Shudder’s debut season of the Creepshow anthology series is nearing its end, and while we’re big fans of the streaming service around these parts the show has too often leaned towards the underwhelming. I know, I hated typing those words more than you hated reading them, but we’re starting to suspect the show should have been called Creepshow 2. If you’ve been following our ongoing Creepshow coverage, shared between Meg Shields and myself, you’ll see a record of lows, highs, and then more lows, but while it seems we’re in the minority regarding the series’ quality we’ve both maintained an optimism for what’s to come thanks to the intentions and talents involved.
If season one’s penultimate episode doesn’t quite pay off that optimism, well, at least it stays true to form in being something of a mixed bag that like last week puts its best foot forward first. Both segments this week are directed by genre/series veteran John Harrison, and it’s his efforts that carry them across the finish line with visual style, energy, and creativity that too much of the season has been lacking.
The episode opens with a riff on the familiar with “Night of the Paw,” an adaptation of W.W. Jacobs’ short story (“The Monkey’s Paw”) from 1902, and it begins with a car crash. An injured woman named Angela (Hannah Barefoot) crawls from the wreckage and stumbles towards a big, old house owned by a mortician named Avery “Whitey” Whitlock (Bruce Davison). She awakens only slightly worse for wear, retrieves her gun, and confronts Whitey. It’s here where the primate’s paw enters the tale as he recounts the unfortunate events involving his late wife that eventually led to Angela’s arrival on his doorstep.
John Esposito‘s script honors Jacobs’ original story and retains its ultimate message, but his details involving Whitey’s wife add an additional emotional arc that’s brought to life through Davison’s performance. The actor played another collector of natural oddities in this year’s Itsy Bitsy, but here he instills the character with a heavy sense of loss and sadness. Flashbacks reveal his use of the paw — it gives three wishes per owner, the extended fingers curling inward once the wish has been granted — and while the outcome is expected the execution is spot on.
His wife’s reanimation finds her stuck in one of Whitey’s “guaranteed secure” coffins so he rushes out to her rescue, and Harrison captures the cemetery scene with a stylish sound stage-look and some fantastic beats involving her lively corpse. There’s a grim humor set against tragedy, and we’re left smiling and cringing — a reaction missing from most of the season’s episodes — as we watch him deal with what he’s wrought. The story continues as Angela takes possession of the paw, and while the outcome is again expected it delivers with an entertaining end. The pieces don’t quite all come together regarding Angela’s past, but the core elements succeed (and it’s hard to argue with fun Easter Eggs like seeing a guest registry book include names like Herbert West and Francesco Dellamorte.
Segment two is perhaps the shortest of the season so far, but what “Times Is Tough in Musky Holler” lacks in running time it makes up for in missed opportunities. It opens with a group of people in a jail cell — a priest, a mayor, a cop, and some others — and they’re complaining about their predicament. It’s only as they’re led towards judgement of some kind that we learn what landed them behind bars. It seems their small town endured an apocalyptic predicament, and these folks used the resulting fear to seize power and terrorize the community.
The segment, written by John Skipp & Dori Miller, features an intriguing enough setup, but whether due to budgetary restraints or creative misjudgments, the bulk of the story — roughly half of it, and all of the interesting bits — is told via comic panels and voice-over narration. It’s a massive misstep as those techniques are meant to enhance an adaptation, but here they’re the majority of it with only snippets of live action glimpsed in the flashbacks. The Creepshow films and this series are conceived as adaptations of a horror comics, but just showing panels is just showing the comic. It’s a big letdown in general, but even more so because the story beats it’s failing to dramatize involve all manner of terrors built on mob rule and zombie carnage that it would have been extremely fun to actually see unfold. We get a short glimpse of the latter at the story’s end, but rather than satisfy in leaves a feeling of bloody disappointment hanging in the air.
There’s mild fun to be had with some of the performances, most notably Dane Rhodes as the power-hungry mayor and David Arquette as the villainous sheriff, but the segment skips over what would have been their juiciest scenes choosing instead to underwhelm with comic panels. Harrison’s direction keeps things lively for the limited time that we’re with actors and locales, and the ending involving “live pie” earns its own chuckle, but the segment as a whole feels like little more than a slice of what could have been.
As mentioned at the start, there’s one episode left this season and we’re still optimistic that the show can go out strong. The promise is there in Harrison’s direction and in the existence of gems like “The Man In the Suitcase,” but the series too often forgets to honor its source material and the EC Comics traditions of morbid surprises and black comedy. Creepshow has been a huge success for Shudder making a second season a near-guarantee, and that’s good news. If nothing else, at least it gives Meg and I something to be optimistic about.