Monday, October 05, 2015

Hail to the King Pt. 1- Creepshows

As I've written here before, Stephen King is the author I feel the most personally connected to. This basically means that whenever I pick up a new Stephen King book I feel like I am immediately on the book's wavelength. There's no settling in period where I have to get used to the book's rhythms, I'm simply engaged in the story from page one. Whatever Stephen King's authorial faults and missteps(which can be many), I still enjoy reading the work. I may finish a novel and walk away disappointed with the final result, but I'm never anything but completely satisfied while actually reading the thing. This rose-colored fondness for even his lesser output even extends, to a much much lesser extent, to the filmed version of Stephen King's work.

I don't think it's a particularly controversial statement to say that the majority of Stephen King movies range from mediocre to outright awful, with only the rare standout rising about good to great. I think his film's get an unnecessarily bad rap, however, simply from having his name attached. In truth anybody as prolific as he is, with studios as eager to churn out movies with his name attached(even if only tangentially, if anyone remembers the lawsuit over Lawnmower Man, which originally ran with Stephen King's name above the title until he complained that the actual movie only shared a title and nothing else with one of his short stories) is going to see their fair share of flops. So despite this supposed truism, Stephen King's name still graces several films a year, and just about everything he writes is optioned for film or television before it's even been published. I think it's worth noting, though, how few of those works are actually making it to theatres these days, and how many are finding homes on the relatively lower-risk world of television. Stephen King's name doesn't bring quite the financial security to film as it used to, though a quick trip to IMDB will show there are currently 23 projects in development based on his novels or short stories. To be fair, though, many of those appear to be the so-called Dollar Babies, stories that he will sell the movie rights to for $1 to student or beginning filmmakers with some tightly controlled rules about how the film is distributed. Also, many of the projects seem to be in development hell, with cast and crew signing on and dropping off at regular intervals. The golden age of Stephen King at the cinema have passed, and I have a radical belief as to the reason his works have so often failed to connect with audiences and critics; Stephen King himself.

There is a reason one of his most widely respected adaptations, The Shining, is a radical departure from the source material, while one of his most widely derided adaptations, the television version of The Shining, is slavishly devoted to the original words. Stephen King has a very distinct way with dialogue, a filthy patois of regional New England phrasing and speech patterns. Stephen King characters speak, at risk of being circular, like Stephen King characters. Not like anyone else. His characters speak in a way that no one on Earth actually does. It's distinctive and striking, and on the page it's enjoyable to read, but once you hear those words coming out of the mouths of real people, everything grinds to a halt. For this reason, whenever Stephen King gets personally involved in the production of a film(something that used to happen more often than it does these days), he requires a collaborator with a voice strong enough to be heard over King's, and a willingness to say 'no' to some of his more ridiculous tendencies.

Art by Berni Wrightson from the Creepshow graphic novel.

Or, in the case of Creepshow, a collaborator operating on a sympathetic frequency. It also helps that Creepshow's conceit- a collection of short vignettes inspired by and mimicking the old EC Comics- turns King's penchant for overdone dialogue into a strength instead of a weakness. With a script written entirely by King, and directed by George A. Romero, the film is basically a series of one-act Grand Guignol stories utilizing occasional visual flourishes designed to evoke panels from a comic book. The unity of the film, the way everything holds together, is a testament to just how simpatico the two masters were at the time. It was the beginning of the 80s, and Creepshow was the 4th of the eventual 19 full feature films based on Stephen King's books and stories within that decade. George Romero was coming hot off an unparalleled run of interesting, unique work in the 70s(Martin, Dawn of the Dead, and Knightriders were the three films leading up to this). While certain aspects of the film have aged poorly(some of the comic panel transitions feel a bit creaky, and Romero's often un-stylish directing style sometimes fails to complement the film's more chaotic tendencies), it remains a superior example of the horror anthology.

