Romero: An Appreciation Part 13 – Creepshow

One of Romero’s most loved films is his 1982 homage to the comics of his youth.

This film, Creepshow, evolved from a desire to work on something written by his friend Stephen King, and it is not hard to imagine the two wiling away some hours during the filming of Knightriders on the subject.

Based on the comics released by EC, published in the pre-code era, Creepshow is perhaps the only movie to accurately portray the macabre humour and irreverent attitude if these comics. Even though there are several films (and a couple of TV shows) that are “named” adaptations Romero’s attempt is still the yard stick by which all others are measured. A great deal of emphasis was put into the peculiar tone of the film, something that no other adaptation has managed to completely master, and this was done by a deft mix of visual styling and script.

To begin with Stephen King’s screenplay uses stories inspired by, rather than direct adaptations, of the stories published by William Gaine’s EC group. This allowed Creepshow to tread new ground rather than re-use the already overused stories from the comics themselves; as well as “mix and match” often used subjects and plots from the stories at the same time. In the way King was able to create “archetypal” Gaine stories while still being somewhat original. This allowed a contemporary update of the style and relevant substance of the material, making Creepshow a true homage to that long forgotten, though important, age of comics.

Visually Romero moved further from his comfort zone that many might think possible, but in some ways this should not be surprising as Night of the Living Dead had already shown a firm visual style that many of his other films lack. Creepshow is merely a return to this visually driven style and could be seen as an experimental attempt from the director.

Garish colours intersect with Dutch angles to create the panels of a comic book on the screen, effortlessly moving in and out of the comic illustrations that bookend each tale. As technical direction goes Creepshow must be considered Romero’s finest achievement. This is not to say that it is his best film but certainly the technical effort gone into staging a consistent, flowing visual narrative is something that could not fail to impress.

In the years after computers had been introduced into the film making arsenal films that look a lot like Creepshow are two-a-penny, but in the early 1980’s everything done onscreen had to be done practically with almost no post processing; especially on a film as cheaply made as Creepshow.

So there were no other options for Romero, lighting and camera angles had to be precise, matching up with the visual tone of the separately created comic panels without a hitch. Visually everything filmed could not be altered any significant amount afterward, so it had to be right first time. The acting of the piece was similar and a straight dramatic presentation of the character would not suffice, this is a comic book after all, so something more melodramatic would be needed.

For this Romero assembled a fine group of actors, some from his previous films (including the always wonderful Ed Harris as well as Dawn of the Dead’s Gaylen Ross) as well as some amateurs (including Stephen King’s wonderful interpretation of Jordy Verrill). The crowning achievement had to go to the cast of the story generally considered the best in the film, The Crate, which brought out excellent performances from Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and Fritz Weaver.

Creepshow can not be appraised as a single film, but rather a collection of short films that carry similar themes and styles. Even in this the films in this collection are not the same, ranging from the absurdist turn of The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill to the bleak nihilism of They’re Creeping Up on You, each has its own flavour and it is in this that Romero makes perhaps the perfect anthology film.

Each tale is part of a matching set but each tale is unique within that set, pushing its own style very clearly in its own direction.

This is in keeping with the EC comics as well, and William Gaines’ own philosophies concerning their creation. In what is known as the Golden Age of comics it was common for artists and even writers not to be credited for their work and this is something Gaines changed, making each artist and writer not only named (and sometimes shamed) for their work but also encouraging them to push their individual styles to their limits.

In Creepshow Romero does exactly the same, each tale follows its own path and bears little resemblance the tale that precedes it. Obviously this results in a film of varying degrees of success and though one or two of the stories do not hit the heights of The Crate their uniqueness and execution label them as entities in their own right.

At this point a brief synopsis and examination of each of the short films would be helpful in our appraisal of Romero’s Creepshow.

Prologue

We open on young Billy (played by Joe King) mid argument with his father (the always cool Tom Atkins) over a comic entitled Creepshow; after which Billy is banished to the cell of his bedroom and the comic is trashed with a disdainful “Why do you read this crap?” from the father.

The films setup is a simple one, and within mere moments we have a clear indicator of who the villains and victims (as this is a horror film there are no real heroes) are going to be. The villain is the harsh authoritarian father, with old-world values and a closed mind. Young Billy on the other hand is the audience themselves, open to a different experience, and with values far removed from the generation before.

There is irony here, as the generation before are those who gave us comics like The Haunt of Terror and Tales from the Crypt. It isn’t that they didn’t once appreciate this form of entertainment; it is that so many have forgotten the fact.

Perhaps, before real life soured him, Billy’s father was not unlike Billy. Perhaps an indication that “growing up” is something forced on us rather than something we adopt voluntarily.

