Creepshow 2 (Michael Gornick, 1987)
While this follow-up triptych of amusingly gory tales (pared down from five per the original Creepshow), including two George Romero-written originals (with the socially-conscious filmmaker doing his usual impressive job of imbuing these simple EC morality narratives with all sorts of thematic underpinnings on race, repression and class) sandwiched around a Romero-adaption of a particularly juicy King story, woven about some (partially animated) interludes featuring a maniacal demonic host in the Cryptkeeper tradition gleefully introducing each tale (played by goremeister Tom Savini, unrecognizable under the enjoyably kitschy makeup), might not be as elegant or as grand as the original Stephen King/Romero collaboration was… yet, in its own stream-lined approach has more than enough to offer on its own… and, I dare say, is vastly underappreciated.
A long-time ally within Romero’s Pittsburgh fold, acting as cinematographer on some of the director’s most important early films, Gornick takes on the daunting task of taking over the directing chores from his revered leader… and manages a satisfying, if yeoman-like, job of not only nailing all the important beats, but capturing the kinetic excitement of the final tale, the nutty “The Hitch-hiker”; a somewhat familiar tale, with a dead hitchhiker coming back again and again for revenge along a dark lonely stretch of highway against the woman who mistakenly ran him down then fled from the scene, made exceptional through execution – namely, through Romero’s thoughtful writing (making the hitchhiker African American, and the driver a money-hungry, privileged cheating socialite who can’t be bothered to clean up the mess of the hit-and-run), impressive stunt sequences (with hitchhiker actor Tom Wright serving daring double-duty as the stunt performer as well, and, man, does he get tossed a beatin’ throughout), a committed performance by James Bond “Moonraker” girl Lois Chiles and an engaging overall flair for the relentless by Gornick.
The first segment, “Old Chief Wood’nhead”, which follows a full-sized cigar store Indian statue coming to life and taking bloody vengeance upon the young delinquents who rob and kill the elderly store owners (George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour admittedly underwhelmed me when I first saw it in the theater on its initial release. However, seeing it again, while you know exactly where the story is going (then again, as far as EC comics go, isn’t that part of the charm?), I realized just how much I missed upon that first viewing. From Romero’s script (as with “The Hitchhiker”) nicely and organically managing to load up with perfectly placed critiques and observations about repression and the self-hatred that can derive from it, to the seriously impressive Indian statue creation itself (everything from the un-alive eyes, to the slight, stiff movements – and even the clever ways that Gornick shoots it to work around its limitations, which becomes one of those cases where limitations end up working to advantage, creating some really nice, evocative imagery), to the presence of the two long-time Hollywood legends Kennedy and Lamour (in her final role) as the gentle, doomed Spruces, as well as Will “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Sampson… and finally to the striking presence (with that long, shiny black hair) of Holt McCallany (who would never be as good again – he should have never taken off the wig) as the lead villain, an angry Native American determined to escape his culture and become a big Hollywood star, “Wood’nhead” isn’t the most original tale, but, like this entire Creepshow 2 venture, is executed with an impressive flair and commitment.
The middle tale, meanwhile, the sensationally brutal “The Raft”, doesn’t have much on its mind other than being one gooey and grizzly tale of a bunch of young kids caught on a wooden floating platform in the middle of a lake with a mysterious blob-like creature looking to make lunch out of them (and managing to do pretty good on that account)… and, like the original tale (which it adapts faithfully, with a difference being the written tale comes across, as did many of those early King stories, as far more grim in its telling, with the film never losing its EC comics tongue-in-cheek flavor – which isn’t a criticism in either case of film or story) is startling with its imagery (the sensational set-piece of the high school football star, played by this unknown kid ringer for Christopher Reeve with a blonde quaff, being slowly devoured and excruciatingly pulled down into the water through the small cracks between two wood planks, while effectively captured in the film, is even more torturously described in the King story). Gornick even manages to elicit some eroticism out of the episode, with some brief nudity, as our ostensible hero, a teenage boy, finds himself unable to stop from fondling the passed-out hot girl he’s been smitten with (a nice naughty moment that it would be hard pressed to get away with shooting in today’s climate). Revising the ending of King’s tale to include a blackly comic cinematic moment ends up the perfect capper for this particularly gruesome ditty, with my only reservation for the entire segment being the slightly pedestrian blob creature itself, which looks a lot like a tarp moving about on the water (but, man, whenever one of the clumsy kids falls into it? Look out, as the messy devouring is seriously impressive).
If there’s one disappointing element, it would be the film’s score (and sound design) which comes across as mostly perfunctory, a lesser effort especially when compared against Romero regular composer John Harrison’ inspired work from the original film. Other than that? The film gets a lot right, with Gornick having a nice go at it (made even more impressive when you realize the difficult and tense production conditions he was working under). Adding in the fun animated sequences perfectly modulated with the vibe of the EC comics they’re referencing, Creepshow 2 is a satisfying, well executed experience.
It’s like watching three exceptional “Tales from the Darkside” episodes… only with some juicy R-rated gore, a few cuss words… and some naughty breast shots.