Top Non-Cartoons: Creepshow

Clear the roaches outta the pantry and unpin those voodoo dolls; it’s the best horror film of all time!

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Well, okay, that’s not true. The Exorcist is the best horror film of all time, but that doesn’t mean it’s my favorite. To me, Warner Bros.’s Creepshow is, and will always be, the scary movie to top all scary movies. It’s not just freaky, it’s funny. It’s not just scary, it’s silly. It’s not just fantastic, it’s fantabulous. It gushes with blood and shakes with shivers, but it knows it’s all in good fun. You can’t afford to take this movie too seriously, as the trash man at the end of the film — a hilarious cameo from makeup artist Tom Savini — reminds us: “IT’S A COMIC BOOK!”

And as you might have guessed, this is precisely why I love it.

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From left to right: Stephen King (writer), Tom Savini (makeup artist), and George Romero (film director). Nah, I never heard of them either

Creepshow stands in the pantheon of great horror anthologies, alongside Trilogy of Terror, Black Sabbath, Tales From the Darkside, and The Twilight Zone: The Movie (though that one only partially qualifies as horror). As the first collaboration between Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero (R.I.P.) and one Stephen King, Creepshow had a hell of a lot going for it. The creators wanted to make it special, something that would stand out from other horror films. They considered some unique concepts for the movie, such as attempting different visual styles for each story, but they settled on a bright, exaggerated look…a look reminiscent of the classic EC horror comics.

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In the early 1950s, William Gaines developed a series of macabre comics that read like Pulp Fiction Illustrated. Some of them were set in the real world, others were completely outlandish, but they were all decidedly adult, and quite graphic for their time. Murder, sex, and monsters spilled across every page, and they often had disturbing, twist endings.

While the material was not intended for children, the EC crew knew that kids would jump at the forbidden fruit anyway, as it dangled so low in comic book stores across the country. To better reach these kids, EC adopted the “host” concept from scary radio shows such as Inner Sanctum or Weird Circle. These gleefully sadistic characters spun terrifying tales, and introduced them with terrifying puns. The most prominent of them was the Cryptkeeper, a slavering old man who was so diddly-darn delighted to scare you that you almost wanted to hug him. He’d later reemerge on the Tales From the Crypt TV series, in a more ghoulish form than before, but with his arsenal of bad puns intact.

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These hosts came off as freakish grandparents, who stole spooky little moments with the kiddies when Mom and Dad weren’t around to stop them, and said kiddies ate it up. Surely, the thrill of an EC comic was not only in reading the foul material contained therein, but in hiding it from one’s God-fearing, suburbanite parents.

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Without fail, Creepshow maintains this tradition. The movie even uses a frame story about a little boy named Billy who’s been caught with the naughty comic. The boy is played by Stephen King’s son Joe, who’s now a horror writer of some note himself, but I digress.

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The wicked father smacks his son across the face and tosses the “horror crap” in the trash as a wild thunderstorm kicks up. The incensed Billy then wishes death on his father and sinks into his horror fantasyland to escape.

That’s when Raoul shows up.

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“Raoul” was Tom Savini’s nickname for the skeletal phantom who appears at Billy’s window. The creature was built from an actual human skeleton imported from India, and it looks terrific. Raoul assumes the role of the Creepshow comic’s “host,” the Creepshow Creep, and he guides us — wordlessly — from one scary vignette to another in a nifty animated form. Thank Rick Catizone for the excellent animated segments, which are smooth and effective in capturing the style of the EC greats like Jack Kamen and Bernie Wrightson.

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He wants his…well, you know

We start off with “Father’s Day,” which is about a wealthy clan called the Granthams, who have made their dough off of the illegal enterprises of their patriarch Nathan. Seven years earlier, Nathan drove his daughter and caretaker Bedelia off the deep end with his demented ramblings, and Bedelia decided to off him with a blow to the head. The weapon: a marble ashtray with a solemn cherub at its head. It’s a prominent prop in this story, but it also appears in all the tales that follow. You’ll need sharp eyes to spot it, but it’s a fun little easter egg for fans.

Anyway, Bedelia has made a tradition out of visiting Dad’s grave on Father’s Day to expunge her guilt and demons, but this year, ol’ Nate strikes back. With a wonderfully rotted and rock-filled throat, he croaks out his unfulfilled desire for the Father’s Day cake he never received, and then he uses his zombie-powers to croak out everyone on his way to get it.

