Written by: Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi (teleplay), Stephen King (short story), Josh Malerman
Directed by: Greg Nicotero, John Harrison
Starring: Tobin Bell, Adrienne Barbeau, and Cailey Fleming
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"There are things in the corners of this world that will drive you insane..."
George Romero often lamented that there weren’t more Creepshow movies, going so far as to say later in his life that they should have been up to at least seven or eight entries by that point. For whatever reason, this grand vision never came to pass, leaving Tales from the Darkside: The Movie to suffice as an “unofficial” third entry ahead of a nearly three-decade void. Sure, Romero himself blessed us with more films, and there have been scores of Stephen King adaptations ever since. Nothing, however, has quite captured that Creepshow flavor, though, specifically the forbidden thrills of thumbing through a horror comic at a much-too-young age, when the artwork was both delectable and terrifying all at once. Creepshow essentially bottles up the essence of that very impressionable stretch as a horror fan where you think you can handle anything but it’s just a flex. You can still be scared—and you like it.
I like to imagine that Romero is smiling somewhere from the beyond now, though, as Shudder has revived Creepshow for a proper continuation. If the first episode is any indication, this isn’t just an opportunistic grave-digging of a familiar title; no, this thing has just about everything you’d expect, from King adaptations to the numerous genre luminaries appearing in front of and behind the camera. Most importantly, it nails the tone: this just feels like Creepshow, which is the first, most important battle to win here.
The first segment is exceedingly eager to please in this regard. It goes right back to the source, so to speak, by mining “Gray Matter,” one of King’s earliest short stories. A hurricane has descended upon a sleepy coastal town, where a trio of survivors has taken refuge in a convenience store, where they hope to ride out the storm in peace, at least until frantic teenager Timmy Grenadine (Christopher Nathan) arrives insisting that his alcoholic father (Jesse C. Boyd) must have his beer. Because this is a small town, the two cops (Tobin Bell and Giancarlo Esposito) are familiar with the situation and decide to deliver the beer themselves, leaving the poor kid to tell his horrifying story to the store’s owner (Adrienne Barbeau). What follows is the stuff of vintage Creepshow: you’ve got a man wasting away in the comfort of his home in the vein of Jordy Verrill, only the horror takes on the goopy, gelatinous shape of the blob from “The Raft” before descending to some truly Lovecraftian depths.
“Gray Matter” is sharply done: it obviously thrives on withholding the ghastly details of its central mystery with a script that reveals just enough along the way. The kid’s flashback narration of his father’s slow deterioration intercuts with the cops’ investigation of the squalid conditions of the Grenadine home, a structure that slowly edges viewers toward the grand, horrifying reveal. With Greg Nicotero in the director’s chair, it comes as no surprise that this payoff is gloriously practical; what’s more, he injects the climax with a proper playfulness that culminates in a killer funhouse gag. As this segment comes to an emphatic close, there’s an overwhelming sensation that they’ve nailed both the big picture and the small picture stuff. Yes, the goopy, schlocky elements are in place, but what I really love about is the lived-in quality of the characters: it turns out that Bell and Esposito were born to play weary, small town Stephen King cops, while Barbeau is always delightful. Add in the menacing atmospherics of a hurricane, and “Gray Matter” becomes a rollicking maelstrom of bite-sized horror.
“The House of the Head,” on the other hand, is a bit of a departure. An original tale penned by Josh Malerman (Birdbox), it follows the exploits of Evie (Cailey Fleming), an imaginative young girl with an elaborate doll house. It’s a portrait of miniature domestic tranquility until a gruesome, severed head appears, prompting the family of dolls inside to seemingly come to life. We watch the entire ordeal unfold through Evie’s bewildered eyes, and both the coy script and John Harrison’s restrained direction keep the audience at a distance. Whatever is happening within the plastic walls of the dollhouse can’t be accounted for: rather, like Evie herself, we can only bear witness to the bizarre events unfolding within. Compared to most Creepshow segments, “The House of the Head” simply thrives on this uncanny effect: while there are some potent bits of plasticine gore as the doll family meets a gruesome fate, this vignette mostly just feels a little off—albeit in the best way possible.
This approach is admirable: I like that this iteration of Creepshow isn’t just going to trade in nostalgia and will apparently strike out and try something a little bit different, if not unexpected. If “Gray Matter” is your favorite band reunited and playing its hits, then “The House of the Head” is the weird encore where they try out some new stuff. And, again, it all just feels right, as the filmmakers have littered this first episode with vintage Creepshow trimmings: animated interludes, comic book transitions, little nods to the films and other King lore, the signature, candy-colored aesthetic, and, of course, The Creep himself looming over the proceedings. Maybe it took way too long for this to finally happen, but it looks like it was worth the wait. Perhaps most importantly, a new generation of Monster Kids will stumble upon this and discover their own forbidden thrills and chills just in time for Halloween.
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