No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Creepshow 2’

Creepshow 2 movie poster

Creepshow” proved to be a great deal of ghoulish fun, and it’s a film which had me begging for a sequel. There are many other short horror stories worthy of a cinematic adaptation regardless of whether or not they are written by Stephen King. Plus, at the time, it seemed to be a given George Romero would have had easier luck in securing financing for this than for a sequel to “Day of the Dead.” And with the same gothic-looking title, what could possibly go wrong? Even if it’s not one of the greatest horror movies ever, we can still enjoy this sequel for what it is, right?

Well, perhaps you can, but for me, “Creepshow 2” is a serious disappointment. Sure, the three stories contained in it are based on the works of King, and Romero did write the screenplay, but this sequel suffers right from the get go. It falters due to a budget much lower than a horror film deserves, a cast of actors who emote more than act, a weak music score, and animation which just reeks of cheapness.

The movie’s prologue has a young blonde boy named Billy (Domenick John) peddling fast on his bike as he chases a delivery truck into town to deliver the latest edition of Creepshow magazine. The back of the truck opens up to reveal The Creep played by Tom Savini, but voiced by Joe Silver. The makeup on this devilish character is less than convincing, and he is nothing compared to the ghostly apparition from the first movie. Even worse, he is made to crack jokey one-liners which will have you groaning more than laughing. Clearly, this character is “Creepshow 2’s” answer to the Crypt Keeper from “Tales from The Crypt,” or perhaps even John Carpenter’s Coroner from “Body Bags,” but it would have been to this sequel’s benefit had it not featured a wisecracking character as this kind had already started to wear out its welcome back in 1987.

One other thing, if you are going to have Savini playing a ghoulish character, do you really have to put makeup all over him? The infamous makeup artist and actor has a wonderfully devilish look about him, and the mask he wears just takes away from him.

“Creepshow 2’s” first story, “Old Chief Wood’nhead,” is its weakest by far. George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour play Ray and Martha Spruce, an elderly couple who run a general store in Dead River, a town which, as we can tell from its first appearance, is finally living up to its name. One day they are visited by a Native American elder named Benjamin Whitemoon (Frank Salsedo) who gives the Spruces turquoise jewelry, his tribe’s sacred treasures, to look after. Unfortunately, not long after Benjamin leaves, a group of thugs arrive at the store, killing the Spruces and making off with the jewelry. Oh yeah, the Spruces also have an Indian statute standing prominently outside of their store named Old Chief Wood’nhead, and it doesn’t take long for us to see he will avenge the Spruces as you don’t mess with Indian spirits, ever.

Directing “Creepshow 2” is Michael Gornick who served as Director of Photography on its predecessor. As this first story demonstrates, he doesn’t quite have Romero’s panache or wicked sense of humor as he can’t balance out the horrific aspects with the comedic ones, and everything feels off balance as a result. Also, he shows far too much of Old Chief Wood’nhead coming to life which was a mistake. Gornick starts off by giving us glimpses of this character, played by Dan Kamin, to where we can tell the Chief is more than just another statute. But as the Chief goes on a mission of bloody justice, the character becomes cartoonish to where his bloody revenge isn’t the least bit fulfilling.

For what it’s worth, Holt McCallany, who plays Sam, the leader of the thug gang, does have beautiful hair here, and seeing him show it off as he sees it as his ticket for making it in Hollywood makes him all the more drolly hilarious. Still, MCCallany has nothing on Melissa Leo as her hair was infinitely beautiful from one episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” to the next.

The second story, “The Raft,” is a bit of an improvement. Based on one of King’s scariest short stories from “Skeleton Crew,” it features our college kids who drive out to a predictably isolated lake, located a good 50 miles away from their school, for a swim. The lake’s only real notable feature, at first anyway, is a wooden raft in the middle of it. This raft, however, is soon upstaged by what looks like a slimy oil slick which begins to make its way over to the kids once they get in the water, and they soon find themselves stranded on the raft as the slick surrounds them.

