(By Guest Writer James Olchak)
Hello, bones and ghouls! As I was digging my creaky old cadaver out of the scare-cophagus this morning, I happened to cast my sockets on the old grimfather clock, and guess what? It’s time for Let’s Scare Jenn to Death!That’s the project where we peer pressure a perfectly nice lady who is in no way filled with rage and misanthropyinto watching gory and disturbing horror movies with little-or-no socially redeeming value in order to shock her tender constitution into causing her deceasement! That nice lady is Jenn, but I’m your gore guide James, which isn’t a very scary name at all.
This month’s movie is a bit of a break from our previous excursions into the genre of corn syrup, rubber heads and screaming. Much of our earlier work this year has involved heady themes of guilt, jealousy, heresy, impostor syndrome, grief, the victimization of the marginalized for the aggrandizement of mediocre white patriarchy, and Protestants. This month we’re watching something that swims in shallower themes, but check it, Michael Phelps won all 28 of his Olympic medals in seven feet of water. The cinematic champion we’re talking about today is named Creepshow.
Creepshow is a 1982 horror anthology written by horror legend Stephen King (inventor of pop horror culture) and directed by horror legend George Romero (inventor of modern zombies). It follows the sardonic tone and snappy pace of the early-50’s EC horror comics, created by horror legend William Gaines (inventor of Mad Magazine), and has grisly special effects by industry legend Tom Savini (inventor of exploding heads). It stars a broad roster of horror genre stalwarts (like Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Atkins), and game character actors (like Hal holbrook and Leslie Nielsen). Creepshow’s flesh is densely marbled with talent, like a Wagyu steak.
So what is Creepshow about? It’s an anthology, so it tells several stories, but none of them are overly complex. They mostly revel in bloody, old testament vengeance carried out against the deserving (and undeserving!) to wry, sideways effect. It’s feel-good horror, when the ‘good guys’ get it, it’s exhilarating, and when the ‘bad guys’ get it back, it’s transcendent. Since the stories are individually quite short (and roughly equally competent in conception and execution) we’re going to break format a little, and focus only on the most notable aspects of each story.
The untitled wraparound story that sets Creepshow in motion involves a young boy, Billy (Stephen King’s son, AKA horror writer Joe Hill), a fan of macabre stories, being punished by his strict (abusive, really) father Stan (Genre everyman Tom Atkins) for reading the titular comic book from which these stories are all drawn, then throwing the comic in the trash. Meanwhile, the ghoulish one-eyed zombie mascot of Creepshow, Frank Creepshow, leers through Billy’s window, much to Billy’s delight. It’s metatextual! While I would have preferred Tom Atkins have a little more to do, this is still a fun segment that concludes after the final full-length story.
Father’s Day is a simple story about Nathan Grantham, a rich old monstrous bastard who torments his long-suffering children, even killing one’s fiancé in a “hunting accident.” The victim’s prospective wife Bedelia snaps, smashing open her abusive father’s head with a marble ashtray as he bellows for his “Father’s day” cake.
Years later, the extended family comes together for a recurring dinner, where the newly married-in Hank (A young Ed Harris, as blandly balding and square-jawed as he would ever be) is told the ghoulish story while everyone waits for dotty old “Aunt Bedelia” to show up. Stopping by the grave of her murdered father to get drunk and berate the dead man’s spirit, Bedelia is the first to be killed by the man’s reanimated corpse, which then proceeds to murder most of the rest of the family, even turning his granddaughter Sylvia’s head into a makeshift “cake,” complete with candles.
This first story is pretty conventional, by horror standards, but definitely fitting the heightened, hysteric, comic-book tone of Creepshow. The main thing that stands out about it is how delightfully rotten and well-crafted the shambling corpse of Nathan Grantham is.
Dirt caked around his skeletal fingers, his burial suit hanging in tatters, and living earthworms crawling about in his eye sockets, Nathan’s corpse is genuinely repulsive and decomposed looking. When he speaks, it’s in this half-rasp, half gurgle, heavily processed on the audio end, it’s easily the best zombie-like creature ever depicted in a movie at that time, and for many years after. And considering “Father’s day” is only about 20 minutes long, it’s a lot of invested skill to create something so detailed and affecting for so little screen time.
Autopsy: Father’s Day
Okay, Jenn, what’s your opinion on this objectively great zombie effect? Is it as notable as I think it is, or are you spoiled by the 30-odd years special effects artists have had to refine this stuff?
