Concerning Creepshow: The Series

Well, I’m glad it’s back, anyway.

The internet adores Shudder’s new Creepshow series. It seems to have set new ratings records for AMC’s horror streaming service, and its success has seen it renewed for a second season. I’m oh-so-glad for this, because I’ve loved Creepshow, the movie, for most of my life. To see it rise from the grave to warm adulation just jolts my jaded little heart.

So why do I feel that it’s lacking somewhere? What’s wrong with me? I want to enjoy it, and there are parts of it that I truly do, but when I watch it, I can’t help but pick it apart.

Part of it is in the direction. The show makes many missteps, even in its very first episode. Gray Matter, the short story by Stephen King, is a small-town suspense tale on the lines of Weeds, and it’s extremely simple. There are some terrific actors in it, including Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito, but they don’t have much to work with. They have no time to develop as characters, and so they feel wasted. In The Crate and The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, there are some actual dynamics going on. Henry Northrup changes from milquetoast to confident killer. Jordy turns from happy hick to suicidal alien food. There’s a change of some kind happening in Gray Matter, but it’s really just a jerk becoming a different kind of jerk.

Gray Matter also suffers from a poor ending. Where the short story ends on a note of uneasy dread, the show goes for exaggerated panic, and it doesn’t work very well.

The follow-up act, House of the Head, shares this problem. It’s a neat little story about a dollhouse that becomes the site of a figurine murder mystery. The premise is intriguing, and Cailey Fleming, who plays the little girl watching the weirdness unfold, gives an endearing performance. The suspense builds beautifully, setting us up for a shocking surprise ending…and then it just stops. Boo. Boo, I say!

Many times, it feels like the makers tried to cram too much story into too little space. The worst offender here is Times is Tough in Musky Holler, which really needed a whole forty minutes to itself. It’s basically one long execution scene, with its setup told in comic-book flashbacks. We’re supposed to relish the suffering of the assholes being condemned to death, but it’s not all that satisfying when we only have glimpses of their crimes.

It’s also very predictable. Most horror fans are familiar with the EC formula by now, so nothing Creepshow throws at us is capable of surprising. We know that someone innocent will suffer. We know that the asshole responsible will be punished for it, and we know that the creature/supernatural element is going to do the job. What we’re waiting to see is how it happens. The sad thing is that it often plays out exactly as we expected it to (The Silver Water of Lake Champlain), or else the show is frustratingly vague about it (Bad Wolf Down). Then there are times when the ending doesn’t make any sense at all! I’m looking at you, Night of the Paw.

What’s more, we don’t get a whole lot of that Creepshow feel. The vibrant, comic-book styling of the movie is rare, though sometimes it’s used to cover up sequences where actual visual effects would have been too expensive. It sure would have been nice to see those werewolf transformations, instead of a cheap flip book effect!

The music is weak, too. Where the score in the movie was haunting and thematic, the music in in the series is painful in its mediocrity. None of the stories has a theme of its own, and there’s no synth! What the hell, man?

Then there’s something else that bothers me. Now, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I feel like the series doesn’t take itself seriously enough. Heh, crazy, right? I’ve been of the mind that modern television is far too grim these days, and needed some lightening up, and now I’m turning on myself. Maybe that’s why people love this series so much: they, too, are tired of all the self-serious bullshit on the tube, and are ready for something mature, but irreverent.

I can dig that, but I don’t think that pure irreverence works for Creepshow. It was great for the Tales of the Crypt series, which this new Creepshow seems nearer to than anything else. The movie, though, for all its silliness, still had an edge. It picked up on primal human frights, and forced us to look at them. Creepshow had people buried to their necks, struggling to keep their breath as relentless ocean waves battered their faces. Tales from the Crypt usually had people getting hit in the head with axes.

The two standout episodes of the series, The Finger and Skincrawlers, don’t lean on simple shock imagery. They present situations that are freaky, and yet relatable. What would you do if you discovered that your beloved pet started doing horrible things? What would you do if you had the opportunity to shed the body you’ve always hated, and become skinny in an instant?

I should note that these two stories also work so well because they feature run-down shlubs who hate their lives. These characters don’t need a lot of time, or deep, rich performances to make us feel for them. Not that DJ Qualls or Dana Gould do a poor job; they’re both great. There are wells of real emotion in them, and we want them to make it out of their situations alive. Still, they’re no match for the late Fritz Weaver and Hal Holbrook. Those two guys took a crazy story like The Crate and made magic out of it, simply by playing it straight. Most of the lesser actors in the Creepshow series don’t have the skill or experience to provide such effortless depth, and the whole show suffers for it.

