Saturday, December 1, 2012

Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure by Dan O'Bannon & Matt R. Lohr



Whenever Dan O’Bannon’s creativity has broken through the movie genres of science fiction and horror, they have undergone revolutionary changes. Those fantasy film landscapes were changed forever by Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead - the three titles cited on the cover of the upcoming book “Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure,” which arrives January 1st 2013 from Michael Wiese Productions.

O’Bannon’s screenwriting career has, for those who’ve followed it, always been a struggle to preserve the integrity of his ideas and hold onto the credit. He was equally as critical as complimentary towards even the best productions of his stories – Alien most notably – and at times merciless towards the worst. A 1983 Starlog magazine interview excoriates the producers of Blue Thunder for transforming his and co-writer Don Jakoby’s “Taxi Driver in the skies” thriller into typical action film fare: “If I can’t get something to direct soon, I'm gonna get out of this business and be a novelist or something.” A year later, he made his feature directorial debut with The Return of the Living Dead, which that needs no introduction for horror fans and which is my personal favorite film.


Inspiringly, the writer who nearly had his credit for Alien taken away from him has written this guide to screenplay structure without a trace of polemical bitterness or cynical formulae. "The rules embalm screenplays” he warns, and “No script sells every time. But I will tell you how to write a script that WORKS every time." Published posthumously through the efforts of co-writer Matt Lohr and wife Diane O’Bannon, this book is a “guide” in the truest sense of a history lesson and a survey of dramatic writing theories, as well as summating what the author has found to work best in the traditional three-act structure of movies. Being a man of science (fiction) O’Bannon’s methods are steely-eyed and straightforward, inviting the reader to test his theories over and over again upon a variety of famous film stories from Citizen Kane to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But as anyone who’s seen Dark Star or Return of the Living Dead knows, O’Bannon is a pip and the conversation he holds with the reader never turns dry. There’s a real love of cinema on every page, and the construction of a solid structure for a screenplay is framed like a fun logic problem to be solved rather than magic trick to be conjured.

The book also becomes a memoir when O’Bannon recounts the thrills of early success at using his “system” in the brutally tough arenas of work-for-hire script doctoring and selling original stories. For him the “eureka!” moment was discovering that effective screenplay structure can make an otherwise uninspired story watchable. This might sound like a claim to creative alchemy, but in pointing out that the goal of any film is to grab and hold the interest of the viewer, he’s positing that the ebb and flow of events in a screenplay are its most measurable quality and therefore the most critical.


Recounting a schlocky script called Phobia which he and co-writer Ronald Shusett were hired to improve, O’Bannon recalls the breakthrough: "Apparently [the system] had the power to transform a sow's ear I didn't want to watch…into a sow's ear I DID want to watch." Ultimately the film’s producer wound up throwing their work away, but if a writer knows how to make a screen story engaging, at least there’s a fighting chance for the creation of an enjoyable movie. There’s a liberating reductionism at play here, one which boldly asserts that the only bad movie is a boring one. As a lifelong fan of “bad” movies, this offers a neat rationale for why a movie such as my favorite Alien ripoff, the very cornball Forbidden World (produced by Roger Corman, who pens the book’s forward) is such a successfully entertaining film. There are a hundred other Alien knockoffs out there that are utterly abysmal, but Forbidden World (aka Mutant) probably has the closest fidelity to what O’Bannon called the “dynamic structure” that gave the story of Alien its internal momentum.

“Dynamic Structure” is O’Bannon’s trademark phrase throughout the Guide, and at first glance those words suggest an increasingly escalated conflict, until the pot boils over into denouement. What is actually prescribed is carefully measuring the progression of shocks to a viewer’s psyche – knowing the value of restraint, which is something Hollywood movies have increasingly abandoned as special effects have made near-constant distraction more affordable. The argument that spectacle has overshadowed substance in motion pictures is a criticism as old as Ben-Hur but I’m only bringing the argument up for myself. Far away from any speechmaking podium, O’Bannon’s book states that the committed fantasist’s goal to dazzle and amaze – but NOT let the fantastic become mundane through overexposure or overshadow the integral human elements of character and dramatic conflict. It’s telling that O’Bannon’s keystone criticism AND commendation of Alien stems from the fact that Ridley Scott’s visuals were so sumptuous they threatened to bog down the pace.


Despite the trail of blood trickling down the front cover of the Guide to Screenplay Structure, O’Bannon’s rules are meant to apply to all genres of film. He spends a large portion of the book applying his criteria to a dozen films ranging from Casablanca to Lawrence of Arabia and courageously, he admits that when analyzing a film like Dumb and Dumber (which he does) it’s apparent that a comedy with muddled, confused story structure can still be entertaining and successful with audiences if other factors are outstanding – such as the casting of Jim Carrey. Or in the case of Psycho, the most infamous screenwriting rule-breaker of all time, you can potentially sell the radical narrative turn of murdering your leading lady if you have a character as fascinating as Norman Bates and an actor as talented as Anthony Perkins to play him. The point being, such shortcomings or creative gambits need miracles or perfect execution and the vast majority of films have neither. Borrowing great dialogue and direction couldn’t make Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho a worthwhile film. A poorly or bizarrely structured story will only work in the hands of genius, and a professional working screenwriter certainly can’t count on THAT.

O’Bannon doesn’t purport to reinvent the wheel with his system. He asks us mainly to reconsider the definitions of two common denominators in storytelling philosophy, whose meanings are taken for granted: drama and climax. As with the classic films inventoried to test “dynamic structure,” the Guide also devotes a lengthy page count to sampling the thoughts of drama gurus across millennia, from Aristotle to Syd Field. It’s not giving away the game to paraphrase O’Bannon’s conclusion that most dramatic theory is “striving-based” whereas his approach is “Fight-based.” Fans and detractors who’ve followed his oft-contentious collaborations with John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Walter Hill and Clu Gulagher can insert their own jokes here: (         ). But the man has a point, and the history tour by which he arrives at this distinction exposes a big rift among storytellers since the dawn of man: those who believe that drama originates from characters and thematic ideas, and those who see action and conflict as the skeleton inside any story of interest.

Espousing conflict as the engine powering an audience’s interest in drama, O’Bannon cuts through a lot of circumstantial fog regarding the motivations behind characters in a drama: it is not interesting merely to see someone attempt to solve a problem, since we already know their efforts can only either fail or succeed. The compelling angle is the process by which methods are chosen, and this opens up an infinite variety of potential drama between protagonists and even internally for one character alone. Furthermore, the acknowledgement of conflicting interests between protagonists and antagonists harkens to one of the oldest pieces of advice in storytelling: that your “villain” should not merely be evil for evil’s sake. In even the most black-and-white fairy tales of good and evil, the really great films always make at least a small allowance for evil’s legitimate motivation – the Wicked Witch of the West had the righteous indignation that Dorothy’s house dropped on her sister. O’Bannon stresses the establishment of credibility in conflicts, and conflict as the force behind all drama - action and reaction. In other words, what can Newtonian physics do you for YOU, Mr. and Mrs. American Screenwriter?


