Stephen King’s first original screenplay, directed by George A. Romero, ought by rights to have been a major piece of work. The fact that it remains defiantly minor perhaps points to Romero’s excessive respect for King, and King’s lack of respect for cinema. ‘I like moron movies,’ he declares in his otherwise smart study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre. And so he set out to write a silly movie, inspired by EC Comics, but actually dumbed down the material. Romero’s own idea, described in the extras on this fine new Blu-ray, was to create an anthology that tracked the development of the horror flick, beginning in black and white 1:1.35 and expanding to colour and widescreen as it went on. With his lack of sensitivity to the formal elements of cinema (see also his preference for his TV mini-series version of The Shining over Kubrick’s feature film), King wasn’t interested in that.
So Romero was saddled with a script that often doesn’t seem to make sense or to satisfy on a basic level of plot. He entertains himself by chopping the frame into comics panels and using lurid coloured lighting, which often changes mid-shot as if in a stage show, to create an analog of the four-colour comic strip experience. He also gets some very lively performances from a disparate cast, some of whom hit just the right note of frenzied caricature.
The problems and benefits of the approach are immediately obvious in the first episode, which follows from a remarkably thin framing structure (a nasty dad is upset about his kid reading anachronistic 1950s monster comics). King seems to have written the film rather quickly, and I don’t think he spent much, or any, time polishing it, so the first section, Father’s Day, is certainly the weakest. A zombie rises from the grave to get his cake, and kills a bunch of relatives along the way. Said crowd include a cigar-and-scenery-chewing Viveca Lindfors, and a young Ed Harris, whose disco dancing may be the most disturbing thing on show. No really strong reason is given why the characters have to die (though Harris’s funky moves arguably warrant a capital sentence) and indeed the deceased dad seems to have been a nasty piece of work anyway.
However, one benefit of the anthology film is that if you don’t like one episode, another will be along shortly, and Creepshow stands to gain fresh bursts of energy from its ever-changing cast and its team of editors, who give each instalment a subtly different rhythm.
Unfortunately, episode two, The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, features Stephen King himself, gurning and going cross-eyed as an unlucky yokel infected by some kind of alien fungus he contracts after unwisely handling a meteorite. Borrowing the horror premise from William Hope Hodgson’s classic tale ‘The Voice in the Night’, King rides roughshod over the eerie and tragic potential of the story with his cack-handed performance. It’s one thing to say he’s deliberately over-the-top, but his buffoonish act is not just broad but totally unskilled. Bad acting is best left to the professionals. Again, the basic cause-and-effect of a horror retribution yarn is garbled, with Jordy fantasising about making a fortune from his falling star after he’s already been tainted by it. So we can’t even interpret his horrible fate as an excessive punishment for greed, nor can we see it as a manifestation of his lifelong bad luck, since the script doesn’t get around to mentioning that until later.
Leslie Nielsen comes to the rescue in Something to Tide You Over, a blackly comic revenger’s tragedy in which he gleefully buries a pre-Cheers Ted Danson up to his neck in sand to await high tide. Nielsen, though very funny, is nevertheless giving a true performance, unlike King. He had done Airplane!, and was just about to appear in Police Squad!, but was still more of an actor than a clown. His ebulliently nasty millionaire, obsessively recording his crimes on tape, can be seen as an avatar of the coming video-horror age, but truly embodies the spirit of EC, making sadism funny. The zombie climax hasn’t really been prepared for in any meaningful way, but the execution (with typically gross Tom Savini makeup effects) is so enthusiastic it seems forgivable.
Less forgivable is The Crate, boasting the strongest cast of all (Fritz Weaver, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau) and an amusing conceit, in the form of a still-living specimen from an arctic expedition discovered in a box at a university, and eating its way through the faculty. But Romero struggles to make the misogynistic fantasy palatable, working with a very crude pastiche of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? provided by King, in which we are invited to root for Holbrook to dispose of his shrewish wife using the crated creature as assassin. Weaver renders a typically detailed and funny study of male hysteria, Holbrook does his best to keep up, and Barbeau gamely surrenders to the role of hate-object, but it’s all very poorly worked out, and even the monster is unappetising.
Fortunately, the final episode produces authentic shivers of revulsion, and again centres on a zesty performance, this time from E.G. Marshall in clown-hair as a Howard Hughes-type nasty obsessive. The slender logic of EC is delivered intact for once: he’s mean and he hates bugs, so he’s assailed by masses of cockroaches. If you’re not itching by the end of this one, you’re already dead.
Somehow mostly likable in spite of its casual approach and occasional reactionary excesses, its lack of logic and its excess of high spirits, Creepshow benefits from lush presentation on Blu-ray. Romero’s tinted scrim effects and wacky panel shapes have never looked so good, and some of the accompanying cutting is authentically snazzy in an almost avant-garde way. It’s a shame he never found a pleasing style for the more conventional moments, and it’s a shame the good episodes are just outnumbered by the bad, but somehow, on balance, the film comes away more winning than otherwise.
Watch the original trailer: