Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Being Scared

Commercially, Creepshow was something of a minor miscalculation back in 1982. Sure, upfront it looked like the safest bet that anyone had ever made. Bringing together George Romero and Stephen King at their respective peaks? With splatter superstar Tom Savini supplying the FX? How does that NOT add up to the biggest horror movie ever? It wasn't for nothing that Cinefantastique's Creepshow cover story (in their Sept-Oct '82 issue) posed these three titans of terror together and asked the rhetorical question: "Are These The Scariest Men in America?"

But while the $8 million dollar movie (Romero's biggest budget to date) went on to do respectable business (making close to $20 million in the US), it didn't go through the roof. You'd think that horror fans would've been stampeding theaters to support this collaboration but perhaps they did and that just wasn't enough. The wider audience was soft on Creepshow, for some reason. And I think it comes down to the fact that Creepshow was all about paying homage to something that was before the time of the young audience of the early '80s.

Anthologies have always been a tough sell to begin with but Creepshow was also out to celebrate a series of comic books from the 1950s that were unknown to most of the under-21 crowd. The grisly lore of E.C. Comics hadn't made its re-introduction to the popular culture yet (that would have to wait until the debut of the HBO Tales from the Crypt show in 1989) so in wearing its influences on its sleeve, Creepshow came across as a big "huh?" for a lot of people.

Romero was definitely onto something when he said in a Cinefantastique interview in the magazine's April '82 double issue, months before Creepshow's release, that "I don't have a lot of faith in audiences anymore. It seems that if something doesn't click into immediate recognition nobody wants to figure it out or understand it." That's a pretty dead-on description of the initial reception of Creepshow. Unfortunately, this was supposed to be the film that would give Romero and King the chance to prove their box office mettle and give them the clout to do a theatrical version of The Stand. That a Romero-directed Stand never came to be may not be entirely due to the box office performance of Creepshow but had Creepshow been a hit on the level of Dawn of the Dead, rather than quietly coming and going from theaters in the fall of '82, you never know what might've happened.

While Creepshow may have only turned a few heads in theaters, today it's regarded as one of the most well-loved horror films of the '80s. For myself, this was the first R-rated horror movie I was able to convince my mother to take me to so it'll always have a special place in my heart. I had never anticipated a horror film with so much excitement before and despite my mother's reluctance to have anything to do with Creepshow, I was determined not to miss it (this was before our household had either cable or a VCR so if I missed Creepshow in the theaters, I was screwed). About a month prior to seeing the movie, I asked my mother to buy me the Berni Wrightson-illustrated adaptation and I read that thing to death in the weeks before Creepshow came out.

Creepshow has a vibe to it that never fails to pull me in. The movie is so amiable and so imbued with a good time spirit that it overrides any serious critical thoughts. With its replication of a comic book's visuals, it's the most meticulously designed film of Romero's career and it's sadly the last time he was able to have that killer combo of money and artistic freedom. Everything since then for him has been a little compromised in one respect or the other so that makes Creepshow really something to appreciate. If you're a horror fan, you've got to know it like the back of your hand. It's practically a law.

You can't do E.C. right without a moldy corpse crawling out of its grave and "Father's Day" brought it right out of the gate. People always talk about the hallway murder in Exorcist III as being a classic jump scare and, yeah, it is but that rotting hand jutting up into the frame in "Father's Day" as Nathan Grantham bursts out of the ground really does it for me. "Father's Day" showed me that just because I had read the comic adaptation, I was still going to be startled plenty by this movie. Oh, and how can you not love the disco stylings of "Don't Let Go"?

Reading the Wrighton adaptation made it difficult for me to immediately appreciate this segment as the sometimes-goofy looking FX work (no fault on Savini's part - it was just a hard order to fill for 1982) couldn't compare with the nastiness of Wrightson's illustrations. The adaptation played more heavily like a tragedy but the laughs of "Jordy Verill" are essential to the Creepshow experience. Stephen King plays the part of Jordy Verill so broadly that it ought to be a liability but his performance works and when anyone ever busts out quotes from Creepshow, it's usually this segment that they quote from first ("Meteor Shit!").

Having a phobia about the ocean and drowning, the early part of "Something To Tide You Over" is always uncomfortable for me to watch as Ted Danson and Gaylen Ross meet their watery demises. But Leslie Nielsen makes a terrific villain, born to smugly gloat, and all these years later, it's a kick to check out his character's once high-tech, but now primitive, home video equipment. Some might say that two segments about people coming back from the dead is too much for one movie but Savini's work on the wrinkled, water-logged ghouls is so good, it'd be wrong to complain. "Something To Tide You Over" also boasts my favorite score of all five segments.

When I saw Creepshow in the theaters, "The Crate" is the segment that sent my mom and my step-sister hauling ass out to the lobby. When the crate monster made a meal of Mike the janitor, they were out of there. They crept back in eventually but seeing all that blood as Mike was sucked into the crate was just too much. This is arguably Creepshow's best segment, thanks to Adrienne Barbeau heroically tearing into the role of the despicable, shrewish Wilma ("Just call me Billy!"). Every hateful expression she makes is gold.

Creepshow's most famous segment. The tale of a virulent bigot and manic bug-o-phobe who gets his (and then some) during a city-wide blackout, "They're Creeping Up On You" remains a tight little masterpiece of creepy-crawly terror with E.G. Marshall topping Creepshow's preceding portrayals of evil shit-heads with his performance as the wealthy, reclusive Upston Pratt, a man who missed his true calling as a rightwing talk show host. The final scene, as we see where all those bugs have got to, ranks as one of the great gross-outs of all time.