“The Raft” has a lot of cinematic possibilities, and seeing these kids getting consumed by the oil slick provides “Creepshow 2” with some of its most horrifying moments. But in the end, it is undone as Gornick isn’t able to generate enough of a claustrophobic terror this story demands. Plus, the performances of Paul Satterfield, Jeremy Green, Daniel Beer and Page Hannah are weak as they are forced to emote more than act, and this just takes away from the situation and terror their characters are trapped in. Granted, this is not a movie which demands Oscar worthy performances, but it does need good acting to help bring you fully into such a terrifying story.

I do have to give the actors some credit though as they don’t have to do any acting when they first get in the water as it does appear to be very cold. Beer even said he almost died from hypothermia while filming “The Raft,” and keeping this in mind while watching this segment makes it even more unnerving. But despite a bravura conclusion, I came out of “The Raft” feeling like it could have been much better than it was. Perhaps this is partly due to having read King’s short story beforehand, and what he came up with couldn’t possibly be matched here.

The final story, “The Hitchhiker,” proved to be my favorite as it featured Lois Chiles, the Bond woman Dr. Holly Goodhead from “Moonraker,” in a strong performance as businesswoman Annie Lansing. The story begins with Annie leaving a hotel after having an adulterous fling with a gigolo, and she begins thinking of ways to explain to her husband why she is arriving home so late. But as she fumbles around with a lit cigarette while driving her expensive Mercedes down a lonely highway, she accidentally hits a hitchhiker played by Tom Wright. Did Annie kill him? She isn’t sure, and with oncoming headlights heading in her direction, she isn’t keen to wait around. From there, she goes from wondering how to cover up her affair to finding ways to justify leaving the scene of an accident, and then the hitchhiker reappears…

This story reminded me of the “Creepshow” segment entitled “They’re Creeping Up on You!” which starred E.G. Marshall as Upson Pratt, a ruthless businessman whose fear of bugs comes to haunt him big time. Like that segment, “The Hitchhiker” plays with your mind as you ponder if what you saw actually happened, or if it was all in the mind of the main character instead. On first glance, the story doesn’t make much sense as Annie keeps coming across this man she accidentally ran over for no real reason, but, in retrospect, perhaps the hitchhiker represents Annie’s conscience torturing her for hitting a pedestrian and failing to take responsibility for her actions.

This final segment for me reminds me of why I liked the first “Creepshow” so much; it’s a wickedly gleeful mix of horror and black comedy as Annie tries to kill off a hitchhiker who won’t stay ahead. In the process, she also lays waste to her precious Mercedes as her priorities shift from protecting her most valuable possession, a car, to defending herself from a crime which becomes something even worse. It is so over the top to where I was infinitely eager to see where the story would end up, and had the rest of “Creepshow 2” been like this, it would have been so much better. Chiles gets to show more life here than she got to in “Moonraker,” and she steals this sequel easily thanks to her unrestrained turn.

Horror movies in general tend to be made on low budgets, and this was certainly the case with “Creepshow” as Romero only had $8 million to work with. Gornick, however, had a budget half the size of that on “Creepshow 2” ($3.5 million to be exact), and he is unable to stretch it out the way Romero did. I’m always fascinated with what filmmakers are able to pull off creatively with little money, but this sequel shows that sometimes a low budget can be too low to work with. This has the appearance of a motion picture where the filmmakers were forced to cut corners at every turn due to limited funds, and it makes me feel sorry for Gornick as I’m sure he could have accomplished more if the budget allowed him to. While Warner Brothers distributed the first movie, the sequel was instead released by New World Pictures, a small independent production company which inched closer and closer to bankrupt around the time “Creepshow 2” came out.

I also didn’t care for the film score by Les Reed and Rick Wakeman as their themes came across as unbearably generic. Both are very talented musicians, but their music here just made me pine for John Harrison’s music from “Creepshow” as well as “Day of the Dead.” Back in the 1980’s, Harrison came up with some wonderfully creepy cues, but Reed and Wakeman have no such luck here.

“Creepshow 2” does have its inspired moments, but I came of it feeling like it could have been so much better. Instead of enjoying what I saw, I spent more time analyzing things which could have been easily improved. I do, however, have to applaud the filmmakers for including the following quote from Colliers Magazine in the end credits:

“Juvenile delinquency is the product of pent up frustrations, stored-up resentments and bottled-up fears. It is not the product of cartoons and captions. But the comics are a handy, obvious, uncomplicated scapegoat. If the adults who crusade against them would only get as steamed up over such basic causes of delinquency as parental ignorance, indifference, and cruelty, they might discover that comic books are no more a menace than Treasure Island or Jack the Giant Killer.”

