While Marvel and DC have always dominated the market for superhero comics, the American market for non-superhero comics used to belong to a company known as Entertainment Comics, EC for short. Unlike Marvel and DC, EC made their money selling brutal war comics, gritty crime comics and unexpectedly graphic horror comics. Less populist and arguably more old-fashioned than the high-octane dementia of Marvel and DC, EC built its reputation on eye-catching artwork and a willingness to tackle more grown-up themes at a time when American comics were being criticised for encouraging juvenile delinquency. Written by Stephen King, directed by George A. Romero and inspired by such titles as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, Creepshow is a loving (if not entirely competent) tribute to the a pop cultural heritage that is now disappearing from living memory.
Creepshow opens with a father beating his son for daring to bring horror comics into the house. Distressed, the boy flees to his bedroom where an encounter with a crudely animated skeleton begins a series of five self-contained horror shorts. The best of the bunch finds Hal Holbrook using an enormous carnivorous ape to murder his drunken wife Adrienne Barbeau only for the ape to promptly escape its crate as part of an elegantly Freudian warning about keeping your passions locked up for too long. Also pretty fine is the closing story in which E.G. Marshall’s reclusive billionaire struggles with a cockroach infestation that may or may not be real. Less effective but undoubtedly amusing is the story starring Stephen King as a dungaree-clad redneck who is slowly turning into an alien tree. Similarly middling is the film’s opening story in which an abusive father returns from the grave to demand his traditional father’s day cake. More silly than frightening or funny, this story dips briefly into the deep emotional waters of adult abuse survivors and toxic family atmospheres but squanders this dramatic potential in favour of a nonsensical sight gag. The weakest story of the five has Leslie Nielsen burying Ted Danson up to his neck in sand whilst knocking back drinks and laughing at his misfortune. Unfortunately, rather than ending the episode with an ironic Tales of the Unexpected-style flourish, King and Romero content themselves with having a pair of rubbish-looking zombies turn up.
Though pleasant enough and never actually boring, Creepshow struggles to live up to the EC legacy of great visuals and provocative themes. Cheaply made and astonishingly ugly, the film looks more like an episode of Murder: She Wrote than a proper horror film as Romero uses so much lighting and so little guile that none of the five stories feels particularly atmospheric, let alone frightening. This failure of the film to deliver as a work of horror means that a lot of pressure is then placed on King’s scripts, which are neither clever enough nor funny enough to pull off the complex tonal balancing act required for good horror/comedy.
Films like Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan work by tapping into the absurd masochism of going to the cinema in an effort to intentionally scare oneself silly. Sitting in the dark with our pulses racing, we know how ridiculous we are and so our first reaction to on-screen horror is frequently to laugh; We laugh at ourselves, we laugh at the film, we laugh at the situation, and we laugh to release the tension that the filmmakers have forced us to experience. Good horror/comedy is not just aware of the psychological processes at work in horror cinema, it uses these processes to milk bigger laughs and bigger scares out of an audience already inclined to jump-scares and nervous laughter. By failing to deliver technically competent horror, Romero gives us no excuse to laugh at King’s weak jokes. By failing to be all that funny, King’s scripts rob Romero’s gruesome moments of their capacity to shock. Rather than a rollercoaster ride, Creepshow offers a sedate and comfortable stroll through decidedly unchallenging and dated material.
Positively dripping with commentary tracks and insightful featurettes, this lavishly produced Blu-ray feels entirely in keeping with the film’s lofty reputation. Unfortunately, the more talking heads refer to the legacy of EC, the more evident Creepshow’s real problem becomes. Indeed, Creepshow was made in 1981 by a group of people nostalgic for the comics of their youth and, given the film’s many tonal and technical problems, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that much of the film’s original reputation was built from a shared fondness for the film’s source material. The problem is that it is now sixty years since the heyday of EC and while EC’s legacy continues to live on, it does so in the work of people like King and Romero who recycled, refined and popularised a particular set of ideas and techniques. What this means is that contemporary audiences will not only approach Creepshow without the sense of nostalgia shared by King, Romero and critics of the day, they will also approach the film having been raised on a far more effective and nimble blend of comedy and horror that makes the source material seems clumsy and childish.
Nostalgia only ever functions within the confines of a single generation and expecting contemporary audiences to feel nostalgic for comics produced in the 1950s is a fool’s errand. Creepshow may well have struck a nerve with audiences when it first appeared but uneven writing and questionable direction mean that this film is now of little more than historical interest.