Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Friday, October 9, 2015

Creepshow (1982)

If I had been born in the 1940's, I have no doubt I would have bought the horror EC comic books that George Romero's CREEPSHOW (1982) so lovingly pays homage to. EC (for Entertaining Comics) were popular from the 1940's thru mid-1950's specializing in crime fiction, science fiction, and most notably horror fiction including the popular Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. Censorship issues would force publisher William Gaines to ultimately concentrate on the humor magazine MAD.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT would become a popular HBO anthology series running from 1989 to 1996 but CREEPSHOW helped usher it in several years earlier. The brainchild of horror titans director George Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD) and horror novelist Stephen King (Salem's Lot, The Shining), CREEPSHOW is inspired by the horror EC comics. Director Romero's approach to CREEPSHOW is very different than the documentary feel he gave NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). CREEPSHOW is more stylized with scenes taking place in comic panels, scenes flipping from one to another like a comic book, tilted angles, and garish colors (blue, green, red) when a shock or violent act happens on screen. CREEPSHOW is literally a visual comic book.

I actually own this nice companion book to the movie
With original stories by Stephen King, Romero delivers gruesome tales that would feel right at home in an EC horror magazine. Five stories filled with greedy relatives, vengeful corpses, monsters from the North Pole, waterlogged adulterers, things from another planet, and a despicable millionaire who gets his comeuppance. CREEPSHOW has established actors like Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall, and Viveca Lindfors providing respectability to this horror film. It also showcases early performances by now famous actors like Ed Harris (THE RIGHT STUFF, APOLLO 13) and Ted Danson (BODY HEAT, TV's CHEERS). Let's take a look at each of the five frightful stories (if you dare!).

FATHER'S DAY - When I first saw this opening segment many years ago, it was one of my favorites but upon recent review, Father's  Day might be the clunkiest of the five creepy tales. Father's Day relates the tale of rich, eccentric great Aunt Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors) who's heading to the Grantham house for an annual dinner in honor of her late father Nathan Grantham (Jon Lormer). Bedelia's bored and restless relatives - Aunt Sylvia (Carrie Nye), nephew Richard (Warner Shook), and niece Cass (Elizabeth Regan) wait and gossip about the rumor that Bedelia murdered the stubborn, cantankerous patriarch with an ash tray as he screamed "Where's my cake!!!"  and pounded his cane on his wheelchair. Overwhelmed with guilt, Bedelia stops to visit her father's grave just outside the house only to have his corpse scratch and claw out of his grave and strangle her.

When Bedelia doesn't show, Cass's boyfriend Hank Blaine (Ed Harris) goes outside to have a smoke. He stumbles (literally) into Nathan's now empty grave, landing next to Bedelia's lifeless body before the headstone crashes onto Hank's head. Father's Day ends with the perfect horror climax as the zombie father Nathan goes on a rampage as the birthday cake is prepared, entering the dining room with Sylvia's severed head on a tray, birthday candles adorning her like a halo, moaning "I got my cake!"

Father's Day has all the ghoulishness a horror fan craves with greedy relatives and a decaying zombie but this opening episode stumbles out of the gate with too many characters at the beginning. The relatives and their relationships to great Aunt Bedelia are confusing. The corpse/zombie makeup by Makeup FX wizard Tom Savini in Father's Day should be the high point in the story but it's Savini's least interesting creation in the film. But the finale is good and an appearance by the young Ed Harris as Cass's boyfriend is noteworthy. Harris also worked with George Romero in KNIGHTRIDERS (1981), a modern day mashing of Camelot and motorcycle gangs.

THE LONESOME DEATH OF JORDY VERILL - Consequently, The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill was my least favorite story the first time I saw CREEPSHOW but upon a new viewing, I found Jordy Verrill to be funny and sadly touching at the same time. Stephen King (the author of CREEPSHOW'S screenplay and countless horror novels) plays Jordy, the luckless farmer. Originally, I thought Jordy should have been played by a more experienced actor like Harry Dean Stanton but King's Jordy is sympathetic and King shows a nice comic touch and expressive face (he was probably cheaper to use than Stanton as well). King can actually act.

A meteor crashes behind the Maine farm house of Jordy Verrill (Stephen King) one summer night. With visions of selling the meteor to the local college for $200 dancing in his head, Jordy touches the hot, smoking meteor. When he pours water on it to cool it off, it cracks into two. "You lunkhead," Jordy chides himself, watching his riches fade away. Jordy washes the meteor gunk off his hands but soon develops blisters. The next morning, he awakens to find a thick moss growing on his tongue, fingers, and other parts of his body. In fact, his entire farm and the inside and outside of his home are covered with the extraterrestrial weed.