This quote was from the year 1949, and yet all these years later many still seek scapegoats, be it comic books or Marilyn Manson, instead of dealing with things in a more rational manner. I loved that the filmmakers included this quote, but I would have loved it even more if they had opened the movie with it.

* * out of * * * *

‘Creepshow’ Remains a Benchmark in Horror Anthologies

Creepshow movie poster

Ah, “Creepshow!” One of the best horror anthologies to come out of the 1980’s, and it is immensely enjoyable if you’re into this sort of movie. It brings us the combined talents of Stephen King and George Romero as they give homage to the E.C. comics of the 1950’s with five different stories of terror. In some ways, this can be seen as more of a comedy than a horror movie. Granted, it does have its scary moments, and a hand coming out of a grave is always good for a jolt, but it is presented in such an over the top fashion to where you have to thank both King and Romero for not taking the things too seriously.

As I write this review, filmmaker Eli Roth is having a two-week festival of his favorite movies at New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. This film was playing on a double bill with “Mother’s Day” which I missed, unfortunately, but it was probably because I was more excited about seeing this one. I vividly remember seeing the trailer for it when I went to see, and cry again at, “E.T.” When the image of The Creep first appeared, my brother responded by saying, “Whoa!”

The trailer was amusing and funny, at least until those cockroaches came in during which I had to cover my eyes. Granted, it would years and years before I would have the stomach, let alone the time, to check this one out. Anthology movies and series like “Masters of Horrors” are always intrigued me because they were filled with so many possibilities. Going from one story to the next, you are eager to see where it takes you. The only downside with anthologies is there is usually a weak story among the whole bunch which can weigh down the whole enterprise, but “Creepshow” doesn’t have this problem and is endlessly enjoyable to sit through.

The movie opens with a prologue where a father (Tom Atkins) berates his young son (Joe King, Stephen King’s son) for reading these “crappy” horror comics. The kick of the scene comes from the son calling out his dad for the hypocrite he is when he points out it’s a lot better than the magazines he reads. I couldn’t help but think this kid’s dad has a wide variety of porno magazines hidden where his wife can’t find them. It’s funny how we see fathers not wanting their kids to read “crap,” and then they sit in a recliner with a can of beer boasting of how God made fathers. Poor schmuck.

“Creepshow” then goes straight into its first episode entitled “Father’s Day,” a story of revenge. The patriarch of a family was murdered for being an annoying prick as he furiously demanded his cake to be brought out to him, and now he’s come back from the dead to get that tasty cake he has long been denied. Of all the stories, I consider it the weakest because “Father’s Day” is very short and threatens to be pointless. It does, however, succeed in defining the look of the movie. The acting is over the top, and there is a fantastic use of colors which dominates the movie and gives it a wonderfully pulpy feel. If Dario Argento had ever created a comic book, I’m sure it would look like this.

The great about “Father’s Day” is it allows us to see Ed Harris in a role where he is loosened up. Harris is a great actor who plays mostly dramatic roles in movies, and one day he will win an Oscar. But here, we see him get his boogie on while dancing to some crappy disco music which somehow sneaked its way into a 1980’s movie. You listen to that music, and you’d figure it would have died a fiery death before the 70’s ended. No such luck.

The next story, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” is both funny and sad. It features King in one of his few acting performances as the title character, a dimwit farmer who discovers a meteor which has crashed into his backyard. Jordy gets excited at the prospect of selling this meteor to the local college for a handsome profit, but when he tries to salvage it, it breaks into two and a liquid quickly seeps into the barren ground of the farm. Soon after, everything it touches starts growing green plant life which cannot be contained. It also grows on anything it touches, including Mr. Verrill himself. Seeing King turn into a bush is frightening and morbidly amusing. King may say he is a better writer than an actor, but you can also say he is a better actor than a director (“Maximum Overdrive” anyone?). In the end, he is perfectly cast as the seemingly brainless farmer, and his performance fits both the story and the film.

