Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Film Review: CREEPSHOW (1982, George A. Romero)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 120 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Hal Holbrook (THE FOG, MAGNUM FORCE), Adrienne Barbeau (SWAMP THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), Leslie Nielsen (FORBIDDEN PLANET, AIRPLANE!), Ted Danson (THREE MEN AND A BABY, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), Stephen King (director of MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE), Ed Harris (KNIGHTRIDERS, THE RIGHT STUFF), E.G. Marshall (12 ANGRY MEN, TANNER '88), Fritz Weaver (MARATHON MAN, the Savini-directed TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE episode "Inside the Closet"), Carrie Nye (THE GROUP), Gaylen Ross (DAWN OF THE DEAD, MADMAN), Warner Shook (DAWN OF THE DEAD, KNIGHTRIDERS), Tom Savini, Tom Atkins (NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, THE FOG), Christine Forrest (KNIGHTRIDERS, MONKEY SHINES, wife of George Romero). Written by George A. Romero and Stephen King. Music by John Harrison (director of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE and the DUNE miniseries). Special makeup effects by Tom Savini. Cinematography by Michael Gornick (KNIGHTRIDERS, MARTIN).
Tag-line: "The Most Fun You'll Ever Have... BEING SCARED!"
Best one-liner: "I took care of it. That's why God made fathers, babe. That's why God made fathers."

It's George Romero's TALES OF HOFFMANN. The man combines his two favorite macabre and colorful youthful pursuits: the films of Powell & Pressburger and EC Comics. It's his ode to the morbid entertainments and blood-curdling fantasias that every kid deserves. It's also an ode to Ed Harris freak-dancing, peculiar booze consumption, and the Tom Atkins school of parenting, but more on that stuff in a minute.

CREEPSHOW is great. The tag-line says it all- "The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Being Scared." And I truly defy you not to have a hell of a time while watching this. Just talking about CREEPSHOW makes me want to watch it again. Perhaps I'll invest in a bumper sticker that says "I'd rather be...watching CREEPSHOW."

This is my kind of comic book adaptation: bright colors, Argento lighting, a lurid n' gritty feel: you can see the half-tone newsprint ink splashed on the screen; you can feel the brittle, scratchy pages of the cheap paper stock beneath your fingers.

It recreates that magical page-turning sensation, not knowing what might lay on the next sheet, pretending, in a childish mania, that the ludicrous, mystical mail-in might actually be a working voo-doo doll or X-ray glasses or a ghost-trapped-in-a-can.

And while the visuals are exquisite, the effect is compounded by John Harrison's soundtrack, which is masterful, in a sort of virtuosic, DIY way. Balancing simplistic, atmospheric synth tones; suspenseful, momentum-building piano; purposefully off-key renditions of Americana folk songs (a warped 'Camptown Races' gets some play during "Something to Tide You Over"); and the occasional Satanic chanting, Harrison builds an eerie soundscape that fits EC Comics to a T. His music tells a story- and, interestingly enough, Harrison would end up a storyteller himself, directing many episodes of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE (and the movie!), some TALES FROM THE CRYPT episodes, and co-writing that CGI Disney film, DINOSAUR.

There are five segments total, and each segment builds to that perfect moment of ecstatic fear; an immaculate horror whereupon the rest of the world falls away and you're left with a pure, sensory experience of absolute, comic book terror.

Some deserve the fate so badly you've been rooting for it to happen for the duration. Others are unfortunate bystanders to the atrocities of a cruel, indifferent universe. Life's one big creepshow, alright.

I'd like to get into the segments without giving too much away, so I'll take a quick look at each, individually:

We begin with a frame story, featuring a young boy, Billy (played by Stephen King's son, Joe), who loves all things creepy. His room is adorned with Godzilla dolls, Dracula posters, plastic monsters, the works. His beer-swilling abusive dad (played by the incomparable Tom Atkins!), decides to ruin the kiddie's evening by trashing his Creepshow comic book and smacking him around a little bit,

which is apparently why God made fathers, babe.

Appearing at Billy's window like a freaky guardian angel is the 'Creep' himself, and our young laddie is not frightened, but comforted.

This is our segue into the film proper, but we do receive some resolution later on- and said resolution may or may not involve a peripheral performance by Tom Savini as the 'garbage man.'

