Romero or horror films in general, you owe it to yourself to stick in on your shelves.

Tales from the Crypt – Volumes 1-5; Paperback collections of the very best stories from the original fifties EC comics. Tales of psycho surgeons, the voices of the dead, voodoo rituals and séances. Every single one a stone-cold classic.

Fragments of Horror by Junji Ito; for a modern take on the old EC Horror Comics (and a Japanese take, at that) I can thoroughly recommend the works of Junji Ito. His tale “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” is as terrifying as anything I’ve ever seen or read, and haunts this claustrophobe’s dreams with frightening regularity.

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