Fright Card: 6 Killer Movie-Monster Matchups

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf ManFreddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator: horror film history repeatedly features face-offs between iconic monsters. If I were booking the fright card, though, here’s the cinematic talent I’d try to line up in the proverbial squared circle and set to mashing:

1.King Kong vs. Cthulhu

The regal gorilla is scheduled to renew his rivalry with Godzilla this spring, but in the meantime could clash with another colossus from down under the sea. Imagine the entourages this pair of native-favored figures would bring to their showdown!

 

2.Hannibal Lecter vs. Leatherface

A Texas Death Match of two competitors hungry for a vicious victory. Biting needs to be legalized here, otherwise this one would end in a quick disqualification.

 

3.The Cat from Hell vs. Ben

Stephen King’s infernal feline makes for a natural antagonist with the big black rat. Let’s hold this one in a steel cage, lest Ben’s colony of followers create outside interference.

 

4.The Creeper vs. The Faceless Trucker

A head-on collision of these scourges of the open road promises to spark some spectacular violence. Stipulation: the winner takes the title to his opponent’s wicked set of wheels.

 

5.Pinhead vs. Candyman

A sacerdotal demon devoted to inflicting legendary pain gets called out by an urban legend with a devastating right hook. The only thing that could make this bout between Clive Barker bogies any better would be to turn it into a Triple Threat Match with the undead Decker from Nightbreed.

 

6.Michael Myers vs. Sam

 

A battle of lunatic luchadores, as Haddonfield’s notorious Halloween-ruiner draws the wrath of the holiday’s most determined rule-keeper. Michael has a decided size advantage, but could end up a sucker for a jagged-edged foreign object that Sam is apt to carry into this street fight.

 

Freddy vs. Pennywise

In a two-hour-plus episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror: Uncut that was released back in February, Quentin Tarantino displays an amazing breadth of cinematic erudition. But just before the closing of the interview (available as a podcast on iTunes), he opens up a can of verbal worms. While admitting to never having actually read IT, Tarantino asserts that “Stephen King saw A Nightmare on Elm Street and did his rip-off of it. […] He just replaces Freddy Krueger with Pennywise.” A bold claim, to say the least, and one that prompts a comparative look back at the Wes Craven film and the King novel.

No doubt there are some tempting parallels between the hit 1984 film and IT (published in 1986). Both works feature a quintessential American small town (Springwood and Derry, respectively) haunted by a shapeshifting, child-killing menace that adults don’t seem to notice. Freddy Krueger’s infernal boiler room hangout pairs with the subterranean industrial space that Pennywise calls home: the sewer system forming an abject labyrinth beneath Derry. The persistent lasciviousness of Freddy (whom critic Mark Edmundson describes in Nightmare on Main Street as “a dingy bum dressed in a broken fedora and a football hooligan’s cast-off sweater”) also anticipates the fellatio-proposing hobo/leper that stalks Eddie in King’s book. Just as bad boy Rod is collared for the bizarre slaughter of Tina in the film, mad bully Henry Bowers takes the rap for Pennywise’s widespread crimes in IT. The plots of both the movie and the novel unfold in a strikingly similar fashion: a group of youngsters realize they have been sharing the same nightmarish experiences, and band together to battle their monstrous adversary. Balinese dream skills aid the teens on Elm Street, while King’s kids range beyond their own culture when drawing on the Himalayan Ritual of Chüd. Less sophisticatedly, the array of booby traps that Nancy sets for Freddy in Nightmare links with Richie’s fending off of Pennywise-as-Teenage-Werewolf with sneezing powder (“Jesus,” Richie sardonically ponders, “if I had some itching powder and maybe a joy buzzer I might be able to kill it.“).

All that having been said, there are some salient differences between Craven’s and King’s works. The film presents high-school-age heroes, while the members of the Losers Club in the novel are all pre-teens. The conservative morality evinced by 80’s slasher films consistently punishes teenagers like Tina and Rod who engage in sex, whereas a group sex act in IT actually helps save the Losers when they foray into the sewers. Also, the Freddy-Pennywise equation grows more complicated when one attends carefully to chronology. In the first Nightmare film, Freddy is not the pun-slinger and groan-inducing jokester he would devolve into in later entries in the series, so he can hardly be cited here as a model for Pennywise’s macabre clowning. Likewise, Freddy really is not much of a shapeshifter in the 1984 film (impersonating a hall monitor and later poking his tongue from a telephone mouthpiece form about the extent of it); his wilder transformations would come in films released after the publication of King’s novel. Furthermore, the notion of a terribly metamorphic monster did not originate with Craven and is not unique to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Such creatures are featured in two other works that clearly influence IT: John Carpenter’s The Thing (in which a deadly alien trickster crash-lands on Earth) and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (in which a manitou-like femme fatale torments a group of friends over several generations).