Actually I think it’s a pretty great effect! The only thing I would say modern 2018 zombies have over this guy is whatever CG nonsense they use to make parts of their bodies be you know, not there – missing half a face, that sort of thing. This is a pretty effective zombie.
Yeah, they had to resort to creative solutions when they wanted to excise parts of people’s bodies, back in the 80’s. Camera angles and twisting your actors into pretzels, and so on. There’s a gore shot from later in the film that I think is amazingly visceral in the context of the film, but suffers from the close examination available in the Internet age.
The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill
The Lonesome death of Jordy Verrill is a story about the titular subsistence farmer (a bumpkin, really), who dreams of a cash windfall after a meteor smashes down on his land. Eagerly dumping water on the red-hot stone, it cracks into pieces, releasing a glowing fluid into the earth.
Depressed after “ruining” his prize “Meaty-or” Jordy soon discovers another problem. Anything that’s been exposed to the meteor, or the fluid leaking from it, starts growing a covering of grass-like alien plant growth. And that includes poor Jordy.
As Jordy wracks his brain for a solution to his problem (and finds none), he spirals into increasing discomfort and hallucinations as the plant growth overtakes his body. Eventually, Jordy, completely blinded and nearly immobilized by the weeds consuming him, commits suicide.
Autopsy: The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill
Now, Jordy is played with a buffoonish glee by notable non-actor Stephen King, and his performance is one of the only polarizing things about the film. Either you appreciate The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill for it’s dark comedy and sympathize with King’s performance as the hardscrabble doofus Jordy, or you think it’s just too god-damned goofy to give a shit about, and consider fast forwarding past it. Either way you fall, this segment is a one-man show that hinges almost entirely on King’s performance.
So which are you, Jenn? Are you a Jordy booster or a Jordy hater?
Well… I feel like I’m somehow in the middle. In addition to his over the top goofball thing being annoying to watch, it’s also a frustrating hillbilly trope which I hate, personally. BUT, even so, I was actually really impressed by the effects in this one – the growing green stuff I thought looked very realistic, whatever that could possibly mean, and it was just a cool effect to enjoy. In addition, despite disliking the trope, Jordy did bother me and I thought he kind of deserved to be covered in green goo for doing such a stupid series of things.
I liked the grass effects, too. They weren’t, like, typical “evil plants from space” effects. No squirming Evil Dead-style tree roots, or waddling triffids, or Audrey’s II. Just grass growing everywhere it touches. I used to hate Stephen King’s performance in this, just wishing they had cast an actual actor, but I’ve softened on it, over the years. Even though Jordy is portrayed as an over-the-top stereotype (which, really, many characters in Creepshow are), I think King brings enough pathos to the role to drag it back from just being offensive.
Something to Tide you Over
Something to Tide You Over is another conventional horror potboiler, in which prankish, spite-fueled millionaire Richard takes revenge on his unfaithful wife Becky, and her new beau, Harry. It’s a pretty bland set-up, but it’s got some good flavor in both ingredients and execution. For one, Richard is played by post-Airplane, pre-Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen, and he is a glib, gun-waving delight in a nice warm cardigan.
Nielsen cut his acting teeth on playing straight-arrows (even in comedy), and seeing him get to play a contemptuous would-be mastermind is a lot of fun. His romantic rival, Harry, is played by a pre-Cheers Ted Danson. While Ted is game enough as the sensitive “let’s all be adults about this” Harry, he’s instantly outmaneuvered by Richard’s casual cruelty. When Richard comes to Harry’s apartment to supposedly hash things out, Harry is forced at gunpoint to accompany him out to his isolated beach house. Too late Harry realizes he’s there to dig his own grave. Once Harry is buried up to his neck below the high-tide line, Richard carries out a bulky-ass 1982 CRT TV wired up with a closed circuit signal from somewhere else on Richard’s sprawling beach property, showing Harry that Becky has met the same sandy fate, and unfortunately, the tide is a bit further up the beach where she’s planted.
Seriously, that TV probably weighed fifty pounds, and cost seven hundred dollars in 1982. Anyway, we’re barely introduced to Becky
…while Richard explains to Harry that if he stays calm and holds his breath long enough for the seawater to loosen up the sand, he might get free before he drowns. This doesn’t happen.
BUT GUESS WHAT THERE’S TOTALLY A TWIST that’s kinda exactly the same twist as in Father’s Day, because when Richard goes out to recover his precious coaxial cable from the beach, neither Becky nor Harry’s bodies are there. Richard thinks it’s because the tide dragged them out to sea, but it’s because they’re totally BACK FROM THE DEAD and all PRUNEY.
