Tagline: When the curtain goes up the terror begins
Director: Michael Gornick
Writers: George A Romero, Lucille Fletcher, Stephen King
Starring: Lois Chiles, George Kennedy, Dorothy Lamour, Domenick John, Daniel Beer
18 | 1h 32min | Horror, Comedy
Budget: $3,500,000 (estimated)
There’s nothing like a horror anthology to while away a Hallows’ Eve. In the fright-filled realms of horror cinema, such ventures are few and far between, and those that do exist are hardly first-rate additions to the genre’s multifarious pantheon. There are exceptions, but most are done on the cheap, casting unknown or past their peak actors in spendthrift scenarios and combining distinctly terrestrial tales in a cut-price cinematic package. The very best of them are collaborative efforts from some of the industry’s leading players. There’s just something about the format that brings out the kid in everyone, with Joe Dante, John Llandis, Stephen King, George Miller, George A. Romero, Richard Matheson and Steven Spielberg all eager to be a part of various projects at one time or another, and that’s merely scratching the surface.
The horror anthology has a rich and storied history, from 1945’s stifling Ealing Studios blueprint Dead of Night, to modern classics such as Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook and Takashi Miike’s Three Extremes (2004) and western indie collaboration V/H/S (2012), but for a certain generation it was the horror-obsessed ’80s that served as an introduction to this humble and diminutive sub-genre, a decade that provided some of the most memorable and commercially viable. There were also some lesser known titles, both theatrical and terrestrial, to come out of the era, leading to a record-breaking abundance of anthology flicks (29 as far as I can tell). 29!!! Just take a moment to consume that number. And here’s me thinking I’d seen almost all of them.
When I think of ’80s anthology films, four titles immediately spring to mind. The first two are arguably the most famous of all: 1982‘s comic book inspired Creepshow and 1983‘s Twilight Zone: The Movie, the latter a natural extension of the popular TV series that ran for five seasons on CBS between 1959 to 1964. The third, and the one I remember most fondly, is 1987‘s Cat’s Eye, a trilogy of Stephen King penned tales directed by The Jewel of the Nile‘s William Teague. Being born in 1982, the first two were a little early in the day for me, but by 1987 (it was probably closer to ’89 when I first saw it on TV late one night) I was a full-blooded horror fanatic, and this particular movie provided the perfect balance of fantasy, black comedy and genuine horror. Of the three tales, I was mostly drawn to the special effects magic of The General, a short starring Drew Barrymore, a malevolent troll and a heroic feline who ties the three stories together. This was the only segment that wasn’t adapted from a King short story and it shows. The other two tales exhibit more of the dark wit and gallows humour synonymous with King, particularly the darkly satirical Quitters, Inc, a macabre tale of nicotine addiction starring a deliriously manic James Woods.
Of course, Cat’s Eye wasn’t the only one of those movies to centre around King, who was the unbridled (ahem) king of horror for close to three decades after success with 1974‘s Carrie, a character immortalised by Sissy Spacek thanks to Brian De Palma’s woozy silver screen adaptation two years later. From that point on, everyone in Hollywood wanted a piece of King, and the writer was more than happy to be involved at the very heart of it. Directed by George A. Romero, Creepshow — an ode to ’50s EC horror comics that recruited the inimitable talents of practical effects maestro Tom Savini, who was tasked with recreating that particular aesthetic for the big screen — was a collection of 5 King tales (2 adapted from shorts) book-ended by comic book animation about a comic-obsessed boy and his disapproving father, which helped to capture the essence of the project. Though some of the tales are a little silly for my liking — particularly one starring King himself as a backwoods loner who comes into contact with a meteorite — the movie worked a treat and would inevitably spawn a sequel.
That brings me to the fourth anthology movie on my list, and the only one to come in the form of the dreaded numbered sequel. Released the same year as Cat’s Eye, Creepshow 2 was another movie that seemed to fall directly into my adolescent lap, and call it nostalgia if you want, or the fact that it happens to benefit from one of the most fetching promotional posters of the era, but I actually prefer it to the original. The movie is incredibly cheap, costing less than half its predecessor with a half-decade of inflation to consider. It was also wracked with production problems, the film originally set to feature five segments until budgetary problems reduced that number to three, but despite its obvious deficiencies I prefer the tales featured in Creepshow 2 and the briefer, more rewarding three-segment format, which gives us fewer tales that are marginally more fleshed out (and partially to their detriment). Is it a better movie? I wouldn’t say so. If you look at what Romero and King originally set out to do with the whole comic book concept the original is obviously superior, but there’s something inherently nasty about the sequel that really appeals to me.