Throughout his career, King has not been averse to engaging in pop cultural appropriation (e.g. the basic scenario of his novel Cell–a father traverses a post-apocalyptic, zombie-stocked wasteland in a quest to reach and rescue his son–sounds suspiciously similar to Brian Keene’s The Rising). I have little doubt that King was familiar with the original Nightmare on Elm Street and folded elements of the film into his monster opus, albeit in a less overt fashion than his references to various other horror genre properties throughout IT.  When King writes that Richie (who is accosted by the animate statue of Paul Bunyan) “understood that this wasn’t a dream at all…and if it was, it was a dream that could kill,” he suggests a firm grasp of Craven’s basic conceit. Still, to posit Pennywise as a darkly carnivalesque stand-in for Freddy Krueger, and to call IT a blatant rip-off A Nightmare on Elm Street, is a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation by Tarantino.

 

 

The Kings of Comedy

In case you missed it:

Stephen King and Joe Hill recently did an event in Massachusetts together to promote their new releases (The Institute and Full Throttle, respectively). To see father and son on stage together is a terrific treat, and what makes the occasion even more special is just how downright entertaining the two writers prove. They elicit continuous laughter, via both prepared anecdotes and nimble ad-libbing, and as they tease each other mercilessly. The love and respect that King and Hill have for each other, though, is readily apparent, and heartwarming to witness.

Not that this hasn’t been mentioned before elsewhere, but, man, is Hill (especially when sporting a beard) the spitting image of his father at that same age (check out King’s original-hardcover book jacket photos for novels like The Dead Zone or Firestarter).

The interaction between the two here is so precious, and this video is such a fun watch, that I wish it was something King and Hill did together on a regular basis.

Kudos to Porter Square Books, not just for arranging “An Evening with Joe Hill and Stephen King,” but also for posting the video for the sold-out event to YouTube.

 

 

Fear Its Selves: Pennywise’s Ten Most Frightening Disguises

Tapping victims’ psyches and operating via “masks and glamours,” It assumes a slew of forms in Stephen King’s novel IT. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is Its go-to camouflage, the appearance It most commonly adopts (and reverts back to when revealing Its predatory nature), but throughout the course of the book, It takes the shape of an array of classic monsters and outré figures. Presented in order of appearance, here are my choices for the ten greatest fear-jerkers:

 

1. The Mummy

It was deeply lined, the skin a parchment map of wrinkles, tattered cheeks, arid flesh. The skin of its forehead was split but bloodless. Dead lips grinned back from a maw in which teeth leaned like tombstones. Its gums were pitted and black. Ben could see no eyes, but something glittered far back in the charcoal pits of those puckered sockets, something like the cold jewels in the eyes of Egyptian scarab beetles. And although the wind was the wrong way, it seemed to him that he could smell cinnamon and spice, rotting cerements treated with weird drugs, sand, blood so old it had dried to flakes and grains of rust… [p. 214 in the 1986 Viking hardcover]

Ben’s recent late-night viewing of Shock Theater leads to a waking nightmare when he encounters a Karloffian monster in the Barrens. Like a figure in a bad dream, the mummy closes the gap between Itself and Its prey with uncanny, undetected quickness. This initial borrowing from Universal horror films is an appropriate one, as King provides an early hint of Its ancientness.

 

2. Creature from the Black Lagoon

The smell was what made him look back. the overwhelming smell, as if fish had been left to rot in a huge pile that had become carrion slushy in the summer heat. It was the smell of a dead ocean.

It wasn’t Dorsey after him now; it was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The thing’s snout was long and pleated. Green fluid dripped from black gashes like vertical mouths in its cheeks. Its eyes were white and jellylike. Its webbed fingers were tipped with claws like razors. Its respiration was bubbly and deep, the sound of a diver with a bad regulator. As it saw Eddie looking, its green-black lips wrinkled back from huge fangs in a dead and vacant smile. [p. 262]

King’s considerable descriptive powers bring a deadly figure to vivid life in this scene in which runaway Eddie Corcoran is run down by the Gill Man alongside Derry’s Canal. Eddie’s vicious beheading even as he searches futilely for a zipper running up the Creature’s back serves notice to the reader that the horrors on display in this Maine town are really lethal and not just clumsy attempts at cinematic make-believe.

