Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Film Appreciation - The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Being Scared

Cody Hamman flips through some Film Appreciation for 1982's Creepshow.

One of the greatest horror collaborations of all time happened in 1982, when cinematic master of horror George A. Romero, director of such classics as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, teamed up with literary master of horror Stephen King to craft Creepshow, an anthology film that serves as an homage to the horror comics Romero and King grew up on - the EC Comics publications Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear.

King wrote the screenplay for the film, which tells five separate horror stories - some of which have been published in prose form as well over the years, while others haven't - and has a wraparound story, as most anthology films do. Romero then brought King's stories to life on the screen with incredible style. He went all in on the attempt to make sure the film would feel just like one of the horror comics it was inspired by. Not only do the shots composed by Romero and cinematographer Michael Gornick (who would go on to direct Creepshow 2 five years later) often look like they're comic panels come to life, sometimes optical effects are added to the shots to actually turn them into moving comic book panels. Lighting choices enhance the comic book feeling throughout, while the score by John Harrison is a perfect match for the visual style.

Judging by a jack-o-lantern seen sitting in a front window of a home in the first shots of the film, the wraparound story seems to be set around Halloween... but despite the jack-o-lantern, the adult residents of this home are not the type to celebrate horror. Genre icon Tom Atkins plays a mean bastard of a father who spends the first scene yelling at, and slapping, his young son Billy (played by Stephen King's son Joe King, now an author himself under the name Joe Hill) because he has a copy of the horror comic Creepshow in his possession. The father takes the comic book away from Billy and drops that "horror crap" in a trash can outside.

Then things get creepy. A character known as The Creep, a raggedly dressed, skeletal figure who presents the story in the Creepshow comic, appears outside Billy's bedroom window. And Billy isn't afraid of him. Quite the opposite. Billy looks very happy to see The Creep lurking around.

That's when the film goes into an animated title sequence, which sets the stage for further animated sequences that will be interspersed throughout the film. As lightning flashes and thunder rolls, wind flips through the pages of the Creepshow comic that was dumped in the trash, and the animated moments of pages turning are how the film segues from one story to the next.

The first story to be told is the rather quick and simple, but still unforgettable, FATHER'S DAY. As the title implies, the story takes place on Father's Day, one seven years down the line from the Father's Day when Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors) finally had enough of her domineering father Nathan (Jon Lormer) - a man who was such a scumbag that he even had the love of Bedelia's life murdered and made it look like a hunting accident. Nathan was demanding that he be served his Father's Day cake, something which the fathers I know don't get at all, when Bedelia bashed his head in with a marble ashtray instead. She made his death look like an accident, so his fortune went to his family. Now every Father's Day Bedelia returns to Nathan's mansion to visit his grave in the family cemetery and to have dinner with her niece Sylvia (Carrie Nye), great-nephew Richard (Warner Shook), and great-niece Cass (Elizabeth Regan).

This year the family has been joined for the first time by Cass's out-of-place country boy husband Hank, who is played by Ed Harris, the star of Romero's Knightriders. While everyone is waiting for Bedelia to come in from Nathan's grave, Hank and Cass kill some time by dancing to some disco music, and Harris displays some of the most jaw-dropping dance moves I've ever seen.

The family never gets to have dinner. I don't know whether this year is the first time Bedelia ever goes over the details of her father's murder while visiting his grave, but I doubt it. Maybe this is the first time she has ever spilled some booze on the former bootlegger's grave; it seems unlikely, but maybe. I can't say for certain what the catalyst is, but whatever, something causes Nathan to rise from his grave as a rotting, skeletal corpse. Still demanding to be served his Father's Day cake, Nathan proceeds to kill several people.

Romero firmly establishes the comic book style within this story, even including moments where there are multiple panels on the screen at once. When Nathan comes bursting out of the ground, red and blue lighting falls over a scene that had been lit in a natural style up to that point. I really love the look of this film, and some of my favorite images can be found right up front in Father's Day.

Father's Day stands out among the Creepshow stories because it's a rare instance where the villain actually wins. Most of these stories are about despicable people getting a deserved comeuppance, but Bedelia and the other family members don't deserve to be punished for what happened to Nathan. If anything, someone should have brained him with an ashtray long before Bedelia took him out. This is just a story of a bad man rising from the grave as a homicidal zombie to add some more items to the list of bad things he has done over the years.

The second story of the film, THE LONESOME DEATH OF JORDY VERRILL, is another one in which a character is delivered a horrible fate they didn't deserve. This one is quite funny, though, because Stephen King gives a hilarious performance as dimwitted farm boy Jordy Verrill. The story is a play on The Blob, beginning when a meteor lands in Jordy's yard, but it's not a blob that comes crawling out of this space rock.

Jordy imagines that he can score some good cash by selling the meteor to a college, but that plan goes out the window when he dumps some water on the steaming hot rock to "cool the sumbitch off" and instead causes the meteor to split open. All that comes out is a blue goo that Jordy refers to as "meteor shit" - which is my favorite line of the entire movie. He makes the mistake of touching it, though, and soon his entire body - and his entire property - is covered in a fast growing, moss-like substance.

