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.

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.

Tits and Erudition

Man, movies and TV take themselves way too seriously these days. I can’t pinpoint the timing of it, but someone pulled a switch, and turned the Idiot Box into the Auteur’s Monolith. The programming is as stupid as it’s ever been, but none of it really knows how stupid it is anymore. Think about it. The Living Dead is now The Walking Dead. Most X-treme Elimination Challenge is now American Ninja Warrior. The movie Westworld is now the series Westworld. Producers are now “show-runners.” Aquaman is now…ugh…Aquaman.

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Grr.

So it’s good that we have people like Joe Bob Briggs to bring us back to reality. To remind us that television’s purpose is to patronize, pacify, and pander to us, but so long as we remain aware of it, it’s really not so badrksven.jpg.

Briggs is the latest and greatest of the classic horror hosts, a family that began with Maila Nurmi’s Vampira (though Joe Bob has some contention about that). A comic essayist featured in newspapers and magazines, Briggs was so funny that he was eventually given a series on TMC called Drive-In Theater.

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What’s interesting is that, while most horror hosts came off as cheerful psychopaths, Joe Bob was a down-home country boy who shared bemused reactions and obscure trivia with a Roy Rogers-like folksiness. He had flair and pizzazz, but he was also dry and cynical, like a carnival barker who knows that you know he’s running a scam.

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Audiences loved him, and he kept the Drive-In going for nearly ten years before TMC decided to can him. The official story was that the channel was changing formats, but I suspect that its owners just wanted to be taken seriously as presenters of fine cinema. An intellectual in cowboy boots, showcasing cheap-o blood orgies just wasn’t in their interests anymore.

It was far from the end for Joe Bob, however. Four months after his firing, the wily Texan found a new home. The cable channel TNT needed a new host for its Friday-night horror-fest Monstervision, and Joe Bob fit the bill perfectly. He turned the show into a casual, Talk Soup-like hang-out, complete with trademark bits. He joked with his crew, who were often heard laughing, and did poorly-acted, silly skits with his guests. Such guests included stars from the very films he was showing, or else experts who provided commentary on the realism of those films. One night, he got both Rhonda Shear of Up All Night fame, and Joe Flaherty as SCTV’s Count Floyd, to hang out and ad lib with him.

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He also featured viewer mail, which was usually brought in by a sexy babe in hot pants, fresh from America’s finest correctional facilities. Joe Bob was well aware of his awful time slot, and he reveled in the fact that his prime demographic was, in fact, prisoners. He encouraged his “captive audience” to send in their prison cafeteria menus, and even provided facts about the jails that they hailed from.

His most famous bit, however, was the “Drive-In Totals,” a list of every cheap trick the upcoming film had loaded in its chambers. The list always began with a body and breast count, and always included some kind of “Fu” — a play on the Kung variety — based on the themes of the movie’s action sequences. My favorites include Senior Citizen Fu, Curling Iron Fu, and Intestine Fu. All told, MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs was campy fun, but it felt real, like Joe Bob and friends were there on the trail with us, sharing life’s downtime and poking at its absurdity.

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Then, in another effort at “format changing,” TNT cancelled him. As the channel inched away from its initial trove of Turner films, in order to schedule newer, big-budget Hollywood films, it seemed that seriousness would once again topple silliness. In 2000, Joe Bob was fired, and MonsterVision continued without a host for a few miserable months, before fizzling into oblivion.

Seventeen years passed, and horror languished into grim, predictable fare like feardotcom, Don’t Breathe, and The Conjuring 2. But now, in another miraculous 90s resurrection, Joe Bob is back, and he’s bringing the good horror with him. True to his word, Mr. Briggs has refused to let the drive-in die.

The Last Drive-In is a mini-series on the horror streaming service Shudder. Amazingly, it’s the same damn thing as before: full-length, old-school horror films interspersed with trivia and commentary, complete with Drive-In Totals and mail calls. The movies are mostly bad (The Prowler, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama), or extremely niche (Legend of Boggy Creek, Daughters of Darkness), but there are some classics sprinkled in there (Hellraiser, Sleepaway Camp). God bless ’em, though: they’re all shamelessly exploitative, and that’s all that matters. We don’t come to the Drive-In to see deep, critical darlings (though there are still some fascinating ideas in these movies), we’re here to laugh at some cheeseball stinkers, and the myriad methods they employ to disgust, frighten, and appall.