Creepshow, the movie, succeeded because it found the spirit of the old EC comics: it slugged us in the gut before it gave us a hug. It hurt us because it loved us, and we couldn’t help but love it back, even though it left a bruise. Creepshow, the series, never quite hits that chord. It’s a little too playful, and it meanders around too much. It comes close, though, and I’m glad it’s going to be around to keep trying.

John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew

“The truth, my honey, is a tart that does not bear scrutiny.”

There are many Johns in the Coen brothers’ weird thriller Barton Fink (Turturro, Goodman, Polito), but the chameleonic Mahoney, playing a tragic caricature of William Faulkner, always stood out to me. An ostensible gentleman with a pleasing Southern accent, Mayhew is a lot like the movie’s protagonist: a celebrated writer who’s sold himself to Hollywood, he’s a bit haughty, a bit selfish, and completely incapable of listening. He’s also a raging drunk and a woman-beater, a man we’d easily hate if he didn’t seem so sad, so lost, and so lonely.

You know what? Maybe I should just stop here. As much as I love Mayhew’s character, there’s little I can say about him that could provide any unseen insights. I think you’d do better to read this little celebration of Mahoney’s great work, and assume that its views mirror my own.

Jeff Bridges as The Dude

“Oh man, lodged WHERE?”

The Big Lebowski is not my favorite Coen brothers movie. I feel like many of its comic scenes miss their marks by miles. Combine that with irritating and unpleasant characters, like the pompous Maude Lebowski and the repulsive Jesus Quintana, and you have a movie that’s hard to take at times. Still, there are also many great comic scenes, and many lovable characters, not the least of which is the legend himself, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.

The Dude is the only protagonist on this list of faves, and that’s because he’s the ultimate Coen everyman: easygoing, put-upon, and unimpressed. His friends? A gun-flashing vet and an empty-headed surfer. His enemies? A wheelchair-bound mogul and a pack of German nihilists. His acquaintances? A milquetoast landlord and a mysterious cowpoke called The Stranger. It’s crazy-ness, but that’s L.A., and these are the 90s. The counter-culture is dead, Vietnam forgotten, and deregulation all but embraced. The Dude’s a burned-out hippie in a sold-out city, living in a soulless time.

That’s okay, though, because like most of us, all The Dude wants is a smooth cocktail and a bowling lane. Oh, and a new rug, too.

The Dude’s mission to replace his urine-stained rug sends him from the ‘burbs of West Hollywood to the beaches of Malibu, encountering all manner of mixed nuts along the way. It’s notable that The Dude also happens into an eclectic symphony of music, one including lounge, hula, experimental vocalization, and techno-pop. Despite all this, though, The Dude never strays from home for long. At day’s close, he always comes shambling back to his buddies: Walter, Donny, Creedence, and Bob.

As The Stranger explains, it’s this simple constancy that turns The Dude into The Man For His Time and Place. Even as a parade of jackasses aims to make his life hell — his car and apartment are repeatedly ravaged until, by the end of the film, they’re unrecognizable — Duder chugs along, donning his sunglasses, shaking his head, and uttering a “Fuck it.” I suppose it’s also what makes his adventure such a huge cult favorite: nothing about The Dude’s life seems probable, and yet, we’ve all lived it.

George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer

“Can’t always wear a condom, right?”

Here’s a certainty for you: George Clooney, once known as the mom’s-fantasy pediatrician on the TV series ER, will instead be remembered — unquestionably, unarguably, and immovably — as an idiot.

Thank the Coens for this, as they sought Clooney out to play no fewer than four total dopes: Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Miles Massey in Intolerable Cruelty, Baird Whitlock in Hail, Caesar!, and Harry Pfarrer, my favorite of the four, in Burn After Reading.

Like the other idiots on his Coen resume, Pfarrer is genial, persuasive, and very concerned with his personal appearance. Unlike them, he’s obsessed with floors, philandering, and food allergies. When he’s not drawing ladies into his bed while his wife is out of town, he’s boasting about his work as a bodyguard, or constructing sex devices in his basement.

There’s no way to put a nice face on it; the man is simply weird. He might be a perfect example of a sociopath coasting by on charm and good looks.