The reconsideration of “climax” is something with which O’Bannon describes his struggle as he developed this system around the time of Alien. Every screenwriter is told that the “climax” of a story brings the conflict to some kind of head, or the “darkest hour,” or any other hoary expression you’d care to substitute. O’Bannon asks forthrightly: Well, what exactly DOES the “darkest hour” mean for where your story ought to be, before the final act? How can a story continue to be more and more exciting when things have already gotten as bad they possibly can? How can the resolution for an extreme “worst case scenario” be found without resorting to a deus ex machina? The answer given by the Guide is an elegant one: that the climax of a story need not be the “darkest hour,” but rather the point when a conflict has been rendered INESCAPABLE. Using Alien as an example he identifies the “climax” as the “point of no return” for the hapless astronauts – the infamous “chest-burster” scene. This is not the crew’s first encounter with the alien nor will it be the worst attack the star beast has to offer them – but it is the point at which Ripley and company have NO CHOICE except to deal with this interloper onboard.

O’Bannon admits on page one of the book’s introduction that “The shelves groan under the weight of all the books out there on how to write a screenplay.” This is why the bulk of his guide invests the reader in checking and re-checking every idea about the propulsion of a story. These ideas are rooted in the agreed-upon structure of three acts – but ever the scientist, O’Bannon also briefly introduces a concept from the world of human behavioral study called “hedonic adaptation.” We learn in an afterword from his wife Diane that this theory was almost left out because he regarded it as a kind of secret weapon too good to give away, even in a tell-all how-to. It is as disarmingly pragmatic as anything else in the guide: simply put, human beings are uniquely wired among all other life forms on Earth to adjust their expectations of reality in the aftermath of shocking changes. In narrative terms, this means an audience can be drawn further into the progression of a drama if they and the characters onscreen are given a pause to catch their breaths before the next twist or turn. This may not sound like brain surgery, but the principle goes a long way towards explaining why films containing non-stop action can be such bores - or why an intriguing story premise can run out of places to go before even reaching the halfway mark – or why sequels and remakes inherently feel like so much wheel-spinning. The Matrix Revolutions, indeed.

I’ve done my best to summarize this book’s ideas without giving everything away, and it should go without saying that O’Bannon and co-author Matt Lohr do a better job of explaining them than I ever could. Beyond discovering his system, however, there’s an equally attractive reason to read "Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure": you get to read Dan O’Bannon’s thoughts on movies and the art of writing. As mentioned, The Return of the Living Dead is my favorite film of all time. It’s also the rare genre film in which the humans are truly the stars – and unbelievably, there are a dozen of them!  Three older men and eight teenagers, all playing off one another as the script masterfully intertwines their initially separate paths throughout the course of one fateful night of the living dead. The screenplay to “Return” has remained maddeningly hard to get a hold of, but one has to assume that with O’Bannon as director, he got his voice into those characters just as well as he planned the structure of the story. This brash, sardonic voice has been heard in the handful of interviews O’Bannon has recorded in recent years, and a version of his ornery personality was immortalized on film in Dark Star when he played Sgt. Pinback. Biographical information on O’Bannon was virtually nil until Jason Zinoman’s terrific “Shock Value” (2011, Penguin Press) and while “Guide to Screenplay Structure” doesn’t tell us much more about his life, that inimitable voice is heard on every page.

In criticizing the anticlimactic ending of the original Dracula:

"I understand that an early Hollywood talkie couldn't very well shower the audience with gore at the end, but we deserve a little better than the horror-film equivalent of a champion prizefighter taking a dive."

And in describing Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels’ characters in Dumb and Dumber:

"Picture Bert and Ernie if they didn't get enough oxygen at birth."

O’Bannon’s wicked smart sense of humor also extends to casual observations about the art and artisans of dramatic storytelling in general, as in this aside on Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka:

"That the comic nature of Kafka and Beckett's work does not register for most of us as comic demonstrates that if it is to connect with its audience, comedy must match that audience's own fear level. Persons with mild, unthreatened lives require a commensurate humor. If your worst fear is an unruly lawn, you will laugh when Fred Flintstone mows his grass with a lizard."

…And mocking the idea of placing importance on even length for your screenplay’s three acts:

"I can just hear the word of mouth now: 'Hortense! You have got to see this movie! THE ACTS ARE ALL EXACTLY THE SAME LENGTH!'"

“Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure” is a must-have for anyone interested in the craft, yes, but it’s also a must-have for readers of great writing on film and especially for fans of O’Bannon. There’s even a Benson, Arizona reference for the intrepid Dark Star fans out there. Go ahead and pre-order.

AN INTERVIEW WITH MATT LOHR AND DIANE O'BANNON

How long has this book been in the making?

DIANE O'BANNON: Dan had some version of this book in the back of his mind for a long time. Back around 1974, I was going through some of his papers, and among his notes I found a single sheet titled “O'Bannon's Rules of Writing.”  That page only had one rule on it: “Never Bore Your Audience.” At that time, it was clear that Dan was going to continue from there with different rules, but the message was obviously a central and simple one.

Really, like Dan says in the book, this project was thirty-five years in the making; his whole career was part of the writing process. The basic discontent Dan had with his own work is something that hits the heart of writing, and is essential to his method and really to writing in general. He was never satisfied, never complete, always open to suggestions, and all of this gave his work a distinctive fluidity. Many writers are like this. Sam Hamm, the writer of Tim Burton's Batman, sent me a blurb for the book, and later revised it because he wasn't happy with one word. Writing is a living communication that changes over time, and Dan understood that.

MATT R. LOHR: I came onto the book in 2001, and at that time, there was already a manuscript that was fairly far along. The main sections still in the completion phase were the film analyses and the breakdowns of the other major screenplay structural systems that Dan chose to include in the book. I spent the majority of my initial time with Dan (about two years working with him directly) mostly concentrating on those sections. And of course, the intensification of Dan's illness and his eventual death led to the book being delayed even further.

What were the challenges in completing this book for publication after Dan passed away?

Diane O'Bannon: When Dan first came to what he felt was the end of the book, I sent the manuscript around and got a brief sniff. At that time, I was told that nobody wanted another screenwriting book; the market was considered to be over-saturated. Michael Wiese Productions was not yet as prominent in the film book market, and were not on my radar. Naturally, if you were starting to submit a book like this now, they are the first people you would take it to.

