Spookthology of Terror Special Edition: Creepshow (1982)
Welcome to the very first, and possibly last, special edition of Spookthology of Terror. Spookthology of Terror is, of course, my obsessive, episode by episode exploration of the iconic hit HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt.
I was inspired to write this entry when I received the beautiful, deluxe new Blu-Ray of the iconic 1982 horror anthology film from the good folks over at Scream Factory and thought to myself, “Fuck, I love this movie! I need an excuse to re-watch it and write about it.”
Thankfully, Spookthology of Terror gave me what little excuse I needed to revisit this beloved staple of my childhood. Creepshow has the curious distinction of being both influenced by Tales from the Crypt and a pronounced influence on Tales from the Crypt as well. How is that possible? George Romero’s Stephen King-penned cult favorite was obviously hugely influenced by E.C Comics’ roster of horror and suspense comics, most notably Tales from the Crypt.
The movie’s commercial success and warm reception from horror buffs, meanwhile, illustrated that there was an appreciative audience for horror anthologies in the kooky, spooky, gory and goofy tradition of 1950s and 1960s horror comics.
Creepshow paved the way for the Tales from the Crypt television series in other ways as well. It was horror fodder with a ridiculously over-qualified cast of familiar names and faces, many of them distinguished character actors with long and storied careers, like R.G Armstrong, Leslie Nielsen and Hal Holbrook. The cast single-handedly elevated Creepshow above its competition, as did an All-Star creative team.
Tales from the Crypt had heavyweights Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, Richard Donner and Joel Silver as Executive Producers and a murderer’s row of genre specialists as writers and directors. Creepshow boasts frightmaster George Romero in the director’s chair and Stephen King, the most successful writer of the twentieth century doing double duty as both the author of the original screenplay and a first-time wacky comic actor.
Creepshow centers on a Tales from the Crypt-like comic book little Billy (Joe King) adores, much to the chagrin of his apoplectic, horror-hating and consequently evil father Stan, who is played by mustachioed horror favorite Tom Atkins. Hating horror, or horror comics in a movie like this is some straight-up evil shit, punishable by death and//or torture. To try to separate a child from entertainment that might traumatize him? Now that is some sinister shit.
We then segue from Billy and his horror-hating father to another tale of a profoundly bad dad in “Father’s Day.” Nathan Grantham (Jon Lorber) is a profoundly bad dude as well as a sub-par patriarch, in the sense that he has his half-mad spinster daughter Bedelia’s beau murdered as one of an endless series of crimes, some committed against his own family.
Bedelia ends up accidentally reviving the old man’s corpse. He emerges from his grave a maggot-filled revenant intent on killing his relatives for crimes that run the gamut from murdering him to just kind of being a spoiled asshole. “Father’s Day” is atmospheric fare enlivened by a cast that includes a young, bracingly hairy Ed Harris but the plot is way too dependent on characters placing themselves in positions where they can be murdered by a slow-moving, brain-dead ghoul.
In the standout segment “Something to Tide You Over”, meanwhile, a pre-Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen is cast winningly against type as Richard Vickers, an evil man of wealth and leisure who does not take kindly to people infringing on what he considers his, particularly Harry Wentworth (Ted Danson), his wife’s much younger lover. The sadistic fuck arranges for both his philandering wife and her studly new lover to die watery, violent premature deaths captured on video, only to become the victim of righteous posthumous vengeance himself.
Nielsen spent his final few decades on planet earth as something of a human fart machine but he’s shockingly scary here as a man without a conscience or a soul who receives a predictable supernatural comeuppance.
Nielsen is matched in charismatic villainy by the great character actor E.G Marshall as Upson Pratt, an evil, germaphobic businessman who delights in stomping out business rivals as if they’re bugs, mere vermin to be crushed by superior creatures in the other standout vignette, “They’re Creeping Up On You.” The winningly minimalist segment finds first one cockroach, and then a whole army of creepy-crawlies invading the awful old man’s personal space in the most awful and stomach-churning fashion imaginable.
Like critics at the time, I was absolutely blown away by the star of “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”, a “funny” segment centering on the titular unlucky yokel. At the risk of waxing hyperbolic, the star of this tawdry terror tale about a dumb-ass farmer who goes green in the worst possible way combines the raw sexuality of Marlon Brando, the talent and versatility of Meryl Streep, the looks and charisma of James Dean before he died and the physical comedy chops of Charlie Chaplin. Also, he plays an insultingly stupid dumb-fuck convincingly.
