There’s nothing like a horror anthology to while away an All Hallows’ Eve. There’s something so fun and authentic about them, recalling those old traditions of campfire tales and urban legends, the ominous spectre of imagination lurking in 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 Blockbuster, 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 villains 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 you could imagine, before ten minutes was enough for you to decide against your chosen film and select from any number of horror titles plastered on the digital VHS shelves of multiple streaming services. If you went home with one title, there was every chance it would 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 probably 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 and combining 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 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 the profoundly disturbing Asian, cross-cultural trilogy Three Extremes (2004) and, on Western shores, more-hit-than-miss indie collaborations the V/H/S series, 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 to 1964. But 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 a little too young for the first two, but by 1989, about the time when I first saw Cat’s Eye, I was a full-blooded horror fanatic, and King’s adapted shorts, along with a purely cinematic venture written directly for the screen, provided the perfect balance of fantasy, black comedy and genuine horror. When it came to horror anthologies, I was hooked.
Cat’s Eye wasn’t the only horror 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, and he was more than happy to be involved at the very heart of the genre boom, even landing himself a director’s gig with the coke-fuelled chaos that was Maximum Overdrive.
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, who was tasked with recreating that particular aesthetic for the big screen — was a collection of 5 King tales featuring splash panel flourishes that, along with some gorgeous lighting and a theatrical all-star cast who jump into the project headlong, manage to capture those classic comic book aesthetics and sensibilities quite brilliantly. 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 — it proved a novel concept that was well received upon its release, King’s obsession with phobias and his ability to project them onto audiences proving a real winner in the short form structure he had 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, 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 horror compendium 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 of its predecessor. It was also marred by severe production problems, the film 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.
But 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 marginally more fleshed-out (though admittedly often to the film’s detriment). Is it a better movie than Creepshow? Of course not. In fact, it doesn’t even come close. If you look at what Romero and King originally set out to do with the whole comic book concept, the original is far superior, a film that deserves its place in the upper echelons of 80s horror, and the sequel is quite frankly a generic mess, but there’s something inherently nasty about it that really appeals to me. It’s a movie I always find myself coming back to.
Take the first segment, Old Chief Wood’nhead. If you can get past the maudlin melodrama and occasionally laborious 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 are played by The Naked Gun‘s George Kennedy and ageing 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. Due to the film’s financial limitations, there’s not much grue on offer, but director Michael Gornick does a fine job of executing the kills economically, Woodenhead’s vengeful slaughterhouse all cost-cutting shadows and emphatic splatters.
Creepshow 2‘s second horror splurge, the only one to be adapted from an original King story, is the segment most people tend to remember fondly. The Raft, asides from its typical teens-go-partying-in-the-wrong-lake elements, is arguably the least conventional of the three, though you have to believe it was chosen to appeal to the Jason Voorhees crowd with its distinctly Camp Crsytal Lake setting. 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, swallowing everything it comes into contact with, and you can clearly see where most of the budget went. For the majority of the segment, our villain is merely a piece of floating plastic, but when it attacks it’s genuinely gruesome, the manner in which it devours its prey positively icky.
I’ve read the Stephen King short of the same name, and as you can probably imagine, it is far superior, with a number of well-developed characters and an excruciating finale which sees our sole survivor balancing on the boards of the isolated raft, hopelessly tiring as a patient menace lurks. The movie substitutes this for a cinematic jump scare which possesses none of the lasting impact, but it’s an inspired choice given the medium at hand, and arguably the most inspired moment in the entire movie. Our victims may be little more than a group of one-dimensional douchebags who do very little to emulate King’s uncanny knack for unravelling inner fears, none of whom deserve to survive the massacre, but it’s a memorable tale nonetheless.
On the subject of characters who don’t deserve to live, there’s a rather disquieting moment which sees The Raft‘s alpha male underling go against type and attempt to rape his dead bro’s prom queen (played by Daryl Hannah’s sister, Page). I don’t know how it was received by adults back then, but it’s truly disconcerting stuff in hindsight. 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. Boy, how times have changed!
Creepshow 2’s third segment is perhaps the least memorable, but it does benefit from the movie’s stand-out 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, a tale involving a hit-and-run harlot and an undead vagrant who just won’t quit. Lois Chiles steals the show as an unscrupulous bitch toiling with her conscience… well, kind of. 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 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!
As proven by The Hitchhiker‘s titular scourge and the manner of his vengeance, Creepshow 2 does retain remnants of Creepshow‘s overtly comic presentation, though it’s much less prominent stylistically, even though the film shoehorns in a series of fully animated interludes about a mean-spirited kid and his flesh-eating Venus fly trap that, while nasty and enjoyable in their own right, feel flat by comparison. 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, 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 to tap 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 their themes and presentation, even touching on 50s sci-fi for the segment starring King. 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.
There is hardly a character who deserves to live in Creepshow 2. Most are selfish, heartless, borderline repugnant ― the perfect fit for such thinly-sketched morality tales. It’s less loyal to the medium to which it is supposed to pay homage to the extent that it almost abandon’s the concept entirely, but as someone who didn’t grow up as a comic book fanatic, that kind of thing is lost on me.
Creepshow 2 provides more of a commentary on modern 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.