Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982)
Next up in the ‘Stephen King adaptions’ retrospective my daughter and I have been sporadically indulging in — in quasi-chronological order — comes this blackly humorous, 80’s prosthetic-gore-filled EC comic-style anthology, an irreverent entry brought to us by yet another cinematic legend (geez, it’s one master after another… did I mention how lucky Monsieur King was with these early film adaptions?), this time none other than the late great (and I’m serious about both those adverbs) George A. Romero, helming it while smack dab in the midst of his finest period.
I originally thought the inclusion of Creepshow was a bit of a cheat as, while (screen)written by King himself, I didn’t believe it was taken from original material from the writer. Digging around to be sure, however, I discovered how wrong I was (partially). It isn’t fully taken from King’s original written work, true, but two of the five amusingly gruesome little ditties are, it turned out to my surprise, adaptions from the author’s short stories (which I found the time to give a quick read before plunging back into the movie re-watch).
Stephen King in the Lovecraftian inspired opening episode
The two adapted stories, The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill, starring King himself broadly playing the lunkheaded titular character (with the kinda luck the poor sap spells ‘B – A – D’) being slowly turned into a veritable plant due to a hungry space fungus from a crashed meteor, the only one without much of the ‘morality tale’ narrative that mirrors those old school 50’s horror comics (before all the reactionary hysterics from the government watchdogs ended all the fun), and “The Crate”, with the unforgettable, now classic, human-hungry, razor sharped-tooth and -fang animatronic Tom Savini-creature (dubbed “Fluffy”, if memory serves) and those two wonderfully wily old thesp vets Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver relishing in their roles as Ivy League college professors, being perhaps my favorite of the tales, are really faithful adaptions, following their original narratives quite closely… with just a few additions that border on the absolutely sublime.
There’s “Lonesome Death”, which has the over-the-top imaginings of the limited-minded anxiety-filled Verrill’s idea of what it’s like to visit ‘authority’ figures in their lairs (all played by the same enjoyably hamming it up actor with the perfect name of Bingo O’Malley) and then “The Crate” which features these impeccably crafted violent set-piece moments, with the situation played for both shock and humor, as Holbrook’s horribly henpecked, reserved professor imagines himself, in one situation after another, killing his rude, cringe-worthy wife Wilma (Adrian Barbeau), while throwing her favorite usually-half-drunk salutation back at her (“Just call me Billie, everyone else does”)… with the very first setup, dealing with the sudden introduction of a handgun from a shoulder harness at a nice formal bourgeoise faculty party, a supreme highlight of the entire film, and that’s saying something.
Savini’s inspired beastie
Thankfully, the film was made way before the #metoo movement… just the mentioning, even as cheekily as its done in the film, of this kind of clear male-fantasy (a very satisfying one, dare I say, for this older white man) of a prof imagining, and ultimately getting, revenge on his horribly obnoxious wife – with the clear background understanding that he’ll have a paradise worth of youthful, pliable college girls to choose from once she’s out of the way – would get the filmmaker who suggested it thrown out of the industry, let alone the writer’s room (in fact, the more I mention it, the more the whole scenario kinda feels like the Woody Allen oeuvre in a nutshell… and you see what’s happened to him). Tsk, tsk, George and Stephen, how dare you embrace, no matter how comically, this kind of man’s fantasy? I just want everyone to know I’m deeply offended! Wink, wink, nod, nod.
Speaking of Holbrook and Weaver (and even Barbeau, who I’m sure herself would agree has nowhere near the range or chops of those other two, yet still digs in wholeheartedly – as she always admirably does in her thankfully plentiful genre work – to deliver perhaps the most memorable performance of the film), they are just a few of the impressive array of noted character actors all over this film, something Romero, up to this point in his career hadn’t had much experience with.
Adrian Barbeau as the wife from hell
I mean, we’re talking a magnificent Hollywood vet like E.G. Marshall (aahhhh, how he brings back so many memories of my teens, sitting alone in a dark room and listening, with near religious fervor, to the foreboding intonations of his humming voice providing the opening introduction to “CBS’ Radio Mystery Theater”) as the cruel and ruthless businessman Upson Pratt finally getting his literal comeuppance from all those ‘cockroaches’ he imagines everyone around him to be (in the, if not best, certainly most squirm-inducing segment of the lot) in “They’re Creeping Up on You”, and then silver-haired Leslie Nielson getting water-y revenge on his cheating wife and lover (played by a very young pre-“Cheers” Ted Danson), only to see “Something to Tide you Over”, and right into crazy old hag Viveca Lindfors as the tormented Bedelia sitting at her nasty ol’ dead patriarch’s gravesite toasting his death, only to discover, to her surprise, a suitably gruesome birthday surprise awaits (with the eccentric Lindfors’ angry, jagged soliloquy at her mean old dad’s gravestone, while interesting for its odd mixture of rawness and theatricality, being the one performance that doesn’t quite play as perfectly-modulated to the cheeky dictates of the EC medium that Romero otherwise achieved — not a surprise to learn the director wasn’t really able to get her to listen to his directions… it shows).
E.G. Marshall deals with some big bugs
Watching Creepshow again, from the optical swishy panel framing and on-screen narrative directions (‘Meanwhile’, ‘Back at the house’, etc.), to the shocking bursts of artificial extreme lighting to capture wild emotion or violence, to the presence of more-than-capable pros delivering the acting goods (who even manage the occasional deeper resonant beat here and there, such as the clearly-having-a-fine-ol’-time Nielson, his mad character relishing gleefully in getting his revenge, suddenly – for the briefest moment – turning more introspective, allowing us a quick glimpse at something darker and more real, as the his two victims take their last living breaths) and the first class, if traditional-style editing (just look at any number of examples – the fantastically constructed unveiling of the old box sequence in “The Crate” for instance – why, even Romero himself comments on this on the DVD commentary) that modulates between amusing whimsies and the more gruesome proceedings, all of it punctuated by the eccentric personal stylings familiar to anyone who knows Romero’s work (I’m talking those sudden dutch-y angles and occasionally off-kilter framing choices), made me realize this wasn’t just some fun aside for Romero (which was the way I had always thought of the film). No. It’s more than that.
It’s not his most fascinating, or profoundly resonant, or deeply personal film. It’s certainly not his most nihilistic effort (that prize stands forever in the corner of his very first, Night of the Living Dead, which is not only his, but perhaps the most nihilistic film ever made). No.
What Creepshow is an immensely satisfying display of real artistic growth on the part of the filmmaker; a fully realized opportunity in which he merged his personal cinematic eccentricities with something more accessible (commercial even), within a project clearly dear to this great auteur’s heart; a loving, heart-felt cinematic evocation of the grue- and naughty boy-experience of reading one of those irreverent-hearted EC horror comics.
Just as I felt of the films he made between “Night” and “Dawn” – namely, Season of the Witch, There’s Always Vanilla and The Crazies – after re-visiting them recently (still gotta get around to jotting my thoughts down on them), seeing Creepshow again has only elevated my estimation, of not only the film, but of Romero as a filmmaker.
As I plan to say again when I get around to writing about those other films, even if Romero’s resumé never included a single flesh-munching zombie shambling across it (let alone the director having single-handedly created the entire modern zombie mythos itself), and we just looked at his ‘other’ output? He is one of America’s great cinematic indie auteurs, genre or otherwise, whose vision and determination render him as important a filmmaker as a Fuller or a Cassavetes.