 

3. Rodan

It was not just the shock of seeing a monster bird, a bird whose breast was as orange as a robin’s and whose feathers were the unremarkable fluffy gray of a sparrow’s feathers; most of it was the shock of the utterly unexpected. He had expected monoliths of machinery half-submerged in stagnant puddles and black mud; instead he was looking down into a giant nest which filled the cellarhold from end to end and side to side. It had been made out of enough timothy grass to make a dozen bales of hay, but this grass was silvery and old. The bird sat in the middle of it, its brightly ringed eyes as black as fresh, warm tar, and for an insane moment before his paralysis broke, Mike could see himself reflected in each of them. [p.278]

This scene, in which Mike finds himself trapped inside a fallen smokestack by a monstrous bird of prey, forms one of the most suspenseful of the Losers’ solo encounters with It. King continually takes the scene another unsettling step further, adding details both grotesque (when Mike manages to wound the bird’s eye, “tiny parasites wriggled and squirmed” [p. 282] in the disgusting discharge) and bizarre (“And on this [unfurled] tongue, like weird tumbleweeds that had taken temporary root there, were a number of orange puffs”).

 

4. The Leper 

The skin of its forehead was split open. White bone, coated with a membrane of yellow mucusy stuff, peered through like the lens of a bleary searchlight. The nose was a bridge of raw gristle above two red flaring channels. One eye was a gleeful blue. The other socket was filled with a mass of spongy brown-black tissue. the leper’s lower lip sagged like liver. It had no upper lip at all; its teeth poked out in a sneering ring. [p. 312]

Eddie’s illness phobia (instilled by his overbearing mother) and his dread of sexual predators (after a previous harassing by a syphilitic tramp) make him ripe pickings for the rottenly-costumed It in this scene. As if this wasn’t harrowing enough, King has the nightmare follow Eddie into his bed that night, where the boy hears (only in his imagination?) the leper whisper, “It won’t do you any good to run, Eddie” (p. 315).

 

5. The Teenage Werewolf

Its forehead was low and prognathous, covered with scant hair. Its cheeks were hollow and furry. Its eyes were a dark brown, filled with horrible intelligence, horrible awareness. Its mouth dropped open and it began to snarl. White foam ran from the corners of its thick lower lip in twin streams that dripped from its chin. The hair on its head was swept back in a gruesome parody of a teenager’s d.a.. It threw its head back and roared, its eyes never leaving Richie’s. [p. 377]

This timeliest of monster icons (in relation to the scenes in the book set in 1958) also makes for the most active antagonist that the Losers encounter. The Teenage Werewolf chases Bill and Richie out of the house on Neibolt Street and pursues the boys right down the block as they attempt to speed away on Bill’s bike Silver. They manage a narrow escape, but their adversary rears Its hirsute head in another menacing encounter later in the novel.

 

6. Mrs. Kersh/The Witch

Her claws scrabbled on the plate and she began to cram thin molasses cookies and delicate frosted slices of cake into her mouth with both hands. Her horrid teeth plunged and reared, plunged and reared; her fingernails, long and dirty, dug into the sweets; crumbs tumbled down the bony slab of her chin. Her breath was the smell of long-dead things burst wide open by the gasses of their own decay. Her laugh was now a dead cackle. Her hair was thinner. Scaly scalp showed in patches. [p. 570-571]

The Hansel and Gretel story is given a grim twist, as Beverly watches a kindly senior transform into “a crone with an apple-doll’s face” whose house appears to be made out of candy. A child-eater out of a famous fairy tale is an appropriate guise for It, just as the septic sludge It nauseatingly serves up to Beverly as a cup of tea is a fitting beverage from a monster that calls the sewers beneath Derry Its home.

 

7. Paul Bunyan Statue 

There he had been, sitting in that mellow March sunshine, drowsing a little, thinking about going home and catching the last half hour of Bandstand, and suddenly there had been a warm swash of air in his face. It blew his hair back from his forehead. He looked up and Paul Bunyan’s huge plastic face had been right up in front of his, bigger than a face on a movie screen, filling everything. The rush of air had been caused by Paul’s bending down…although he did not precisely look like Paul anymore. The forehead was now low and beetling; tufts of wiry hair poked from a nose as red as the nose of a long-time drunkard; his eyes were bloodshot and one had  a slight cast to it.

