Growing up on the outskirts of a small Northern shipyard town in the 1980s I didn’t get much opportunity to read the sort of gruesome, blood-soaked comics for which my dark heart longed. My father never threw my horror comics in the trash because I didn’t have any. In fact given the proclivity of my friends and I to root through the local rubbish dumps for toys and (in my case) books I was more likely to find my horror comics in the trash than lose them there.
The really scary horror comics of the 50s and the 70s would have been long gone by the time I was freecycling other people’s cast offs, so my first exposure to classic horror comics was vicariously through the writings of Stephen King. In Danse Macabre King not only admits his huge debt to horror comics (EC in particular) he also details some of the most bloodthirsty stories they ran, including the baseball horror Foul Play. It would be almost another decade before I got to read these stories in reprint form, so my first exposure to the flavour and feel of these comics was not on the printed page but the silver screen. In a film written once again by King and directed by George Romero.
The film, as you’ve probably guessed was Creepshow which is being released at the end of the month on Blu-ray by Second Sight. As this is ostensibly a column about horror comics, even if I rarely stick to that topic, and as I’m late on the deadline for both this column and a review of the Blu-ray that I promised, I thought I might beat out the brains of two birds with the same stone and and use my column to review the Blu-ray. Thereby allowing me to get back to thinking up excuses for the other pressing deadlines I’m behind on.
King and Romero were first brought together by Warner Bros who owned the rights to King’s second novel Salem’s Lot, a novel about vampires in a small American town. Romero had just made Martin a film that featured vampires in a small American town. So, displaying the alarmingly vast quantities of imagination for which Hollywood executives are famed, they decided that King and Romero would be a good fit.
As it happened, despite my heavy handed sarcasm, King and Romero were a great fit, as both were big fans of the others’ work. Romero wasn’t massively interested in directing Salem’s Lot though, which was handy as Warner Bros eventually decided to do it as a TV series. What Romero really wanted to film was King’s magnum opus The Stand. However raising the finance for such a large production was going to prove difficult, so Romero and producer Richard P Rubinstein suggested they make a smaller budget film to begin with, so potential investors would have more confidence in them. Romero liked the idea of doing an anthology horror movie and suggested a film where each segment represented a different era of the horror film. King liked the idea of a portmanteau horror, but wanted to concentrate instead on the horror comics that they grew up on. Thus Creepshow came into being.
As an aside, it would be interesting to speculate what King and Romero would have done with The Stand. How would the Godfather of the Zombie Apocalypse have approached a four hour script by the author of the post apocalyptic novel? In the distant parallel universes where this project did get off the ground, is it lauded as Romero’s masterpiece or King’s biggest mistake? Are we better off for having Day of the Dead instead, or would King and Romero have redefined another genre? It’s certainly hard to tell from the evidence of Creepshow.
Creepshow was the first screenplay that King wrote and the first (and only) film Romero shot from someone else’s script. It starts with Billy (played by King’s own son, future horror great Joe Hill – here called Joe King [seriously Stephen and Tabitha you didn’t think that one through did you?]), a young boy who has his prize horror comic thrown in the trash by a brash and over bearing father. Tom Atkins is uncredited in this role and that’s a bit of a shame because he gives an excellent performance. Especially when, having hit his son, he sits down full of alcohol and self satisfaction and tells his Billy’s Mom: “that’s why God made fathers.” This is a horror film however and such egregious acts of parental abuse are not without their consequences. The horror comic falls out of the trash can and, via the joys of limited (but skillful) animation, the contents come alive to exact their Oedipal revenge.
It’s worth noting at this point that it was only 25 years prior to the filming of Creepshow that the Moms and Pops of America had collectively driven the entire American horror comic industry out of business through senatorial subcommittees, newsstand boycotts and comic book burnings. The concerned parents of America had thrown a nation’s horror comics in the trash at a time when both King and Romero would have been the same age as Billy. Was Creepshow their filmic revenge for the Kefauver hearings and Seduction of the Innocent? I couldn’t possibly tell you, but I can say that watching the movie on video for the first time as a precocious 12 year old, whose parents and teachers criticised him for reading both horror and comics, it certainly resonated with me.
The standard 32-page horror comic has four self contained horror stories but Creepshow has five, two of them adapted from King’s existing stories while the other three are original to the film. Father’s Day is the first of two tales of revenge from beyond the grave, a common theme in EC comics. It starts when the wealthy Graham family get together to celebrate Father’s Day, an important day for the family because that’s when their Great Aunt Bedelia murdered the family patriarch – Nathan Graham, a tyrannical former bootlegger who put a stop to her ‘September romance’ by killing her aging lover. Needless to say Nathan returns and exacts a bloody revenge.
‘The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill’ stars King himself, hamming it up in accord with Romero’s directions, as a tragic hayseed who touches a meteor that lands in his tiny small holding and ends up turning himself into a giant weed. ‘Something to Tide You Over’ is considered by many to be the weakest segment but still delivers a satisfying tale of watery retribution when the drowned, adulterous victims of wealthy psychopath Richard Vickers (Leslie Nielsen) return to exact a fitting retribution (do you see a theme forming here?).
‘The Crate’ is perhaps the most accomplished and effective segment. A henpecked English Professor Henry Northrup (Hal Holbrook) finds the ideal way to rid himself of his abusive wife Wilma (Adrienne Barbeau) when a 150-year-old crate turns up under a secluded stairwell in his university. It was only on my most recent viewing that I detected a definite homo-erotic undercurrent between Northrup and his best friend Professor Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver). Perhaps that could account for the failure of his marriage and the disappointment of his wife, or maybe it just shows I was smoking too much of what Jody Verrill turned into. The final story ‘They’re Creeping Up on You’ contains the most gruesome and effective death of the whole movie when germ-obsessed millionaire and Howard Hawks clone Upton Pratt (E G Marshall) comes to a well-deserved end.
The Blu-ray contains the widescreen transfer and all the same special features as the 2007 DVD release with the addition of a new audio-commentary from Director of Photography Michael Gornick, Actor John Amplas, Property Master Bruce Alan Green and make-up effects assistant Darryl Ferruci (who also plays Fluffy; the monster in the crate). Unless you are an obsessive completist, this commentary, along with the improved picture quality would be your main reason for buying the Blu-ray if you already have the DVD. The special features are comprehensive and feature an excellent documentary on the sources and making of the movie.
Watching the film with my eldest daughter for the first time in years I was struck by how much fun everyone involved with Creepshow must have had and the fun translates to the viewer. It’s not the best work of anyone involved, not by a long shot. But at the time is was the single best attempt to put an authentic comic book experience up on the screen and it has proved to be a hugely influential work. What’s more, it helped kindle my life long love of horror comics and that can’t bad thing now can it? Trust your Uncle Jasp on this one and treat yourself to a guilty pleasure.
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