Far mo re creaky than creepy, "Creepshow," opening today at area theaters, was evidently generated by the mutual desire of its celebrated gothic collaborators, novelist Stephen King and director George Romero, to evoke the look and tone of the notorious horror tales in the E.C. comic books of the early '50s.
King and Romero certainly haven't trumped their own great successes in the field or demonstrated a welcome finesse with the invariably awkward, hit-and-miss vignette format. If anything, it appears their sources of inspiration are becoming alarmingly thin and self-derivative.
Still, it seems obvious that the conceptual and illustrative assaults on good taste and common squeamish decency mounted by the E.C. horror writers and artists, at their most graphic and unrestrained, have been systematically appropriated by filmmakers over the past decade or so. Romero may have been one of the first to adapt the E.C. style to movies when he activated the ghouls in "Night of the Living Dead." The process has continued without interruption ever since. Makeup artists, in particular, have been encouraged to contribute the quantum innovative jumps--Dick Smith's monster face for the possessed child in "The Exorcist," Rick Baker's exploding skulls in "Scanners," Rob Bottin's werewolves in "The Howling."
Romero has developed a resident specialist of his own, Tom Savini, who probably salvages "Creepshow" by inventing one terrifying, bloodthirsty monster -- a furry, ferocious cross of abominable snowman and Tasmanian devil -- and one memorably revolting nightmare: swarms of cockroaches erupting from the mouth of a freshly deceased E.G. Marshall.
It's apparent that the most popular and skillful director of the generation, Steven Spielberg, has absorbed and adapted the E.C. influence when the bad guys melt down to their skeletons during the supernatural climax of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the cadavers rise from their desecrated graves in "Poltergeist." The inhibiting thing about a formal homage to E.C. horror comics at this stage of horror film evolution is that it's become superfluous, a strictly academic exercise, barring evidence of a genius, which certainly doesn't manifest itself in "Creepshow."
What one confronts in "Creepshow" is five consistently stale, derivative horror vignettes of various lengths and defects. Viveca Lindfors and Carrie Nye are the principal victims of a vengeful corpse in "Father's Day," and one must admit that Romero has been astute enough to select actresses unlikely to generate feelings of solicitude when victimized by movie ghouls.
King himself inflicts a terrible, bug-eyed performance in "Jordy," as he plays an unwary hick whose attraction to a meteoroid leaves him overgrown with alien fungus and the entire planet implicitly threatened by a similar contagion.
Perfunctory as well as weak, these episodes give way to a couple that err in the opposite direction by wearing out their welcome. In "Tide," Leslie Nielsen plays a gleefully vindictive cuckold who lures Ted Danson, his wife's lover, into an elaborate murder trap. The pay-off is remarkably lame in this one, partly because we've already had the coming-back-from-the-grave gimmick, and making it a watery grave isn't that distinctive. However, the most effective reproduction of a horror-comic kind of illustration on screen belongs to "Tide" -- where Danson is submerged in his sandy grave, desperately trying to hold his breath after the incoming surf finally covers his head.
"The Crate" is a structural mess, and gratuitously hateful to boot, but it does unleash Savini's monster, probably in time to prevent the natives from getting restless. King fails to link up two disparate story elements -- the utterly implausible discovery of the beast in a forgotten crate left years earlier in a dusty nook of a college campus (it's not a specimen of animal life any collector would be likely to misplace or overlook) and the desire of browbeaten professor Hal Holbrook to get rid of his bossy, drunken spouse, Adrienne Barbeau. After watching the beast make a feast of two sympathetic victims, one doesn't feel particularly keen to see it fed Barbeau, too, especially for an offense as trivial as treating Holbrook disrespectfully.
The fifth episode, "Creeping Up on You," is mercifully brief and offers the novelty of E.G. Marshall in a nasty role, as a tyrannical tycoon with a phobia about insects. King, however, seems to miscalculate the fear-and-loathing factor in this situation as severely as he did in "The Crate." Far from agreeing with the assumption that Marshall gets what's coming to him when he's overwhelmed by cockroaches, I think most viewers probably will share the phobia too intensely to resent the character.
If anything, it's the filmmakers who seem to be asking for it. They seem foolishly above it all on this occasion, emotionally detached from the frights they've prepared for the audience.