Viking Night: Creepshow
By Bruce Hall
October 18, 2017
To celebrate the season, it was a no brainer for me to pull a horror classic out of the vault for this week. But that comes with a few caveats.
First, the word “classic” is in the eye of the beholder. Stephen King has had a long and rocky relationship with Hollywood. His place in the literary world was already secure by 1982, and he’d already had a successful screen adaptation with 1976’s Carrie. Now, he would team up with horror legend George A. Romero for a tongue-in-cheek pulp anthology called Creepshow. On paper, that certainly sounds like a good idea, so I imagine a lot of you are wondering why you’ve never heard of this movie before. Meanwhile a lot of you purists out there are silently retching because you have.
Like I said, “classic” is in the eye of the beholder. On Creepshow I come down somewhere in between ignorance and retching; landing perhaps on “mild intestinal discomfort."
My second point is that although Romero is no longer with us, Stephen King is currently having a really good year. Third, this comic book thing looks like it’s going to go on until the heat death of the universe. So why not combine all these relevant facts into one big cornucopia of pre-Halloween horror for your reading pleasure! What I’m trying to say is that Creepshow is not a great movie, and you might legitimately question its inclusion in this space. In my defense, not only is it relevant in many ways but it isn’t ALL bad.
Plus, I’ve been writing this column for a long time. Sooner or later I was going to get around to Creepshow.
Like I said, this is a collaboration between George Romero and Stephen King, with the former directing and the latter handling the screenplay. It’s an anthology film, which is an almost mathematical guarantee the hunk of cheese sitting in the back of your fridge, large chunks of it will be unusable. It is also inspired by 50s-era pulp comics such as Tales from the Crypt and House of Mystery. Depending on your opinion, that might be considered another indication of potentially dubious quality.
Or not. It just depends on at what point in the film we’re talking about. It’s clear that a lot of love went into making it, and the pair of notable names behind the project was no doubt what attracted a diversely talented cast. But here’s the thing. If you stall the car at the start of the race, it doesn’t matter how you drive the rest of the time.
You’ve already lost.
The story is bookended by a short depicting an intensely abusive father who hates the fact that his clearly intelligent, imaginative and polite young son reads horror comics like Creepshow. It’s played for laughs, and (spoiler alert) there IS an eventual comeuppance, but over time what was originally played for laughs now feels awkward and out of place. And don’t mistake this to be some kind of self indulgent, politically correct pablum. I’m just old enough by now to sense that thanks to a change in cultural tone, what was once funny even to me now just feels like a weird choice at best.
Things improve, but not at first. Our opening vignette is a dolled up campfire yarn involving a wealthy murderess, her scheming descendants and a very hungry corpse. Like the rest of the film it has a campy, uneven tone that sometimes works and other times results in an impossibly awkward Ed Harris disco dancing in ball-tight jeans. Unlike the rest of the film, I was concerned during this segment that the entire cast might have been genuinely inebriated. Not a good start I admit, unless Ed Harris (possibly) drunk with Dance Fever and lighting matches with his fingernails is your idea of a good time.
Next up is a tale about a loner hillbilly (Stephen King) who finds a meteor in his front yard. Making contact with it turns out to be a big mistake, and if you’re like me and despise the idea of grass where there should not be grass, this one will (har) get under your skin a little. Romero’s nose for atmosphere and some creative set design - combined with King’s utter inability to act - make for a mildly unsettling but ultimately hollow experience.
Let’s be generous and call the rest of the film “hit and miss.” The stories themselves are a mixed bag on the imagination scale, which feels odd to say about Stephen Freaking King. But despite his considerable talent with the written word, this material is hampered entirely by the way both he and Romero present it. The film is well shot and each of the five tales of terror has its own merits (no surer way to face mortality than to watch Ed Harris dance). But the spotty tone, an all too often misplaced sense of humor and a wildly uneven musical score undermine the film as a whole
My personal favorite is the third story, a particularly riveting tale of revenge and the ocean starring Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen. It’s a dark, twisted angry little fiction (at least, let’s hope it’s fiction) and that is enhanced by watching two actors well known for comedy go after each other in a straight up screaming-in-your-face psychotic thriller. It’s the least hampered of the shorts by self-knowing humor and is one of the highlights of what is overall a string of very strong performances.
That’s what’s so weird about Creepshow. There’s some really good acting all over this film, to the point that it would almost have been better if King and Romero had just fully turned the dial fully past “black humor” all the way to “Dark as Poe.” The way I look at it, you’re a horror movie and you can’t do humor right, then you shouldn’t do it at all. Just paint it all black and let your audience shiver in the darkness. Because when people can’t tell whether you’re trying to scare them or make them laugh, neither will happen.
The best you can hope for is “mild intestinal discomfort.” Creepshow is definitely worth seeing, just not worth seeing again.
I hereby authorize the use of either of those sentences for the 35th anniversary box art.