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This guy directed The Kentucky Cycle

Along Nate’s journey, the film’s comic book style is made apparent. Dramatic scenes are soaked in bright reds and blues, patterned scrims glow behind characters’ screeching faces, and shots are framed with colorful panels. You even see comic book-y banners at screen’s edge, showing phrases like MEANWHILE… and LATER…. More important than that, though, is the appearance of a young Ed Harris, and his spectacular dance moves!

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Your author, ladies and gentlemen

The second, and most divisive, of the stories, is “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” which stars Stephen King himself, in what is basically a one-man comedy show. It’s based on King’s short story Weeds, in which a poor Maine hick and his homestead are overgrown by aggressive alien vegetation. The vile weeds even consume Jordy’s body, sucking the moisture out of him and burrowing into his brain. Any opportunity for serious body horror is blown, however, thanks to effects problems and King’s outrageous acting.

King isn’t entirely to blame for this. Turns out Romero encouraged King to play Jordy like Wile E. Coyote, with huge, bug-eyed faces and goofy hick-talk. What’s more, certain plant/body effects that Savini had in mind, like tendrils sprouting from Jordy’s tongue and fingers, and green contact lenses, didn’t work out for various reasons and had to be cut. Thus, the silliness overwhelms the creepy concept, and “Jordy” ends up a real head-shaker for what it could have been.

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R.I.P.

Now we get to the good stuff. When asked about their favorite of Creepshow’s stories, most viewers choose one of the next two. “Something to Tide You Over” stars funnymen Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen playing so hard against type you can hear the smack of it. Danson is a playboy who’s been sleeping with Nielsen’s woman, so Nielsen lures the two lovers into a particularly cruel death-trap.

The plot’s nothing new, not even for King, but the performances make it work. Nielsen’s character, a manipulative dandy fittingly named Richard, is a playful monster that you can’t help but hate. Danson, meanwhile, is an emotional firestorm, blazing with rage, tension, deference, distrust, and outright panic. You can almost see his brain-box smoking as he seeks a way out of his ever-worsening situation.

The ending, while appropriate, is a little too vague for its own good, but the story is well-done overall. It’s Nielsen that grabs you: he hurls himself headfirst into this asshole-role, and he gives it every last ounce that he’s got. If all you see when you look at the man is Frank Drebin of Police Squad!, prepare to have your eyebrows raised.

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Something not of our ken

Now, this next one…ooh, I love this next one. “The Crate” is the longest and most complex of the five stories, and it’s vintage King through and through. It’s based off of King’s short story of the same name, but it’s told in a very different manner.

It stars two Tony-winning pros of theater, Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver, as university professors and best buds. They also both have lady problems. Weaver’s character, Dexter, is a widower who’s taken to dating his grad students, while Henry, played by Holbrook, is married to a dragon named Wilma — but you can call her “Billie,” everyone does.

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Mark Twain and Sherlock Holmes, together at last

Adrienne Barbeau flushes her sexuality down the toilet to create Billie, and her constant, drunken crassness is so acrid that it’s just plain funny. One of her lines was so foul, in fact, that it had to be rewritten and dubbed over before the movie was released. You can hear the change in the recording quality if you pay close attention. I guess that theatergoers of 1982 just weren’t ready for the word “cunt” yet.

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What would we do without her?

Anyway, Dexter stumbles across a strange crate that’s apparently returned from a hundred-year-old Arctic expedition, and decides to open it up. Now, I know I’m not tipping any cards in saying that whatever’s inside isn’t good, but I still won’t go into detail. I’ll just say that the plot travels to intriguing places, and closes with Dex and Henry in a strange sort of standoff.

The Crate stands out to me because it features a wild scenario, and yet it somehow maintains a grip on reality. Holbrook and Weaver behave in ways that are extreme, and yet completely believable. Dex is pushed so far into fright-world that he wheezes, whistles, and breaks down laughing. Henry is meant to be a henpecked milquetoast, but Holbrook adds an unmistakable anger to the role, so his silence looks less like shame and more like wily, patient calm. He’s waiting for something — something that’s coming up fast. Such dips and rises would be impossible for any but the finest actors, and these two men rise to the challenge with supreme confidence. They’re a joy to watch, and I only wish the movie had more scenes of them together.

