There’s nothing like a horror anthology to while away an All Hallows’ Eve. They’re just so fun and ceremonial, recalling campfire tales and urban legends, the ominous spectre of imagination lurking behind every unseen crevice. This was especially true when movies weren’t so immediately accessible and exchangeable. Back when rentals were our primary outlet for home viewing, young horror fans had the unenviable task of choosing just one title for the biggest night of the year, two if they were lucky. It was fun browsing the myriad of ghouls and goblins grinning back from your local cave of wonders, but when your parents grew impatient and it was finally time to choose, there was always a chance you’d go home with a real stinker, those enticing VHS covers hardly representative of what you discovered when you finally popped the tape into your VCR.
Horror anthologies possessed the distinct advantage of featuring more than one story ― typically three to five. This was before the internet was littered with multiple reviews on just about every film imaginable, before ten minutes was enough for you to decide against your chosen movie and select from any number of horror titles plastered on the digital shelves of endless streaming services. If you went home with one title, there was every chance it would turn out to be a dud, two movies an outside chance, but when you’re dealing with numerous tales there’s usually something for everyone. If witches aren’t your thing, there are probably vampires or werewolves to feast upon. If supernatural entities aren’t exactly your cup of tea, there’s likely a crazed axe murderer lurking in the back seat of a car somewhere. When it comes to pure chance, there’s no greater ally than variety.
Unfortunately, this was something of a double-edged sword. In the fright-filled realms of horror cinema, anthologies are few and far between, at least comparatively speaking, and those that do exist are rarely 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 that deliver distinctly terrestrial tales in a cut-price cinematic package. The very best are typically collaborative efforts from some of the industry’s lead players. There’s just something about the format that brings out the kid in everyone, with Joe Dante, John Landis, 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 the profoundly disturbing Asian cross-cultural trilogy Three Extremes (2004) and, on Western shores, hit-and-miss indie collaborations such as the V/H/S series, there’s always been a market for them, but for a certain generation it was the horror-obsessed 80s that served as an introduction, offering some of the most fun, memorable and commercially viable entries in what remains a comparatively niche sub-genre. There were also some lesser known titles, both theatrical and terrestrial, to come out of the era, leading to a record-breaking 29 anthology flicks in a single decade. 29 titles! And here’s me thinking I’d seen pretty much all of them!
When I think of 80s anthology films, four titles immediately spring to mind. Two of those 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 and 1964. The one I remember fondest is 1987’s Cat’s Eye, a (mostly) macabre trilogy of Stephen King tales directed by The Jewel of the Nile‘s Lewis Teague. I was too young to fully appreciate the first two segments with their satirical bite and distinctly adult themes, but by 1989, about the time when I first saw Cat’s Eye, I was a full-blooded horror fanatic, King’s adapted shorts, along with a purely cinematic venture written directly for the screen (The General), providing the perfect balance of fantasy, black comedy and genuine terror. When it came to horror compendiums, I was hooked.
Cat’s Eye wasn’t the only anthology to exploit the popular talents of King, who was the unbridled (ahem) king of horror for close to three decades, thanks in no small part to wildly successful/and or critically acclaimed adaptations of his works such as Brian De Palma’s woozy supernatural horror Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s inimitable take on The Shining. Soon enough, everyone in Hollywood wanted a piece of the world’s foremost horror writer. He would even try his hand at directing during the genre’s late-80s boom, delivering the coke-fuelled chaos that was Maximum Overdrive, and I’m not talking soft drinks here.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but the aforementioned Creepshow was King’s first anthology fling, and for many his best. Directed by the legendary George A. Romero, Creepshow — an ode to 50s EC horror comics that recruited the inimitable talents of practical effects maestro Tom Savini — was a collection of five King tales presented with authentic splash panel panache, tapping into one of America’s most time-honoured traditions with its inspired use of lighting and a theatrical cast who fully embraced the film’s comic book aura. This was before the advent of immersive video games and Marvel cinematic universes, the concept proving a huge novelty in an era when comic books were still a primary source of entertainment for youngsters, and for many their only real horror outlet. Some of the tales were a little silly for my liking, particularly one starring King himself as a backwoods loner who comes into contact with a meteorite, but Creepshow was a winning stylistic deviation that was well received upon its release, King’s obsession with phobias his ability to project them onto audiences proving a real winner in the short form structure he’d been so prolific in. It was only natural that he and Romero would look to making a sequel.
That brings me to the fourth anthology movie on my list; the only one to come in the form of the dreaded numbered sequel. Creepshow 2 was another horror compendium that seemed to fall directly into my adolescent lap. 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, or at least have fonder memories. The movie is distinctly cheapjack, costing less than half of its predecessor. It was also marred by severe production problems, the project originally set to feature five segments until budgetary issues reduced that number to three, with King ultimately taking something of a backseat creatively. All in all, it didn’t bode well for the final product.