The frame story delivers exactly what is expected of it, and as an added bonus, throws in that extremely enjoyable Atkins performance. And that's what CREEPSHOW's all about. Even a diehard Atkins fan might rattle off their ten favorite things about CREEPSHOW, and then when they're finished, they'll say 'Oh shit- and Tom Atkins!' In other words, there's a lot going on- and when you can forget about Tom Atkins in the shuffle, that shuffle must be pretty damned good.

The plot in a nutshell: a hateful douche of a dad comes back from the grave (FINNEGAN'S WAKE-style, from some spilt booze!) with a yen for some cake.

It also has Ed Harris. You know, I learned a lot about Ed Harris in CREEPSHOW.

I learned that he applies the same, patented, crazy-eye intensity to disco-dancing as he does to any other activity.

It must also be noted that Elizabeth Regan really holds her own as well, but Jesus- look at Harris! The steely eye contact, the psychotic head bob, the clapping, the boogying, the pure suavitude with which he turns down the volume! Highest marks, Ed. You never disappoint. Even in a minor role like this. There's not too many people I can say that about.

The plot in a nutshell: King's retread of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space," starring King himself as a meteor-discovering local yokel who ends up with a little more verdure in his life than he bargained for.

A lot of people complain about this segment and like to trash King's acting, but it's kind of got a boneheaded genius to it. [He says at one point, "Spell that kinda luck B-A-D" which recalls the "M-O-O-N, that spells moon" motif in THE STAND, a line oft-repeated by the mentally disabled Tom Cullen. So that's probably where King is taking his inspiration from.]

Plus, he drinks Ripple, and you know how I feel about celebrities and low-end fortified wines.

An other special mention must go to John Colicos, who plays the fiendish, amputation-luvin' doctor in Jordy's nightmare fantasy about what might happen if he 'got that checked out by a professional.'

In the end, King actually brings a tangible pathos to the role, and it's the one segment of the six that sort of leaves you feeling depressed. So in a way, the cartoonish (parodic?) quality of acting that precedes the somber conclusion is necessary to keep us from wanting to kill ourselves.

The plot in a nutshell: a cuckolded hubby (Leslie Nielsen) gets his kicks via aquatic torture of Ted Danson.

Look at that velvet track suit. The rocks glass resting on his belly. The yuppie home decor. The smug, self-satisfied attitude.

Leslie Nielsen (R.I.P.) is a great villain, and I wish he'd not been exclusively shackled to third-rate comedies in the latter days of his career.

So Nielsen finds out that his old lady (Gaylen Ross, from DAWN OF THE DEAD in a brief appearance) is stepping out with Ted Danson. He devises a heinous form of punishment that combines fear of drowning, fear of being buried alive, and fear of crabs.

Romero ratchets up the claustrophobia (and some nice class commentary), Nielsen ratchets up the villainy, and the gurgly, seaweed-encrusted payoff is damned satisfying.

The plot in a nutshell: A sad sack husband and his harpy wife's lives are irrevocably changed by the discovery of a mysterious crate.

This seems to be the consensus' favorite segment, and I call it the "John Carpenter Special." Sure, Carpy didn't actually have anything to do with it, but it A. stars his then-wife and frequent collaborator Adrienne Barbeau, B. stars THE FOG's Hal Holbrook, C. the crate in question (from an Artic expedition) is emblazoned with the name 'Carpenter.'

As our professorial, hen-pecked hubby, Hal Holbrook is terrific. He's got that forlorn little half-smile and the ruffled, unruly eyebrows. He lives much of his life in fantasy sequences, mainly because–

Adrienne Barbeau is his fire-breathing, drunken, loud-mouthed shrew of a wife.

Before you can say "I'll be wearing your balls for earrings," Barbeau is feasting on the scenery and having perhaps the most fun I've ever seen her have in a role.

She adds bourbon to her milk, for chrissakes! She spouts insults like "You're a regular barnyard exhibit- sheep's eyes, chicken guts, piggy friends... and SHIT for BRAINS!" and generally embarasses poor Hal Holbrook all over the place.

Oh, and that small matter of the thing in the crate... let's just say that when it's finally unveiled, it doesn't disappoint...

The plot in a nutshell: a Howard Hughes-ish germophobe billionaire is beseiged by an army of cockroaches.

Starring the irascible E.G. Marshall, this one's a classic "tenant vs. monster(s) in a confined space" tale, but since the tenant in question is a malevolent tycoon, we're- for the first time ever- actively rooting for an army of cockroaches.

