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.

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.

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!

#DeathToAdvertisers

Speaking of shitty marketing….

A week ago, Slate put up a terrific editorial about the insulting (more so than usual) ad campaign being employed to roll out that new Mortdecai Movie. Read it here.

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Uninformative posters, random hashtags, kooky tweets, it’s the suggestion of some grand event going on somewhere, one that you too can be a part of. That is, if you don’t mind doing a little research.

Wait a minute! Why am I doing the research? The marketers are hoping I’ll become invested in the movie by diving into the “world” of its ad campaign. By the time the movie finally premieres, they expect I’ll be so frenzied with curiosity that I’ll throw myself at the theater to “complete” my Mortdecai experience. Insidious. The Slate writer does a terrific job of delineating his outrage at such manipulation, but I’m a little surprised that this seems to be his first exposure to it. Mortdecai is hardly the first offender.

mindy-kaling-02This goofy shit has been around for a long time. Batman logos, Bubsy the Bobcat, Who is Keyser Soze? I don’t know! You tell me! I’m not giving you my money so I can find the answer to some question you keep buzzing in my ear. Social media has only made it worse. Advertisers are wicked, manipulative people. They know we like to feel smart, busy, and savvy, so they throw us tidbits of silliness that are only marginally related to the product they’re selling, and then shove a hashtag in our faces. If we see it enough, and lord knows we will, one day we’ll be looking on Twitter when that little turd they planted in us will float up to the fronts of our minds. “Huh. What about that #invisiblemindy thing? Search.”

And, they’ve got you.

I have a problem with hashtags in general. They’re specious little things that give people delusions of significance. I imagine they can be helpful for people who need to coordinate, say, a governmental revolution, but less ambitious citizens are throwing them all over the place now. What, exactly, is #marking #every #word #in #your #tweet #with #a #freaking #octothorp supposed to accomplish? Do you really believe there are crowds of people out there searching for the subject #mykids? Why would strangers be interested in your kids?

When the internet first got to its feet and started walking, and became accessible to the average computer user, a lot of people (including myself) went through that delusional phase: “Oh, I can’t wait to see what the world thinks of my website! I hope I don’t offend some guy in Luxembourg with my witty opinions! I’ll put a guestbook up so I can see the signatures that flood in from around the globe!” Then we got fewer than ten hits, most of them from family members, and the truth hit home: the standards of fame may be a little lower on the net — or in the case of YouTube, a HELL of a lot lower — but you still gotta have it before you’ll get any attention.

tothereader (should you exist): I write this blog more for myself than anyone else, as a fun little exercise. It helps me get my frustrations out. I don’t expect that anyone’s looking for it, or actually interested in what I have to say. Whatever tags I put on my entries, they’re usually related to vague subjects so they might show up in searches, if people really do search for blogs at all (I don’t). In other words, I know I’m nobody, and I’m all right with that.

But now we have Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, and a whole new generation of internet virgins is diving into the pond with the expectation that the whole world is watching them, like this is a game of Big Brother or something. So now we get hashtags for every fucking thing.

I know my rant here won’t be heard in the maelstrom of “lols” and “omgs” that clogs the internet these days, but I’ll rant just the same: No one’s watching you, okay? Get over yourself! Unless you’re threatening to kill the president, no one gives a shit!

But the hashtag curse has another evil effect. People with a lot of money can use a hashtag to fool us into thinking their shit is something everybody’s talking about. Alongside tags like #jesuischarlie or #blizzardof2015, which refer to serious events that actually affect our lives, we get things like #OneBoldChoice (promoted by Toyota). What the fuck? Who’s looking for that? Who’s going to tweet with that? This is astroturf bullshit at its most blatant, because the advertiser isn’t even trying to hide! They’re happy to co-opt and corrupt what was once a user-driven set of communities, and then twist it to make people feel like they’re missing out on something.

Gabbo-is-comingI say that consumers should fight back. Let’s use the advertisers’ hashtags against them. The same way that commercials mess with our heads, showing us images unrelated to their products, let’s tweet to plug our own personal projects and slap their phony hashtags on them. The next time someone caves and searches for #OneBoldChoice, I hope they get a gallery of tweet-pics showing people on the crapper. Man, I’d love to see the indignant PR response to something like that. “How dare those little ingrates! Abusing our tags that way!”

Now THAT would be a bold choice.

Don’t Rainn on His Parade

So that new Backstrom show just came out, and already, things are looking grim for it. When I first saw the ads, I didn’t have high hopes for the show, as it looked a little too much like NBC’s The Michael Richards Show, in which the kooky guy from a previously successful series attempted to make it on his own (also as a detective). Now, I hate television as much as the next hipster, and I can think of a lot of shows I’d love to see ripped from the air, but for some reason, I feel bad for Backstrom, and I don’t want to see it fail.

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Like AMC’s Low Winter Sun, Backstrom was cursed before it had a chance. The comedians I follow on Twitter tore into it weeks ahead of its premiere. The ire was strong, too. They called Wilson’s character “Dwight Lite.” They said he was the afterbirth of House M.D. And man, they hated that damn Slurpee cup. I mean, really hated it.

I admit that I shared some of the same feelings, but hey, I gotta be honest, that’s not the show’s fault. It was the marketing. The ads tried to sell me on all the wrong things. It’s like with Breaking Bad. I didn’t start watching the show until it was well into the third season, despite the accolades and gushing word-of-mouth. The reason for my delay? That fucking first-season DVD set, the one with the picture of Walter in his undies on the front:

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I mean, come onWhat sensible person would look at this and say, “Hey, now here’s a complex, fascinating thriller!”?

I realize that Fox’s marketeers want to re-introduce Wilson to us in a way that feels familiar. He was iconic as Dwight Schrute, after all, so they might as well remind us of that, right? Shoving Wilson’s “different-ness” in my face, though, doesn’t earn my interest. In fact, it gives me the impression that the show has little else going for it. What about the setting? What about the cinematography? What about the rest of the cast? There’s got to be more to it than just a grumpy genius who annoys everyone.

Maybe there is, who knows? Wilson might have a chance to show some impressive range with Backstrom. Maybe, as we discovered with Bill Hader, there’s a dramatic edge to Wilson that we haven’t yet seen. I know he seems like a one-note nutball, but so does DJ Qualls, and he was surprisingly eerie as Detective Getz in Breaking Bad. And speaking of Breaking Bad, who would have thought that this guy…

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…could turn into this guy?

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My point is, Backstrom might actually be good. Must Wilson, and all the creative people who poured their hearts into the show, suffer such invective? It’s not their fault that Fox pushed this show, and pushed it, and pushed it, and kept pushing it until we all got sick of it. I mean, here’s this actor trying to continue his career, and people are just shitting on him. That’s got to be painful. Where does this all come from? I mean, Wilson was pretty funny before, right? Why would we want him to go away? Is it tacky and disgraceful that he wants to try something new?

I suppose this is bothering me because I know wouldn’t appreciate such preemptive judgment. If I wrote a novel that was criticized simply because my publisher screwed up the marketing, I’d be highly pissed. And hurt. And disappointed with the audience that I thought would give me a chance.

Am I going to watch Backstrom? Hell no, I hate television. But that just means I’m not the target audience. I’d like to think that people who do enjoy TV are a little more open-minded than they seem. After all, they fucking got Snooki her own show; why can’t we let someone talented have a shot?