There can never be enough horror anthologies — whether they take the form of movies or TV shows — as even the lesser entries still offer worlds of possibility and varied voices. One of the best on the film side remains 1982’s Creepshow which sees director George Romero and writer Stephen King paying glorious homage to the horror-filled EC Comics of old with tales of greed, jealousy, murder, and the occasional monster. It pairs grim tales with even darker humor and a visual style that plays up the garish colors and comic panels of the comics themselves. Two sequels followed, one that’s okay and one that’s an abomination, and now the property has landed on Shudder as a new series that unfortunately gets off to something of a rough start.
The first season premieres September 26th and will feature six episodes with two stories each. It looks promising as a whole with future episodes featuring stories from Joe Hill, Joe Lansdale, John Skipp, and others directed by talents including Roxanne Benjamin, Tom Savini, and Dave Bruckner, but the first episode is a mixed bag starting with the intro itself. The Creep is a skeletal host of sorts, a silent vision that floats outside a window in the original film, and series creator Greg Nicotero has brought him back for the series — a fantastic idea in theory, but the animatronic puppet doesn’t appear to have been updated in the slightest making for an awkward and cheap-feeling intro in a world that just enjoyed the awe of an all-puppet Dark Crystalseries.
Movement is stiff across its entire face, and while the goal isn’t to trick viewers into thinking the Creep is alive it should at least feel as vibrant and memorable as Tales from the Crypt‘s (1989-1996) Crypt Keeper managed thirty years ago. Or not — it’s the kind of thing that might still appeal to fans who prefer the nostalgic nature of the Creep’s presence, and the intro does nail the animated comic book pages featuring gruesome illustrations, ads for spooky masks and irresponsible toys, and the grinning Creep. The panels introduce each story with the Creep’s written text before shifting into live action, and viewers are immediately swept back into the familiar spirit of Creepshow.
“Gray Matter” opens the first episode, and long-time King fans will enjoy the deep reach back to his first short story collection, Night Shift. Nicotero directs this blend of Gothic atmosphere and body-horror as a teen named Billy recounts the change his distraught and disturbed father has undergone since losing his wife. Tobin Bell and Giancarlo Esposito star as local men who head out during a big storm to check on the man, and the episode shifts between the boy’s story and the men’s discovery. Billy’s father has descended into grief, and in turn that grief has manifested in an addiction to beer with devastating effect.
As a metaphor for the damaging effects of alcoholism on both the drinker and those in their vicinity, the story works to highlight the horror of losing a loved one to addiction and the pain they can so easily cause their loved ones. It’s less interested in portraying the emotional horror, though, and early atmosphere shifts towards more gruesome aspects of the man’s “change” including some nasty displays of stickiness and wet matter. It’s gross, and it builds to a monstrous reveal befitting the genre, but the end horror is tempered by a character’s frenzied and time-consuming use of an old-school calculator. It’s unintentionally silly and the closest the episode gets to having a sense of humor — which itself is an issue that carries over to the second tale.
“The House of the Head” comes from Bird Box‘s Josh Malerman and is directed by John Harrison who was an A.D. on the original film and helmed his own horror anthology with Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990). It concerns a little girl whose elaborate dollhouse, home to a family of three and their dog, suddenly reveals a new resident — a decapitated head. Each time she opens the walls of the dollhouse or peeks through the windows the head has moved and the other figurines are reacting. Their fear, even frozen in place, is clear, so she adds new dolls into the mix including a policeman and a Native American to stave off the evil, but when she looks again these supposed guardians have lost their own heads in gorily miniature style. It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the family.
This second story lacks the over the top nature of the first and of the Creepshow brand in general, but while it feels more in line with an episode of Monsters (1988-1990) — not a bad thing — with its domesticated simplicity, it still works to capture the attention. The premise is intriguing too as there’s a growing menace in the figure’s progress despite us never actually catching it in motion. Harrison shoots our view into the dollhouse with a feeling of uncertainty which matches the girl’s own trepidation, and there’s a steady build towards something terrible. That makes it all the more frustrating when a killer ending never arrives and the story instead wraps up in wholly unsatisfying fashion.
Both segments from this first episode have their highs and lows, but there’s more of the latter overall and neither story lands with the memorable blast you’re hoping for. There’s no fun twist or killer punchline leaving viewers instead with tales that feel unmoored in the horror anthology landscape. They lack the comic feel and just don’t feel like they belong in the world of Creepshow, and that’s nowhere more damning than in the complete lack of humor. The original EC comics and the Creepshow film that paid them homage both embrace blackly comic humor alongside the horror, and that atmosphere is what in turn made them feel so wonderfully inappropriate and deliciously horrifying.
It’s too early to judge Creepshow as a series as this is only the first episode, and the upcoming roster allows lots of room for fantastic tales and memorable television. There’s still time for the show to find its voice — and hopefully its grue-crusted funny bone too — so it can deliver on the promise and premise established with the original film. The affection and talent are clearly here, so consider us cautiously excited for the horrors yet to come.