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!"

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.)


Anonymous said...

Even though i love the comic adaptation to death, i'll always prefer the film a bit more simply because i saw it before reading the comic and it left a huge impression on me as a kid. To this day Creepshow is my all time favorite horror film and it's very difficult for me to see any flaws in either the film or the lavishly drawn comic version. To me they are both equally brilliant works of art made by two master artists at the height of their respective talents.

Oliver Rhodes said...

I love the movie version Kamen did. Wrightson's was good for the adaptation. But Kamen's style has been a major influence for my comic art. I think Ron Frenz, who could've did Creepshow 2 had a similar impact of influence on my art.

Anonymous said...

Great article, but for the record, King wrote the text/panel-by-panel continuity for the comic book so it's not really only Wrightson's Creepshow, it's King's...but of course the art is the reason for us reading comics.