“Just tell it to call you Billie!”
George Romero. Stephen King. EC Comics… well, in spirit, anyway. Creepshow was a staple of Halloween in my teens – one of those films that always got rented (if it was available, that is) around the 31st. It has a certain kind of ghoulish glee that I associate with a childhood love of monsters, horror movies and trick or treating. When horror was fun AND creepy.
Back when Creepshow was released I hadn’t actually seen any EC comics. I think they were out of print at the time, or only available via expensive hardcover reprints. Instead, I associated the movie with the more pallid horror comics that DC put out in the 70’s – The Witching Hour, House of Secrets and House of Mystery. I loved those comics – the illustrated equivalent of a fire-side ghost story – and never realized that they were watered down by the Comics Code Authority until much later, when I finally got to see copies of Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror.
I DID have the comic book adaptation of Creepshow, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. I just about wore it out reading it. Sometime in the intervening years it disappeared – perhaps finally falling apart or maybe just lurking in a comic box in the basement, biding its time until it can lurch forth and… I dunno, give me a paper cut or something. Happily, I recently found a copy at the local Goodwill and reading it (a couple of times) made me remember how much I love this movie. (It being one of my top 5 Stephen King movie adaptations.)
Then this past week Hal Holbrook passed away. While the actor was in a ton of things – and is probably best known for his one-man stage show as Mark Twain – it’s always his turn as Henry Northrup in “The Crate” that I think of when his name is mentioned. (Followed quickly by Father Malone in The Fog.)
It’s not like I need an excuse to watch a film, but sometimes it seems like the universe is nudging me to watch a specific film. In this instance I was only happy to comply.
I picked up the Shout Factory Blu-ray of Creepshow a year or so ago, and this is my first time watching it. It’s a fantastic upgrade from my bare-bones DVD, with a sharp, clean picture (the result of a new 4k scan) and a raft of extras, including a commentary track with George Romero and Tom Savini. There’s a slipcase and booklet with a ton of photos (and an essay by Michael Gingold). It’s a great package overall, but the commentary track is full of behind the scenes tidbits and is a fun listen.
Creepshow is currently not part of any streaming subscription service but can be rented or purchased at any of the usual outlets.
I’ll be breaking this out by segment.
Both the prologue and epilogue of Creepshow feature a boy named Billy and his parents. In the prologue Billy’s getting a dressing down by his father for reading horror comics. After a fatherly slap across Billy’s face the comics are thrown out. While a self-satisfied dad sits in his easy chair Billy sits upstairs, cursing his father. At the window appears The Creep from his horror comic, beckoning Billy to come closer…
The boy, if I remember correctly, is played by Joe Hill (then Joe King) one of Stephen King’s sons and subsequently a successful writer in his own right. Tom Atkins (The Fog, Halloween 3) is the dad.
This starts things off in typical EC comics style, with a wealthy family of degenerates and a family secret. Every Father’s Day the Granthams get together to remember their patriarch, a domineering and abusive man named Nathan Grantham. The youngest of the group has a new husband, which conveniently allows for the rest of the family to tell him the tale of Nathan’s murder – by his own daughter – many years before.
This is Aunt Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors), who arrives late and goes to the old man’s grave to drink and curse at him for having her lover killed (the event that precipitated Grantham’s murder). She spills her drink on the grave and, seemingly in response, Nathan rises from the ground and sets about killing people and asking – in a literally gravel-filled voice – for his Father’s Day cake.
This is actually my least favorite segment, but it’s still loads of fun. Watching Ed Harris be the hick is a hoot, and the maggoty remains of Nathan Grantham are a memorable effect (as is the Father’s Day cake he eventually makes for himself). The segment also establishes the visual theme for the entire movie – bright reds and blues with graphic backgrounds reminiscent of EC comics. Transitions and end sequences are often in actual comic book format and some scenes are even shown with a traditional comic book ‘gutter’ – the white area around each frame.
“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril”
A down-on-his-luck farmer, Jody Verril (Stephen King), sees a meteor crash on his property and goes to investigate. Dreams of selling it to the local college are dashed when he pours cold water on the steaming meteorite, cracking it. He puts the pieces in a bucket – after pouring the glowing contents of the hollow meteorite into the crater – and goes to have a beer and watch wrestling.