A lot can be read into this simple setup, and its unlikely much of what can be read into it was there intentionally. The one simple point is that the opening to Creepshow sets up a simple premise; authority is bad, and it will either punish you for rebelling against it, or it will succumb under its own weight.

As the discarded comic book flutters from the waste bin and down the darkened street it pages open on the title page to our first tale:

Father’s Day

It is fitting that the first tale is about an authoritative father in an upper class family; more specifically a deceased authoritative father in a somewhat unlikable upper class family.

It is father’s day and the family have joined at the family home, a mansion no less, to commemorate the deceased patriarch. Why they are commemorating him is a mystery, not only to the audience but to the family themselves. The late Nathan Grantham was a crook and a swindler, making a fortune through extortion smuggling and even murder-for-hire.

Nathan Grantham was not a particularly nice man; and when his long suffering daughter Bedilia finally did the old monster in he had deserved the treatment many times over.

On this particular father day things do not go even remotely as planned and though Bedilia’s usual visit to her father’s graveside begins as it always does, the end arrives on the shoulders of the fathers mouldering corpse digging its way out of the grave.

One by one the old man does away with the remainder of the unpleasant money hungry Grantham clan, and then finally with the demise of poor Bedilia.

Fathers Day is typical EC, from the simple revenge plotline to the presentation of the corpse itself. There is no realism in the story, neither in the over the top characterisations or the make-up effects of the horror itself. The aim with this story is to present the excessive and sheer joyous absurdity of the films tone.

Leading on from the Prologue we see how pure authoritative power eventually easts itself, ending in a cannibalistic orgy where there are no winners and all are equal in death. Ironically our villain becomes our hero, Dead Nathan shedding his vile cantankerous ways in favour of simple pleasures; those of a nice cake.

The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill

From horrible patriarchs we shift to downtrodden sons when Jordy Verrill (wonderfully played by Stephen King) finds a chunk of meteorite on a nearly abandoned farm. His modest intentions, to pay off a $200 bank loans with the proceeds of its sale, are dashed when green ooze it leaks turns out to be a super-fertilizer that turns everything it touches green; including Jordy himself!

Following his comic turn in Romero’s earlier film Knightriders, King shows considerable ability in the broadly comic hero of this segment. Kings’ enjoyment in the role is infectious and provides Romero with the most outlandishly staged portion of this already rather outlandish film.

What surprises is that in spite of Jordys’ over the top presentation he still manages to inspire more than a little sympathy in the audience. Ultimately he is not unlike many of us, in that he is merely a human being trying to overcome his considerable shortcomings in a world that had little tolerance for weakness. Jordy is the typical “simple man”, not overly bright and lacking any significant talents he bumbles his way through life, berated by many for the simplicity for which he has no control.

Jordy cannot help being what he is, and it’s sad that his good nature and simple needs are considered pathetic.

Something to Tide You Over

The next segment is perhaps the second strongest of the stories, providing a fine performance from a legend of film who would find s second wind as a comedy star in the 1980’s.

Leslie Nielsen plays Richard Vickers, an independently wealthy man who seeks revenge on his adulterous wife and her lover. With a jovial nature he terrorizes Harry (played by Ted Danson), burying him to his neck in the sand not too far from the incoming tide. Somewhere down the beach is Becky (Gaylen Ross, of Dawn of the Dead) who Harry can see via a CCTV network.

Harry’s only chance is to allow the tide to loosen the sand in which he is buried, while making sure he holds his breath long enough to survive it.

Predictably he does not, and he and Becky return to exact their own revenge on their abuser.

Something to Tide You Over is held together by solid performances from two men better known for their comic talents than their acting ones. Nielsen overplays just enough to show Vickers’ vicious enjoyment while Danson underplays his characters fear. What we end up with is something that supports the horror of the situation rather than playing up to it. There’s something oddly Hichcockian about this segment, much is made of the suspense and when the conclusion arrives it is somewhat underwhelming.

This does not make the ending an unwelcome one rather that it is a logical and complete conclusion to a suspense filled sparring between two finely acted characters. As an ending is it necessary but little more than that.

Much like the next segment, something to Tide You Over could easily be expanded into a feature of its own, and it’s slightly surprising that Romero has never revisited the theme.

The Crate

Easily the strongest segment of Creepshow, The Crate is the part of the film that I first heard about as a child. This was the story that was passed around the school playground, and it was the moment eagerly awaited by all those who had heard about it.

The story itself is a simple one, but one that under Romero’s deft hand becomes a revenge tale unlike any other.

When Dexter Stanley (played by Fritz Weaver), a professor at a small college, finds a long forgotten crate hidden away under basement stairs; but he is unaware of the horror that it contains. Inside is a ravenous creature, imprisoned for many years and very, very hungry as a result.

