Like a stubborn zombie that just won’t stay dead, Shudder’s Creepshow is back for round three. Over the last few years, the ghoulish anthology series has gifted us with some good (and even great) segments. But the show has yet to truly find its fiendish footing, straying from its guiding karmic principle to deliver muddled entries that fail to live up to the morbid morality tales that make Creepshow, well, Creepshow. My co-reviewer in crime Rob Hunter and I are back in the saddle for season three. So enough chit-chat. Let’s dig into the segments of Creepshow season three, episode two: “Skeletons in the Closet” and “Familiar.”
“Skeletons in the Closet”
Director: Greg Nicotero
Teleplay: John Esposito
Story: Greg Nicotero
Lampini (Victor Rivera) and his partner Danielle (Valerie LeBlanc) are getting ready for the grand re-opening of their Hollywood prop museum. Money is tight, but Lampini is convinced that the museum will be a success. He’s got a new, secret exhibit in the works. And unlike movie stars, props never die. Then, on the eve of the grand re-opening, Lampini’s rival Bateman (James Remar) comes calling to expose the dark secret behind the new exhibit.
Shudder’s Creepshow wears its fanservice on its sleeve. The show is very explicitly by and for horror fans, winking at its audience like it’s got an especially pesky grain of sand in its eye. All of these easter eggs, nods, and homages are ostensibly part of Creepshow’s draw. And on some level, you have to respect the show’s unapologetic appeals to the horror fandom. Its in-jokes tend to boast a goofy, “we know this is silly but we couldn’t resist” gait. Case in point: the Halloween-indebted Hospital name in last week’s episode, an unsubtle acknowledgment of the segment’s debt to the work of John Carpenter. Creepshow loves to cite its sources and we can’t fault them for that.
That said, there is a difference between sly little in-jokes and framing an entire segment around horror fandom as a concept. The Creepshow format is one of error and comeuppance. And while Shudder’s series has strayed from this guiding principle for better (“The Right Snuff”) and for worse (“Within the Walls of Madness”), karmic carnage is still what fuels the show’s narrative raison d’être.
It isn’t quite clear who, exactly, is on the receiving end of ghoulish justice in “Skeletons in the Closet.” Structurally, the episode seems to expect us to identify and root for Lampini despite his actions and arrogance clearly pinning him as the character most worthy of being taught a lesson. But because Lampini is painted as an audience surrogate, Creepshow can’t bring itself to punish him for being, effectively, what it needs its audience to be. Which is to say: a die-hard horror fan. Rather than take a risk and critique the not-so-cool aspects of horror fandom (of which there are many), the segment just shrugs its shoulders and throws more film references at the wall. There’s no time to dig into how Lampini’s family magic works or why a certain skeleton seems to self-animate for no reason. Indulgently re-staging the Psycho shower scene is way more important (after, mind you, lambasting Gus Van Sant for doing the exact same thing).
Because of its self-imposed catch-22, “Skeletons in the Closet” fails to achieve any kind of narrative satisfaction. This is a shame because we’ve seen Creepshow segments entirely based within meta-horror contexts before. Heck, “Night of the Living Late Show” and “Public Television of the Dead” are some of the best segments in the series. But their success, ultimately, isn’t due to their easter egg hit rate, but their ability to tell really solid, satisfying stories. It isn’t clear what direction “Skeletons in the Closet” is punching, let alone what we’re supposed to take away from all its disparate, unconnected ideas. The hope seems to be that we’ll be so distracted itemizing references that we won’t notice. Yawn.
Director: Joe Lynch
Writer: Josh Malerman
Drunkenly stumbling out of a karaoke bar, Jack (Andrew Bachelor) and Fawn (Hannah Fierman) find themselves drawn towards a psychic’s neon-lit storefront. Fawn, an open-minded artist, is earnestly stoked to have her palms read while her partner, a pragmatic lawyer, politely indulges his girlfriend’s more esoteric tastes. Then, silently, Boone (Keith Arthur Bolden) the psychic slips Jack an ominous note. Something evil is stalking the lawyer. Understandably spooked, Jack soon finds that he is, indeed, being menaced by a dark presence which he soon learns is a familiar: a parasitic entity that needs to be caught and dispatched to rid Jack of its nightmarish influence. With Boone’s help, Jack sets up a trap. But unbeknownst to the terrified lawyer, the familiar has a trap of its own.
“Familiar” feels less like a Creepshow segment than a speedrun of a Blumhouse film. In theory, this isn’t a “bad thing.” But because of its unavoidably rushed pace, “Familiar” fails to achieve its much-needed dramatic punch. You can spot the twist ending a mile away, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the emotional stakes actually landed. Both Bachelor and Fierman turn in totally serviceable performances. But it’s very hard to care about these two when the segment needs to set up a whole demonic rulebook in such a short amount of time. The result is a “gotcha” ending that only hits hard in theory.
There is no clear reason as to why this familiar has latched onto Jack. He isn’t rude to Boone and from what little we see, he isn’t nefarious in his law practice. There is no clear indication as to why we should revel in the tragic conclusion of his efforts to rid himself of the demon. It all feels very random. And while this is certainly nihilistic, it feels counter to Creepshow‘s whole karmic deal. This isn’t a sin in and of itself, but it’s a lazy vibe compounded by the segment’s million miles a minute pacing that leaves very little room for us to invest emotionally in these characters. In the end, the segment has nothing to say other than “wouldn’t that suck” and I really hope this approach doesn’t become the norm for the series.
Also: for some reason, and maybe we can blame the familiar for this, the ADR in this segment is noticeably terrible. Distractingly so. It is only outdone by the creature’s design, which after the stellar showcase in “Queen Bee” is a huge letdown. That the segment shows the monster early and often, despite it looking like a Spirit Halloween reject, is a wild choice.
This week marks two swings and two misses for Shudder’s Creepshow. Neither “Skeletons in the Closet” nor “Familiar” provide the narrative punch necessary to justify venturing outside of the format’s karmic box. But that’s one of the boons of the anthology format: every episode is a chance to turn things around. See y’all next week!