I had one publisher who was interested, but they wanted us to lose the chattier parts of the book, where Dan discusses the Hollywood lifestyle. They were looking strictly for “how-to” books. I went through the manuscript myself and excised those parts of the book, but I felt that what was left was frankly somewhat dull. This was non-negotiable for the publisher, and we came to an impasse. It wasn't until some time later, after Dan's death, that Wiese came across the manuscript and approached me about publishing it. And when they had their own suggestions and ideas for revising and updating the manuscript, I said, “homina, homina, where's Matt?”

Matt R. Lohr: I came back onto the project in the spring of 2011, and at that time, there was a manuscript that was, I would say, about 90% ready. The main issue to be addressed was that there were a few sections that sort of ended mid-stream, and the ideas of those chapters needed to be resolved. The section on hedonic adaptation in chapter 10 was a late edition to the manuscript.

Diane O'Bannon: I had talked to Dan about including hedonic adaptation in the original book, but he had wanted to keep it for himself. “I can't give away all my secrets,” he told me, in that slightly mischievous way. But once he was gone, my feeling was, well, he's in a place where keeping it to himself won't benefit him now.

Matt R. Lohr: So Diane provided me with some research that Dan and she had compiled on the subject, and I finished off that section. One of the film analyses in the finished book is also brand new, and we took out a few that had already been written. We had an analysis of The Godfather in the original manuscript, and also Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, which Red Letter Media's Mr. Plinkett has since covered in more exhaustive detail, and with far more humor, than we had. (A lot of his conclusions are the same, though. Man, that is really not a good script...) We also had a section on Dan's evolution from typewriting his manuscripts to dealing with some of the various computer writing programs on the market, but the technology had leaped so far ahead since we originally wrote that section, it was severely outdated, so we just excised it.

The biggest challenge I faced was simply not being able to discuss ideas and edits with Dan, and also when I had to add something to the book, making sure that it was in Dan's voice and not my own. It was an interesting challenge, and not easy, given Dan's very erudite, sometimes sardonic tone, but I think the resulting book reads as all of a piece. And there were also some housekeeping issues to be addressed, mainly finding attributions to the various quotes in the book. Logged in some time at the library and on GoogleBooks taking care of that. You can actually find Plotto, an archaic story-structuring book Dan read while writing Alien, on GoogleBooks.

Was it Dan's idea to do all the analytical exercises based on classic films?

Diane O'Bannon: The analyses were in the book from the start. The major after-the-fact addition to the book, other than the stuff Matt mentioned, were the exercises at the end of each chapter. These were a suggestion from Ken Lee at Michael Wiese Productions, and I think they enrich the book and take it from being an interesting read to a really workable tool for writers looking to beef up the structural strength of their work.

The book has a lot to say about screenwriters from Hollywood's golden age.  Were there any screenwriters whose work Dan admired as his contemporaries?

Diane O'Bannon: Interestingly, considering some of the comments Dan makes in the book about directors, many of the screenwriters whose work he respected were people who also wrote their own films. Kubrick was his favorite director, and he co-wrote most of his films, and Robert Towne, who did some directing as well, was also someone Dan admired. He liked the kind of movie where the director's vision was essential to the finished product; Kurosawa and Hitchcock were two other favorite filmmakers.

Most of Dan's produced screenplays had co-authors, several by Ronald Shusett and later Don Jakoby.  How did he feel about the challenges and rewards of having co-authors while screenwriting?

Diane O'Bannon: Every writer Dan worked with brought something to the table that Dan appreciated. Ron, who was also a producer, had a strong commercial sense, in terms of what would play with an audience, and Dan had a lot of respect for Don as a writer of dialogue and characterization, and as someone who was not intimidated by the blank page.  Writing is a lonely business, and Dan enjoyed collaborating with other writers. He was never the type who felt he had to have the last word; he liked to bounce ideas off other people and see what came back to him.

I saw Dan work with people, and quite frankly...it's not that every idea was his, but those people were so much better when they spoke to my husband than when they spoke to anyone else. And so was I. I was a better person, and a smarter person, for having known him. He was brilliant. He had a great synthetic mind; he would take ideas from all over, something he heard in the news, a science fiction story, and synthesize them. If he deigned to work with you, it made you a better writer and a better person. You became brilliant by virtue of the fact that you worked with my husband. And it's not that people didn't have good ideas or say interesting things, but he needed someone to spark off, that give-and-take, so his mind could play. He brought everything to his work, his years of reading, everything from Aristotle to Spongebob Squarepants.

Matt R. Lohr: I knew Dan later in his life, and by that point, his creative process had become so innate. He had such a sense of what he knew and when he knew it, that it was very natural for him, and he was able to transfer that knowledge to you almost by way of osmosis. I honestly can recall very few didactic moments with him, moments where he took me by the metaphorical hand and said, “Here's what you need to know and how you need to use it.” But just like Diane said, just by virtue of working with him, I know it has improved my sense as a writer and a storyteller. It's very much a sitting-at-the-feet-of-the-master sort of effect, and I experienced it firsthand. Just...the vibrations in the room changed when Dan spoke, and it works even now that he's gone. When I was working on the book, I would frequently read something back to myself, and I would hear it in my head in Dan's voice.  That's when I knew we were okay; Dan approved, and was sharing his approval with me in his own voice.

Dan was not shy about voicing what he felt were mishandlings in the production of some of his screenplays.  Which films did he feel were the best productions of his scripts?

Diane O'Bannon: Dan always thought everything could be better, even his own writing. He was always reluctant to turn in a draft and was always grabbing it back to try to take it to another level and make it better. He was fair in that he held everybody to the same creative standard to which he held himself. He could have been a little more diplomatic sometimes, but he was a “true nerd” and he sometimes couldn't understand how others could see it differently. Like when he struggled to understand the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid in Total Recall.


Matt R. Lohr: Isn't the character named Quail in the original story?

Diane O'Bannon: Right, which is a much more fitting name for a milquetoasty everyman, the way the character is in the original story.

Matt R. Lohr: I remember Premiere Magazine saying that if you were casting that story based on what was actually on the page, Woody Allen should be playing the lead.  Can you imagine that?  “Cohaagen, how can you steal the people's air?  That that that that that's cray-zee!” (laughs)

Diane O'Bannon: Alien and Return of the Living Dead were probably the most satisfying experiences he had, in terms of his vision making it onto the screen more or less as he saw it. The original drafts of Blue Thunder were more science-fiction oriented, less of a straight action story, and Total Recall was a project that went through dozens of drafts over the years, both with and without Dan's involvement.