After that, we get “Something to Tide You Over,” and this one was my favorite of all the stories in the movie. It stars Leslie Nielsen, before his image was permanently altered by “The Naked Gun” movies, as a millionaire husband who takes his revenge on Harry (Ted Danson), the man having an affair with his wife. The way he lures Danson’s character out to the beach and gets him to bury himself in the sand up to his neck is priceless, and you can say there is a bit of “The Vanishing” here as we have a man willing to do anything to find out the fate of his loved one. Danson’s fate, being stuck in the sand as the tide rushes over him is frightening and unnerving to witness. You feel stuck in the sand with him, and it shows how fiendishly clever both King and Romero are at exploiting what we fear the most in life.

Watching this segment today may seem weird as Nielsen is forever known as Lt. Frank Drebin of “The Naked Gun” movies, and Danson is best known for playing Sam Malone on “Cheers.” Seeing them in a serious, albeit a highly exaggerated, story might be hard, but these actors have their serious chops as well as their comedic ones, and both talents serve them well here. Nielsen is a particular hoot as a man so confident of his deviant plan of revenge, yet quickly haunted by the possibility of his crimes coming back to do him in. Nothing can stay buried forever.

Next, we have “The Crate” which features Hal Holbrook as a Professor at a New England college who is saddled with an eternally inebriated wife (played by Adrienne Barbeau) who constantly embarrasses him and herself in front of anybody who happens to be watching. Holbrook’s character is a coward who doesn’t have the cojones to stand up to his wife, but then a colleague of his and a janitor discover a crate beneath the stairs which has not been opened for decades. It turns out to contain a monster who eats human beings whole. After Henry hears of this, he concocts a plan to lure his abusive wife over to the crate.

Holbrook is great at making you feel sorry for his character even while we berate him for being a wimp and not standing up to his wife. Barbeau gives a one-note performance as a humongous bitch with no real redeeming features whatsoever. In the end, this is not a big criticism because Barbeau is given a one-dimensional character to play. The characters are not meant to be complex in the way they handle themselves, and they are here to represent different types of people who meet their predestined fate.

Then comes the last story of the movie, appropriately titled “They’re Creeping Up on You.” This one I had the hardest time sitting through, and I doubt it will be easy for you either if you have an intense phobia of bugs. E.G. Marshall plays Upson Pratt, a thoughtless and hateful bigot who has no sympathy for anyone other than himself. He gleefully takes delight in the suffering of others and lives in a completely sterile apartment which makes him look like he’s a doctor. But his problem now is with the bugs in his apartment, specifically cockroaches. They keep popping up out of nowhere, and their numbers keep growing and growing…I found myself looking at my shoes a lot during this segment, and it reminded me I need to get a new pair soon.

I remember watching one of those “scariest moments in movies” episodes on the Bravo channel. They featured the cockroach segment from “Creepshow” in it, and it turned out the segment was more of a socially conscious piece than people realized. This is after all a Romero film whose “Dead” movies are loaded with social commentary, and the whole point of the “Creeping” segment was to look at bigotry how what we fear the most we end up empowering. We invite our fears to mess with us, and sometimes they eat us whole. Suffice to say, this is very much an anti-racism piece, and it’s the strongest episode in the movie. Marshall gives a brilliantly zany performance as a man who cannot control the world around him any longer, and who could never really control it in the first place.

Eli Roth had programs for his festival entitled “The Greats of Roth,” and in it he summed up this “criminally underrated” movie perfectly:

“It’s amazing to see how many comic book and graphic novel adaptations today are praised for getting the ‘look’ of the comic perfect, and nobody ever seems to mention this film. This was the first time that Romero was really surrounded with a star-studded cast, and you see Romero, King and Tom Savini all coming together to create one of the most visually spectacular and fun horror films of all time. They set out to recreate the look and feel of the old E.C. Comics and nailed it perfectly.”

“Creepshow” is indeed one of the most deliriously entertaining horror movies ever made, and it is a visually stunning achievement made on what must have been an especially low budget. There were many other movies to come out of this which tried for the same look, but none of them succeeded at it quite like this one did. This is just a fun, fun, fun movie for people who dig this sort of thing, and to see it on the big screen was a real treat. As the movie’s tagline says, it is the most fun you will ever have being scared.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2008.

