Creepshow (1982) (out of 4)
Directed by: George Romero
Starring: Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Fritz Weaver, Leslie Nielsen, Carrie Nye, E.G. Marshall, Viveca Lindfors, Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Stephen King, Warner Shook
Trick ‘r Treat (2009) (out of 4)
Directed by: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Dylan Baker, Rochelle Aytes, Quinn Lord, Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Brett Kelly, Britt McKillip, Isabelle Deluce, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Alberto Ghisi, Samm Todd, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb
The horror anthology film Creepshow gets its influence from the EC horror comics of the 1950s (Tales From The Crypt, The Vault Of Horror, The Haunt of Fear). Directed by George Romero (yes, he did direct other things besides zombie films) and written by Stephen King (who also stars in it), it’s a welcome piece of horror camp done up like a graphic novel (some scenes are presented like comic book panels). Book-ended by shorts featuring an asshole father (an uncredited Tom Atkins) throwing away his son’s pulpy “Creepshow” mag, the movie treats us to five stories taken from said book. The first involves the return of a murder victim from the grave to get revenge against his family as well find himself the Fathers Day cake that he never got the first time around; the second features Stephen King as a dopey farmer who discovers a meteor that infects him with a weed-like growth; the third short involves the revenge of a man (Ted Danson) who was killed by his lover’s jealous husband (Leslie Nielsen); the fourth involves a Tasmanian-Devil-like creature in a crate that slaughters the workers at a prestigious university; the final story stars E.G. Marshall as a mean, greedy, and germ-obsessed CEO gradually attacked by a legion of cockroaches in his New York City apartment.
Creepshow delivers its weaker segments up front, gradually building to a perfect final story. The “Father’s Day” segment seems unfinished; it’s a simple story about a man who returns from the grave to take revenge against the daughter who killed him and the family of vultures who inherited his fortune. Featuring decent makeup effects, it’s basically a joke with a silly punchline, but the main characters (including a young Ed Harris) are suitably sleazy, if under-developed. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” stars King as a not-too-bright farmer who doesn’t know enough not to touch strange meteors. He gets infected and starts growing into a moss-like creature as the rest of his farm turns into some kind of alien rain-forest. It’s completely tongue-in-cheek, played more for comedy than scares, but I liked the ominous ending. “Something To Tide You Over” is a step up – half character drama, half ghost story – featuring Nielsen (right around the time Police Squad! was coming out) as a sadistic and insane husband who buries his wife and her lover (Ted Danson) up to their necks in sand, then films their deaths from drowning as the tide creeps in. Visited by their undead corpses (excellent makeup effects here by Tom Savini), they return the favor. The final image of Nielsen buried in the sand, screaming “I can hold my breath for a long time!” is great – I personally would have jettisoned the “Father’s Day” segment to make more room for this, as they both feature similar themes. “The Crate” is a nifty and gory little horror gem with good character development and acting from Hal Holbrook, Fritz Weaver, and the great Adrienne Barbeau. Featuring a murderous creature that escapes a crate to kill a college janitor and grad student, it’s a slow-burn who’s centerpiece monster serves as the catalyst for Hoolbrook’s milquetoast Henry’s revenge on hateful, overbearing Wilma (wonderfully played by Barbeau). The best story is saved for last – EG Marshall’s asshole businessman Upson Pratt, the kind of guy Scrooge would be afraid of, who delights on hearing of the suicide of his rival, has a bit of a bug and germ phobia. In his spotless, sterile apartment, he is in constant battle with bugs, both human and roach-kind (“You can’t let them get a foothold – they’ll creep up on ya”). The roach infestation problem gets worse, until the city blackout, then it gets apocalyptic. A great gross-out with a perfect performance from Marshall, who plays the mysophobic Pratt with a mix of humor and hatefulness.
Creepshow isn’t anywhere near a masterpiece of Amicus-style horror, but as a pure comic book fantasy it works well, mostly because the actors involved treat their B-movie roles with affection and seriousness. Throw in some good old school gore and an effective musical score, and you’ve got a campy horror-comedy that strangely enough adheres to a particular moral code. Like in the EC universe, victims in Creepshow usually experience some sort of poetic justice for their crimes or moral failings. This philosophy and certain stylish touches (like the use of comic book imagery to help frame scenes of violence or intense emotion) place the movie in a bizarre alternate universe that, while occasionally horrific, has a certain logic to it. It’s a fun picture that manages to (most of the time) tread the fine line between horror and comedy.