The Return of the Living Dead and The Resurrected share the distinction of being Dan's only scripts which he directed himself. Did the storylines of either film undergo many revisions from script to screen?

Dan had some of the typical complaints about the end results of both of these films. The Resurrected was actually written by Brent Friedman; Dan was the director only. That film was re-cut against his objections and released without his approval; it was re-edited without the humor that Dan had attempted to put into it. That film was more or less lost in the collapse of Orion Pictures. It was one of those final films of theirs that trickled out in the midst of the company's death throes. That's just one of the many disasters that can happen to your flick. The last moment at which they can fuck you over.


He was happy with Return for the most part. Dan's original ending was lopped off. The film was originally supposed to conclude with people picking up infected dirt and putting it in a train car, and the zombie fluid leaking from the train. In the end, Dan was like a lot of writers. He was never happy about any of it. He didn't see any of the sequels to Return. He did see Aliens, and we went to the premiere of Alien Vs. Predator, but that was the extent of it. He wasn't interested in the sequels.

Comparing Alien with Prometheus, the big difference between the films seems to be that Prometheus is deliberately obtuse about the causes behind each twist in the story. Is there a place for deliberate obtuseness in movie storytelling? If so, did Prometheus accomplish this successfully?

Diane O'Bannon: Matt and I have discussed Prometheus at great length; we actually did an online presentation on this very subject for the Michael Wiese Productions website back when the film was first out. In the book, Dan says that the concept of “entertainment” has to be thought of generously, that it encompasses a lot of different things. Everyone finds different things entertaining, which is why there are so many different kinds of films to begin with. Some people despise horror movies; some won't watch anything but horror movies.  It's all entertainment, and the idea can take on many different kinds of things, including an obtuse narrative approach.

That said, Dan was not much for deliberate obtuseness in his storytelling. He wasn't afraid to withhold information when he felt it would add to the suspense or mystery of a piece, but he wasn't one for keeping things vague just to make it difficult on the audience. Prometheus seems to spend a lot of its running time holding back information that the audience could honestly use just for the sake of being mysterious and taking a stab at profundity. If that's not done well, it just gets an audience frustrated, and all the online response to Prometheus after its release seems to bear out that frustration. People had dozens of questions, and no feeling that the film had any desire to answer those questions for them.


Matt R. Lohr: There's this sense in a lot of modern cinema, especially potential tentpole films like Prometheus, that the filmmakers can hold back more narratively than they otherwise might under the assumption that, “Oh, we'll get to that in the sequels.” Well, if you're only going to tell us half a story, then really, we should only be paying for half a ticket.  I remember about ten years ago, when someone told me that I wouldn't entirely understand the Matrix sequels unless I had played the Matrix video game through to the end first. My response to that was that the filmmakers should have sold all the tickets a month in advance and sent you a copy of the game along with your ticket. I don't have any moral objections to the concept of synergy, but if it keeps me from being able to enjoy your film on its own, that's a problem. I don't want watching one film to turn into a part-time job, and Prometheus is a film that could very well have gone that way.

Diane O'Bannon: Yeah. “What do you do? I watch Prometheus.

Matt R. Lohr: “That's my hobby.” (both laugh)

Regarding the recent remake of Total Recall, Dan is still credited with screen story. Does the new film adhere to his and Ronald Shusett's story outline any closer than Paul Verhoeven's film?

Diane O'Bannon: The ending of Paul's film was substantially different than Dan's original version. In the film, Quaid never truly remembers everything that has happened to him, and there's still this ambiguity about whether or not he is truly dreaming all this. In other words, he never really has total recall. The new version more or less tries to do this as well.


Truth be told, every version of this story is a fairly strong deviation from Phillip K. Dick's original short story, which is extremely short. It basically ends with Quail going in to get his implant, he's under the spell, and the Rekall people realize he's actually a secret agent. In other words, the end of act one of both films is basically the end of the actual short story.  Everything that happens after that, in both films, is invention.  I believe that I still have Dan's original draft of the screenplay, and I will attempt to locate it and put it up on Dan's website, www.danobannon.com.

What is the Dan O'Bannon Writing Workshop™?

The Writing Workshop will be a presentation by me of Dan's dynamic structural concepts in an interactive live classroom-style format. I will take the audience through a breakdown of Dan's principal ideas from the book, the particulars of his three-act structure, the different types of conflict, the idea of positive and negative antagonists. We will also do structural breakdowns of films, as in the book, though the classes will focus less on the classics and more on contemporary films that are in theaters at the time of the presentation, allowing the class to illustrate how essential Dan's core concepts are to the bedrock that propels cinematic storytelling even today.  We hope to present the Workshop at different venues, conventions and seminars throughout the world; the first Workshop we have booked is on March 23 at the ScriptWriters Network in Los Angeles. You can follow Dan's book on Facebook or on Twitter @DanOBannonBook for all the most current updates on upcoming appearances and events.

Sincerest thanks to Matt R. Lohr and Diane O'Bannon for this interview.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Midnight Movie by Tobe Hooper and Alan Goldsher


As the vitality of the theater-going experience fades from moviegoers minds, so too the sinister and seductive phrase "Midnight Movie" has lost the suggestive power to imply a film unfit for consumption by day-walking normals. Midnight Movie, a new and thoroughly entertaining horror yarn by Tobe Hooper and Alan Goldsher, depicts a modern world slowly and horrifyingly mutated into maniacs, zombies and zombie maniacs by one single midnight horror film screening, evoking the primal vengeance of analog horror culture on a digital world. The "Midnight" in the title is actually most akin to the feared nuclear one in terms of apocalypse.

We live in the day of instantaneous access to not only the popular hits but the obscure, a fact which Hooper and Goldsher use as a framing device. The novel begins and ends in mostly lengthy quotations from interviews with the principal characters (including Tobe Hooper himself) with a long section in the middle made up mainly of excerpts from text messages, Twitter feeds, email, etc - a digital record, with a preface about the authorities and media covering up the truth. The epistolary approach of has roots in horror going back to Dracula up through Carrie and World War Z, the latter of which is the most likely inspiration. The modernized subgenre takes on a more far-spanning feeling in the age of wireless real time technology. 



Goldsher is a journalist by trade and knows how people sound when read in transcript, making the bulk of the novel a queasy breeze since reading chat logs or blog excerpts does not take long. The tonnage of paper printed consisting of electronic communication make the book appear longer than it is, and the length feels right. His previous dabbles in horror have included the epistolary Beatles tribute Paul Is Undead. Tobe Hooper's involvement as a main character gives him his own voice in the writing - or, if Goldsher's previous writing experience with postmodernism made it appear as such, I'm impressed by his ghostwriting Hooper's Texan voice; a cynical ex-hippie with an abiding love for the myth making dream state of movies. To help you believe Tobe Hooper as "Tobe Hooper", this is a world in which the only film of his anyone has heard of is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - okay, that's a just a reflection of sad reality. Literally the only other film of his to be mentioned is Poltergeist, when Hooper mentions he won't talk about it.



