Midnight Screenings: Creepshow

In 1982, the world received a horror holy grail: George A. Romero and Stephen King got to work together. The gruesome twosome, one perhaps the largest cultural force in horror over the last 45 years and the other the director who changed the path of horror filmmaking forever in 1968, were already namesake figures in 1982. Neither had anything to prove, and both are clearly having a ball here. The film they made, Creepshow, cheerfully casts off the weight of expectations in every way but one: it’s supremely well made. It wasn’t going to redefine horror, although one could make a case for its cinematography: it features some breathtaking high-contrast color that absolutely nails Italian giallo cinema’s particular mixture of fluorescent energy and subzero chilliness, which has no real precedent in Romero’s preference for grimy allegorical realism. But, outside that, Creepshow is largely content to amuse its creators and itself. All that really matters is that it lets us in on the fun.

Rekindling the classic horror omnibus anthology films, then most recently popular as a series of British films by Amicus Productions, Creepshow follows the Amicus style by compiling five shorts into one feature length film. While the Amicus productions literally adapted stories from mid-century pulp horror comic books, King and Romero conjure their own out of thin air, pulling a couple of King short stories and adding three new King screenplays to the mixture. Each story is fairly slight, even vague, functioning somewhere between a half-remembered dream and a fable that comically, ruefully enjoys punishing its protagonists for their obvious, caricatured flaws. More accurately, each story feels like a Saturday morning cartoon version of horror, almost like King and Romero woke up and jotted down the outline of a dream they had about writing a short story instead of actually thinking the story through. In general, I mean this in a positive way.

This is especially so in the final two tales, “The Crate” and “They’re Creeping Up On You,” each of which is defiantly a situation or a sketch rather than a story, and all the better for it. In the former, Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau play a troubled married couple whose astoundingly toxic romance is interrupted by a creature shipped in a crate from the Arctic. (Holbrook’s character is a professor, and there’s something about a scientific expedition, but that’s just a pretense.) In the latter, E.G. Marshall plays a Howard Hughes-like shut-in who is mortally afraid of social contact with the masses. For Romero, the swarm always gets in.

A cheerful spirit of teasing superiority animates both of these tales, a cheeky moralistic slyness that, admittedly, does resonate with both Romero’s and King’s typically broad attitude toward character development. But in this punchy, short-form style, the lack of sustained development is actually a benefit. Each short feels like a campfire tale, or a particularly demented Looney Tunes short (somewhat like the better two tales from the following year’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, especially Joe Dante’s similarly primary-colored, barbed-wire-cotton-candy adaptation of the classic episode “It’s a Good Life”). Which is the style of the old EC Comic Books on which this film is spiritually based: a gnarly, giddy-minded burst of cinematic lightning, less invested in horror as a physical or mental reaction (“inducing fear”) than as a playful relationship to a heightened reality where the bounds of reality can change on a moment’s notice.

Before those two final (and best) tales, we get a plain old-fashioned revenge-from-beyond-the-grave story in the form of two lovers played by Gaylen Ross and Ted Danson who are sent to Davy Jones’ locker by Ross’s husband Leslie Nielsen (astoundingly cruel in one of his final “serious” performances, although Creepshow splits the tonal difference). They don’t stay down long though, as revenge is never more than a few minutes away in a Stephen King story. Before that, we have the impossibly stupid (in this film it’s hard to tell whether that is a positive or a negative) “Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” which, along with “The Crate,” was adapted by King from a pre-existing short story of his (the other three he wrote cold for the film). King gets in on the fun on-screen in this one too, playing the titular character, a farmer who just couldn’t resist touching a space rock that falls in his backyard and soon overruns his body and land with plant matter. Although this one has the most potential, glimpsing the surreal and the sublime, it settles for much less, and is both salvaged by and destroyed via the rather obvious fact that it was simply King’s attempt to have a fun time on-screen for the first time.  

That leaves the first tale, “Father’s Day,” the story of a reanimated patriarch zombie played by Jon Lormer who returns to his no-good aristocratic family for revenge as they feast in his absence. Or because he just wants some cake. This first story already signals the peculiar tone the film is working with: rather than a personified Cryptkeeper a la Tales from the Crypt, Romero and King infuse the mocking, maniacal, candy-coated-barbed-wire spirit into the texture of the shorts themselves. This story, like all the others, doesn’t amount to much, but the glue holding it all together is Michael Gornick’s frankly amazing cinematography, an early, full-throated, unapologetic attempt to recapture the surrealistic hypnosis of Italian giallo films, themselves based on mid-century comic books (along with Alfred Hitchcock films). Drawing cinema away from realism and toward the play of attraction and repulsion endemic to horror, Gornick’s cinematography unleashes expressive energies generally unseen in American film at the time and, frankly, even now forty years later, give or take a Mandy. Gornick and Romero clearly invest in the excuse the EC comics adaptation offers them to let loose and orient viewers toward cinema’s capacity to flare up and unloose energies. It isn’t the best film they made together – I mean, they made Dawn of the Dead – but it is the most unhinged display of their talent divorced from any concerns about theme or narrative coherence, their most florid adventure into what horror could look like on screen, if not the be-all and end-all of what horror could be.

Score: 8/10

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