Some viewers complain that King's acting is too over-the-top, but I feel that it fits the tone of Creepshow and find it to be a wonderful comedic performance. Eventually things turn sad, because what happens to Jordy Verrill is awful.

While King carries The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill on his shoulders, he isn't the only actor in the segment. He is joined by Bingo O'Malley, who plays three different characters, all of whom are imagined by Jordy: a college professor, a doctor who Jordy figures will want to amputate his mossy fingers, and Jordy's late father.

The third segment is a great tale of comeuppance, SOMETHING TO TIDE YOU OVER. Romero assembled an impressive cast to play the three characters featured in this one: you get Leslie Nielsen, who wasn't yet known for being a comedy star and plays a character who is far from lighthearted; Ted Danson, just before his Cheers breakout; and Gaylen Ross of Dawn of the Dead and Madman.

Nielsen plays Richard Vickers, a sadistic man who chooses to punish his wife Rebecca (Ross) and her lover Harry (Danson) for going behind his back by taking them to different spots on a beach and burying them neck-deep in the sand right at the edge of the water. When the tide comes in, their heads will be submerged and they will drown. Richard's fascination with video technology allows him to make the situation even more twisted by setting up cameras to record the whole process. He watches it from his home, and he's saving the footage so he can watch it again later. He also sets a monitor in front of Harry to force him to watch what's happening to Rebecca.

What happens to Harry and Rebecca is troubling and intense. Things don't work out in an ideal way, but Richard does get the fate that he very much deserves. If you only know Nielsen from the parodies he would go on to star in after this, I recommend checking out his Creepshow segment to get an idea of what else he was capable of. You'll be rooting for Richard to die very quickly, and when his time comes it's very entertaining. Something to Tide You Over is a perfect representation of the kind of story that comes to my mind when I think of the EC Comics style of horror tales.

Next up is what may be the most popular segment of the film, THE CRATE... so it feels odd to admit that The Crate is actually the segment that I enjoy sitting through the least. It's not that I think it's bad at all, it's just that I feel like it's a little longer than it needs to be. It's the longest story of the film. Creepshow is a 120 minute movie, The Crate comes along at about the halfway point and takes up 38 minutes of the remaining hour. For a movie that has five segments to it, having one be 38 minutes seems excessive. If King had padded it out a little more, it could have been a movie on its own. People have certainly turned less substantial King stories than this into features.

The Crate stars Fritz Weaver and Hal Holbrook as Dexter Stanley and Henry Northrup, professors at Horlicks University, and also features a memorable performance from Adrienne Barbeau as Henry's wife Wilma - call her Billie, everyone does. The story deals with the discovery of a wooden crate that has been chained shut and hidden beneath a staircase at Horlicks, a crate that seems to contain something that was collected during an arctic expedition in 1834.

What the crate contains is a monstrous beast that special effects artist Tom Savini named Fluffy. Fluffy proves to be ravenously hungry, which is understandable since it has been locked in that crate for almost 150 years, I'm sure it's starving. But even though Fluffy eats multiple people who are unlucky enough to come within grabbing distance of the opened crate, the true villain of this story is Billie. She's a horrendous shrew to Henry, she's loud, inappropriate, a drunk. She's so vulgar that one of her lines has even been noticeably dubbed over to replace a certain word with something less offensive.

Creepshow is a horror movie that has been in my viewing rotation since I was a kid, and I clearly remember one of my earliest viewings, perhaps my first. I was watching The Crate, which ends with the crate being dumped into a deep body of water, the final shot revealing that Fluffy is still alive within the crate at the bottom of the water. My young self was sure that we would see Fluffy return someday - and I was totally on board to watch this creature eat more people in some kind of follow-up. Unfortunately, Fluffy still hasn't returned all this time later.

The final segment in the film is THEY'RE CREEPING UP ON YOU, which I have seen more than one person suggest should have been removed from the movie. I don't understand why. I find They're Creeping Up On You to be a lot of fun, and that's almost entirely due to the performance of actor E.G. Marshall in the role of wealthy germophobe Upson Pratt.

Pratt was clearly inspired to some degree by Howard Hughes, as he's a rich man who has cut himself off from the outside world, retreating into an antiseptic apartment. Pratt is an unscrupulous scumbag, though, and will destroy lives with no remorse. He'll get what's coming to him, and it won't even require another human being to step into his apartment. You see, his pristine, supposedly germ-free apartment is infested with cockroaches.

Savini and his crew were given the chance to do some amazing special effects work on this film, crafting rotten and water-logged zombies, a man covered with moss, and a man-eating creature, among other things, but the big effect involving roaches will probably be the most disgusting to many viewers.

With an entire issue of Creepshow worth of stories having been told, the film then goes back to the wraparound story of little Billy and his horror-hating father. The resolution of their story involves an item Billy ordered from the pages of Creepshow...

Romero, King, and Savini were three masters of horror at the top of their games when they worked together to craft Creepshow, and thanks to collaborators like Gornick, Harrison, and the excellent cast Romero assembled, this film turned out to be a horror classic with a dazzling visual style. Creepshow tells some great stories and perfectly captures the look and feel of being a living comic book.

Creepshow and Creepshow 2 are two of my favorites and I watch them regularly, as both are packed with moments, lines, and sights that I love.

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