George A. Romero
E. G. Marshall
Creepshow June 14, 2019
here are five short movies making up Creepshow (1982), a horror-anthology film directed by George A. Romero (1968’s Night of the Living Dead) and written by Stephen King. In a rare twist for the omnibus movie, which is among the most finicky of subgenres, each vignette offered here is inspired. All efficiently capitalize on fairly all-inclusive fears and sprinkle in some nihilism and black humor for good measure.
Creepshow has tonally and visually been made in the style of the EC horror comics of the 1950s, from Tales from the Crypt to House of Secrets. Though all were short-lived collections, the anthologies had a profound formative impact on both Romero and King, who, before making the movie, often bonded over them. In recalling how Creepshow came about, Romero is almost comically nonchalant. “Steve bought me some original panels and a couple of books,” Romero told Starburst magazine in 2013. “I had a couple of original Jack Davis paintings and so we were sitting around and decided to do Creepshow. Steve, basically, wanted to do a homage to those EC books. He thought an anthology [format] would be perfect for it. The script came in within three weeks. And that was it.”
Romero and King’s affection for the comics is evident in Creepshow. The shorts, though varying in length and quality, retain what made the comics indelible. They’re steeped in a singular, very-dark brand of humor born in some of the mind's darkest annals. They also prominently uphold the eldritch, dotty visual style of the comics. Sometimes, with the help of the effects specialist Tom Saviani, a shot might be dressed up as if it were located on a specific page. (An emotional close-up is often supplemented by a drippy, cartoonish frame; the final shot of a vignette usually freezes and then pans out, revealing itself to be a shaded drawing.) Yet Romero and King, who so wonderfully recreate the spirit of the dime-store literature that inspired them, also avoid being over-reliant on tributizing. Their personal styles, which fluidly mesh, are unmistakable.
Creepshow is bookended by a story about an unhappy childhood. A little boy of about 8 or 9, Billy (Joe King), is harshly reprimanded by his emotionally abusive father, Stan (Tom Atkins), for reading an EC-style horror comic called Creepshow. Stan uses the rhetoric that the stories inside will rot Billy’s brain. Billy, though, is undeterred. Rather than mope in his room, forcing himself to try to detach himself from something he loves, he tells no one in particular, over and over again, that he wishes his father would burn in Hell. Spookily, his intonations summon the Creep, a silent, Skeletor-like figure who appears on most pages of the Creepshow comics like a mascot. Beaming, The Creep beckons Billy into his sinister world — which entails that we sit through the quintet of creepy stories Romero and King tell.
The tales — some based on previous King short stories — concern passed-down family trauma, the apocalypse, revenge, and matricide. Each is flavored by a healthy dose of absurdity. Most in common in the shorts — and what makes them all effective — is their grinning pessimism. This is a film mostly populated by loathsome, amoral figures. But a karma’s-a-bitch ethos is only thinly rendered: Even the more or less “good” characters meet melodramatically gruesome ends. The hands of fate are so laughably cruel in Creepshow that, in its closing episode, an astringent, germaphobic billionaire (E.G. Marshall) is eaten alive by cockroaches in his hermetic chamber of an apartment, for instance. He dies a lonely albeit memorably nuts death, and that’s basically it.
One could call Romero and King masochistic. But in keeping with the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, the appeal of Creepshow has all to do with its good-humored blend of misanthropy and dark farce. The collaborators don’t care for cheeky horror lite. They want to get under our skin, smiling in the meantime. Why give characters populating a horror movie the opportunity to find refuge in something brighter? Horror sticks with you longest when easy escapes don’t exist. A-