Creepshow (1982)

Creepshow first published by Film4

Synopsis: An anthology of comicbook tales from the crypt, made on the dream (or nightmare) ticket of fright auteur George A Romero and bestselling horror writer Stephen King.

Review: Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005) and Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) have all exploited advances in digital technology to find visual stylisations that reflect a comic-book’s layout – but before all of these, and before the CGI effects that made them possible, there was Creepshow, George A Romero’s tribute to the ghoulish EC Comics of his youth.

Framed by a story about a domineering father (Tom Atkins) who pays a heavy price for confiscating the horror comic of his pain-in-the-neck son (Joe King), Creepshow is an anthology of five gruesome tales that come to life from the discarded comic-book’s pages – each using inset screens, cartoonish captions, lurid colour design and animated bridging sections to remind us of their comicbook origins.

Unlike Amicus’s Tales From The Crypt (1972) and The Vault Of Horror (1973), Creepshow does not lift its episodes direct from the EC classics, but rather pays loving homage to its inspiration with five (six, really) all-new spooky yarns by Stephen King (yes, the Stephen King) that perfectly capture the EC blend of macabre sensationalism, twisted morality and black humour.

The first tale sets the comic tone for the whole film, its very title, Father’s Day, absurdly parodying the holiday-set horrors that were so popular in the early 1980s (Black Christmas, Halloween, Friday The Thirteenth, etc.). In it, a cantankerous old patriarch (John Amplas) returns from the grave to harry his surviving family members with a surreal catchphrase (“I want my cake!”) while serving them their own just desserts. Watch out for a young Ed Harris as one of the victims, just before he rocketed to fame in The Right Stuff (1983).

Next up is The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill, in which redneck ‘nunkhead’ Verrill (played by Stephen King himself) sees modest opportunity in a fallen meteor, unwittingly sowing the seeds for his own, and the world’s, destruction. This funny but grim vision of human fallibility and cosmic apocalypse stands out both for the famous author’s over-the-top performance and for being the only story in the film that does not involve objectionable characters getting their grisly come-uppance.

In Something To Tide You Over, Richard Vickers (Leslie Nielsen) turns the tables – and the tides – on his adulterous wife (Gaylen Ross) and her lover (a pre-‘Cheers’ Ted Danson), but they will get the last laugh from their watery graves. Nielsen made Creepshow after a host of serious film and television roles (he even screen-tested for Ben-Hur), but before his more slapstick incarnation in the Naked Gun franchise – and here his Richard, both menacing and funny, showcases both sides of the actor at their best.

The longest story is also the best. In The Crate, when zoology professor Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver) discovers a ravenous arctic carnivore locked away in an old crate, his friend, the mild-mannered, hen-pecked academic Henry Northrop (Hal Holbrook), lets the creature do what he himself cannot to his coarse, drunken harridan of a wife (Adrienne Barbeau). Combining nuanced acting with outrageous gore, it is a tale of what happens when the monstrously repressed come out of the closet, complete with a wonderfully subtle gay subtext.

Last but not least is They’re Creeping Up On You, in which reclusive, hygiene-obsessed magnate Upson Pratt (E.G. Marshall) finds his dog-eat-dog business practices coming back to haunt him when his hermetically sealed apartment admits the mother of all infestations. Nobody likes cockroaches, and this episode has them to spare, guaranteeing squirming formication in even the most unflappable of viewers.

Coming from the director of Night Of The Living Dead, The Crazies, Martin and Dawn Of The Dead, Creepshow faces insurmountably formidable competition for the title of Romero’s best film, but it was certainly his most popular, even attaining the number one ranking at the American box office for a week. Not bad for a low-budget, independent horror film, although what led the success of Romero’s least political film is easy enough to understand: cut-to-the-kill plotting, straight-faced acting, cheesy gore, John Harrison’s memorable soundtrack and, most of all, a script that never forgets its own inherent preposterousness.

“There’s a funny side to it,” as Henry Northrop tells his wife moments before her bloody (and almost deserved) demise. “Wait till you see for yourself.”

In A Nutshell: This horror omnibus tickles the funny bone while stripping it of its flesh, so that hysterical laughter comes as fast as the frights and as thick as the blood.

© Anton Bitel