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What? You got a problem with Rochas?

The final story, “They’re Creeping Up on You!” doesn’t have the length or depth of the two stories that precede it, but God damn, I can’t imagine a better capper for this film. It’s a gross-out episode that plays on that oh-so-common phobia of big, fat, ugly bugs. Cockroaches, to be specific.

Now, I’ve seen a couple of horror films that stab at nasty cockroach scenes, but none of them work so well as this. I think it’s because the setting and characters — er, character — are so effective.

E.G. Marshall plays Upson Pratt, a germaphobic billionaire who’s sequestered himself from humanity in a blinding-white, antiseptic penthouse. His waking life consists of shuffling about, poking at eerie, buzzing devices, and watching his money pile up. His only interactions with other people are over the phone or through a peephole, both of which he handles with gloves. Pratt’s conversations reveal all we need to know about him: he’s misanthropic, he’s unpleasant, he’s a real goat-fucker. The weird thing is — as was the case with Barbeau’s Billie — Pratt’s cruelty is so extreme as to be hilarious. You’d never want to know Mr. Pratt in real life, but on film, he’s enthralling.

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Still, a man this evil is bound to get punished, and Creepshow chooses to punish him not with a mere infestation of cockroaches, but with a full-scale invasion of them.

David Brody and Raymond Mendez, credited as the film’s “Roach Wranglers,” delved into the bat caves of Trinidad to gather over a hundred-thousand roaches for this story. The two men got them past U.S. Customs by stating they were for a Stephen King movie. The shots of the roaches are all quite brief, as Romero explained that the little buggers were natural hiders. He said that you could spill a bundle of roaches all over a white table, and within seconds, it’d be as though they were never there. It wouldn’t matter what surrounded them, either; they’d somehow find spaces to squeeze into and disappear.

It makes you wonder just how hard they had to push to get that finale to work, eh? Heh heh. Oh, it’s something you’ll never forget.

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This is not Joe’s Apartment, fellas

With its devilish kills and saucy spirit, Creepshow is generally beloved amongst horror fans. Just say something like “Meteor shit,” “I want my cake,” or “If you can hold your breath,” and any gore-hound worth his salt will know exactly what you’re talking about. Even George Romero had a soft spot for the film, and spoke publicly about his desire to make another one. A hefty legacy of sequels should have been guaranteed. Strangely, this just didn’t pan out — at least, not in the way that fans hoped it would.

In 1987, low-budget churn-house New World Pictures brought us Creepshow 2, but the movie feels watered-down in comparison to the original. Everyone who made the first film what it was seemed to take a few steps away from this one. The stories are still King’s, but there are only three of them this time, and King didn’t adapt them for the film. George Romero actually penned the script, but he didn’t direct, so the playfulness he worked so hard to inject in the first movie is missing. Director Michael Gornick instead plays it straight: you won’t see any extreme colors, scrims, or page/panel effects here. Composer John Harrison is replaced by Rick Wakeman, who makes a passable effort at an eerie, synthesized score, but the non-synth stuff is bland as bacon. Tom Savini appears in the movie as a different — and less appealing — incarnation of the Creepshow Creep, but he didn’t handle any of the major special effects. The frame story is a fully-animated fable about Billy having a run-in with bullies, but the quality is uneven throughout. I’ll grant that the finale is effective, though, what with all the children screaming for their lives.

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Then there’s Creepshow III, which is completely divorced from the series’s illustrious creators, and is absolute junk. I don’t know how or why the morons behind this film got the rights to the once-proud Creepshow name, but they did it no favors in attempting to revive it. Hell, could have written a better Creepshow than these guys…and I did, in fact, try.

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I called it Creepshow: Fourth Printing. Three of its stories are originals, while the fourth is an adaptation of King’s The Moving Finger. I shared the screenplay with a few friends, and all of them told me they liked “the finger story” the best, which doesn’t say much for my own storytelling skills. I don’t know if I’ll ever sell the dang thing. I don’t even know if anybody wants it. It was fun to write, though, and I think it stands as a testament to my love for the first movie.