Take the first segment, Old Chief Wood’nhead, for example. If you can get past the maudlin melodrama and occasionally laborious pacing, it is a rewarding little revenge tale right out of the slasher textbook, only this time our killer is a benevolent wooden chief brought to life after the murder of a kind-hearted store owner and his suspicious, yet ultimately sweet-natured wife. The two are played by The Naked Gun‘s George Kennedy and Hollywood darling Dorothy Lamour, their outmoded styles perfect for such a throwaway formula. The pair have been helping a poverty-stricken tribe with layaway groceries, and when a deposit of sacred jewels are stolen in cold blood by the tribe’s Hollywood obsessed grandson, Old Chief Wood’nhead enacts his grisly revenge. Thanks to its financial limitations, there’s not much grue on offer, but director Michael Gornick does a fine job of executing the kills so economically, Woodenhead’s vengeful slaughterhouse all cost-cutting shadows and emphatic splatters.
The second tale featured in Creepshow 2, and the only one to be adapted from a King story, is the segment that most people tend to remember most fondly. The Raft is a typical teens-go-partying-in-the-wrong-lake tale that would have pleased slasher fans no-end in the late ’80s, though there’s no masked killer in sight. That job goes to a mysterious puddle of primordial ooze that drifts innocuously on quietly hazardous waters, swallowing everything it comes into contact with, and is presumably what most of the movie’s budget went on. The creature itself is merely a piece of floating plastic — albeit pretty convincing as a vaguely sentient cannibal — but the manner in which it devours its prey is positively icky. I’ve read the Stephen King short of the same name and as you could probably imagine it is far superior, with a number of well-developed characters and an excruciating ending which sees our sole survivor balancing on the boards of the isolated raft, hopelessly tiring as a patient menace lurks beneath. The movie substitutes this moment for a cinematic jump scare that does just the trick, even if the characters are little more than one-dimensional douchbags. On the subject of ‘characters who don’t deserve to live’, there’s a rather disquieting moment in this segment that sees the story’s alpha male underling go against type and attempt to rape his dead bro’s prom queen (played by Daryl Hannah’s sister Page). King has been known for having a penchant for the queerly perverted (just look at his novel IT!) but this moment is particularly jarring. Let’s just be thankful for that oily tidal wave!
The third segment is perhaps the least memorable, but it does benefit from the movie’s stand-out performance. The Hitchhiker is kind of a low-budget prelude to I Know What You Did Last Summer, released a decade later off the back of Scream‘s genre reviving whirlwind. Lois Chiles steals the show as the unscrupulous hit-and-run bitch toiling with her conscience — at least briefly — following a collision with a supernatural drifter. Though not an adaption, this segment is the most reminiscent of King’s cute literary cynicism, the story revelling in the detachment of a shameless philanderer who goes from despair to relief to remorseless killing machine as her seemingly indestructible pursuer just keeps on coming. Her rehearsals, first mocking her sexually underachieving husband and then justifying the accident she has seemingly left behind, are cold-blooded and deliciously acerbic, and she has no qualms about finishing the job again and again and again, though you best believe she’ll pay the ultimate price. Thanks for the ride, lady!
As proven by The Hitchhiker‘s titular scourge and the manner of his vengeance, Creepshow 2 retains that comic touch, but unlike the original it is much more peripheral, and I’ve always preferred my horror a tad on the darker side. There is hardly a character who deserves to live in Creepshow 2. They are selfish, heartless, borderline repugnant — the very kind that fit the bill for such thinly-sketched morality tales. Ultimately, it is more horror than campy schlock, and as someone who didn’t grow up as a comic book fanatic, that kind of thing is lost on me somewhat, though the animated story tying this particular instalment together is as impressive as the one featured in Creepshow, the tale of an equally mean-spirited kid and his flesh-eating Venus fly trap.
The antagonists in Creepshow 2 smack of Reaganite America. Here we have an egomaniacal prima donna with stars in his eyes, a protagonist-come-rapist and an unscrupulous harlot who thinks nothing of mowing down her financial inferior for the sake of her own ass. It reeks of self-serving opulence, of unabashed misogyny and the overthrowing of the little man, and, unlike real life, it takes great satisfaction in its ability to right those wrongs. None of this is surprising since Romero, famous for his scathing political criticisms, takes over screenwriting duties following an initial treatment from an otherwise absent King. Death has rarely been so deserved.
It’s a tough one, because they all have their charms: Old Chief Wood’nhead’s cute finale, Chiles’ ice queen turned full-on killer, but The Raft just pips it. As a kid, it was the stand-out segment, and some of the effects are charmingly cheapskate. Watching it as an adult, the other segments are just as good, but I’ll stick with The Raft for nostalgia reasons.
Though insufferable jock Deke’s unfortunately nimble death in The Raft is arguably more excruciating, Hollywood idiot Sam Whitemoon’s scalping at the hands of Old Chief Wood’nhead is far more satisfying, and rather well executed too.
As well as featuring additional music from Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, Creepshow 2 features a brief appearance from practical effects alumni Tom Savini, here daubed in the prosthetic grotesquery of The Creep. You’ll catch him during the end credits.