I wouldn't say that Creepshow is my favorite horror movie but yet whenever I rewatch these "jolting tales of horror," it somehow feels like it should be. It's definitely my go-to horror movie for the Halloween season. John Harrison's magnificent, goosebump-inducing score alone makes it choice Halloween viewing ('82 was a damn good year for horror soundtracks, between this and Jerry Goldsmith's Poltergeist score). And hell, I just realized that I've been talking about Creepshow all this time and I haven't even gotten around to saying anything about Tom Atkins as Stan, the comic-hating, asshole dad.

That's how great Creepshow is - you can talk about it forever and almost forget to mention that Tom Atkins is in it. Most movies, that would have to be the first thing you mention, just to keep people from walking away. But that's Creepshow for you.

It's a classic.


Chris Regan said...

Great film - saw this recently for the first time since I was a kid. Love the roach story, and Leslie Nielsen is awesome in his segment.

Jeff Allard said...

It holds up, definitely. It's the rare anthology that's solid from end to end.

Hallospaceboy said...

Great write up!

I love this movie and glad to see others do too. I never understood what people missed about it. Of course being a throw back to EC which when it came out in '92 i was about 12 so I had no idea really what it was all about, I still loved the tone of it all. I love anthology horror films and this one is tops among all of them.

I had the Stephen King comic book/graphic novel before I saw the movie and loved it.

You are right about the Jordy Verril sequence being more sad than funny I always ended up feeling bad for him in the end. Somehow even with King's rube like performance, seeing him put the gun to his weeded over head just felt really sad. It's what helps make the movie great tho. Wildly swinging from comedy to terror to some sadness.

Anyone else think Adrienne Barbeau and Hal Holbrook are doing their best twist on a version of "Whose Afraid of Virgina Wolf?"

That classic logo btw, was replaced on almost all WB product in the dvd age. The new Exorcist Blu ray has it removed in place of the new shield design with some darkened features. I think Saul Bass designed that classic orange/black logo. Too bad WB won't keep it on the old films they release now.

Also Creepshow on BLU RAY, while bare bones is the way to go. The best the movie has looked in any home video incarnation.

Hallospaceboy said...

d'oh! Of course I meant it was out in 1982 not '92.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Doug - I'll have to give that Blu-Ray a look! My existing DVD of Creepshow (in the Warners snap-case) just isn't as great a transfer as the movie deserves.

I dropped the bit in the blog post about the Warners logo as I thought it made an already long write-up too long but yeah, I wish Warner would keep it on the films that originally had it. It's a part of my memory of seeing these movies and to not see it anymore irks me. It's a nerdy complaint but not an unreasonable one, I think.

FilmFather said...

Great post about a great film. Growing up around the same time you did, I felt Creepshow was a fun, outrageous alternative to all the slasher/splatter films clogging up the genre at the time.

Loved the behind-the-scenes doc, too. PM Magazine, baby!

Jeff Allard said...

PM Magazine was great! It's a shame there's no room on TV today for a news magazine like that anymore.

Chris H said...

Beautiful post right here, Jeff.
One of my biggest love affairs in horror is with Creepshow. I did my own comic version when I was in grade school, haha. I wish I could find that.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, it sucks when things get lost along the way. Glad you liked the post, Chris!

Unknown said...

This may be my all-time fave horror anthology film and so I really enjoyed your post on this, complete with some great shots of the comic book adaptation!

I can remember seeing this on video when it came out and "The Crate" segment scaring the crap out of me! The way Romero builds the tension, only giving us brief glimpses of the creature until the great money shot is something else!

It really is baffling why this film wasn't a bigger hit considering all the legendary figures involved but I think that time has been kind to this film and it is pretty highly regarded now.

AllHallowSteve said...

GREAT post!
I remember standing in a bookstore leafing through the Wrightson adaptation and it scaring me just on the page. (I couldn't ask my mom to buy it. She'd totally veto it after flipping through it and seeing bugs pouring out of a guy's face...).

You've made me want to revisit it because I LOVE anthologies and haven't watched it in quite sometime. It's been on my mind lately too with new films like Trick 'r Treat paying homage to it.

Jeff Allard said...

J.D., time has definitely been kind to Creepshow! I think everyone assumes that it must've been a big hit when it came out but of course the classics aren't determined by box office, they're about longevity and Creepshow has that in spades.

AllHallowSteve, thanks! I've gotta say I was really surprised when my mom consented to buy the Wrightson adaptation for me. I just wish I still had it!

Agentf said...

Think the "crate" creature was just an hungry an angry animal and not a monster

maby it was angry about being taken away from home and trapped in a box for almost 100 years?

i think the creature had a sense of fear and attack every thing that threatin it

Kevin said...

Hi Jeff,

I was just looking for a photo of Tom Atkins as the Dad and I came to your site. What a great review -- you really captured the reasons the film holds up, I keep going back to CREEPSHOW and it does not disappoint.

I'd never thought of CREEPSHOW as a test to see if Romero could do THE STAND. Now I'm kinda heart-broken that the film didn't play better at the box office. Oh well.

also, I know RHS from Horror Dads.



Jeff Allard said...

Cool! Thanks for taking the time to comment, Kevin!