You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that this acting dynamo, this instant giant of the silver screen was in fact Stephen King himself! What could possibly have inspired one of the most successful and influential authors and creators of our time, if not all time, to play a poor man’s Ernest P. Worrell in a segment that feels like a audition tape for a poorly conceived, horror-themed Hee Haw reboot?
The answer, I suspect has something to do with the cocaine that was fueling King’s feverish productivity around this time, but some of the blame should go to alcohol as well. Just about the only thing King does convincingly here is swill Ripple and consume large quantities of vodka in an effort to distract him from his impending doom.
In King’s defining showcase as a hillbilly physical comedian, his luckless, hapless yokel sees a spooky meteorite crash. He dreams of selling the meteorite to the local college in exchange for what he imagines will be a life-changing windfall of two hundred dollars. Before the big dummy is able to make a big score, however, the meteorite turns sentient and rapacious, overtaking all that come in contact with it, including poor, stupid Jordy, the luckless bastard.
To make things even more embarrassing and impossible for King, much of his performance consists of a monologue that requires him to say things like, “You done it now, Jordy Verrell, you lunkhead!” and “Meteor shit!” and interact occasionally with fantasy representations of figures from Jody’s over-active imagination, like a scientist from the college and his father.
“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is a “funny” horror anthology segment. Readers of Spookthology of Terror know that those quotation marks mean: “Funny” episodes of Tales from the Crypt are seldom funny. They’re mostly embarrassing in their dire, overwhelmingly unsuccessful attempts to make people laugh.
The same is true of Creepshow, unfortunately. There’s a lot of pitch-black humor in its most successful vignettes but when it’s flat-out going for yucks it’s hammy and desperately unfunny.
That’s true of “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” It’s equally true of the curdled misogyny and misanthropy of another bummer segment, “The Crate.”
The earlier segment was handicapped by the stunt casting of Stephen King as Okey McDumbass. “The Crate” has no such excuse. It not only stars an actual actor in its lead role, but an accomplished, acclaimed veteran thespian in the form of Hal Holbrook, who delivers one of his worst performances as Henry Northup, a milquetoast doormat of a college professor emasculated and humiliated on a daily, if not hourly basis by Wilma "Billie" Northup (Adrienne Barbeau), his hard-drinking, hard-gossiping, screechingly loud misogynistic nightmare of a wife.
In “crowd-pleasing” fantasy sequences that suggest The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by way of Neil LaBute, our henpecked husband wreaks violent vengeance on his ball and chain by very publicly murdering her, much to the happiness and delight of a public that understandably seems to despise her every bit as much as he does. Why shouldn’t they? She’s pretty much the worst person in the world. Barbeau does not do anything to try to make her character anything other than a shrew who must be murdered for society’s sake but there isn’t malevolent joy in her villainy either, the way there is for the characters played by Leslie Nielsen and E.G Marshall.
In time-honored horror tradition, seemingly everyone in Creepshow is punished disproportionately for their sins. The horror-hating dad becomes a voodoo pin cushion. Jordy doesn’t necessarily do anything terribly wrong but he’s killed for his stupidity all the same, and rightly so. Aunt Bedelia is murdered by someone she murdered. Richard Vickers ends up dying the same way he killed his wife and her lover. Upson Pratt treats people like vermin to be stepped on and eliminated for his own deranged greed and amusement and ends up insect food.
But Henry Northrup gets away with murder. True, the movie establishes that the creature in the crate is not as dead as Henry would have liked at the end of the story, but otherwise the movie seems pretty cool with him killing his wife for being terrible. What jury on earth would convict him, Creepshow implicitly asks?
The virulent sexism in “The Crate” is troubling but it’s nowhere near as debilitating as the segment’s achingly slow pace and complete dearth of scares. When we had Elliott Kalan on the podcast to talk Tales from the Crypt, he said his main complaint was that every episode of the show was about four or five minutes too long.
Well, friends, Creepshow is two fucking hours long. I bolded the movie’s runtime to highlight, as literally as possible, that there’s no reason at all a movie like Creepshow has to run one hundred and twenty minutes.
Edit Creepshow down to ninety minutes and eliminate “The Crate” and “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” and you have a movie as good and as legitimately scary as my nostalgia-clouded brain half-remembers it being.
Creepshow helped inspire the Tales from the Crypt TV show by proving how much creative and commercial potential there is in a contemporary horror anthology rooted in the horror and suspense comic books of yesteryear, but also by leaving an awful lot of room for improvement.
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