Written by: John Esposito/John Skipp & Dori Miller
Directed by: John Harrison
Starring: Bruce Davison, Hannah Barefoot, and Dane Rhodes
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
For its fifth episode, Creepshow returns to its roots in more ways than one. If you were to look to literary history to trace the influences on Creepshow, EC Comics, and even Amicus anthologies, you’d feel compelled to acknowledge W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw.” Now a staple of middle and high school English curriculums, it’s an especially macabre tale of warped, karmic justice culminating in a gruesome twist ending of sorts—you know, basically the blueprint for so many of the segments and tales that have comprised these portmanteau collections. It’s neat, then, to see this episode pay homage with a clever take-off—or even a pseudo-sequel to—the original short story with “Night of the Paw”; it’s also no surprise that this segment is yet another from this revival that manages to capture the macabre magic of the original films.
“Night of the Paw” opens with a car crash that sends Angela (Hannah Barefoot) seeking refuge in a nearby mortuary. Clad in a mysterious black costume, she’s on the run from authorities who have labelled her armed and extremely dangerous. She may have met her match, however, in Avery Whitlock (Bruce Davison), the mortuary’s caretaker who saves her life with a gruesome surgical procedure (fingers are lost in the process). It initially feels like the stuff of mad science, but he cryptically informs Angela that she must live so that he can eventually die. Perplexed and convinced the old codger is full of shit, she nonetheless hears him spin a wild yarn involving his wife’s encounter with a mystical, wish-granted monkey’s paw that ended with her dying in a tragic accident.
Joe Esposito’s sharp script thrives on a double intrigue here. First is Whitlock’s increasingly grotesque story, and director John Harrison spares few details in relating the lonely old man’s desperate but deranged quest to return his life to the land of the living. It climaxes with a graveyard freakout that’s not for the squeamish, as “Night of the Paw” explicitly indulges the grotesque zombie imagery that Jacobs’s short story largely left to the imagination. Harrison further marries this to the perverse dark comedy of EC Comics, resulting in a scene that’s gross, heartbreaking, and just plain wrong.
More intrigue lingers as Whitlock’s story comes to a close. Because Davison brings such a warm, amiable dignity to the role, the audience remains invested on just why he’s felt compelled to tell this story to a total stranger. The answer to this is morbid and tragic in a way that allows the tale to briefly detour from Jacobs’s twisted moralizing. Some uncharacteristically shoddy effects work undercuts the power of this climax, but it’s brief enough that it only nags a bit. Besides, Esposito allows the tale to linger for one more beat, effectively re-centering the work with a wicked epilogue that allows for one final freak-out within a morgue. Rule of thumb: if you have find yourself armed with a monkey’s paw in a room full of cadavers, you might want to make your wish as specific as possible.
The second half of the episode is a more roundabout return to Creepshow’s roots, as “Times Is Tough in Musky Holler” treads the ground that co-creator George Romero made famous. We open with a zombie outbreak having already turned society upside-down in the small, formerly cozy town of Musky Holler.” As the title suggests, the town has seen better days, as the story begins with a good chunk of its citizenry held captive beneath a football field. Exactly why the town keeps a prison beneath its high school gridiron is never explained; however, cryptic conversations and comic-book styled flashbacks reveal that this town absolutely lost its shit during the zombie apocalypse when shitheel Lester (Dane Rhodes) strong-armed his way into the position of mayor. Both he and his lackeys (including David Arquette as the town’s illegitimate sheriff) abused their power to terrorize anyone who dared to oppose their corruption—and now it’s time for retribution.
“Musky Holler” is all about that retribution. Without clocking it, I’d venture a guess to say it’s among the shortest segments of the season, or it at least feels that way. What’s more, so much of its scant runtime is consumed with the awkward flashback structure that amounts to a rough sketch of an obvious allegory involving insular, zealous communities gravitating towards a boorish cult of personality that completely decimates their way of life anyway. I see what you are doing here, Creepshow, and I must say I also appreciate your optimism that these people will eventually get their just desserts. Mercifully, the moralizing stops at the karmic retribution: there’s little doubt that everyone involved deserves their grisly fate, which involves their captors subjecting them to their own demented game of zombie whack-a-mole.
It’s just too bad that this serves as the all-too-brief climax: there’s probably a better version of this tale that loses some of the fat at the beginning and allows the killer zombie make-up to shine a bit longer than it does here. Even though The Walking Dead has brought plenty of outrageous zombie designs to the small screen during the past decade, one particularly nasty ghoul here leaves quite an impression. I just wish we had seen more of it instead of watching this segment spin its expository wheels.
This amounts to a quibble in the grand scheme, however; once again, I’m left largely pleased with this revival series. Each episode has offered at least one segment that could slide comfortably beside some of the original film’s tales, while the leftovers are all at least interesting in their own right, full of macabre imagery and demented personalities. Episode 5 bears this out: “Musky Holler” might be one of this season’s more forgettable trifles, but its zombie effects make it a worthwhile effort. Meanwhile, “Night of the Paw” is one of my favorite segments of the season so far, as it cleverly pays homage to the sort of tales that inspired Creepshow in the first place, all while putting its own ghoulish spin on it. With one episode remaining in this season, it looks like our wishes for Creepshow’s resurrection have come true—now, let’s just hope there wasn’t an actual monkey’s paw involved.
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