Jordy is a born loser. His one shot at fame and money turns to grass...literally. It's a good thing The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill has a funny performance from King because it's the most depressing story in this anthology. With Jordy's farm and land and house and his entire body covered in space moss spawned from the meteor, Jordy has only one choice : kill himself. Jordy manages to not screw up his own suicide and points the shotgun at his moss covered head, ending his sad existence.

SOMETHING TO TIDE YOU OVER -- Titles are important to a good short horror story and Something to Tide You Over and the last segment They're Creeping Up on You are excellent examples. Something to Tide You Over is a play on words, a seemingly innocent phrase but the key word Tide has a more malevolent meaning.  Leslie Nielsen (AIRPLANE and THE NAKED GUN) is creepy in a non-comedic role as the jealous husband determined to kill his cheating wife and her lover.

Richard Vickers (Leslie Nielsen) is not a happy man. His wife Becky Vickers (Gaylen Ross) is sleeping with Harry Wentworth (Ted Danson). Richard surprises Harry at his home, threatens to harm Becky if Harry doesn't come with him. Richard takes Harry to a secluded Jersey beach where he forces Harry by gunpoint to jump into a hole in the sand near the shoreline. Richard buries Harry up to his neck.  Richard sets up a television monitor and VCR plugged into his running jeep and shows Harry a video of Becky also buried up to her neck with sand as the tide comes in, submerging Becky's head under the incoming waves. Richard has the same terrible fate planned for Harry and drives away as high tide approaches.

Back in his beach house full of video monitors, Richard takes a shower, washing away his sins. But was that a sound outside? Armed with his hand gun, Richard opens the door to find the waterlogged, seaweed covered ghouls Harry and Becky back from the dead. Bullets can't kill them (they're already dead as seawater spills from the bullet wounds). Harry and Becky take Richard back to the beach where another hole in the sand awaits Richard. The segment ends with a hysterical Richard (also buried up to his neck) yelling "I can hold my breath for a long, long time" as the next tide rolls in.

Something to Tide You Over is my 2nd favorite segment in this anthology. It's a simple tale of revenge but with a twist. Leslie Nielsen who audiences are accustomed to seeing play comedic roles is vicious as the murderous husband. Nielsen began his career playing serious roles in films like FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) before he caught the comedy bug in AIRPLANE! (1980). A young Ted Danson is excellent as the lover up to his neck in sand and saltwater. Danson's movie career had just got going with BODY HEAT (1981) and his CREEPSHOW appearance shows he was destined to shine. And Savini's makeup for the waterlogged, seaweed covered drowned lovers is wonderfully detailed, their faces prunish, having been submerged in the ocean for several hours before returning to torment Richard.

THE CRATE -- My favorite story in CREEPSHOW, The Crate gives us our first true monster but not in a setting we're accustomed to finding monsters. The Crate has three fine actors in Fritz Weaver, Hal Holbrook, and Adrienne Barbeau that enhance its appeal. These short horror stories are best told with a triangle of characters. The earlier Something to Tide You Over also succeeds with its three characters.

The Crate opens (so to speak) with custodian Mike Latimer (Don Keefer) discovering a crate under the crawlspace in the basement of Amberson Hall at Horlicks University. Stencilled on the side of the box are the words Arctic Expedition June 19th, 1834. Mike calls Professor of Zoology Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver) who's only to happy to escape a boring faculty picnic or watch his friend and colleague Henry Northrup (Hal Holbrook) be embarrassed by Henry's drunken, loud mouth wife Wilma (Adrienne Barbeau).

Dexter and Mike pry open the crate to discover an ape like creature with fangs living inside. The creature kills Mike in front of Dexter. Dexter stumbles upstairs and runs into graduate student Charlie Gereson (Robert Harper). Dexter rambles like a lunatic about a monster downstairs which piques Charlie's curiosity. Charlie the grad student gets too close to the crate where he's eaten by the arctic monkey (no indie rock band pun intended).

Dexter visits Henry and tells him the unbelievable story. Henry believes him and sees a chance to get rid of his abrasive, annoying wife Wilma. After drugging Dexter, Henry lures Wilma to the university basement with a note that Dexter has gotten himself into trouble with a college coed. Wilma shows up at the hall and meets her fate at the hands of the crate creature. There is no happy ending in these terrifying tales except for the cuckold husband Henry, free to play chess with Dexter.