Soon he realizes that the fingers he used to touch the meteorite are turning green – growing fuzzy with something plant-like. Over the course of the evening the growth gets worse, everywhere he’s touched and been. “Not down there!” Oh yes, down there too. Outside, the cabin is becoming overgrown and plant life spreads in a circle out from the crater.
In a desperate attempt to alleviate the itching Jordy jumps into a tub full of water – but that’s just what the green growth wants. In the end Jordy finds a way out, but given the weather report the rest of the world may not be so lucky.
Let’s just say up front that acting is not one of Stephen King’s strong suits. I’ve always had a soft spot for this segment, though. Watching it again this time I realized a chapter in my Monster War novel – where a lawn comes to life and tries to kill the heroes – is completely inspired by this segment, I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s obvious looking at it now. (There’s also a bit of Day of the Triffids in there.)
“Something to Tide You Over”
This segment could also be called “Leslie Nielsen, Super Asshole” – just like Day of the Animals. A wealthy man (Nielsen) finds out he’s been cuckolded and takes revenge on his wife and her lover (Gaylen Ross and Ted Dansen) by burying them in the sand up to their necks and waiting for the tide to come in. He even watches the whole thing on remote video. Unfortunately for him, they come back. And it doesn’t matter how long he can hold his breath.
This one is always fun. Nielsen is a ham sandwich of crazy, but it’s fun to watch. Ted Dansen is more interesting as a water-logged corpse than he is as the lover. The makeup effects are great – particularly the spurt of dark water when the zombies are shot.
A college custodian (Don Keefer) finds a crate under the stairs and calls a professor, Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver), as it appears to be very old. When the two open the crate a monster inside attacks and kills the custodian. Stanly flees, running into a grad student who also ends up being killed by the monster. Even more distraught, Stanley flees to the house of his friend, fellow professor Henry Northrup (Hal Holbrook).
Northrup, a mild-mannered man who is severely hen-pecked by his wife Billie (Adrienne Barbeau), sees the crate and the monster as an opportunity to rid himself of his wife for good. He sets about cleaning the mess before luring his wife to the college, where the crate – and the monster – wait.
This has always been my favorite. I just love monster stories, and the Thing in the crate (nicknamed ‘Fluffy’ by Savini) is a great monster. Yeah, upon close look it’s just a monkey with sharp teeth – but damn, it’s effective. The effect when Fluffy bites the grad student is distressingly good, even now.
Hal Holbrook as Henry and Adrienne Barbeau as Wilma “Call me Billie” Northrup are pretty good, but Fritz Weaver is fantastic – one of the few times in a horror movie I’ve seen an adult male actor appear believably traumatized by the goings on. Watching it this time around, though, I was impressed by the way Holbrook manages so much with so little – just watch his expressions in any given scene. He’s amazing.
Also, is it just me, or is this the basic plot for Relic? Just me? Okay then.
“They’re Creeping Up on You”
A ruthless businessman, Upson Pratt (E. G. Marshall), who’s afraid of germs and bugs spends the night fighting cockroaches in his pristine, hermetically sealed apartment. When the power goes out because of a storm the insects invade in a flood and Pratt locks himself in his bedroom – which is no escape.
This one is always fun as well – unless you’re afraid of cockroaches, in which case you might want to skip it. Marshall plays Pratt so over the top villainous that you’re happy when he finally gets his comeuppance. The effect of all those bugs bursting out of his body is awesomely gross.
A pair of garbage men – one played by Tom Savini – find the comic from the prologue still in the trash. They look it over and discover that an ad for a ‘real’ voodoo doll has already had the order form sent. Back in the house Billy jabs away at the voodoo doll as his father screams in pain.
The Bottom Line
Creepshow is always a good time. It’s not the best work of either King or Romero, but it’s got a sense of wicked fun to it that really captures the comics it’s inspired by. As with those old EC comics there’s a definite sense of old-testament revenge running through the segments, with bad people getting exactly what they deserve. (Except for poor Jordy, that is.) It doesn’t bear a lot of scrutiny, but neither does a carnival fun ride. Creepshow is a fabulously fun movie to watch while the ghouls and goblins queue up for some candy, but it’s a good time no matter the season.