Now, is that the sort of man who should be trusted with a big gun? Ask Brad Pitt, who also stars in this movie. As you might expect, this is no Ocean’s Eleven: the single exchange between the two men is wordless and brief. It always yanks a gasp from its audience, though, and Harry’s subsequent breakdown is both confusing and hilarious. Clooney may not be too proud of these roles (he famously proclaimed upon finishing this movie that “I’ve played my last idiot!”), but I think he should be grateful for them. Any good-lookin’ Joe can make a drama or romance; it takes a real actor to do funny. Good on ya, George, we love you and your idiocy.

Chelcie Ross as the Trapper

“She was often vexed with me. I seldom knew why.”

After Hail, Caesar! tanked, little was heard from the Coen brothers. For a frightful time, it seemed that they had slunk away forever, to join that gallery of failed directors who’d exhausted their goodwill.

Then Netflix, emboldened by the rising winds of streaming and Peak TV, put faith in the brothers once more. The result was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology that almost feels like the Coens’ revenge. It’s a six-course feast of beautiful shots and bizarre events, extreme violence and playful dialogue, crusty villains and charming cowpokes. And, like all the best Coen movies, it is a meditation on the Struggle — with a capital S — to put a make on that thing that’s always remaking itself.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t have a little fun.

Buster is rife with Coen-isms, some of them traditional, others esoteric. There’s florid, extensive speech that just kisses the listening ear. There are cold, oblique stabs at the Coens’ staunchest critics. There’s an errant, noisy dog who’s more trouble than he’s worth, and there’s a slow, sad nod to the success of stupid entertainment.

Then there’s the loudmouth: a hairy, ‘coon-hatted man known only as the Trapper. The story is The Mortal Remains: the final, and most mysterious of Buster‘s tales. It plays like a particularly interesting episode of The Twilight Zone. You get five individuals on a long coach trip, one of them the Trapper, who are drawn into an impassioned philosophical discussion. That’s about the size of the whole episode, but that’s all the Coens need to weave many strange and hilarious situations. Indeed, the whole blowup begins with an interminable speech from our feculent friend.

Like Mr. Mohra, the murmuring witness from Fargo, the Trapper tells his tale like a man hurling himself from a cliff, heedless of concerns like points or meaning. Yet, it’s all so very rich: just a minute of his yammering paints years of the man’s life. Through his words, you feel the loneliness, the rejection, and the disgust with mankind that grow out of a life spent in the wild. To him, human beings are really no different from ferrets. He even lifts a romantic anecdote — a period of years spent with a native woman who doesn’t understand English — as further proof of this. After all, the sounds she made during lovemaking weren’t all that different from those an animal would utter.

The other coach riders can barely contain their irritation. This trapper simply won’t shut up — until he does, and the sudden silence is as funny as the speech itself. It bothers me that Buster will never get the audience it truly deserves, as moments like this alone outshine most anything else in theaters right now. Hurry, Netflix, hurry, and get our boys back on the trail! We’d be lost in Fort Morgan without them.

Hooked on the Brothers

I was chatting about movies with a friend the other day, when I caught myself saying that “The Coen brothers are the finest filmmakers of our time.” I hadn’t considered my words before I used them; they just spilled out. It was weird to hear myself express something so strong without really thinking about it. I now accept that I was being completely honest. Joel and Ethan Coen have created, will hopefully continue to create, the greatest movies my generation will ever see in their first run.

Of course, superhero movies like Deadpool have all but assured us that far superior films like Hail, Caesar! will never receive the attention — or ticket sales — that they deserve. As a result, most major studios have blackballed the brothers with the dreaded red stamp of “unbankable.”

There is hope, however. Last year, the Coens took advantage of Netflix’s facility to bring us The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a wondrous western which went up for some Oscars. After years of being battered with relentless Avengers spectacle, I was refreshed to dive into that inimitable blend of humor and horror that the Coens have mixed so well over the years. God, I missed them.

Amazingly, the Coens not only direct great movies, they write them. From mere dust, they craft a gallery of memorable faces and voices. Then they gather up the world’s hugest movie stars, force them into roles that make them unrecognizable, and then get them to dance in magical, spotlight-sharing ensembles. It’s really quite miraculous.

Over the next few days, I want to share my favorite characters from the post-Fargo Coen library. I won’t be including characters from adaptations, such as True Grit or No Country For Old Men, since they aren’t characters that the Coens actually created. So, let’s start with a character from the movie that was so unduly neglected thanks to shitty superhero nonsense: Hail, Caesar!

Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz

“HOBIE DOYLE CANNOT ACT.”