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And I do love it. I loved it from the first time I watched it…when I was around three or four years old. My parents either had considerable faith in my discernment between fantasy and reality, or else they found the movie so cartoonish and over-the-top that they didn’t think it would affect me. Well, it turns out that it did affect me, in that it taught me how much fun a horror movie can be, and in that it inspired me to eventually write my own. Maybe, after the obligatory rewrites, you’ll get to see my nauseating novellas in the theaters yourselves! Hey, one can always dream, right, kiddies?

Who would be best to animate a cartoon version of Creepshow? I’m not sure such a project is necessary. The movie’s entire purpose is to be a live-action cartoon/comic book. If it had to be done, however, Romero already found the right man to do it. Rick Catizone is the only one who could ever animate Creepshow. His unique style oozes freaky fear, but it’s appealing enough to enthrall children (like myself). Catizone says he was inspired by Ray Harryhausen, which sounds about right. Harryhausen brought some spooky monsters to life, and instilled wonder in imaginative little kids the world round. Now Catizone has done the same. He’s produced animation for many commercials and even kids’ shows, but he also did stop-motion work for Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. The dude’s got range, and we need more productions like his.

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Until next time
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Top Non-Cartoons: Army of Darkness

I must confess: I was kinda leading up to this.

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Let me begin by saying that I don’t like Army of Darkness. In fact, part of me — probably the serious, “artistic” part — hates Army of Darkness. I say this with no small amount of frustration, because I’m the kind of person who should love Army of Darkness. I love cheesy horror. I love irreverent comedy. I love bloody, anarchic, over-the-top violence for its own sake, and I love any movie that goes out of its way to piss people off — especially if those people are the film’s own fans. Why shouldn’t I enjoy Sam Raimi’s beloved cult classic?

Well, it’s probably because the movie is so stupid.

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Here’s the third entry in a series lauded for its original approach to horror, and it gives us some of the clumsiest acting, the dumbest gags, and the most embarrassing stop-motion I’ve ever seen. The first time I caught AoD on cable, I came in at the windmill/mirror scene, and I spent the next ten minutes scratching my head, squinting my eyes, and wondering just how in hell a movie like this could get made. What right-minded studio executive would greenlight such a travesty?

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I mean…look at it. Extreme mugging. Unfunny scenes drawn to their absolute limits. Three Stooges eye pokes with cheap-o skeleton hands. Zombie dolls tossed at actors to simulate fighting. I could forgive the bad effects if the comedy was sharp, but this stuff is so broad I almost feel bad for it. And I don’t buy the whole “it’s shitty on purpose” argument. There’s confidence here, and that makes it all the less pleasant. If I had seen this movie in the theater, I would have walked out of it, even at thirteen years old. It’s awful.

But…it’s growing on me, and oh dear god, it’s growing bigger.

Thanks to the constant references in video games, the continued recommendations of friends, and the recent TV follow-up, I’ve developed a strange fascination with AoD. My revulsion now mingles with a desire to understand, and I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere in that regard. We haven’t yet made friends, but we’re developing a language by which to communicate, and I’m willing to admit that maybe I was just a big old fuddy-duddy about it.

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Army of Darkness is not a horror film. It’s more of a fantasy-action-comedy, and although there is no other movie to fairly compare with it, I can’t help but come back to Spaceballs. The two movies just remind me of each other in certain ways. While Spaceballs had a purpose in sending up Star Wars, however, AoD ricochets about with no real plan at all. If it’s making fun of anything, it’s the expectations of the viewers.

It retains Raimi’s distinctive style, of course, which I actually really love. The first Raimi film I ever saw was Darkman, and even as a twelve-year-old kid, I knew there was something special behind that one. That film moved and screamed and ran like nothing I’d ever seen before, and it’s probably the only instance in which a film’s camerawork actually disturbed me. There’s something Ren & Stimpy-esque about the details Raimi wants to show us, and the unique efforts he makes to do so can be unsettling. AoD, however, is not unsettling. Sure, it has one or two intentionally disquieting moments, but you’d better drink them up good because they don’t last long.

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Each of the film’s acts has its own premise and tone: first we have Ash’s bonkers buffoon-out-of-water story, followed by a quest that reaches for scary but then goes full tilt stupid, and then a lengthy siege that’s neither scary or comical, just kinda dry.

