It started with the comics.
The “EC” originally stood for “Educational Comics,” a shockingly ironic title for a line of proudly subversive horror mags. With titles like Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear (in addition to a little non-horror number titled Mad magazine), they represented everything the panicky parents of the 1950s feared. They were blood-thirsty, exploitative, almost shockingly crude, and reveled in the kind of ironic twists that Rod Serling raised to an art form just a decade later. In other words, they are an ideal way for Boomer kids to march to their own beat: a quiet rebellion against the status quo that ended when the Comic Code Authority landed on them like a ton of bricks.
Luckily for us, two of those kids were named George A. Romero and Stephen King, both of whom went on to careers of some note in the horror field. In 1982, they collaborated on a love letter to those long-forgotten shockers, and created a minor masterpiece in the process. Creepshow, the title of a fictitious magazine containing five “tales of unspeakable terror,” delivered over-the-top gore with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, and reminded us how much fun a horror movie can be. HBO’s Tales from the Crypt followed its example to great success, but never quite managed the spot-on homage that King and Romero created here.
At its heart lay one of King’s long-standing adages: we really love watching awful things happen to equally awful people. The film’s five stories thus constitute one part morality tale, one part cautionary example and three parts geek show, with a thick helping of make-up effects from the legendary Tom Savini to help it all go down smooth. Even more surprising is the cast, ranking among the most eclectic and unusual you’re likely to see. Slumming legends Hal Holbrook and E.G. Marshall rub shoulders with genre pros like Adrienne Barbeau and Fritz Weaver… as well as a pre-star Ed Harris, a pre-star Ted Danson and a post-Airplane Leslie Nielsen playing the nastiest cuckold you’ve ever seen. Even King himself gets into the act, starring as a backwoods bumpkin in a performance that screams “don’t quit your day job.” One of the great things about Creepshow is how little that matters: King can get hammier than Sunday dinner and it just feeds right into the gleeful madness crowding every frame.
Romero, for his part, works overtime to keep the comic book feeling alive. Animated frames often surround the live action, and the pseudo-realism of each story periodically gives way to wide swaths of primary colors (and even a few panic lines around the heads of the new victims). The five stories (framed by a sixth that features King’s then-ten-year-old son Joe) fit those trappings like tailored suit. A rotten family receives a posthumous visit from their murdered patriarch. King’s hick uncovers the world’s best fertilizer in a crashed meteor. A wronged husband buries his wife and her lover up to their necks below the high tide line. A pair of professors discover something lurking in a centuries-old crate. And a modern day Howard Hughes learns to his dismay that the local cockroaches have formed a union. Each story is short, brisk and to the point. “Here’s a horrible, awful person you instantly despise; now watch him get his comeuppance.”
Had they played it straight, it likely would have been doomed. But both Romero and King understand the need to keep a sense of humor about it all. The old comics certainly told their tales with a certain bright-eyed glee, and Creepshow adds just the right amount of knowingness to let grown-ups in on the gag. It ultimately feels quite loving, with a few well-placed raspberries directed at the fuddy-duddy killjoys (past and present) who tried to rain on its parade. Nothing doing with a film this terrific. As much as I love and admire Romero’s zombie pictures – which defined a genre and remain the basis for one of the greatest geek intellectual exercises ever – I may love Creepshow just a little bit more.