George A. Romero’s “Creepshow” (1982) is never mentioned as a major, trailblazing comic book movie, but it is.
Whereas many notable mid-to-late 20th century films that were based in spirit or directly on a comic book (or, excuse me, Graphic Novel) adapted a jokey, condescending tone (I’m looking at you, “Superman III”), Romero’s film isn’t fooling around.
Despite the use of gooey corpses, a decapitated head and a tombstone used as a murder weapon (for starters), Romero’s film is an ambitious, two-hour effort to muse movies with comic books in a cinematically synergistic way.
All of the above preceded Warren Beatty (“Dick Tracy”), Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”), Zac Snyder (“300” and “Watchmen”) and Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy), all of whom followed his path much later.
“Creepshow” is an adoring tribute to E.C. Comics, and the age of publisher William Gaines’ going to bat against critics who accused him of putting out tasteless comics (indeed they were- but also witty, beautifully drawn and structured like a bite sized morality tale).
Romero and Stephen King’s wonderful collaboration is tonal and visual approximation of the lurid joys, visual pulp and moral rot within the likes of E.C. Comic’s “Tales from the Crypt” and “Vault of Horror.”
Here is a major-league filmmaker with a lifetime of indie cred that aimed to create a comic book aesthetic (note the splashes of primary colors during jump scares and self-conscious panels during scene transitions, to name just a few examples), while screenwriter King shaped yarns that, indeed, your mom wouldn’t approve of and your dad would toss in the trash.
It begins with Tom Atkins as a positively loathsome dad, who berates and even slaps his son (played by future author Joe Hill) for possessing a horror comic book. The bad dad tosses the comic in the trash, bores his wife over the plots within the comic (King’s way of teasing us that we’re about to watch the “crap” he’s describing) and the appearance of a ghoul outside the boy’s window indicate some sort of revenge plot is in order.
Here’s the line-up of the vignettes, which are best viewed with as little prior knowledge as possible.
“Father’s Day” is a perfect opener, as it’s well paced, sets up its sick joke premise and moves along into its bad taste howler of a final shot. Plus, watching Ed Harris (in his first film role) dance badly to a peppy disco tune is hall of fame worthy (a runner up is clearly Crispin Glover’s spastic moves in “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter”).
“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill” admittedly might have benefitted from a leading man who is more of an actor and less a shameless ham. Still, watching King fearlessly portray a dimwitted bumpkin is a once-in-a-lifetime kick.
“Something to Tide You Over” is my favorite. Featuring two terrific performances by Ted Danson (a hoot in his film debut) and Leslie Nielsen, years before he became the go-to leading man for movie parodies, it’s as cruel, funny and satisfying as the best of E.C. Comics.
“The Crate” is overly drawn out and, despite obvious highlights, is the weakest of the bunch. Nevertheless, it’s enjoyable to watch Hal Holbrook go so lowbrow and Adrienne Barbeau (so endearing in John Carpenter’s “The Fog”) play such an obnoxious character. Once we finally get to it, The Monster inside that crate is wonderful.
“They’re Creeping Up on You” succeeds in setting up a hermetically sealed, clinical environment, infesting it with roaches and building to a glorious, gross-out ending.
If the stories are all variations on horror comic book “crap,” then this is another of the film’s greatest accomplishments: “Creepshow” has a stylishness that is atypical of American horror films but is every bit as disreputable, gross and mean as the comic books that inspired it.
Although “Creepshow” is never cited alongside the the first serious-minded comic book movies, here is a big-budget effort to get the look and feel of the source material right. It’s also one of the best and every bit as essential to the genre as Richard Donner’s “Superman – The Movie” (1978) and Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989).
In fact, the attempt to create a cinematic duplication of the comic book format was as crucial to “Creepshow” as the design of “Ang Lee’s eternally controversial and experimental “Hulk” (2003).
The success of “Creepshow” led to an enjoyable, clunky and lower budgeted “Creepshow 2” (1987), released by New World Cinema and not a prestigious operation like Warner Brothers (who distributed the original).
Unlike the first film, the sequel sported shoddier production values and more B-movie ready cast. However, the take-it-or-leave-it cheap frills of “Creepshow 2” at least aligned it with the source material; like the Quentin Tarantino “Death Proof” segment of the delicious “Grindhouse” (2007), it’s less an ode to dirty B-movies than the genuine article.
The straight-to-video, nearly unwatchable “Creepshow III” has no involvement with Romero or anyone originally attached to the series. On the other hand, the more appropriate spinoff of “Creepshow” is worth revisiting and celebrating.
The small, spooky and always inventive “Tales from the Darkside” TV series was essentially “Creepshow” for the small screen; it aired from 1983-1988 and was a fixture of after-hours network TV and basic cable programming for four seasons.
Premiering around a golden era of post-“Twilight Zone” TV horror and fantasy anthologies, “Tales from the Darkside” took on the E.C. Comics mode of characters lacking a moral compass who encounter the supernatural and meet a typically horrific end. Nearly every episode was done on a single set with few actors and a high-concept premise that could be wrapped up in under 30 minutes.
While lacking the flashier production values of the more heavily hyped anthology shows of the era, like “Amazing Stories” and the new “Twilight Zone,” the durable appeal of “Tales from the Darkside” lingers on, as does the eerie sleaze it carries over from its E.C. Comics source.
The punchline to both “Father’s Day” and “Something to Tide You Over” bear a resemblance to the deliciously cheesy “Lot 249” portion of “Tales of the Darkside: The Movie” (1990), which, due to Romero’s connection and the horror anthology format, has been often referred to by fans as the unofficial “Creepshow III.”
As clever and enthusiastically fiendish as King’s screenplay is, what makes the film truly special is how Romero directed it. This is a true tour de force, as Romero has shaped this labor of love into a living breathing comic book.
Flashes of red light when a gruesome attack is made, split screens to create a comic book layout, angles and color lighting to suggest the panels. So do the side pans, “splash at” replications within the murder sequences.
The actors are also a part of Romero’s approach – no one is giving a condescending, “comic booky” turn akin to the cast of “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” (1987) or “Brenda Starr” (1986). Yet, there is an elevated quality to the performances that fit the tone entirely.
It’s interesting that, unlike the slasher films and most genre films of its day, most the “Creepshow” cast are veteran and middle-aged film and theater actors.
If Romero’s zombie movies are trojan horses for social issues he wanted to explore through genre works, then “Creepshow” is, like the comic books it is based on, an attack on social norms, morality, ethics, proper etiquette and domestic roles.
Romero’s counter-culture attitude was always present in his work. Even his recently unearthed, long believed to be lost and devastating “The Amusement Park” demonstrates his directorial strengths and frustrations with society.
“Creepshow” is, perhaps, not the film school staple that his “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) is but certainly deserves to be. In bringing not just the tone but a clever representation of graphic novel storytelling to the big screen, “Creepshow” wasn’t just ahead of its time but also Romero adding a measure of prestige and fiendishness that honors the best of E.C. Comics.