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The Last Drive-In originally aired as a 24-hour live-streamed marathon, but it’s now available for subscribers to watch in separate episodes. It’s not expensive to sign up: just five bucks a month. It’s totally worth it, and you get a lot of other horror series too!

Joe Bob is, expectedly, a little fat and creaky now, but his style and good humor are unchanged. In fact, now that he has no censors to worry about, I daresay he’s livelier and funnier than ever. The old man lets the “fucks” fly, and shoots straight about the touchiest of topics. From smartphone addiction to L.A. subways to transgender rights, nothing is safe from Joe Bob. He’s as sharp and fun to watch now as he was in the 90s, and it’s a little sad when the party finally ends.

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There were some troubles with the initial stream, of course. Anyone who remembers the disastrous debuts of Diablo III, healthcare.gov, and Amazon’s Prime Day won’t be surprised to learn that The Last Drive-In suffered from lengthy server outages as a result of overwhelming demand. Most folks who tried to sit in on the marathon simply couldn’t. That’s okay, though, because despite Joe Bob’s insistence that this was his final bow, Shudder quickly recognized his value to their service, and renewed him for another go-round. Let’s hope they’ll be prepared this time. We need more stuff like this.

I’ve already given my reasons for why we need more stuff like this, but I can’t compete with the man himself. Before The Last Drive-In was recorded, Joe Bob wrote a brilliant essay explaining his success, and it tops anything I could ever put out on the subject. Daniel says, check it out.

Now, there’s something else I wanted to mention.

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The whole reason I’m even talking about Shudder is that I found an interesting tidbit of news recently. Turns out that master monster-maker Greg Nicotero, whose work can be seen in Evil Dead II, Day of the Dead, and The Walking Dead, is working to revive the classic horror film Creepshow. He’s building it as a series that will appear on none other than Shudder, hopefully in 2019. He’s quoted as saying that he wants to recover the stylish, comic-book feel of the first movie in honor of the great George Romero. Here’s hoping he pulls it off; the horror whores are watching!

Oh, and Mr. Nicotero, in case you somehow come across this goofy little blog post, I beg that you retain John Harrison for the show’s musical score. If that’s not possible, I recommend the great Franz Falckenhaus, (a.k.a. Legowelt), who specializes in lo-fi, scary synth. The music of Creepshow is critical to its effect; don’t fuck it up!

Sex Finds a Way

Have you heard of ASMR, the latest workaround for sexual content on YouTube?

Oh wait, I’m sorry. ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is not some mere source of sexual pleasure. It’s a form of art.

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Lord knows

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that no one

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would ever

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turn a scientific concept

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into a cheap

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method of

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pandering and

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clickbait!

No no, ASMR is totally about therapy and relaxation! It’s a way to stimulate that tingly shiver that you feel when someone shoves a buzzing cicada in your ear. That these particular women create this effect by slithering their tongues over microphones shaped like ears is irrelevant.

Please refrain from any horny hollering in the comments for these videos. These aren’t strippers out to indulge your crass desires. These are artists, or ASMRtists, as they like to be called, and they aren’t about to lower themselves to your crude requests.

They will, however, accept gifts from their Amazon wishlists, as well as donations to their Patreon accounts (links conveniently provided in the video descriptions).

So! The next time someone tells you that ASMR is bullshit, you just tell them

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that these young ladies

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are ABOVE

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your judgmental pettiness, you haters!

Winning! Internet Arguments

As many of you know, internet assholes are everywhere, and they exist in many different varieties. From the dopey douche-bro who can reach no higher than schoolyard insults, to the smug pseudo-intellectual who insists that scolding and belittling amounts to a “discussion,” you’ve got quite a motley crew out there, just waiting for the opportunity to feel superior to you. Once you let them in, there’s no escaping: you’re locked in an exhausting battle of wills that will only end when one of you gets bored. There’s no face-saving in a situation like this, and even though nobody cares but you and the person you’re dueling, odds are that you’ll end up feeling pretty bummed and strung out when it’s all over.