…and in true EC comics-style irony, Richard finds himself buried in the sand (presumably below the high-tide line), where he refuses to accept how boned he is:
Autopsy: Something to Tide You Over
While I really enjoy Leslie Nielsen’s performance in Something to Tide You Over and the watching your victims die on closed-circuit TV was a brand new horror concept in 1982, the premise is sort of old hat now. The pruney, drowned zombie-ghost makeup is great, but it’s not nearly the showstopper that decaying old Nathan was, in Father’s Day.
So, what is there to talk about in Something to Tide You Over, Jenn? HAHA now I am the mastermind, and YOU have to frame the discussion!
Well let me see… there’s the Old White Dude™ having absolute power over other people. That’s something that should seem very familiar to all of us particularly at this moment in time. It’s interesting to me that a very similar story plays out in one of the new Batman movies… this one. It’s actually a moment, in that movie, that really caused me some genuine distress because of how cleverly the Joker played everyone and because in her last moments Maggie is trying to comfort others about her own death. (BECAUSE SHE’S A WOMAN SO OF COURSE SHE IS. ALWAYS PUTTING OTHERS FIRST GODDAMN IT.)
I love/hate the helplessness of Harry having to watch Becky and frantically realizing he can do nothing about it. It also has shades of The Vanishing (please watch the original and not the Kiefer Sutherland remake). Right? I actually don’t want to spoil that movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it. You should watch it, folks.
Holy crap, The Vanishing (1988) AKA Spoorloos was on my list for Let’s Scare Jenn to Death, but I eventually bumped it for not being scary enough. And, yeah, the remake was terrible, despite being directed by the same guy as the original! Yeah, I deffo get the parallels, there.
There are a couple moments I really love, when Harry almost just goes for Richard, I mean, at one point, he’s armed with a shovel, he’s got a fifty-fifty shot of closing the gap and braining Richard before he gets shot to death. But once he’s down in the hole, it’s over for him.
The Crate is my favorite of the stories in Creepshow. Like many of the others, it focuses on a story of revengeful humans with an added element of a murderous supernatural threat. The revenge aspect in The Crate is a slow burn affair, focusing on meek college professor Henry Northrup (played by character actor royalty Hal Holbrook), and his growing resentment of his boozy, boorish wife Wilma (played by genre movie royalty Adrienne Barbeau). Northrup frequently has vivid fantasies of murdering Wilma (sometimes to the applause of onlookers), but sees no way to escape the gravity of her oppression.
Just call her Billie, everybody does.
Northrup’s purgatorial existence is changed when his morally compromised professorial associate and friend Dexter Stanley is notified of a forgotten crate located beneath a staircase in the campus, late in the evening before a long weekend. The crate, leftover from a 19th-century Arctic expedition, is discovered to contain an (impossibly still-living) predatory primate, which makes quick, bloody work of both a grad student and a school janitor, consuming their bodies entirely, leaving only bits of clothing and gallons of blood behind.
Shocked beyond sanity from witnessing the gruesome attack, Stanley approaches Northrup for help deciding what to do. After giving Stanley a sedative, Northrup, seeing an opportunity to be rid of his abusive, drunken wife, leaves her a note telling her an elaborate fable about Northrup assaulting a female student, and needing Wilma’s help to “talk the girl out” of her hiding place beneath the school stairs. He cleans up the bloody evidence of the beast’s feeding frenzy and waits. Wilma, always happy to learn more dirt about the faculty, joins her henpecked husband at the school, where Henry shoves her against the crate, eventually gaining the desired result.
With Wilma eaten, Northrup secures the crate, cleans up the bloody mess (again), carries the crate to the old quarry, and drops it in, watching it sink into the lightless depths. He returns to Stanley, confessing the whole affair. They agree to keep the deaths secret, and enjoy a game of chess. Meanwhile, the creature breaks free from the crate, for the “Beast from the Crate” sequel that we never got.
Autopsy: The Crate
So, I love this segment, for a couple reasons. I love that the anthology format leaves no room for any tedious exposition regarding why the beast in the crate has survived for 150 years with no food or water; why it’s never broken out of the crate prior to this, despite having the strength to rip a man apart; or how it can eat three full-sized humans (including their bones), despite being the size of a small chimpanzee. It simply is, and in horror, so much is lost when the ineffable is reduced to a bland scientist explaining hibernation or cellular regeneration, or something equally mundane.
