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The Ones We Managed to Win November 24, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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I’ll always owe a debt of gratitude to George Romero.  Giving us Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead earned the guy a free pass for the rest of his career, as far as I’m concerned.  And yet the argument could be made that if it weren’t for those two movies, we wouldn’t know who George Romero is.  His non-zombie output has been, shall we say, underwhelming.  Bruiser, anyone?  Knightriders? Just like Roland Emmerich (Independence Day; 2012) is only good at blowing up the world, Romero is primarily only good when it comes to the shambling undead.

Creepshow (1982; one of two Romero adaptations of Stephen King’s work – The Dark Half is the other), however, is a funny, affectionate anthology of King-penned tales, some previously published, some written expressly for the screen.  The first thing to note about the movie is that I used the word funny, and not the word scary. I also could have said it was clever and goofy; both of those adjectives would be more accurate than saying it’s frightening.  That might seem like a weird thing to say about a movie with Romero’s and King’s names attached to it, but there’s always a darkly comic undercurrent running through much of the author’s work, and as for Romero … well, let’s not forget that Dawn of the Dead includes a zombie-human pie fight.  They might primarily be known for their horror, but both artists are no stranger to humor.

The movie itself consists of five individual stories, with a shorter, wraparound story bookending the movie.  None of the stories are especially scary, choosing instead to mine a sort of middle ground between the grotesque and the droll, and for that reason the movie has always reminded me more of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits: it’s fantasy as much as it is horror, and dark humor as much as it is either of those other two things.  Some of the stories work; some don’t.  But they’re always interesting, and in their best moments, they’re terrific fun.  The easiest way to attack this movie is probably story by story, and I’ll try to avoid spoilers for people who haven’t seen it yet.

“Prologue”: Paired with the epilogue, this is the silliest of the bunch.  A father throws away his son’s scary comic book, uttering the immortal line, “That’s why God made fathers, babe. (Sips beer.)  That’s why God made fathers.”  The windswept comic book provides the individual stories that follow.

“Father’s Day”: Written by King for the movie, this story is, unfortunately, a dumb and inauspicious way to start.  A group of money-grubbing relatives gathers each year for the titular holiday, and the new member of the family (an in-law, played by a very young Ed Harris – hair intact) is introduced to the story of Aunt Bedelia.  Seven years prior, Bedelia killed her father, Nathan, by smashing in his head with an ashtray.  Three guesses as to who rises from the dead to kill his family members, and the first two don’t count.  Key line: “I want my cake!”

“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”: Did I say the prologue was the silliest story in this movie?  I misspoke.  Inexplicably starring King himself in the title role, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is an inconsequential sci-fi nothing, based on his short story, “Weeds.”  King plays a backwoods rube who stumbles across a meteor (key line: “I’ll be dipped in shit if that ain’t a meteor”) and has designs on delivering it to the local college for the king’s ransom of $200.  Unfortunately, when he touches it, something tragically agricultural happens to him.  This vignette is definitely funny (shots of King delivering the meteor to the university’s “Department of Meteors”), and the last section is unexpectedly poignant.  It works, despite its goofiness.

“Something to Tide You Over”: My favorite of the bunch.  Here, Harry (a pre-Cheers Ted Danson) is abducted by Richard (Leslie Nielsen, before he was forever typecast as the dimwitted cop by the Naked Gun movies) for canoodling with Richard’s wife.  He takes Harry to a remote beach and unveils the plot he’s devised to enact revenge on both Harry and his wife (hint: it involves burying both of them up to their necks in sand).  Of course, because this is a horror anthology, things ultimately don’t go as Richard planned.  (Key line: “I can hold my breath for a long, long time!”)  The real kick of this segment is seeing Nielsen in a dramatic role.  It’s easy to forget that he had a long career prior to Airplane! (according to IMDB, 236 roles dating back to 1950), and it’s a lot of fun seeing him act so convincingly as a cruel tough-guy here.  Danson, too, is entertaining to watch.  The gift of hindsight – getting to see him in a supporting role just as his career was about to skyrocket – can’t be underestimated.

“The Crate”: Originally published by King as a short story, this section of the movie stars Hal Holbrook (who most recently portrayed Chris McCandless’ elderly benefactor in Into the Wild) as a henpecked college professor who uses the discovery of a century-old crate (or, rather, its contents) to punish his shrewish wife.  As with the previous story, it’s a lot of fun to see an actor of Holbrook’s stature stoop to pulpy, B-movie fare.  This segment is an awful lot of fun: creepy, gory, clever, and a nearly-perfect melding of King’s and Romero’s sensibilities.  Key line: “Get out of my way, Henry, or you’ll be wearing your balls for earrings!”

“They’re Creeping Up on You!”: Written by King for the movie, this story involves a Howard Hughes-esque tycoon (played by venerable actor E.G. Marshall) who has sealed himself away in his apartment, but who still maintains a healthy fear of bugs.  Cockroaches, specifically.  (Key line: “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got this bug problem.”)  As the story progresses, we learn what a repellent figure this guy is, and are gratified when the bugs get their revenge.  I’m not sure this segment exists except to provide the viewer with the highly gratifying sight of roaches erupting from a person’s chest.  Entertaining, and Marshall – who is essentially the only actor in this segment – does a terrific job, but it’s kind of a nothing way to end the movie.

“Epilogue”: The other half of the silly story that bookends the film, it quickly shows how the kid from the beginning of the movie gets revenge on his dad.  The only upside is getting to see Romero’s longtime FX guru Tom Savini as a garbageman.

Creepshow is certainly not a great film.  It is, however, good, pulpy fun, and the trick is to go into it expecting something campy and silly, with a B-horror-movie sensibility.  If anything, it reminds me of the cinematic version of those schlocky horror and science fiction mags that published King’s first work (as well as Ray Bradbury’s, Kurt Vonnegut’s, and Harlan Ellison’s).  Pulp, which I used above, is probably the best adjective for the movie.   Creepshow has a low-budget, borderline ridiculous, Grindhouse feel to it.  And I absolutely mean that as a compliment.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Coming next: Cujo (1983)

*****

Current listening:

Bear in Heaven – Red Bloom of the Boom (2007)

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