The idea of Ash Williams, an angry wiseass teaching medieval Englanders what for, is actually quite appealing. Were I in Ash’s position, I’d be pretty pissed off too. Many of his quotes deserve their fame, especially the “jack and shit” line. The joke of the film is that our “hero” is an arrogant moron, gifted only with the ability to pull miraculous action stunts at will. Thankfully, this is enough to make a movie character likable, because he comes through when he has to. He chops up or blows up every monster he sees, and he always sees them before anyone else can.

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Not that anyone else in the movie is really worth discussing. The titles read “Bruce Campbell Vs. Army of Darkness” for a reason, folks: this really is the Ash showcase. His journey for the Necronomicon (the Evil Dead McGuffin) is little more than a series of cartoon scenarios in which Ash bumbles about hurting himself. He bumps his head, burns his bum, and battles a bunch of baby Ashes.

After that, he pretty much sinks into the background as a host of stop-motion skeletons takes the stage. From here it’s nothing but a giant sword-fighting jubilee, plus a few explosions. Without Ash’s character at the forefront, the movie loses a lot of personality, though it tries to make up for it with some goofy puppet gags (as a Jim Henson fan, I do enjoy this). The action has a smidgen of that Raimi style to it, but overall it’s not particularly funny or ground-breaking. Even so, I get a unique sense from the siege sequence that this was not some rote exercise. No, Raimi was chasing something: he aimed to recreate the spooky spectacles of the Ray Harryhausen movies he grew up with, simply because he liked them. As a creative person, my motivations are often similar: I just want to make things that look like the stuff I always loved.

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I can’t begrudge Raimi for taking this opportunity. I read Bruce Campbell’s book, If Chins Could Kill, and the story of making Evil Dead was not a happy one. For the Raimi boys, breaking into the biz demanded suffering, stubbornness, and on-the-spot ingenuity. Army of Darkness was the reward for their travails: a chance to finally have some big fun with a character and mythos that they invented. That I don’t get a lot of its humor isn’t a slight on the film, it’s evidence of a unique personal touch. It may be broad, but it’s no manufactured crowd-pleaser. On the contrary, it is something more precious than that: an unsullied bit of fun made by a small group of guys with earned capital — a movie that owes nothing to anyone. This finally came together for me when I heard Raimi’s last lines of commentary on the AoD Director’s Cut, and felt like a total asshole:

Sam-Raimi.jpg“Our goal was really to make an entertaining picture. That’s
all we want to do: an entertaining movie, that hopefully people would laugh at and get some jumps out of, and we hope that you were entertained.”

Well, shit. How can I, or any creative person, grind my heel on this movie, knowing the pure sentiment that birthed it? Entertainment really is the core of it, after all; any storyteller who aims for a higher goal than that has lost his or her way. Raimi didn’t care about prestige or money; he just wanted to indulge his passion. He made a film that is distinctly his own, proudly left his fingerprints all over it, and found an ironclad fan base in spite of withering odds. That’s more than I can say for myself.

I feel like crap now, so I’m going to change the subject and talk about the TV show.

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Ash vs. Evil Dead is a good show. It does just what it needs to do, which is to update and expand the Evil Dead mythology, while keeping Ash exactly the way we remember him. The loony exuberance of the movies is still present, but it’s checked by a self-aware, 21st-century jadedness, as well as some impressive special effects. You won’t see any dopey puppets bobbling about here, but it’s still leagues away from any Walking Dead grimness, and I thank God for that. Since Raimi doesn’t have his hands on it directly, there’s still a je ne sais quoi missing from it, but it works, and I liked it from the first shot without any reservations.

It is, however, falling into a formula that I’m not sure it can maintain. Since the show is just an excuse for more Bruce, there’s not much room for real tension or plot. Most of the episodes play out like Popeye cartoons; the only differences between them are how the writers keep Ash away from his chainsaw, and for how long. Once the spinach can is opened, the audience gets exactly what it expects: deadites taunting, people crashing into walls, blood spraying on faces, and maybe a one-liner or two. I can’t really complain about this, though. With the horror genre as gray and predictable as it is now, Ash vs. Evil Dead is a refreshing reminder that scary can also be fun. Still, it needs more than nostalgia and attitude to be a truly satisfying experience. If it can’t figure out how to build off its novelty, it may have been better served as a feature film/reunion thing.