The struggles of the legendary Eddie Mannix as he juggles the problems of Capitol Pictures are studded with many terrific actors, but none of them is of this caliber. For God’s sake, it’s Amon Göth in a Coen brothers film!

Here, Voldemort puts his nose back on to play a temperamental director, who is cursed with a miscast cowpoke as his newest dramatic lead. Fiennes only gets two scenes in the movie, but they’re both gold. We see him glide from cautious, star-stroking gentleness, to restrained frustration, to full-on artist’s fury, and it’s a joy. He gets one of the film’s best bits of wordplay, and he winds up key to the movie’s biggest mystery: a homosexual scandal involving George Clooney’s and Channing Tatum’s characters. Now how many movies can you say that about?

Thanos/Cable might be the center of Hail, Caesar!, and he does an admirable job, but the cold eyes of this former Nazi will always glow out of the crowd for me. God bless the Coens for bringing him into their stable. I hope they’ll work together again.

Forget Love

Man, does the internet suck these days. Seems like you can’t go two clicks without running into some hideous argument about vaccinations, corrupt politicians, or Ariana Grande. Grown people everywhere, lured by the siren song of social media, have fallen prey to Early Internet Syndrome: because their words might be seen online, they immediately consider themselves to be superstars. As such, they feel compelled to establish, and defend, their identities in the way that a company does its brands.

What’s that? Keep a private journal? Shit, man, that’s for old people. Nowadays, if you’re not airing your laundry from the battlements of your Facebook stronghold, you’re just not a proper citizen, dammit. Never mind that nobody cares but the few relatives who friended you out of nervous obligation. They, too, must be crushed if they dare opine against you. Cucks! Cucks, the whole lot of ’em!

So, in these hateful times, it’s good to know that there’s a place where folks of all stripes can still gather under one banner…even if that banner bears the logo of a ubiquitous soft drink. I’m being totally serious here: if you’re tired of the childish angst that pervades the net, just do what I do, and make a search for “Pepsiman.” It’s not soda that this superhero distributes — it’s joy.

I’m normally quite vehement in my hatred of superheroes. I’ve always found this nation’s obsession with Batman to be disconcerting, and today’s Cinematic Universes to be empty, formulaic, over-budgeted cartoons. Pepsiman, however, is something else. A late-90s commercial star with silver skin, no face, and a horrifying mouth, he always came a-runnin’ to deliver refreshing cans of Pepsi to parched, sweaty Americans.

This is strange because Pepsiman was created by PepsiCo’s japanese ad department. His spots only ran in East Asia, so they came off as weird commentaries on invasive U.S. corporatism.

That’s okay, though, because as shameless spokespersons go, Pepsiman is easily the company’s most successful. Fuck Britney Spears; nobody buys into that head-tilting, eye-rolling, pop-star bullshit. But give us a klutzy delivery boy who only wants to make dumpy guys in baseball caps smile, and I’m sold. He even has an awesome theme song with a surf-rock bass-line.

Pepsiman became a minor sensation in his day, spawning merchandise that included action figures, bottle toppers, and even a (quite good) PlayStation game. No joke! Believe it or not, it’s an automatic runner that’s a precursor to Temple Run. It also has hilarious FMV that maintains the kooky, nigh-misanthropic nature of the commercials.

Now here’s the best part: even though Pepsiman is nearly twenty years old, the peculiar style of his campaign was so knowing that the meme-hungry netizens of today absolutely adore him. Remember that YouTube video I embedded a few paragraphs back? Its comments are nothing but positive. I can’t find a shred of hatred in it, not even from Coke-drinkers. There are people expressing cheer and amazement, comments of “2019,” and jokes building on jokes. But most of all, there are people celebrating their love of the one-time digestive cure that is Pepsi. It’s really quite astonishing.

Indeed, the public has embraced Pepsiman as the anti-spokesperson: a figure who, like Duffman of The Simpsons, not only raises awareness of his brand, but somehow derides it. I won’t go into what Pepsiman says about the corporation that oozed over an ocean to bring him to life; I think the commercials do that better than I ever could.

The point is that we mustn’t lose heart: cultural fixtures and icons can bring us together, but only if they avoid taking themselves so damn seriously. I’m sorry to say it, Miss Jenner, but love doesn’t really conquer all. Sometimes, in order to accomplish something, you have to work with people you hate. The best way to do that is find a shared experience that we can all laugh about. If it’s a dopey corporate symbol who pushes an inescapable, mediocre product on us, so be it. Love is hard to find, but humor is everywhere.