The Horror, The Horror

Creepshow Directed by George A. Romero At the Sack 57

IT COULD HAVE been a fascinating combination of sleazy artistry. George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead), the Pittsburgh poet of zombie cannibalism, and Stephen King (Carrie, The Shining), the man who took horror out of the subconscious and put it back on America's supermarket shelves; one of the last of the true B movie filmmakers directing a screenplay by the foremost purveyor of mass paperback horror. Unfortunately, a potentially interesting juxtaposition fails. Romero's shock tactics end up being overwhelmed by King's schlock tactics, and the result, Creepshow, is certainly not worthy of the fetid--but rich--soil from which it sprang.

It's a shame that Creepshow fails so miserably, even as crude entertainment, because the initial premise is a good one. In the horror genre, King and Romero represent the opposite poles of safe commercialism and bizarre individuality, but here they both go back to their common root--the pulp comic book. The short vignette, already used to great effect in such classics as Tales from the Crypt and the marvelous Dead of Night, is the perfect medium to evoke the atmosphere of horror comics--those brief blurry flashes of primary-colored terror framed by win-great-prizes-selling-junk-door-to-door and x-ray novelty eyeglass ads.

King, and Romero begin by using this format in a cleverly literal way. The film opens with a burst of dialogue breaking the stolid silence of some suburban Elm St. "I told you not to read this crap! Where did you get this shit?" an irate dad yells at his son cowering among toy monsters in the bedroom. The father snatches the latest issue of "Creepshow" from the boy's hands. The camera then focuses on the comic book as it lies in the front lawn garbage can, letting the wind-ruffled pages tell each story by segueing from animated stills to live film and back again. Other devices borrowed from comics are the occasional intrusion of storyboard frames, dialogue boxes, and in moments of horror, the heightening of unrealistic background colors.

It's when the film presents the five vignettes that Creepshow falls completely flat. The first story, "Father's Day," is a forced version of the skeleton-in-the-old-eccentric-family's-closet theme, replete with the obligatory sinister spinster aunt and a stroll through the family crypt. "Jordy" is yet another variation on the man-eating plant routine, something that's never seemed to work well even in better horror films. "Tide," a rather innocuous revenge fantasy, doesn't even belong among this assortment, and "Crate" is a heavy handed attempt at horror comedy, something else that's never seemed to work very well. The only short story of the lot that does provide a mild thrill is the last one, "Creeping Up on You," but by that time, it doesn't matter very much.

IT GOES WITHOUT saying that all of this is absurdly silly--most good horror is--but it is also completely manufactured. A decent horror movie or comic has to believe in the silly premise it is executing; it has to set up it's own peculiar sequence of cause and effect, even with the most rudimentary means ("So professor, tell us about this ancient curse, etc., etc.,") Creepshow doesn't even bother to do this.

What we are left with then is a clumsy exercise in compromise. The short vignettes do not succeed as horror because the basic cliches are never even slightly twisted around or brought to life--only heavy-handedly presented. An attempt to inject humor into a subject like "Create" emerges as a limp, indecisive parody. Only "Creeping Upon You" contains a truly visceral moment of horror among all this tame nonsense, and even that has more to do with the by that time welcome presence of 40,000 live cockroaches than any storytelling skill. Creepshow is disappointingly bland, commercial, and far removed from its pulp roots.

After the audience, the ones who suffer most in this movie are the actors, and not because they are maimed eaten, or resurrected as zombies. E.G. Marshall's role should garner the Laurence Olivier/Inchon bread winning award; even the Maalox commercials are a better fate than what happens to him here (hint: the cockroaches.) The other principal actors--Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver, Leslie Nielsen, and Adrienne Barbeau--fare little better, and the entire cast seems rather confused and uncomfortable with the material. The one mild surprise is King himself, who in his acting debut plays a doltish farmer in the "Jordy" sketch.

Aside from the fact of their collaboration, Creepshow represents another first for both Romero and King. This is Romero's first film released by a major studio, and the constraints of commercial moviemaking seem to have dulled his atmospheric B movie sensibility. And it's the first time King has ever directly written a screenplay; up to now, his books have always been adapted by others, sometimes quite successfully, as in the case of Carrie. Perhaps if both men each return to their previous status they will once again be at the vanguard of horror entertainment, but here they have failed. Creepshow is not--as Clockwork Orange's Alex might have put it-horror show.