Despite its obvious deficiencies, I enjoy the tales featured in Creepshow 2 and the briefer three-segment format, which gives us fewer stories that are more fleshed-out. Is it a better movie than Creepshow? Absolutely not. If you look at what Romero and King originally set out to achieve with the whole comic book concept, the original is far superior, a film that deserves its place in the upper echelons of 80s horror. The sequel is something of a generic mess, but there’s something inherently nasty about it that really appealed to me as a horror-obsessed tyke growing up in the late 1980s. It came during the genre’s descent into censorship, so there’s not much gore on offer, but it’s more unseemly and less playful than the original in sentiment. For a comic book inspired compendium, it’s all rather bleak. If Creepshow was a spirited endeavour in experimentation, the sequel is pure narcotics burnout, but there’s still much to be admired.
Take the first segment, Old Chief Wood’nhead. If you can get past the maudlin melodrama and laboured pacing, it’s 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 ill-fated couple, played by The Naked Gun‘s George Kennedy and ageing Hollywood darling, Dorothy Lamour, are representative of simpler times, of traditional values and notions of community, the pair assisting a poverty-stricken tribe with layaway groceries in a selfless act that’s distinctly at odds with an era of Wall Street greed, self-styled masters of the universe and fame-hungry exhibitionism.
The segment’s antagonist, the tribe leader’s Hollywood-obsessed nephew, Sam Whitemoon, is a crude monument to shallow 80s decadence, stealing a deposit of sacred jewels in cold blood as a means to conquer Hollywood. His obsequious sidekicks may err on the side of maddeningly puerile, the meandering setup marred by thinly sketched characters and amateurish performances, but the actions of Whitemoon and his cronies are worthy of the grimmest retribution, and boy do they get it. Though seemingly inanimate, Old Chief Wood’nhead hears and sees all, and he doesn’t take kindly to the brutal dispatch of the store’s owners, who view him as a symbol of reverence with similar values, affectionately maintaining his war paint under the harsh desert sun. The segment’s pay-off, which taps into late 80s slasher trends with satisfying aplomb, is so swift and economically executed that all notions of the set-up’s laboured pacing fly out of the window, Woodenhead’s vengeful slaughterhouse all cost-cutting shadows and emphatic splatters.
Despite its cheapskate residue, Creepshow 2 features some rather admirable practical effects, the same that contributed to the film’s shorter, three-tale format. Wood’nhead’s design is just phenomenal, as are the suitably wooden movements of portrayer Danny Kamin, who brings an eerily unnatural vibe to the segment’s towering purveyor of vengeance that’s just as convincing. With the aid of Les Reed’s Manfredini-esque orchestral contributions, the movie forges a stalk-and-slash variation who transcends the gallows humour antiheroes of late-80s slashers, presenting us with a killer with moral justifications, a tribal warrior brought back from the dead to honour the fallen members of his extended tribe. It’s a cute concept splendidly executed.
Creepshow 2‘s middle segment, the only one to be adapted from an original King story, is the one people tend to remember fondest. Asides from its typical teens-go-partying-in-the-wrong-lake set-up, The Raft is the least conventional of the three tales, though you have to believe it was chosen to appeal to the Jason Voorhees crowd with its Crystal Lake setting and obvious slasher tropes. But there’s no masked killer in sight. Instead, death arrives in the form of a puddle of primordial ooze that drifts innocuously on quietly hazardous waters, melting and swallowing everything that happens upon its desolation. For most of the segment, our vaguely sentient devourer of human flesh is merely a stretch of polyfoam, but when it attacks the segment is genuinely gruesome, the sticky manner in which it consumes its prey positively icky.
Again, The Raft is all about its impressive practical effects. You can certainly see where the budget went on what is an otherwise distinctly no thrills production. Creepshow 2 was an early project for K.N.B. EFX alumni Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, the former responsible for designing what producers vaguely referred to as the blob. “You go back to the original source material and there’s this nebulous, vague description of this black oil slick that lived in a lake. This amorphous thing that you never really knew what it was. You just saw it as something floating in the water,” Nicotero would recall. “We literally brushed latex on the floor of a big garage, and then I poured bits of polyfoam in a spiral pattern and imbedded [it with] junk like soda cans.”