Now, I've had enough up-close-and-personal encounters with these hateful creatures to accurately say that at one time I was living a Cronenberg movie, so this one definitely got under my skin a little bit, so to speak. I mean, stuff like this and PHASE IV hits a little close to home.

The practical effect (thousands upon thousands of actual roaches, often emerging from small spaces in unison) is staggering, and David A. Brody's roach wrangling abilities deserve our endless respect. (He also wrangled the roaches for the anthology series MONSTERS, John Schlesinger's THE BELIEVERS, and JOE'S APARTMENT). It enrages me to no end that these days they'd just do some lazy CGI and lay to waste the singularly sickening talents of the roach wranglers!

Also of note, the segment's sterile, retro-futuristic imagery (intruded upon by the creeping roaches), full of magnifying lenses and peculiar devices, almost feels like a partial inspiration for Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL (1985)?

The finale's extremely solid as well– it goes exactly where you think it will...and then about ten steps further!

In closing, five stars. Bravo, George. Bravo, Stephen. But as for me, I'd rather be...watching CREEPSHOW.

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Do people actually loathe King's performance as the yokel Jordy? Personally, I always thought his acting here was a sign that his chops in front of a camera were a bit wasted. The guy easily could have done more than cameos if he had so chosen. His performance was, to me, the definition of balls-out, whimsical absurdity.

I always thought this film was considerably greater than the sum of its parts, which is saying a lot because there's a lot of great parts. Romero, Atkins, Neilson, Holbrook, and Barbeau are staples of the "B", and they all seem like they're having a shit-load of fun.

Great review, as always, of a great film.

Tempest said...

I didn't know that the boy was King's real-life son. I love that segment--how Creepy comforted him and the revenge!

J.D. said...

Love Ed Harris' funky disco dancing! That man sure has some moves and his expression while he's cutting a rug is PRICELESS.

I do remember seeing this as a kid that "The Crate" segment scaring the living hell out of me. The dread and tension is unbelievable in this segment and when the monster is finally revealed I just about lost my mind. Good times.

I think this may very well be my fave anthology/omnibus film. Great review!

Sean Gill said...

Well, I can't speak for the consensus, but I've had to argue the merits of King's performance to more than a few friends. I still think he's great!

When I saw this again, I thought for sure that the boy was some famous child actor or something, but no- it was King's son and he never acted again. Like father, like son– underused as an actor! Ha.

Oh yeah, I must've rewound the Harris dancing scene about 30 times the first time I saw it. One of those scenes like Reagan's slap in THE KILLERS– seeing it once just isn't enough!

Anonymous said...

Ed Harris' dancing was great. But nothing will ever beat Crispin Glover's dancing in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER.

Sean Gill said...


Indeed Crispin's dance also belongs in the Spazzified Horror Film Dance Hall-o-Fame!

Anonymous said...

I always thought Cass (Elizabeth Regan) in the Father's Day segment to be attractive, she has a nice butt as well.

Sean Gill said...


Indeed Elizabeth Regan is quite winsome in this film– I was disappointed to see that it's (according to IMDb) her only film appearance!

Anonymous said...

Originally director George Romero wanted Leslie Nielsen to portray the governor of Florida, the lead villain, in his inital Day Of The Dead script that the studio wouldn't fund because they wanted the project to carry an "R" rating.

Sean Gill said...


That's interesting. I had read the original DAY OF THE DEAD script and enjoyed it quite a bit, but had no idea that Nielsen was pegged for the Governor role. At least it wasn't a total waste, and a few of the twists and plot points made it into LAND OF THE DEAD in a different form.

tonymoviebuff said...

The epic initial "first" draft of Day bore only the barest semblance to what George Romero finally brought to the screen in 1985.The original script, as you've read, was a less talky, more action oriented conclusion to his then Dead trilogy, it involved the last remaining humans making to an island where the former Governor of Florida has taken up as ruler of a vast underground society. I liked how in that script the feral, undisciplined zombies that have been collected from the mainland are allowed to roam above ground in the jungle, while the trained zombies are used as slaves/soldiers, also if you wander in the jungle you must wear color coded vest, as the zombies have been taught not to attack any human with them on.

Anonymous said...

I remember when this movie came to the theaters... the part where Wilma gets eaten by the thing in the crate... it was much more graphic. I think I read somewhere that the feminist groups came out against the scene where it bites her, since the original clearly shows the thing biting a huge chunk of her face off! Does anyone else remember this?