Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Creepshow - Twenty Minutes with Cassandra / Smile

Cody checks out the first episode of season 4 of Shudder's Creepshow series.

After a two year gap between seasons, the fourth season of the horror anthology show Creepshow, a continuation of the George A. Romero / Stephen King franchise that brought us two feature films back in the ‘80s glory days (Creepshow in 1982 and Creepshow 2 in 1987), finally reached the Shudder streaming service on Friday, October 13, 2023... but this new batch of episodes brought some changes to the series and the way its stories were presented. In previous seasons, there would be moments with our skeleton host The Creep, who never spoke (like in the original movie) but still managed to be the one showing us each of the stories. Season 4 doesn’t feature any footage of the Creep in physical form, we only see an illustrated version of him on the pages of the Creepshow comic books that contain the stories we’re shown. This was also the first season that Shudder decided to give a binge release, dropping all six episodes on the same day, whereas previous seasons were given “episode a week” releases. Hopefully the extended break between seasons, the lack of Creep moments, and the binge release aren’t an indication that Shudder and/or creative supervisor Greg Nicotero are losing interest in the show, because I would like to see it continue on for more seasons.

We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds. In the meantime, let’s dig into season 4...

Almost every episode of the Creepshow series is split into two separate stories, and that’s the case for all of the season 4 episodes, so it delivers twelve stories over the course of its six episodes. The first story of the first episode is called Twenty Minutes with Cassandra and was, fittingly, directed by creative supervisor Nicotero. On this one, Nicotero was working from a script by Jamie Flanagan, a sibling of genre filmmaker Mike Flanagan who has written for the Mike Flanagan-produced shows The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass, The Midnight Club, and The Fall of the House of Usher. Since Twenty Minutes with Cassandra has that Flanagan connection, it also seems fitting that it happens to star two Flanagan regulars: Samantha Sloyan and Ruth Codd.

Sloyan plays Lorna Snell, who has just gotten home from work and ordered a pizza when a strange young woman named Cassandra (Codd) shows up at her door, knocking frantically and asking to be let in. As soon as Cassandra enters, it turns out she doesn’t need help, she just has a warning for Lorna: there’s a monster outside, and no matter what she does, it’s going to come in and kill her in twenty minutes. If she runs, it will kill anyone who crosses her path. If she calls for help, it will kill anyone who shows up. So now Lorna is stuck with this weird woman in her house, with Cassandra saying she wants to help her make the last minutes of life meaningful. And sure enough, when other people show up – like a delivery man and a pizza boy – they do get killed by a monster... a large, talking mouse creature.

Twenty Minutes with Cassandra is a dialogue-heavy story with a fun, quirky tone to it, and as it goes along it becomes clear that one of Flanagan’s goals with the script was to subvert expectations. That’s a tricky thing to do, as sometimes it can result in something being not quite as satisfying as it might have been if it played closer to the traditional rules. I ended up feeling that Twenty Minutes with Cassandra was a bit lacking, as there are ideas brought up that could have added something cool and exciting into the story, but they’re not pursued. Like when the possibility of a monster fight is mentioned, then brushed aside. So after a while, the story just sputters out, ending not with anything exciting going on, but instead with two characters just sitting on a couch, having a chat.

My favorite thing about that story was the scene where Lorna talks to the incredibly nice pizza boy (Franckie Francois)... which is a surprising thing to be able to say about something that involves a talking mouse monster.

The episode’s second story comes from director James Harrison, who has been with the Creepshow franchise since the beginning, having composed the iconic score for the original film. Titled Smile, this one was written by Mike Scannell, who previously wrote a (pretty good) horror movie called He’s Out There back in 2018. Scannell was definitely not out to subvert expectations with his story, as it’s very much your typical horror anthology show sort of story – and, refreshingly, it plays out in half the amount of time Twenty Minutes with Cassandra took up, as somehow a story with “Twenty Minutes” in its name managed to take up over 35 minutes of this episode’s 53 minute (and 30 seconds) running time.

Smile stars Matthew James Downden as photojournalist James Harris, who wins a humanitarian award for a striking photo he took during a conflict in Buenos Aires. As he and his wife (Lucie Guest, who had a role in the Dance of the Dead episode of Masters of Horror back in the day) make their way back home to their son, they’re freaked out by a mysterious photographer who keeps taking Polaroid pictures of them... and somehow, the pictures show moments that haven’t happened yet. It’s like the photographer is a few seconds ahead of them in time. While trying to figure out what’s going on, James also starts thinking back on his time in Buenos Aires, and we come to understand why he’d be menaced by supernatural images.

Smile feels like it would have fit right in with the episodes of any number of other anthology shows, but it doesn’t really have a Creepshow vibe to it, so I’m kind of split on this one. It’s a fine horror anthology story, despite the predictable ending coming off in a rather dopey way, but it’s not much of a Creepshow story.

I enjoyed watching the first episode of Creepshow season 4, even though I found both of the stories to be underwhelming in their own ways. Here’s hoping the stories will improve from here on.

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