Anthology films are notoriously- one might say inevitably- hit or miss. Even the best anthologies can't quite please all people all the time, and will have one or two segments that are best forgotten. In that regard, Creepshow puts all other anthologies to shame, as there isn't really a bad story in the bunch(though of course I have my favorites). Perhaps it's the strong authorial voice from Stephen King, the consistent visual tone of the movie, or the clear template of one act, blackly comic, inventively gory morality plays. For whatever reason, Creepshow remains consistent throughout, and features a nice mix of types of story. Though the movie was directed entirely by Romero, each segment is edited by someone else, which gives the film a nicely varied pace. One story might go one for a little while, but then it'll be followed up by a quick, 5 minute short story about a man being devoured by alien fungus(The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril, probably my favorite bit from the film). When the film is over, it does leave one with the feeling of having just read one of the old Tales From The Crypt or Weird Tales comics.

When it came time for the inevitable sequel, both of the creative minds behind the original decided to take one step back from their original roles, and the film greatly suffers for it. Stephen King steps back from screenwriter, serving only as the author of the original short stories(and as a truck driver in a quick cameo during the final story). George Romero steps back from directing to write the screenplay, and nothing else. Stepping up to direct is Michael Gornick, Romero's cinematographer on many of his best films. He had previously directed four episodes of the Romero-produced Tales From The Darkside television show, including one written by Stephen King, so he clearly had the chops to take over. But for whatever reason, the material fails to connect with audiences, and though the sequel has developed a bit of a following, it's clearly a lesser effort from the original. Less fun, less profane, and less idiosyncratic.

To be honest, I have a bit of leftover affection for the movie, which I was introduced to before seeking out the original. As a young teen I quite enjoyed Old Chief Wood'n Head, the opening story in the film. I liked the image of the wooden cigar-store Indian chief creakily and slowly seeking vengeance for the kindly old couple who owned the shop he stood in front of. I remember enjoying the animated segments, featuring Tom Savini voicing the Creep(this films version of the Cryptkeeper or Cousin Eerie). The third segment gave me a little salacious thrill at the opening sex talk as the callous bored housewife who kills a hitchhiker first haggles with the male prostitute who has just given her six- count 'em, six!- orgasms. And then, of course, there is the second segment, The Raft, which holds the distinction of being the only piece of filmed entertainment to give me a nightmare. I can still recall the nightmare, over 20 years on, and the feeling of terror as this inscrutable, smeary blob of oil came to me with unavoidable, inescapable intent. These days The Raft is usually the only part of the movie I'll sit down to watch. It's not so scary these days, but it still carries a strong dose of that original panic I felt when I first saw it. Plus the effects in it are stellar, and the quickly decomposing bodies as the sentient oil slick traps a quartet of unlucky swimmers still look disturbingly realistic.

Pure nightmare fuel.

I think the problem with the film is best explained by viewing the original Creepshow, and studying why it works so well. Creepshow one had 5 short stories of varying length of tone. Creepshow 2 has 3 stories, each about 25 minutes long, of strikingly similar pace and humor. The film also drops the comic book panel conceit, which it consigns to a few minutes of poorly animated interstitials between the actual shorts. These segments entertained me as a kid, but as an adult I can only notice how choppily animated they are, and how the character drawings change shockingly from shot to shot. The film is not the worst horror sequel, or even the worst anthology film, but it is fairly forgettable. It's no surprise that it took 20 years for an (unofficial) sequel(which I haven't yet seen) to slink its way onto the shelves of rapidly disappearing video stores.While I say the original Creepshow is showing it's age, it still remains unique. Creepshow 2 has not aged as poorly, but remains just as flat and boring as it did in 1987, though my 13 year old self would probably argue with me.

1 comment:

Rik Tod Johnson said...

Apparently, Tom Savini considers Tales from the Darkside: The Movie as the actual Creepshow 3. I'd say it is in line in quality with Creepshow 2, and I am equally non-plussed by it. I have always preferred another King anthology film, Cat's Eye, but have not seen it since the early '90s, so I wonder how it will hold up for me today.

The animated segments in Creepshow 2 bothered me from the day it came out in theatres, but I also understand their nostalgic appeal to the slightly younger set (we have a few years between us). My chief problem with them was their need to fix what wasn't broke. They did it right the first time. Why destroy that tone? Thankfully, though, they didn't decide to animate the entire thing.

And yes, The Raft is still the best part.