I agree, and actually, this brings up a good point. I DO hate when horror tries too hard to explain everything in incredible detail which is always unbelievable and ridiculous. Even though I also struggle to just accept ridiculous things like the above, I would prefer that we just leave it to the imagination rather than explaining to me some farcical reason that this would be possible.
The main reason I love this short, however, is that Henry’s dissatisfaction with Wilma as a wife is wholly reasonable (She is a horrible asshole), but his eventual murder of her just isn’t. Much like Leslie Nielsen’s Richard Vickers, Henry decides to murder his wife pretty much because she does shit he doesn’t like. There’s a thing called divorce, guys! But unlike Richard, Henry is sympathetic! You root for Henry to successfully get rid of “Billie,” even though murdering your wife because she’s an abusive bitch is not a thing a good person does.
So, Jenn, why are we okay with Henry murdering his wife? What does it say about an audience who roots for this supposedly ‘mild-mannered” man to commit so calculated a murder, when we hated Richard for doing pretty much the exact same shit?
Good question, especially to one FEMINIST KILLJOY such as myself. Here’s the thing: I wanted to murder Billie and I think that’s why I’m OK with Henry wanting to murder Billie. Although, of course, divorce is in fact preferable, in the context of this movie I can understand in theory wanting to just feed this horrific person to a monster rather than dealing with a reasonable process of getting her out of my life. I mean, the best solution of course would be just don’t get married in the first place. But I’ll suspend disbelief in this case.
Of course we could examine, actually, how each of these stories is its own unfair stereotyped reason to hate a woman and take revenge on her. In the first case, it’s because she doesn’t love you, and she’s a slut, right, Old White Dude™? And in this case it’s because she’s a shrew henpecking her poor kind husband to death, right? As you said, divorce is an option.
Don’t forget Father’s Day, in which Bedelia is forced to remain her deranged Father’s caretaker because her Father murdered her fiancé to prevent her escaping the household. It’s all a rich tapestry of patriarchy!
Grrrrr. To which I say, this gif:
They’re Creeping Up on You
They’re Creeping up on You tells the story of germaphopic vulture capitalist Upson Pratt (played by E.G. Marshall), whose life consists of using his great wealth to prey on smaller companies, berating his long-suffering employees, and complaining about the roaches which still find their way into his “completely germ free” penthouse apartment.
Like The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill, They’re Creeping up on You is a one-man show. E.G Marhall’s Pratt is a sneering, wicked old man who takes great joy in running his hateful empire from his cocoon-like apartment, sealed off from all repercussions from his hateful behavior. When the widow of a rival company owner calls to berate Pratt for destroying her husband so thoroughly that it resulted in his suicide, Pratt is not only not remorseful (even insincerely) to the woman. He is instead amused by her insults, and laughingly derides her dead husband’s business acumen. Upson Pratt is a mean old bastard, locked away in a vault where nothing can reach him. Save for the roaches that scuttle across his floor, infest his cereal, and otherwise disrupt Pratt’s existence.
Contacting his mononymous building manager White, Pratt demands the immediate services of an exterminator. A rolling blackout soon plunges the city into darkness, and strands White in the elevator. Once Pratt’s utopian petri dish apartment is left only with reserve power, the roaches begin their invasion in earnest, arriving too quickly, and in too great numbers for Pratt to repel, by spray or by shoe.
They’re Creeping up on You is the Creepshow short that was most shocking to audiences in 1982, mostly because there wasn’t a good way to execute such a story about a germ-free apartment being completely overrun by cockroaches other than filling your set with a bunch of live cockroaches. Sources are delightfully vague regarding how many cockroaches were needed for the shoot (Somewhere between 20 thousand and 250 thousand), with writer/director George Romero providing the larger number, and claiming that the roaches were the largest single cost to the film (at $125,000).
The terrified and disgusted Pratt flees to his even more hermetically sealed bedroom, where, to his distress, he finds a massive scuttling colony of roaches beneath his sheets, followed by more flowing from the vents, until Pratt is submerged in the twitching mass, and he dies of a fright-induced heart attack, as the lights fail, yet again. Once the power returns, nary a roach is to be seen, although Pratt is still quite dead. As White attempts to contact Pratt through the intercom, regarding the arrival of the exterminators, Pratt’s body bursts from within, as roaches crawl OUT OF HIS MOUTH AND TEARS IN HIS SKIN.