The idea of a horror film transmitting a disease or curse on those who view it has been expressed by other masters of the genre and oft-time by Tobe Hooper contemporaries: David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983) was a straightforwardly intellectual schizophrenic meditation on the idea of television influencing violent or sexual behavior. Lamberto Bava's Demons (1985) is a sheerly unintellectual thrill ride with the kick of watching a film in a movie theater about people watching a film in a movie theater being possessed by flesh-hungry demons.

John Carpenter, whom Hooper worked with on Carpenter's TV movie anthology Body Bags (1993) has explored the idea of forbidden film twice: first in the final moments of the satirical Lovecraft homage and genre deconstruction In The Mouth of Madness (1995) and then in 2005 with the Masters of Horror anthology horror TV series episode Cigarette Burns, which featured a cursed film. There was also The Ring, the popular 1998 Japanese horror film made into a popular 2002 American film focused on a ghost who kills anyone that watches a certain video. The theme of death by developing media and communications is actually a prolific one in Japanese horror; Hooper has a professed admirer in Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of the excellent Internet ghost story Pulse (2001).

Midnight Movie doesn't have intellectual treatises to deliver, the authors simply hook into the terror of those affected in myriad ways by the plague caused by the titular evil film screening. Unlike Carpenter, Cronenberg and the rest, Hooper never hectors intellectually. You read the allegories of America into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not him, he's too focused on evoking the mood. Only in the last chapters of the novel does anyone have the chance to catch their breath as chaos unfolded, and ask each other what the hell's going on. The film in Tobe Hooper's filmography Midnight Movie most closely resembles is Lifeforce (1986), unsurprisingly his only other end-of-the-world story with rapid pace and obscure motivations. Unlike the space vampires of that film, however, the effects of mutation upon the populace are frighteningly varied and this is the great strength of Midnight Movie as far as a horror tales: the variety of symptoms the multiplies the mystery around how a film could make anyone do (or turn into) anything.

A cursory review of the plot from the book's back flap indicates a zombie effect on viewers of the titular film, but there is in fact a variety of slow and deadly ailments distributed at the fateful midnight screening: psychotic aggression, manic drug addiction, classic flesh-eating zombiedom and nymphomania accompanied with venereal disease involving copious neon discharge which coins the STDs nickname "The Blue Spew." These multiple horrors unleashed by the film become that much more confounding as Goldsher and Hooper withhold the secret of the cause to their effect to much suspense.



The sole disappointment in the story is simply being unable to finally reveal an explanation of equal awe to the phenomena. In retrospect, Hooper and Goldsher are palpably aware of this and conclude on a shaggy dog ending with only the most cursory reasoning behind how a movie screening was made to cause curses. By the novel's end, the situation is on such a complex level of hysteria over the unexplained contagion that only magic could account for a film screening to cause its viewers to break the laws of physics. The suspense over this demanded a larger-than-life explanation and we essentially get a mad scientist with a surprise identity behind the trouble. I'd have preferred no explanation at all.

The best reason to read Midnight Movie for Tobe Hooper fans and anyone taking a look at this book based on the title (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is the inclusion of Tobe Hooper as the main character in the first and third acts of the story. He's tied to the story from the beginning, as the fatal "Midnight Movie" in question is a rare and recently discovered home horror movie shot by Hooper in high school involving zombies, with the ominous title Destiny Express. (Nevermind that this is a Romero-type zombie film created in 1959.) This is loosely inspired by the real life restoration and re-release at the South by Southwest film festival of Tobe Hooper's first film, the formerly long lost 1969 non-horror hippie fantasy Eggshells, which my colleague JR memorably denoted as "an admirable avant-garde chore."



The film is unearthed by a socially maladjusted movie geek, a type whom Hooper and Goldsher treat with particular derision - there's actually two major characters who are pop culture catchphrase spewing dorks of the Ain't-It-Cool-News generation. The one time world premiere midnight screening happens at a small seedy dive bar in Austin during the South by Southwest film festival, and Hooper is attending to answer a few of the usual questions about Texas Chainsaw for a few bucks before the novelty of seeing an old childhood attempt at a horror film he'd long forgotten - and ends up spared from the film's slow pandemic only by stepping outside partway for a breath of fresh air. The content of Destiny Express is described many times, a good narrative decision for making the resultant madness inflicted on viewers that much more befuddling: the production values are like a high school production of an Ed Wood movie about zombies. Why wouldn't it be?

Tobe returns to the film's narrative in the third and final part to aid his fictional young protagonists in stopping the Destiny Express. After a lot of zombie flesh eating, animalistic sex compulsion with blue discharge, crystal meth addiction, psychotic insanity and even movie-motivated terrorism has unfolded and unraveled the lives of Hooper's brief acquaintances from the night of the midnight movie, everyone converges back together and Tobe helps the meddling kids solve the spooky mystery. He's the wacky mascot of his own novel, like one of those decadent Scooby-Doo clones from the 70s, and he does get to chew the literary scenery a few times; shooting a zombie when he's reintroduced to the story and later assaulting a Hollywood executive at one point with Hunter S. Thompsonesque righteous indignation. "Does it feel good knowing you're the death of dreams?!" The kids all but have to throw him a Tobe Snack to settle him down.



The resolution of Midnight Movie begins with a sublime idea. In the face of no clues whatsoever as to stopping the movie-plague, and no clues as to why a cheesy zombie movie made by a young Hooper could have caused all this zombie malarkey, Hooper and company decide to try remaking Destiny Express, complete with the original cast and crew of Tobe's long-separated childhood chums. Through this desperate act they discover the unconvincing twist of a man-made plot behind the film's secret power, but until that ultimate revelation, I had a great deal of admiration for the dramatic idea emerging that only a leap of blind faith in the right direction will uncover the inexplicable.

The novel also becomes a scary love letter from Hooper to the idea of literal "movie magic". If the simple decision to remake a movie that had somehow become a vessel of evil actually undid the curse of the original, Midnight Movie could have ended perfectly; easy come, easy go. To find out as we do that this is a man-made event and not something grander is a letdown because what's transpired has been a convincing nightmare in Goldsher's web and communications-based literary layout.

