In rebooting, reviving, or resurrecting the 1982 horror anthology Creepshow, Shudder and executive producer Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) have a lot to live up to, and that proves to be a burden the new streaming series isn’t entirely capable of carrying in its fun but somewhat uneven premiere.
The original film was written by Stephen King and directed by horror maestro George Romero, kicking off an sort-of franchise that spawned two sequels and a host of similar anthological films and TV series, some with their own undead mascot like Creepshow’s the Creep. Inspired primarily by the horror and gore found in EC Comics, the film used its unique format to embrace a wide array of stories, from the legitimately scary to the gross to the ironic and funny. And in its streaming resurrection, the new series aims to do that same with a pair of short episodes that vary wildly in terms of ambition and execution of their respective stories.
Unlike Netflix’s all-at-once method of bingeable TV, Creepshow makes a case for weekly installments, which will no doubt work in its favor. With each hour-long episode consisting of two 15-20 minute tales of suspense, it would be unfortunate to see audiences pick and choose the most appealing episode first, like an adaptation Stephen King’s ‘Gray Matter’ or, say, one with Nazi werewolves, leaving others to wither on the streaming vine. As such, turning Creepshow into appointment television will hopefully encourage fans to stick with the series as it grows in small, bite-sized chunks.
Given the amount of stories the series has on hand — the first 6-episode season consists of 2 stories per episode — it’s intended to be a bit like a buffet of horror. That is to say, the quality of the stories and storytelling varies wildly in certain cases, with some episodes biting off a little more than they can chew and others embracing the ultra-low budget restrictions to their advantage.
Case in point: the series premiere, which consists of the aforementioned ‘Gray Matter’ and ‘The House of the Head’. On paper, ‘Gray Matter’ has what it takes to get the series off on the right foot. It’s based on a Stephen King short story of the same name, directed by Nicotero, and stars Giancarlo Esposito, Tobin Bell, and original Creepshow alum Adrienne Barbeau. It’s an appealing array of talent that should have been a home run. Instead, the story winds up getting lost in exposition and flashbacks, charting one man’s subtextual descent into alcoholism and grief by transforming him into a gooey monster that consumes every living thing in its path. Think The Blob but as told from the point of view of the Blob’s son — who in this case is way too old to be enabling his father’s drinking habit, particularly when his beer of choice is infested with a mold that transforms him into muck monster.
As well intentioned as the segment is, ‘Gray Matter’ is ultimately too hamstrung by the series’ budgetary and time constraints, leaving little room for any kind of exploration of Esposito or Bell’s characters, let alone justifying their presence beyond audience-attracting name recognition. But that kind of recognition only goes so far when the material is this thin. Writers Philip de Blasi and Byron Winger (The Commuter) try to wrangle the story into a manageable space, relying mostly on the voiceover of Christopher Nathan as he regales Barbeau’s store owner with a sober tale of his father succumbing to his illness/addiction and devolving into an unrecognizable monster. This approach leaves Esposito and Bell with too little to do, up to an including the creature’s big reveal, which is satisfying from a practical effects point of view, but fails to elevate the story’s obvious metaphor beyond what’s already been established. What’s more, the greater implication of the creature’s appetite is conveyed via a confounding final scene that — again, likely due to budgetary constraints — struggles to properly convey the global implications of the muck monster.
In contrast, ‘The House of the Head’ is more successful, though far less ambitious in its storytelling efforts. Written by Josh Malerman (Bird Box) and directed by John Harrison (Tales From the Darkside: The Movie), the short short builds an effective and eventually nerve-wracking level of suspense with little more than a small child and her haunted dollhouse.
Cailey Flemming plays Evie, a little girl whose family of dolls is beset by a severed toy head with a mind of its own. It’s a simple and effective premise that makes good use of the anthological format and the time and budgetary restrictions therein. Malerman and Harrison waste no time with exposition or explanation; the situation is what it is and the lack of clarification amplifies the tension and the creepiness, as Evie’s interactions with the head become increasingly fraught — not only for her seemingly animated family of dolls but also for her and her parents.
Both installments are surprisingly sedate, especially considering they were the ones chosen for the series premiere. What’s more, the Creep, though technically impressive, struggles to give Creepshow a sense of identity aside from being a recognizable component of the original film. This being an anthology, though, there’s reason to believe the best is yet to come. Like SNL, Creepshow has a boat load of content at its disposal, so if its batting average is a little low at first, it’s not exactly time to panic. It would have been in the series’ best interest to offer up more episodes ahead of time for critics to review and get a better sense of what Creepshow has in store. As such Shudder’s less-than-forthcoming nature puts a valuation of its new original series on a week-to-week basis.
Creepshow episode 1 is currently streaming on Shudder.