Autopsy: They’re Creeping Up on You
So, Jenn, I understand this was your favorite of the bunch. I think the simplicity of the story and its execution are high points (it was genius to use Pratt’s all-white walls and floors to contrast the scuttling roaches, it sounds simple, but a poor craftsman could have easily fucked that up), but I think the metahorror almost unfairly intrudes on the fictional horror, here. Like, there was no CGI in 1982, the audience wasn’t being tricked by artifice, there really were thousands and thousands of cockroaches on that set (although the bulk roach scenes were padded out with nuts and raisins, which I’m sure the roaches enjoyed). Are we horrified by what Pratt went though, or just horrified by knowing all those roaches really were on set? What was your favorite aspect of the story?
I was delighted by what he went through because he’s a horrible monster and deserves to be frightened to death and then eaten from the inside out by roaches. I enjoy seeing terrible people meet a terrible fate. Nothing feels more right in a story.
I was horrified by the roaches. I have only once lived in an apartment that had a roach problem, and I solved it with poison, but it was HORRIBLE. Turning on the lights to see them skitter away from literally every surface in the place was beyond terrifying. And I’m in a northern city – I can’t imagine being able to handle the giant palmetto bugs of the south. NO THANKS FOREVER. I would want nothing to do with this movie set, and if it was suggested that hundreds of thousands of roaches be introduced into my workplace I would not hesitate to quit and change my entire career and move far far away.
As two garbagemen (one played by effects master Tom Savini) arrive to carry off the trash left by Stan at the end of the prologue, they become distracted and amused by the Creepshow comic atop the pile. They flip through, laughing at all the weird things you could order from the back of comics like these, taking note that the “authentic” voodoo doll has already been sent for, as the order form has been cut from the page. Inside the house, Stan doubles over in pain, as Billy energetically spears the voodoo doll in revenge for being deprived of his favorite comic.
I loved this. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be a product of the time but that dad was a truly horrible abusive monster. He wasn’t just like, a dad who wished his kid read less comics. He deserved to be voodooed to death by his son.
I liked the subtle setup. Not only does the mother come across one of Stan’s shirts with a strip cut out of it (no doubt for use in the voodoo doll), earlier in the film, as the animated “comic book” pages flip from one story to the next, you see the page with the voodoo doll ad, and the order form cut out. I do feel a little bad for Stan, but only because Tom Atkins plays a heroic type in at least two other great horror movies.
Well that is the only acceptable reason because he’s a giant jerk in this movie! It is a good setup though, yes. I agree.
Cause of Death
Now that you’ve been subjected to all of the gore, revenge, and monsters that Stephen King, George Romero, and Frank Creepshow (That is that character’s full name, everyone is saying so) had to offer in Creepshow, it is time, Jenn, to describe how well the film inflicted the horror movie virtues of dread, shock, and horror, using our traditional scale of one-to-five severed Acadia heads:
This movie was pretty fun but I didn’t really have a lot of dread going into any of the mini stories, probably because the setup was a comic book, and because each of them was pretty short. I would give it a 1 out of 5 heads.
I’m too lazy to rate each story separately… nothing was especially shocking, I think I would overall give it a 2 out of 5 for shock.
I’d score them overall a 3 for horror. There were some pretty uncomfortable moments like the dad crawling out of the grave, the ocean drowning Harry, and the roaches crawling out of the unlucky germaphobe jerk.
Finally, what do you think you’ll remember most from the panoply of spook moments you found in Creepshow?
Probably Jordy Verrill getting alien plants all over him and roaches crawling out of the 1%’s face.
There are quite a few similar horror anthologies from the era of Creepshow, and some are pretty good, though none are quite as good. There’s Creepshow 2 (1987), with standout short The Raft, and Nightmares (1983), with a young Emilio Estevez as a video game hustler in The Bishop of Battle; even the made-for-TV Karen Black vehicle Trilogy of Terror (1975), with the infamous Zuni Fetish doll.
My favorite, after Creepshow, is Cat’s Eye (1985). Like Creepshow, it adapts a couple Stephen King short stories, and concludes with one written especially for the film. Cat’s Eye follows an unnamed stray cat through three stories of depravity, revenge, and the supernatural. The standout story pits the cat, newly-adopted by a post-Firestarter Drew Berrymore, against a tiny knife-wielding Troll that lives in her bedroom wall and clambers out each night to steal her breath.
It works as a horror story, and a fairy tale, and the miniature Troll effects are top-notch. Cat’s eye is worth watching just for this story, but the other segments or both okay, too.