This is a fiction that in whose subtext lays the exciting feeling of dangerous discovery when finding a rare film or object of extremely obscure art with an audience of strangers in the dead of night. The zombie plague is the dark side of that power loosed on a modern world of everything-ever-available-instantly. "Tobe Hooper" is a luddite and I imagine the real life one is too - to some degree, after reading Midnight Movie. Longtime fans of his like myself will get a big kick out of his postmodern inclusion and longtime fans of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will appreciate the fear behind having your perception of reality altered by a strange force in a horror film show.




Saturday, September 1, 2012

Creepshow by Bernie Wrightson


Creepshow (1982, George Romero) is a film I was very long in coming around to appreciating and Bernie Wrightson's Creepshow the comic book was the cause. Lest there be any confusion about which came first (and there is always room for confusion in the minds of indifferent movie fans) Wrightson drew the adaptation on commission, in one of the most delightfully appropriate acts of promotional merchandising ever conceived. He was the perfect choice for this book, being not only the artist behind the heavily horror influenced Swamp Thing comic book series but also a full time illustrator of horror comics (Creepy, Eerie) throughout the 1970s. The film's genesis as homage to E.C. horror comics was conceived by both Stephen King and George Romero more than five years before Tales From The Crypt was officially resurrected as an HBO episodic series. Creepshow is a comic book within a film which is in turn a real comic book, if you are lucky enough to find this rare publication with cover art by E.C. horror hand Jack Kamen.

I was lucky enough in the mid-90s to find the handsome magazine sized paperback for the first time on a shelf at Borders Books, the original Borders Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan - that hateful place from which, incidentally, a fictional letter from a fan can be briefly seen in the animated between-pages interstitial between Father's Day and Jordy Verrill. As this was not a used bookstore I can only imagine the book sat on display for ten years, except I really can't imagine such treasure going untaken for so long. But it wouldn't be fair to chastise others; I probably had the pocket funds to whisk the thing away and into hiding from parental eyes at home. Instead I read Wrightson's version in a single sitting at the store and did not track down my own copy until within the past few months.

In the early 2000s, I vividly remember my dad demanding that I return a typically gruesome Resident Evil comic book to the shop where it had been purchased mere minutes earlier. I was mortified with embarrassment at having to pretend in front of the surly long-haired pothead employee that I'd suddenly changed my mind about the comic - oh, for the indignant rebellious glory of being marched into a store by an angry parent, and to walk the footsteps of urchins whose blue collar dads were thrown into apoplexy by the sight of The Haunt of Fear laying open-faced around the house - but my dad was not blue collar, and merely waited in the car while I got my money back. Bernie Wrightson's Creepshow does not feature the bookends that the Romero film included angry father and future Fangoria reading son, my mind hasn't thrown all that pottage together until now.

There had to have been at least a ten year gap before my reading Creepshow and eventually seeing the film. I can only guess that this was because the comic book was so damn good, I didn't feel any particular rush when introducing myself to the canon of the mom-and-pop video shop horror section, to which Creepshow was a common overlooked staple (it also ran on HBO a lot, apparently.) Wrightson's quality work is also the reason I was slow to appreciate Romero's fine film; the eye is less forgiving of Tom Savini's goofily theatrical makeup effects after seeing same monsters, zombies and cockroaches in fully crosshatched glory. Looking past the execution of these gimmicks (which are all you have the attention span for as a kid) one begins to appreciate the elements that make Romero's film so good in filmic terms: the music, the actors, the editing and so forth.

Even with my gradual liking of the film, however, I am still only generous enough to place it on the same standing as the comic. The two shall be forever linked in my mind as companion pieces of complimentary value, two halves to a whole experience, arguably because I read one before seeing the other. Detractors may rightly diminish my critical stance by noting that this is how I've always felt about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986, Tobe Hooper) and its predecessor, because I experienced them in the reverse intended order.

The aforementioned film-only bookend to this anthology of spooky tales is probably among the best passages of Romero's entire filmography. In three precisely paced minutes, with ominous chords and baroque melody as underscore (the music by John Harrison is a remarkable precursor to the work of Danny Elfman, who composed the Tales From The Crypt TV show theme) Romero and Stephen King breathlessly introduce what is probably the best idea for an anthology horror film ever: a jaunt through the lurid, living pages of comic book yanked by an abusive father (genre favorite Tom Atkins) away from his weirdo son (Joe King, whose acting abilities are as compellingly silly as his father Stephen's prove to be) and thrown straight into the garbage where it belongs. As the Elfmanesque title theme plays, an animated Cryptkeeper-figure appears and beckons us (the omnipotent audience) into the book, where the opening titles begin.





Unfortunately, as these screens illustrate, the faux comic book art on display is less than inspiring. The above face is meant to be E.G. Marshall, while the hand below it is not one to which Bernie Wrightson would be proud to sign his name. This and some similar slights to the medium really warrant the official comic book's undertaking.


After the montage we arrive at page one, where the title of our first story is revealed. This is a great angle to the conceit of the comic book framing device, getting to read the titles of each chapter. And while the animation doesn't linger long enough for us to read the introductory text, the vernacular is accurately E.C. - "Heh, heh! Greetings kiddies..."


The camera pans down from the story's title to a traced still of the segment's opening frame, which dissolves to live action and begins to move. Perhaps an overly literal envisioning of "a comic book come to life" but effective nonetheless for the corny, fun purposes of what Romero and King were going for.

(click for full size version)

Compare now for the first time Wrightson's envisioning of page one - this is in fact the first page to greet you after opening the Jack Kamen cover. "The Creep" is never heard in the film (leave it to Creepshow 2 to make that mistake) and here he takes an extra word balloon to introduce the scenario.


Wrightson's deference to the film includes decent facsimiles of the actors who played the characters and basically ends there, which is only reasonable - you can't duplicate a film's camera angles in your panels to tell the same story with any degree of necessary brevity. Here, what was three separate shots of actors in the film became one panel encapsulating all their dialogue.


In this animated/live-action process shot immediately following in the film version, Romero and Production Designer Cletus Anderson (credited here also with "scenic special effects") begin the first of many cloying attempts to duplicate the magic of reading comic books. This deserves attention as a well-intentioned but ultimately inane idea; fortunately neither helping nor hindering the proceedings. I'm only speaking of the scene transitions like this one above, and a few instances of animated page-turnings from shot to shot - there are much more expressionistic and colorful effects to be seen very soon in the film (but not the comic) with varying results towards fulfilling the implications of "scenic special effects."



The Creep's narration really adds an essential detail to the feeling of an old-fashioned horror comic which Romero's film probably could not include without being totally ludicrous: that of the ironic, alternately dry and histrionic commentary on the proceedings which has the effect of both diffusing and welcoming the violence. You might notice in these panels the one artistic tic of Wrightson that bugs me - those trails of saliva in characters' mouths. A minor complaint, but it does look like people's teeth are melting sometimes.