Well, folks, I have good news for you. I have solved this problem. Next time someone comes at you with cocky, smirking arrogance, wave them away with a tactic they can’t possibly get past: the Fortune Cookie Defense.

Yes, the Fortune Cookie Defense. It’s a surefire way to frustrate and annoy your opponent, while making you look transcendent and unflappable. Please observe the following example:

  • Random Asshole: What a mindless and vacuous comment.
  • Me: Your high-minded principles spell success.
  • Random Asshole: lol your videos are stupid and nobody likes you
  • Me: If you refuse to accept anything other than the best, you very often get it.
  • Random Asshole: btw is that you in your picture? ugly fuck
  • Me: Your shoes will make you happy today.
  • Random Asshole: wtf is that all you can say.
  • Me: People enjoy having you around. Appreciate this.
  • Random Asshole: whatever

No asshole can puncture your ego if you just read him his fortune. If he replies, just give him another one. Repeat until he stops. Acknowledging an asshole without really acknowledging him shuts him down very quickly. The beauty of the Fortune Cookie Defense is not only its impenetrability, but its effectiveness as a reversal move. It makes you into the troll, while turning your enemy into an increasingly ineffectual, yapping chihuahua. The angrier he gets, the stupider he looks. Your internet pride is invincible with the Fortune Cookie Defense, so get out there and start trolling, folks!

Gently Down the….

Making cartoons takes a long time. I’d like to keep in touch with my fans somehow. I’m thinking of making some YouTube videos of the production process, but I was also thinking of something else.

Lately I’ve been pouring an hour or two into playing PC games each night, including Diablo III, The Sims 4, and Grand Theft Auto V. Why not use that time to record a Twitch stream? Of course, I’ll talk about the game, but I also think it’d be a good forum for discussion of other topics, such as art, animation, movies, game design, writing, etc.

I’ll be sure to notify you beforehand. I hope to see some of you! Of course, the channel name will be “lisvender.” Now I just have to find a convenient time to do the recording. Hope to see you online!

They Complete-d Me

Ah, damn it. Glimmer Train rejected my submission to their New Writers’ contest. They held a short story contest in May for first-time submitters and unpublished writers. First prize was $1,500.00 and publication in their August issue. Their website says that submissions are given three different statuses: “In Process,” “Accepted for Publication,” and “Complete.” I’m sure you can guess what they all mean.

The judging was to be completed at the end of July, so I’ve been checking the Glimmer Train website obsessively. Every time I saw that my story was still “In Process,” I felt a surge of relief and then renewed worry.

So just a few minutes ago, I checked again, and there it was. “Complete.” But you know what? I don’t feel all that bad about it.

My entry is called Support Beam. It’s fifty pages long, double-spaced, and considering that I planned it, wrote it, and submitted it on a deadline, I think it turned out pretty well. I’ll post some excerpts from it here sometime. I feel a little disappointed that I didn’t win the contest: the money would have been really helpful right now, and I could have finally said that I’m a published author.

Still, the fact that I actually took the chance of entering, instead of assuming I would lose and brushing it aside…that fact means something to me. It’s like how I felt when I gave a few different girls my number. Sure, none of them ever called me, but the feeling of overcoming that burning dread, and walking face-first into the challenge, it was just so damn glorious that the rejection hardly mattered. I was flying high on that rarest of human qualities: courage.

Of course, there are also some positive things happening in my life to soften this setback: I’ve had some personal and creative breakthroughs, and I recently got in touch with a friend I haven’t spoken to in a long, long time, so the contest loss looks pretty teeny sitting next to these events.

Unless I’m in some sort of powerful denial, I can honestly say I’m not broken up over this rejection; I’m sure it’s the first of many anyway. So long as I pursue the joy of the leap, the thrill of taking the Great Chances, I don’t think that failing can ever get to me. Perhaps there’s no such thing as failing, if just trying feels good enough on its own.

Heh. Get me: holding forth like I know the secrets of life. I might just be repeating the mantras of the loser, but I don’t care. Writing feels good. Animating feels good. Trying feels good. I’m going to keep trying.