Friday, June 5, 2015

Creepshow!

Creepshow: written by Stephen King; directed by George Romero; starring Hal Holbrook (Henry), Adrienne Barbeau (Wilma), Fritz Weaver (Dexter), Leslie Nielsen (Vickers), E.G. Marshall (Upson Pratt), Viveca Lindfors (Bedelia), Ed Harris (Hank), Ted Danson (Wentworth), Stephen King (Jordy Verrill), and Joe Hill King (Billy) (1982): Is it an anthology movie when all the segments are written by the same person or a collection movie? Oh, well. This homage to the horror comics of the 1950's, written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, is a mixed enough bag that it almost feels like an anthology movie from several different writers.

Creepshow is enjoyable. And it was adapted by King and Bernie 'Swamp Thing' Wrightson as an even more enjoyable comic book, complete with a cover by EC great Jack Kamen, who also provides some of the comic-book panels seen in this film. But Creepshow almost succeeds in spite of itself: King and Romero's take on those horror comics, and specifically the great EC Comics of the early 1950's, is too campy and arch by about 50%.

The decision to play up the comic-book aspects of the production with odd frames and effects and shots doesn't help things either. As in Ang Lee's Hulk, the extremely comic-booky  visuals just look sorta stupid. And in the context of the illustration style of EC Comics, which tended to stick to a very strict grid pattern for the comic book panels, many of the visual choices made by Romero make no historic sense except in relation to the Batman TV series of the 1960's.

The final mistake is literally two-fold. Romero casts Stephen King as the lead actor in one segment and his son Joe Hill King as a child in the framing story. They're both terrible actors. Romero compensates for this terribleness in King's segment by making it the most archly comedic sequence in the movie and having King yuck it up like a Little Theatre actor who got all coked up for opening night. The result is cringeworthy and funny for all the wrong reasons -- it's like amateur hour at the Grand Guignol.

Other segments with actual professional actors in them fare better. "The Crate," the longest segment, is adapted by King from a short story of his that has never been collected in one of his collections (yes, there are stories by Stephen King that even Stephen King doesn't like). Nonetheless, it's an excellent piece of comic horror that's at its best when it's not being comic at all: only the decision to make Adrienne Barbeau's character, an annoying faculty wife, into a shrill, clueless Harpy almost undoes the rest of the segment. 

But Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver, old pros both, make one believe in the rest of the narrative. Tom Savini's monster design for this segment is pretty solid, though not as alien as the creature described in the story, and a little more alien might have been nice. Of course, he's limited by the visual effects technology of 1982 and the film's budget: the thing in the story couldn't have been a guy in a suit.

Really, the cast is terrific. Leslie Nielsen and Ted Danson shine in a tale of adultery and revenge from beyond the grave. And E.G. Marshall does nasty, blackly comic work as a squirmy, technocratic businessman (dig that early 1980's computer technology!)  besieged by an endless army of cockroaches in his Kubrickian white-walled apartment. A young Ed Harris is almost unrecognizable in the weak first segment, which offers as its main charm a really beautifully imagined walking corpse. Kudos again to Savini and his creature team. 

Overall, Creepshow is worth watching, or watching again. Other than the unfortunately arch comic-book visualizations, Romero's direction is effective throughout. "The Crate" creates real tension, while E.G. Marshall's segment offers a number of clever ways to send a cockroach skittering across the frame. The frame story is negligible, and the tone would better have been modulated towards the dramatic end of things. Even the Stephen King segment generates a certain amount of poignance by its end, though I'm not sure if one feels sorry for King's rural bumpkin or for King himself being exposed so thoroughly as a dreadful, dreadful actor and then being seemingly exhorted to overplay that terribleness. In all, recommended.

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