Father's Day has more "scenic special effects" than any other tale in Creepshow, almost as if Romero and crew began filming the script in order with grand visions of a visually stunning living comic book and then soon realized that the effects they'd come up with weren't very important to the film's overall quality. Such is the case in the scene wherein Aunt Bedelia murders her father Nathan Grantham. A professional and experienced comic book artist like Wrightson doesn't feel the need to draw attention to his medium when depicting the same scene as the film - for which Romero and Cletus Anderson decided that each moment of the murder should be punctuated with stylized frames bordering the action. Effective in its own way, but rather ignorant as an emulation of comic book art. You'll notice the extent of Wrightson's panel stylization is to make it a dream-bubble, symbolizing a flashback - no cake shaped panels needed, thank you.


Along with the first money shots, here's also the first example of Wrightson doing a better job than Romero in visualizing Stephen King's old fashioned horror comic tropes. Aunt Bedelia's dawning awareness of her father's zombie is more memorable than the diopter jump scare in the film - I love the dropped bottle and three straight lines of surprise shooting from her head - the skeletal corpse beats out Tom Savini's full body suit of Nathan Grantham, and Romero can't quite sell the action of the zombie pulling himself up from the ground, either. These points of contention might sound peculiar when critiquing Mr. Zombie himself, but Romero's zombies were never of the skeletal grave-crawling genus until this moment in Creepshow and only Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead ran with that visual theme afterwards.



What you can say for Romero's film and cannot for the Creepshow comic is that there is sound design, and it's superb in making moments like this work on film in their own way. There's a vocal effect used for the Grantham zombie to mimic rotted lungs which makes each line of dialogue sound deliciously horrid, and John Harrison's shrieking synthesizers emphasize the outrageousness of the situation without compromising the horror.


This later moment when Ed Harris' character finds Aunt Bedelia's body also plays much better because bizarrely, he doesn't even look surprised by the discovery in the film version. The Creep's narration also adds something special, drolly denoting the ironies at play - Richard is "meeting" Aunt Bedelia for the first time after he manages to dig her up, heh-heh-heh.

(click for full size version)

Here's the final two-and-a-half minutes of Father's Day condensed into a single page to lesser effect than the film. Harrison's music and Romero's direction add so much more to the final piece de resistance shock moment. Father's Day is in some ways the best story in the anthology, at least the film version. It's the most visually stylized, straight to the point, short and sweet, and besides having the most classical 1950s horror comic trope (revenge from the grave) the events are all building up to one ghastly bravura image on the final page - and indeed, this is the moment on which the film's action freezes before moving onto story numero two-oh.


As you can see, the film's version of the final scare-scene freeze frame indicates the afterthought-status of the film's comic art. I scanned the Wrightson comic page full-size, but here's just a couple spotlights on his incredible renderings:
  


The other plus that the film version of this climax has over the comic is the aforementioned "Scenic Special Effects." As the Grantham zombie gloats and the odious siblings freak out, Romero cuts to closeups of his actors with jagged lines and shifting colors. It's cheesy as hell and just as much a half-remembered misunderstanding of comic book art as the "panel" masks from earlier, but in alchemy with the film's music, editing and over-the-top actors, it's ridiculously fun:

"...And I got my cake!"


"Oh-my-Ghooooooooood!"
Obviously, transitioning backgrounds and lighting changes on the foreground actor are not something a comic book can do, but these jagged lines are also something a 1950s horror comic would not do - it would look amateurish and crappy next to the kind of expert illustration they were doing, as in this final page from the 1954 Vault of Horror story, "Twin Bill":



As you can see, while stylized lighting abound, there's nothing so extreme as what Romero and Anderson came up with as ostensibly a reproduction of the same art style. The red and blue hues come close, though.

Now onto The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill. A fellow fan named "peur_evol" apparently scanned the whole thing himself for his "Comics-Scans" Livejournal, and although some pages are missing, you can check out at least half of Wrightson's beautiful two-page spread of the opening shot wherein Jordy sees a meteor falling from the sky above his farm house. Truth be told, I didn't think I could scan my own copy without breaking the book's spine, which is probably what "peur_evol" had to do.

Jordy Verrill has the strongest contrast from comic-film to film-comic for one big reason: Stephen King plays Jordy Verrill himself in the film, and King turns the second chapter of Creepshow into broad comic relief (in an already comedic horror film) in a stunning turn of overacting as the titular Maine hillbilly. In Wrightson's version, Jordy is still a loser but without the aw-shucks bug-eyed mugging of King to rein in any creeping terror. 

The story is a one-act play loosely inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space,  reduced to one evening of attack by space grass growing all over everything and consuming the hapless Jordy. Like a forthcoming Creepshow story (The Crate) this was adapted by King from one of those old Cavalier magazine works for hire which is now very hard to find. I'm not sure how comedic the original short story was, but King's screenplay makes a big running joke of Jordy's daydreams about how the meteor will make him rich, or not, and then how the space grass will cost him an arm and a leg (heh-heh) if he tries going to the doctor.



As with Father's Day, Wrightson doesn't overcomplicate the transitions between reality, flashback or imagination...


...Whereas Romero's version of Jordy's imagination screams HEY LOOK THE MOVIE YOU'RE WATCHING IS TAKING PLACE INSIDE A COMIC BOOK! with a graphical overlay even the editors of Playful Lil' Audrey wouldn't consider. Granted, the film version of Jordy Verrill really is funny - but it has nothing to do with drawing rainclouds over the frame.


I have much more respect for a simpler effect like that above, which deftly melds the visual storytelling of both comics and film with the addition of a textual cue. It's almost like a between-scenes card from a silent film. "At that same hour..."


Well, whaddya know? Wrightson isn't completely averse to shock lines. Jordy (and we) are about to be surprised by the vision of his dead father speaking to him through a bathroom mirror, warning him not to get in the tub since the water is what the space grass wants...This is one weird tale. What I love most is how Jordy's response to the crisis is merely to get drunk and fall asleep in his easy chair, as the grass keeps on growing and the situation passes the point of no return. From an ex-alcoholic like King, you know there's a point being made here.


The moment of Jordy's suicide is sad but sedate in Romero's film. Not so in Wrightson's hands; the gooey insides of his head are as disgustingly lavish as King's original screenplay intended. How apropos that the death of this man-turned-plant should be depicted by the artist who brought Swamp Thing to life.

Speaking of King's original screenplay, the initial order of the stories had The Crate coming third and Something to Tide You Over as the penultimate, an order which the film reversed. Wrightson may have stuck to the original progression for the same reason I surmise King did: if you've got two zombie tales, you should put at least a couple non-zombie tales in between them.