The arctic creature in The Crate can be seen as a metaphor for Henry's id. He wants to get rid of his exasperating wife (she's a monster in her own way) and the creature is the physical representation of that desire. Dexter's irritation that Charlie the grad student wants to see the bloody murder scene leads to Charlie's demise. The Crate seems a playful homage to director John Carpenter and his film THE THING (also 1982). The name of the recipient on the crate is Julia Carpenter (perhaps a sly nod to John Carpenter). Carpenter's THE THING also takes place in the Arctic. And Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter's wife at the time) had appeared previously in Carpenter's THE FOG (1980). FX master Savini captures the perfect look of the crate creature -- a cross between an ape and the abominable snowman.

THEY'RE CREEPING UP ON YOU -- The final segment They're Creeping Up On You is not for the weak of heart or someone who has a fear of insects especially cockroaches. It preys on that fear and saves one of the biggest gross outs in CREEPSHOW for this final story of man versus insect.

So far the stories in CREEPSHOW have taken place in nice mansions, beach houses, rural farms, and a university basement. They're Creeping Up On You brings us to the city and a high rise building full of security cameras owned by millionaire Upson Pratt (E.G. Marshall). Pratt is a Howard Hughes like recluse with a fear of germs.  Pratt lives and runs his companies from his sterile, insect free penthouse apartment. Or is it bug free? Upton finds a cockroach scuttling across the floor. He steps on it, thinking it's the only one.

It's a crazy night as Pratt's company completes a corporate takeover of Pacific Aerodyne while a power outage threatens the city and Pratt's penthouse. Pratt wants the cockroaches out of his town house but they keep popping up everywhere. Mr. White (David Early), the night superintendent, can't promise Pratt exterminators will come until later that night. Pratt hides in his glass bedroom, all access locked and secure. Then, the power goes out. When power is restored, Pratt lies still on his bed. Is he sleeping? What's that scratching sound coming out of his nose?

Pratt treats people like insects, squashing lives like so many cockroaches. Pacific Aerodyne owner Castonmeyer (who commits suicide), Reynolds the building superintendent, Mrs. Castonmeyer, they're all just bugs to Pratt as he rails and sprays venom with his anger. Wearing a smock, medical mask, white gloves, and armed with a can of bug spray, Pratt's sterile, hermetically sealed world begins to slip away as he pays for his sins with the infiltration of cockroaches in his cereal, his jukebox, the sink, the lights, his bed, and ultimately his body.

There's a prologue and epilogue that begins and ends CREEPSHOW. Young Billy (Joe King, son of Stephen King) likes horror comic books like Creepshow. Stan (Tom Atkins),  Billy's abusive father, thinks their crap and tosses it into the garbage. In the epilogue, two garbage men (Tom Savini and Marty Schiff) find the comic book in the trash.  They notice a page has been ripped out next to the Voodoo Doll advertisement. Stan the father begins to have terrific pains in his neck and chest during breakfast. Upstairs, young Billy sticks needles into the voodoo doll of his father, payback for throwing away his Creepshow comic book.

Horror anthology movies often have a supernatural host to introduce the group of short features/shows just like the EC Comics did. CREEPSHOW has the Creep (originally I thought he was called the Spectre) who appears at the beginning of the film both as an animatronic puppet and an animated comic character. Later, TALES FROM THE CRYPT would have the Crypt Keeper (John Kassir) who opened and closed each CRYPT episode with a bad pun or joke about the title and plot.

Horror anthology movies are nothing new although anthologies tend to be more on television than in theaters (i.e. TV's THE TWILIGHT ZONE, OUTER LIMITS). The first horror anthology I saw was DEAD OF NIGHT (1945). In the 1960's, Roger Corman gave us TALES OF TERROR (1962) based on three Edgar Allen Poe stories starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. One of my favorite horror writers Robert Bloch (Psycho) had four of  his horror short stories made into Freddie Francis's TORTURE GARDEN (1967). Stephen King even got into the act with three of his short stories making up Lewis Teague's CAT'S EYE (1985). Most recently, TRICK 'R TREAT (2007) reintroduced the anthology concept interweaving four different stories on Halloween night. CREEPSHOW would even get a sequel CREEPSHOW 2 (1987) directed by CREEPSHOW
Director of Photography Michael Gornick with a screenplay by George Romero. CREEPSHOW 2 had only three segments based on Stephen King short stories.

There's something satisfying about CREEPSHOW. You get not one but five scary stories told all in the course of one movie. The audience gets a little taste of everything: suspense, monsters, and a little gore. George Romero and Stephen King were the kings of horror in film and books respectively. They love the source material and treat it with respect and admiration. The result is CREEPSHOW, a nifty horror film that makes you smile, cover your eyes, jump out of your seat, and occasionally glance behind you to make sure that creak wasn't a zombie or army of cockroaches coming to get you.

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