When Dexter brings this to the attention of mild-mannered colleague Henry Northrup (Hal Holbrook) his friend realises that this could be a lucky break for him and he quickly devises a plan to rid himself of his shrewish wife (Adrienne Barbeau).

Though the story broadly fits into the “revenge” category it’s unusual that the vengeance involves Henry’s murdered masculinity rather than something corporeal in nature. His wife is not particularly evil, rather she is drunken and boorish, leading to some not inconsiderable emotional abuse, and his plans for her seems extreme to say the least; but this is the very nature of vengeance, and what makes it distinct from justice.

Much like the previous segment, The Crate’s strength is a result of its performances, all three of which are played perfectly.

Fritz Weaver plays Dexter’s fall into fear induced breakdown with perfection, he is equal parts funny and frightening. He goes from a self assured college professor to a babbling emotional wreck with a logical fluidity that acts as the foundation of the story. It is his performance that allows the delicate balance between the absurd and the horrific on which The Crates success lays.

Hal Holbrook manages a more subtle performance that is not too dissimilar to Nielsen’s in Something to Tide You Over. The character of Henry Northrup takes a maniacal pleasure in his plan and the resulting horrific death of his wife. Even as he watches her being devoured alive there is a mixture of fascinated academic joy on his face; even as he covers his mouth in horror.

Lastly we have Adrienne Barbeau, who plays Henry’s unnamed wife to absolute perfection. From piercing laugh to withering gaze she is the epitome of the wife from hell and her performance is that which brings the whole story together. Without her arguable justification for Henry’s extreme actions we could not conceive of Henry, and by extension Dexter, as the heroes of the piece, even though they are also arguably the villains. It is this questionable nature that allows The Crate to play out with deceptive complexity. With Barbeau’s performance we have the unusual ability to see then in a unique way in popular film; we get to see them as neither good not bad, but rather as people who are a mixture of both natures.

Ultimately this is what raises The Crate above the other stories in this collection. It is a fine mixture of the absurd, the horrific, the mundane and the insane; and many places in between.

They’re Creeping Up on You

Oddly the final story in Creepshow is probably its worst.

Upson Pratt is an extreme germophobe living in a hermetically sealed environment atop a high rise. He is a businessman, which in Romero-speak equals evil incarnate, and we suspect that his germophobia is a self induced exile to separate him from the normal people below.

One night a rolling blackout moves across the city and as Upson begins to panic his pristine home become a breeding ground for thousands of cockroaches.

There Creeping Up on You is the simplest tale of the collection, and though it is ably played by its lead E. G. Marshall it doesn’t have the appeal of the other segments. Much of this has to do with the environment on which Upson lives, the plain white walls and chrome fittings allows for little character beyond that of an extreme authoritarian, and the lack of any other onscreen characters (not counting one brief appearance through a spy hole to a person in a hallway) allows E. G. Marshall no room to explore what could have been an interesting character.

This is not to say that this segment is a dead loss, or that it isn’t a fitting conclusion to the film. Regardless of its faults the mood of the piece is a fitting end for the film, and its final scene is sure to stick in the mind for some time to come.

Epilogue

Finally we return to the young boy and his discarded comic book. We return to the street on the morning after the argument as two trash collectors begin emptying the refuse from the street. One of them (played by Tom Savini) leafs through the comic and we are presented with the advertisements for x-Ray spectacles and body building courses. Then we notice something that a sharp eyed viewer may have spotted earlier in the film, something has been cut out from the comic book.

Billy, the young boy alienated by his father, has redeemed one such offer, a Voodoo doll.

Back inside the house Billy’s father begins to complain of neck pain. IN his room Billy has the doll in his hand, and a needle poised above it; he strikes down.

Billy’s father screams again and again as his young son finally gets his revenge.

As the credits begin to roll on what is considered by many to be the anthology film to which others should be judged it is easy to see Creepshow as perhaps the signature style of the 80’s horror craze. The decade typified not realism but surrealism, gone was the gritty simplicity of the 70’s or the gothic 60’s; the 80’s were a time of experimentation within the genre.

Creepshow was one of the earliest examples of this often over-the-top delivery. With its heavy use of coloured lights and gels, snappy editing and creative camera work much of what came after followed similar paths.

The style was not just contained by its visual presentation, the writing also followed suit. Broad brush strokes were used that walked the edge of comedy and brought to mind the films of the 50’s that often did the same.

In short Creepshow epitomises independence in film making and the lengths film makers can go to express creative ideas that remain as potent thirty years later as they did on their release,

With every viewing Creepshow shows a masterful understanding for horror genre clichés and the genres roots, as well as a playful disregard for the very same. Few movies have trod the path the Creepshow has, and those few who have tried have almost as often failed.

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