The Crate is handily one of the best stories in Romero's film (and also has the longest running time) thanks to some really funny performances and dialogue between Adrienne Barbeau as the ultimate shrewish wife and Hal Holbrook as her henpecked  professor husband. Wrightson really gets the actors' resemblances down, while slightly tweaking Barbeau's infamous "Billie" to be just a little older and meaner looking. Again the advantage goes to Romero since no comic book reproduction can do justice to talented live actors.


Where Wrightson does get his jollies in is no surprise - his crate creature is more ferocious and scary than Tom Savini's fancy gorilla suit, and is teased in ways the film couldn't have gotten away with, as seen above.




It's never a complete washout for either artist, however. While Wrightson competently stages the above death scene, I much prefer Romero's film version for the way red-hued lighting and piercing synthesizers suddenly leap at you the moment poor Mike the janitor is grabbed from inside the crate. This is maybe the most effective use of Romero's red-blue comic ink motif since it quickly coincides with a "jump" moment and the lighting changes from normal lighting within the same shot:




Here's Wrightson's monster next to Savini's. In the film, "Fluffy" (as he was nicknamed by Savini's crew) is not bad looking at all, but in motion, you never fully believe the monster as anything but a guy in a costume. The only really good effects in this whole segment are when the monster bites and slashes at his second victims, because gory bodily damage was always more Savini's bread and butter than creating creatures:



Another jump moment from the film turned into a moment of dawning comprehension for the comic (like the Grantham zombie's unearthing in Father's Day) is Billie's death, during which Wrightson's expressions for Adrienne Barbeau make her look way more witch-like than the real Barbeau ever will:


There is also an shockingly violent closeup of Billie being eaten in place of classy Romero's tasteful cutting away from the actual death: 


Henry may be in shock (where's the "*CHOKE*" after the "Good Lord!" by the way?) but a couple panels later he's calm enough to repeat Hal Holbrook's classic E.C. style zinger from the film, "Just tell it to call you Billie..."

Something to Tide You Over is in my estimation the weakest part of Creepshow. It's simply overlong. You're onto Leslie Nielsen's scheme long before Ted Danson, and you know what's going to happen to Nielsen because of Father's Day; the dead will have their revenge. As a viewer you're more or less waiting for it to end as soon as it begins. Wrightson's comic book versions of King's stories take a lot less time to read than to watch, and in Tide's case it improves things immensely. Danson is already buried on page one, and the setup occurs in flashback, which is a tact Romero should have considered.


Wrightson improves on the Nielson's characterization with thought balloons, which was a key detail of E.C. horror stories - or crime stories, for that matter - where the main character was frequently the villain.


Nielsen is really well drawn by Wrightson, too. You can also see him getting bored with the sluggish story and teasing the inevitable by having Ted Danson's head poke out of the water.



I have to admit, Savni's makeup for the waterlogged corpses is better than Wrightson's drawings. Also, there's a great bubbling-water filter added to their voices, just like the weird filter on Nathan Grantham's post-mortem verbiage.

"If you can hold your breath..."
(insane laughter)

The above shot would've fit perfectly in the film, but of course, no word balloon can equal Nielson's read of "I can hold my breath for a loooong time!"


And once again, whoever did the phony comic book illustrations for Creepshow the film fails utterly to impress.

Finally, the story most people best remember from Creepshow thanks to E.G. Marshall's enjoyable one-man scenery-chewing and the minor technical triumph of major roach wrangling: They're Creeping Up On You. Wrightson really goes to town on this one. The only real advantage Romero has is (you should know by now) that he's got a great actor giving a great performance. Otherwise, Wrightson makes the most of the opportunity to have those little bastards that billionaire Upson Pratt hates more than anything "creep up" on him in tiny imperceptible increments that would've been too much trouble to film with real cockroaches.




I also don't think E.G. Marshall would've been able to having fake bug squashings affixed to his rear end for the sake of a sickly laugh.


Here's a shot which could've been amazing in the film: when visited by the uppity building super White, Pratt hallucinates that he's a giant talking roach. This actually would've literalized a theme which in interviews Stephen King has stated he intended the vignette to have (but which doesn't come across in the film in my opinion) - that Pratt's loathing of bugs is a metaphor for his fear of blacks and other minorities creeping their way into his upscale real estate.






The above panels are perfect examples of what you can do with a comic book that you can't do with unreliable elements like live bugs and squeamish actors - at least until CGI made everything possible, and boring.




Here's where we pass through the county lines of Gross City. It was truly disappointing to see how Creepshow the film just couldn't match the scope of the comic's cockroach invasion. Look at how Pratt's leg is ankle deep in that sea of brown cucarachas! There are a lot of roaches in the film scene, but not half as many as seen here.

I do love this animated scenic special effect Romero and Anderson came up with for Pratt, even if E.G. Marshall held back from doing a truly terrified reaction to the roach army:


Okay, so now we're in the heart of downtown grossville. The money shot that concludes Creeping Up On You is ingeniously hideous, and the final page of Creepshow the comic. I can remember staggering in Borders trying to keep my lunch down, no joke. And wouldn't you know it, Savini drops the ball. Just to get you ready for Wrightson's version, here's the really bad fake E.G. Marshall head which our little friends are about to emerge from:


You can see the antennae just starting to find their way out. I can see how this would play better on low-fi VHS, but on film and in this day of high definition, it's less convincing than ever.

Here's the Wrightson buildup, clearly the better choice already:


Okay, for those of you who haven't seen the film and have been spoiling everything so far, gird your stomachs:


BAAAARF. Sorry Romero, you should've cut around Savini's lack of prosthetic skills if you wanted to achieve anything like what a great comic book artist could do with the same concept.


And with King's spooky publicity still staring at us from the back cover, I conclude my review/comparison of Creepshow the comic book by Bernie Wrightson.

In a way, Creepshow still hasn't gotten its full due as a film. There are so many working parts with so much room for error - being an anthology film, having a screenplay by Stephen King, Romero working with Hollywood actors for the first time, the whole comic book aesthetic - and yet at least 90% of it works. Writing this article, I'm stunned to recall that the only things from the film worth complaining about were the effects, and that's where Wrightson excels. In my imagination, there's a perfect melding of the two, and that's not something I've ever been able to say for any tie-in film adaptation...but then again, comic book adaptations of films are rarely adaptations with real talent behind them. This is as good as the ignoble genre has ever gotten, especially in the field of "that horror crap" as Tom Atkinson puts it. If the old Verrill luck is in, and you can find it for a fair price, well - Happy Father's Day!!!


Until next time kiddies...pleasant screams!! (Kill me.)