Thursday, October 8, 2009

Horror Fest '09: Creepshow

Anthology films are tricky. In my experience, those that I’ve seen have typically been mixed-bags. The main problem arises when the quality begins to vary from story to story, which is usually unavoidable. It’s sort of an awkward situation for the filmmakers, really. On the one hand, audiences will likely find something to enjoy out of it, but on the other hand, they probably won’t enjoy everything; resulting in a consensus that the film was merely “alright.” So, anyone who accomplishes the consistency necessary for one of these films deserves some recognition. But for those who don’t quite pull it off, I can’t begrudge them too much.

This line of thought brings me to Creepshow (1982), a horror film anthology, and the one and only collaboration between George Romero and Stephen King (a pairing which must have had horror fans drooling when the film was originally released). The idea behind this project drew heavily from the E. C. comic books of the 50’s, of which both Romero and King were fans. With that in mind, this film plays as an homage to those pulpy, lurid stories that I’m sure fascinated and inspired both artists in their youths. The film divides itself into five separate stories, each with varying degrees of success.

Some quick thoughts on each segment:

Segment 1 – Father’s Day
This first tale centers on a spoiled, rich family who gather together to mark the 7th anniversary of their father’s death (he was murdered, and by one of the family members, no less). Things conclude poorly for the family, however, as Father decides to rise from the grave and wreck havoc.
Despite the inclusion of some dark humor, this story was one of the weaker efforts, I thought. Simply relying on jump-scares without anyone to care about just doesn’t quite measure up. There just wasn’t much behind it.

Segment 2 – The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill
Stephen King stars in this segment as a slack-jawed yokel who discovers a meteor that crashes down on his farm. He immediately dreams of selling the meteor for big bucks. But then something curious begins to happen…
This was the worst. King should definitely stick to writing and leave acting to the professionals. His country bumpkin act grated my nerves. I understand that it’s supposed to be funny, but the humor attempted in this segment fell flat for me due to his over-the-top performance. The story itself isn’t awful, just kind of pointless.

Segment 3 – Something to Tide You Over
Leslie Neilson and Ted Danson star in this segment about a jealous husband (Neilson) who has discovered his wife has cheated on him with another man (Danson). This story was probably the most fun for me. Neilson and Danson play well off each other as a game of cat-and-mouse between them progresses to a twisted end. The tone of dark humor that the film strives for probably works best in this segment.

Segment 4 – The Crate
The longest story of the film centers on a put-upon husband (Hal Holbrook) and his domineering wife (Adrienne Barbeau). After the discovery of an old crate at a college campus, people begin to leave behind big bloody messes due to its contents. Now one man (Holbrook) must decide how to deal with the contents inside.
While this segment is a solid one, it goes on a bit too long for what the story needs. Again, the humor involved maintains a pitch black tone that I enjoyed.

Segment 5 – They’re Creeping Up on You
E. G. Marshall stars in this segment as a cantankerous, rich, old man with an obsession for cleanliness. He lives in a germ-free apartment away from all the “riff-raff” of the world which he despises. As much as he attempts to keep himself cleansed of those “lower” than him, something begins creeping up on him, ready to give him his just deserts.
Definitely the squirmiest/grossest of the segments, this story really builds up the tension. And, unlike the other stories, I felt as if this one actually had something to say. Romero is no stranger to social commentary and this feels like material well-suited for him. It’s probably the most effective segment and a impressive note to end the film.

While I felt that Creepshow failed to escape the typical troubles of an anthology film, several aspects make it worth watching – foremost among those aspects being the style. Romero stays true to comic book origins of this film by seamlessly integrating brief snippets of animation throughout the segments. Each of the stories becomes formatted like comic book drawings, occasionally displaying images as if they were panels within a comic. In addition to the animation, Romero’s use of lighting and color also add to the stylized comic book motif. During some of the more shocking moments, the lighting switches to bright primary colors and the backgrounds become flat as characters shudder in horror. Creepshow may deserve some credit here as one of the first films to specifically go after a comic book design, predating today’s comic book-influenced films by a couple decades.

Perhaps equally as inspired as the visuals are the make-up effects by Tom Savini. While CGI dominates today’s films, I tend to prefer practical effects as there’s more creativity behind them; plus, seeing something tangible onscreen has a more direct effect on audiences (at least this audience member). With that said, Savini’s creations for this film are top-notch. All of the creatures, living or dead, strike the intended amount of creepiness and scares.

Going into this film, the fright factor was a given. However, the level of humor involved caught me by surprise. As mentioned in the above segment descriptions, the comedy involved is pitch black, but if you can get onboard with that, then this film should play just fine. The performances (mostly) add to the humor as everyone essentially inhabits caricatured parts, chewing the scenery as needed. Leslie Neilson especially stands out as the conniving cheated-on husband as he hits just the right balance of sincerity and camp. Although a tad too much on the mean-spirited side, I thoroughly enjoyed laughing my way through these stories.

While the experience of watching Creepshow may have ended with my assessment that it was just “alright,” I’d definitely recommend it to horror fans. The film fills itself with enough enjoyable elements to make it worth a watch. And to be fair, I believe Romero and King accomplished exactly what they set out to do: give people some entertaining laughs and scares. I can’t fault the film too much for achieving its goals, even though they might not be of the highest sort.

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