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Sandy King Revisits John Carpenter’s ‘Body Bags’ at Cinefamily

Body Bags Blu-ray cover

Remember John Carpenter’s “Body Bags?” It was a horror anthology containing three stories: “The Gas Station” which has a female college student working a graveyard shift and getting terrorized by a serial killer, “Hair” about a hair transplant which goes horribly wrong, and “The Eye” where a baseball player loses an eye and gets a new one from a recently executed murderer. Many see it as Showtime’s answer to HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” as it featured Carpenter as a creepy-looking and deranged coroner who introduces the three stories while drinking formaldehyde as if it were a martini, and it looked like the start of a wickedly demented series. Was it meant to become a series, or was it simply intended to be a single movie? These questions were answered by Sandy King, the producer of “Body Bags” and Carpenter’s wife, when she dropped by Cinefamily which showed 1993 horror anthology as part of its Friday Night Frights series.

King told the audience Showtime originally wanted a 3-story movie and that it was supposed to be a one-shot movie for her and Carpenter. As soon as they were done, they would be off and running to their next project. King remarked how anthology movies were very hard to finance as they were typically not successful at the box office, so bringing one to a cable channel like Showtime made more sense. When it was finished, Showtime then decided they wanted to turn it into a series, but King explained why she and Carpenter decided against it.

“We shot it in California, mostly in Los Angeles, which allowed us to get a lot of the great cameos with Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Roger Corman,” King said. “Showtime, however, wanted to lower the budget and shoot the series in Canada, and we felt the amount of money they were putting into was not going to be enough to get it right. Plus, shooting in Canada would have made it enormously difficult to get the cameos we got. So, we basically told Showtime thanks, but no thanks.”

“Body Bags” was in many ways a family affair as it involved King and Carpenter working with people they worked with in the past. King had previously worked with Bobby Carradine and Stacey Keach on the Walter Hill western “The Long Riders,” and she had worked with Mark Hamill as well. Peter Jason has appeared in many of Carpenter’s films, and he even used his own car for his appearance in “The Gas Station.” As for the cameos from Craven, Raimi and Corman, she reminded the audience that the horror community is a small and tightly-knit one as everyone knows each other in it.

Carpenter has never seen himself as much of an actor for those who have listened to his various commentary tracks on the movies he has done. After making a Hitchcockian cameo at the beginning of “The Fog,” felt he would be better off behind the camera instead of in front of it. Still, King said she wanted him to play the Coroner in “Body Bags” and that it actually didn’t take much to convince him. She also described Carpenter as an “inner looney” to where he allowed himself to let loose, with the help of Rick Baker’s makeup, on set. Also, Carpenter did not direct himself as the Coroner as King said a friend was brought in to handle his performance and to make sure he hit all his marks. Truth be told, casting him as the Coroner was very inspired.

King said she and Carpenter worked on “Body Bags,” “In the Mouth of Madness” and “Village of the Damned” all in a row. It was originally planned that Carpenter would direct all three stories in “Body Bags,” but as he was already in post-production on “In the Mouth of Madness,” she said Carpenter told her he couldn’t direct all three. To this, she replied, “Okay, we’ll get Tobe.”

The Tobe she was referring to was Tobe Hooper, director of the horror classics “Poltergeist” and the infinitely terrifying “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Getting Hooper to direct “The Eye” was a bit tricky as he was very disturbed by the material which had a husband attempting to kill his pregnant wife, but King told him it would be fun and that he could make it work. She also said it was fun to watch Hooper do comedy as he had a cameo at the end with Tom Arnold in which they play two morgue workers who perhaps enjoy their jobs a little too much.

It was great fun to watch “Body Bags” on the big screen and with an audience at Cinefamily, and it was especially nice to see Sandy King drop by and talk about its making and development. She even brought some Shout Factory Blu-rays of Carpenter’s movies to give away, and this writer was lucky enough to win a copy of the one for “Body Bags.” For Carpenter fans, the Blu-ray is a must as it features a great commentary track, a wonderful making-of documentary, and a trailer for the movie as well. It had been out of print for years, and the previous DVD released by Artisan Entertainment gave us a severely edited version which took out a lot of things like Craven’s inspired cameo and some especially gruesome moments. “Body Bags” may not be epic filmmaking, but it sure is a lot of fun for horror fans.

Poster and trailer courtesy of Shout Factory.

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