Complications arose when Art Director of Special Effects, Ed French, whose job it was to build the rig that pulled the blob through the lake, was fired for technical oversights that plunged the segment into jeopardy. Berger and Nicotero would take over, rebuilding everything in the space of a weekend, the segment exceeding both its original schedule and budget. It was more than worth it from a creative aspect. Thanks to some innovative use of black Methicil and the notoriously tricky-to-remove ultra-slime, The Raft treats us to a grisly gallery of deaths that includes Page Hannah’s total deliquescing, Daniel Beer’s excruciating snapping-in-half, Jeremy Green’s ugly face-melting, and the segment’s money shot, one in which false final boy Deke (Paul Satterfield) is devoured onshore. Though seemingly lacking in intelligence and dexterity, the blob proves itself a skilled and uncanny killer, crawling along limbs and pushing itself up between the raft’s boards and leaping with the sudden acuity of a snapping viper.
“[Howard Berger] and I were responsible for creating what the creature could do to somebody… We started experimenting with the raft, putting it up on blocks, and then building troughs filled with black methicil,” Niocotero would explain. “That way we were able to squeeze the troughs underneath the raft and the black stuff would ooze up and then ooze back down… For the shot where Jeremy Green gets engulfed by the blob, we literally tilted the raft sideways, and we were pumping the black sludge over her head. So she turns and looks at the camera. The illusion is the stuff has come up over her face. Then we took a skeleton and laid that on a piece of latex and poured polyfoam over that. Then you see the skeleton moving in the water. It looks like the people are being dissolved by the monster.”
The film’s climactic jump scare, one that sees Sattersfield pursued to the ostensible safety of land, only to be pounced upon and consumed, was just as ingeniously designed. Though it pales to the ominous conclusion of King’s short, which ends with a physically shattered victim balancing on a board as their tireless predator awaits the inevitable, its made for screen and just as effective for the medium. “We built a PVC frame that was like a tripwire frame, and we just attached a big, giant square section of the blob to it, so that when you tripped it the whole thing would flip up. So we wet it down and covered it with slime, and it looks like it’s coming over the camera.”
Again, the characters in The Raft are mostly deserving of such retribution. With Jason Voorhees and Fred Krueger adopting the role of post-modern hero, victims generally required some kind of taboo discretion or undesirable trait in order to justify their deaths by 1987, and the characters in Creepshow 2 go above and beyond. Deke, who begins as a somewhat timid, alpha male underling, goes utterly against type by fondling his dead bro’s prom queen as she perilously sleeps on the raft’s boards, the blob’s unquenchable hunger the only thing stopping him from becoming a full-blown rapist. King is known for having a penchant for the queerly perverted (just look at the preteen orgy debacle in IT), but this moment is particularly jarring. In fact, it’s barely acknowledged as a sin, more the harmless instincts of an inquisitive teen. I don’t know how it was received by adults back in 1987, but it’s truly disconcerting stuff in hindsight.
Creepshow 2’s third segment is perhaps the least memorable, though it does benefit from the movie’s standout performance. This time, Romero taps into the hugely popular zombie genre ― I mean, why wouldn’t he ― delivering a kind of precursor to Kevin Williamson’s I Know What You Did Last Summer with a tale involving a hit-and-run harlot and an undead vagrant who just won’t quit, Lois Chiles stealing the show as an unscrupulous bitch toiling with her conscience. (if you can call it a conscience). Though not an adaption, The Hitchhiker comes closest to King’s cute literary cynicism, ditching the purely cinematic tone of previous segments for a story that revels 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 excuse-readying 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!
The Hitchhiker also comes closer to the comedic, comic book stylings of the original Creepshow with its twisted morality lesson and fun, supernatural protagonist, though on the whole it’s much less prominent stylistically. Despite the film’s somewhat futile attempts to compensate with a series of fully animated interludes about a mean-spirited kid and his flesh-eating Venus fly trap, it seems somewhat half-hearted. It’s in sync with the film’s nastier tone but it’s pretty nihilistic for an animated segment, and it feels tacked-on, as if it was hastily shoehorned-in to tenuously link the film to its predecessor.
For fans of the first movie, Creepshow 2 probably smacks of complacency, of creative lethargy and commercial cynicism. The film is less inventive, less ironic, and, most crucially, less of a comic book adaptation to the extent that it almost abandons the concept entirely, but I’ve always preferred my horror to err on the darker side, and since I’m a huge slasher fan I can forgive its obvious attempts at tapping into the sleepaway camp teen demographic and popular zombie genre at the expense of more unique tales. The five segments in the original Creepshow are more varied and traditional in both theme and presentation, even touching on 50s pulp sci-fi. Creepshow 2 is categorically 80s. Not just 80s, but late-80s, just as the horror genre was growing stale and bowing out for the largely barren 90s, but I love how unashamedly nasty and derivative it is. It’s the very definition of a guilty pleasure, and as someone who didn’t grow up as a comic book fanatic, that kind of thing is lost on me.
Creepshow 2 is less an EC Comics throwback, more a commentary on 80s sensibilities, dripping with the personal advancement 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 an outward disdain for 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.