The grinning, skeletal spectre with a single wild eyeball sits behind a ticket counter, bony hand outstretched, inviting you to experience a film sure to be “the most fun you’ll ever have BEING SCARED”, proclaimed in loud, bold letters. This is the poster, and most commonly seen cover art, for Creepshow, the legendary horror anthology by the legendary horror duo of Stephen King and George A. Romero. It’s the cover art I saw on the display VHS copy in the horror section of the local Albertson’s video rental corner, too scared to request that we rent it, or any of the other creepy offerings within. I was happy to just glimpse the cover art which, I came to realize much later, often drastically oversold the scariness of 80’s cheese like Ghoulies, Critters, House, and Monkey Shines. I usually picked a Nintendo game instead.
Had I seen Creepshow in those formative years though, I think it would have scared the crap out of me, even if the dead ticket taker referenced above never (of course) appears in the film. I also think it would have gone on to become one of my top three all time scary movies. Even having discovered it later in life, it’s still a strong candidate for the top 10. The popularity of the anthology format in horror waxes and wanes, but Creepshow is arguably its peak to this day.
Five segments with a wraparound is generous, with a length that comes precipitously close to being overwhelming, but it’s not gratuitous like ABC’s of Death’s 26 tales or even the 10 in Tales of Halloween. I believe any number greater than “a handful” in an anthology pretty much guarantees a few disposable ones. None of the five shorts in Creepshow are disposable, and some are outright classics.
Opener “Father’s Day” is the perfect tone setter, with exactly the right balance of scares and humor. A simple “vengeance from beyond the grave” tale that spends most of its time setting up the pins and then climaxes by knocking them down in tremendous fashion. It features top-notch costume and effects work, wild blue and red accent lighting to mimic the E.C. Comics aesthetic this whole film is a tribute to, and even a catch phrase (“I WANT MY CAKE”). Plus, some memorably terrible dancing from a young Ed Harris.
Next up, Stephen King himself drastically overestimates his acting ability as essentially the sole character in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”. A simpleton farmer (King) discovers a crashed meteor on his property and dreams of fame and fortune resulting from this find. But the “meteor shit” – neon green glowstick fluid – spilt from within the object turns out to produce a horrible plant-like virus that quickly begins to blanket every surface in sight. Stephen King’s hammy overacting makes it impossible to take this short seriously, and launches it fully into goofball comedy in spite of the bleak ending. But it’s undeniably fun.
“Something to Tide You Over” is my favorite of the Creepshow segments, even though the tone is the most “serious” of the bunch – a good palette cleanser coming behind Jordy Verrill. The most Tales From the Crypt-y of the lot, Leslie Nielson plays a wealthy A/V guy that uncovers his wife’s ongoing affair with an in-his-prime Ted Danson and calmly enacts a most terrible revenge scheme. But things may not have gone as perfectly as planned… This predates the Naked Gun series, but comes a couple years after Airplane!, so Leslie Nielson at this point had already proven both his comedic and dramatic chops, and here he goes 100% deadpan. His battle of will and wits against Danson is the meat of the story, and it builds suspense better than all the other segments, leading up to the inevitable twist climax.
Story #4 is “The Crate”, the most iconic Creepshow segment. A mysterious locked crate from an ancient Arctic expedition is discovered in the basement of a university, and wouldn’t you know it, but someone had to go and open it… If I’m being honest, I think The Crate is somewhat overrated. It has some great moments but the creature in the crate just doesn’t have that much of a presence. Its brief appearances are thrilling, but for the most part it remains hidden inside the crate even as unwitting kill fodder get lured into its hiding place under the stairs. It’s all just a setup for a ludicrously obnoxious Adrienne Barbeau to get what’s coming to her. Whenever I watch his late at night after too many pumpkin beers, this is usually where I fall asleep…
Finishing things off, a strong trigger warning for all entomophobics in “They’re Creeping Up on You”. A bitter, dastardly old CEO of a major company has transformed his high rise apartment into a hermetically sealed clean room. In between yelling at his underlings via phone, he spends his time obsessively spraying disinfectant cleaner on all surfaces and wallowing in his compulsion. When a power outage creates weaknesses in his sterile environment, the bugs start finding their way in… The ending is a total barn burner and would probably make a few people faint if not for the cheesy FX. For most, this is about the fear of being overrun by disgusting pests, but for me the scarier part is how helpless we as a modern people become whenever the electricity goes out.
King, Romero, and special effects master Tom Savini clearly have a lot of reverence for the old E.C. Comics stories, and they crafted a tribute that has still never been topped all these years later, even by Tales From the Crypt – a series that had the opportunity to be perfect distillation of the E.C. vibe but squandered it on too many same-y crime stories. The sequel, Creepshow 2, has merit but an overall cheaper tone and only three segments, the first of which is kind of dead weight. I never saw Creepshow 3, but in classic 2010’s fashion, talk of a remake/reboot keeps coming up every couple of years. The great thing about the anthology format is that you’re never limited by such a thing as canon, so you could theoretically keep making these movies forever without fear of going stale. Personally, I’d love to see it a series on Amazon or Netflix – a Tales From the Crypt for a new generation that actually exploits the infinite well of ghosts, monsters, killers and creeps that the format offers. Like Black Mirror but funnier and gorier. Can you imagine?
Update: We don’t have to imagine! This review was drafted a few months ago, and now it seems my prayers have been answered in the meantime. Greg Nicotero is developing a Creepshow series exclusively for Shudder, set to launch next year. Rejoice!