Contrast Creepshow with Trick ‘r Treat, an attempt by Warner Brothers to bring the Omnibus film back into the mainstream. Directed by Michael Dougherty (writer on Urban Legends – Bloody Mary and Bryan Singer flicks Superman Returns, X-Men 2), Trick ‘r Treat sat on a shelf for 2 years before finally being released on disc this month. Rumor has it that test audiences didn’t like it, or that Warner was nervous about going up against the Saw movies on Halloween. I think, however, that the flick just wasn’t good enough. Based on Dougherty’s animated short film Season’s Greetings, Trick ‘r Treat tells four different stories that occur on the same Halloween night in small town Warren Valley, Ohio. The stories are all tied together through the appearance of Sam, a pumpkin-headed demon-child with a sack over his head (for good reason) who wanders around killing people who don’t properly follow the rules of Halloween, like keeping lighted jack-o-lanterns around, or giving candy to trick-or-treaters. (The Sam character is as close to a framing device as the film gets – in some scenes he’s part of the story, in others he’s simply an observer). Another tactic used to intertwine the stories is to have them overlap in spots, Pulp Fiction-like – characters from one vignette will sometimes interact with characters from another. In this way, Dougherty keeps his twisted universe self-contained, like putting different rats in the same maze.
The first story in Trick ‘r Treat concerns a school principal (Dylan Baker) who moonlights as a serial killer, and decides to teach a greedy candy-stealing kid a lesson. The second is a ghost story featuring a group of kids who play a prank on a the odd-girl-out, making her think she’s being attacked by zombies from a school bus disaster years before, only to have it backfire when the real zombies show up. The third is a werewolf tale disguised as a teen-virgin dramedy, starring Anna Paguin as the “virgin” who hasn’t had a guy yet, then meets what appears to be a vampire serial killer. The final segment pits a crotchety old hermit (nicely played by Brian Cox) against the aforementioned pumpkin kid, who seems more interested in tricks (razorblades mixed with candies on a staircase, box cutters hidden inside candy wrappers) than treats.
While expertly shot and visually arresting, Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t feature stories strong enough to leave any lasting impression. The best bits involve Brian Cox’s character fighting off “Sam” (there’s a cool sequence where he shoots the kid and pumpkin guts fly out) and some humorous interplay between Dylan Baker’s friendly neighborhood killer and his victims. However, the school bus ghost story is curiously anticlimactic (it plays more like a darker episode of Goosebumps), while the werewolf story is just ridiculous – a WB sitcom with some slight gore and boobs. The twist of the story is that certain characters are not what they appear to be, but in order for this to work, the characters in question have to say and do things that are at odds with their true nature. (I found one scene of Anna Paquin walking alone in the woods dressed like Little Red Riding Hood funny in retrospect). None of the sequences are particularly scary, though, just incoherent. No character has any depth, so when they die you don’t feel good or bad about it, and there’s no running pathos, just a string of uneven set pieces. I should note that Creepshow isn’t particularly scary either, but it’s more engrossing because it feels more cohesive. Both films sometimes share similar tropes, like the return of ghosts who have been wronged to take revenge upon the living; however, the characters in Creepshow are more interesting, making their comeuppance more enjoyable. In comparison, the fate of the Baker character really has no weight (he shows up in a twist that is nonsensical – it feels like another gimmick), and the fate of other characters are simply left up in the air. Horror anthologies should get by on the strength of either their stories or their characters (preferably both), but Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t manage to master either of these. In its defense, it does have a nice sense of atmosphere and it looks pretty good.
I respect that Trick ‘r Treat shows a particular reverence for Halloween, and have no doubt that you’ll be seeing it on television every October 31st, but in the end its style can’t compensate for its lack of substance. The film has tons of positive, glowing reviews and is the product of some serious viral marketing by WB – my advice is, don’t believe the hype. With that said, I did enjoy the cinematography and appreciate that Dougherty is trying to capture the spirit of Halloween. With this in mind, I hope that Warner green-lights a sequel – I’m getting a bit tired of Michael Myers.
- Bill Gordon