The axe was no longer on his shoulder. Paul was leaning on its haft, and the blunt end of its head had crushed a trench in the concrete of the sidewalk. He was still grinning, but there was nothing cheery about it now. From between gigantic yellow teeth there drifted a smell like small animals rotting in hot underbrush. [p. 584]

An American folk hero (adopted as the “patron saint of Derry” [p. 583]) turns into an overarching villain reminiscent of the giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In lesser hands, this plastic colossus could have made for a tacky form of attacker, but King succeeds in making this animate statue hugely unnerving.

 

8. Flying Leeches

Suddenly one of the shell-like things unfurled insectile wings. Before Patrick could do more than register the fact, it had flown across the space between the refrigerator and Patrick’s left arm. It struck with a smacking sound. There was an instant of heat. It faded and Patrick’s arm felt just like always again…but the shell-like creature’s pale flesh turned first pink, and then, with shocking suddenness, rose-red. [p.832-833]

It’s a case of the biter-bit here, as the sociopathic Patrick Hockstetter receives some nasty comeuppance. No small part of the shock here stems from the unusual nature of the threat (who ever thought of a flying leech prior to reading this book?) and the unexpected place of its emergence (an abandoned refrigerator in the town dump). A death doesn’t get more horrific than having a leech latch onto your eyeball and suck the fluid out of it (and another one roosting on your tongue when you open your mouth to scream).

 

9. The Crawling Eye

A gigantic Eye filled the tunnel, the glassy black pupil two feet across, the iris a muddy russet color. The white was bulgy, membranous, laced with red veins that pulsed steadily. It was a lidless lashless gelatinous horror that moved on a bed of raw-looking tentacles. They fumbled over the tunnel’s crumbly surface and sank in like fingers, so that the impression given in the glow of Bill’s guttering match was of an Eye that had somehow grown nightmare fingers which were pulling It along.

It stared at them with blank, feverish avarice. The match went out. [p.1024-1025]

This fright for sore eyes might trace back to a campy 50’s monster movie, but ultimately is the eldritch offspring of a beastie out of Lovecraft (an author whose prose style King also seems to channel here). When the light goes out, the horror grows horripilatingly tactile, as the Losers feel the brush of the Eye’s questing tentacles, and then the “thick and wet and somehow gristly” (p. 1027) quality of the jellied surface as they strike out against It.

 

10. George

“Kill you!” George cried, and a mixture of doglike sounds came out of the fanged mouth: yips, yelps, howls. A kind of laughter. Bill could smell him now, could smell George rotting. It was a cellar smell, squirmy, the smell of some final monster standing slumped and yellow-eyed, waiting to unzip some some small boy’s guts. [p. 1038]

The cruelest blow Pennywise strikes ostensibly occurs in the book’s opening scene with the ripping off of poor George’s arm, but Its lowest blow is delivered in the climax when It manifests as the young murder victim. Such disguise is fiendishly designed to prey upon Bill’s lifelong sense of guilt over his brother’s demise (“He had sent George out to die, and he had spent his whole adult life writing about the horror of that betrayal–oh, he had put many faces on it, almost as many faces as It had put on for their benefit, but the monster at the bottom of everything was only George, running out into the receding flood  with his paraffin-coated paper boat”), and nearly does the trick of silencing ol’ Stuttering Bill for good.

 

Personal Pennywise

In conjunction with last month’s theatrical release of IT: Chapter 2, BuzzFeed posted a fun little piece titled “Everyone Has One Great Fear: This ‘It’ Quiz Will Reveal Yours.” My photo selections from the various prompts resulted in the Magic-8-Ball-like answer of “Fear of Flying.” While I am no white-knuckler, I’m hardly a relaxed traveler of the friendly skies, so I suppose this was an appropriate designation (although, technically, it’s not the flying, but rather the fiery crashing, that concerns me).

But if I were ever to encounter the terribly shifty It from Stephen King’s epic novel, I have no doubt what fearful, me-tenderizing shape the monstrous entity would assume.

With questionable 70’s aesthetics, my parents furnished a corner of our living room with a life-size lamp of a topless, onyx-skinned native woman standing on a gold pedestal. I am told that as a toddler, I would look at this figure and scream hysterically, to the point where my parents would have to drape a sheet over the lamp in order to quiet me down (in hindsight, it’s interesting that I found this ghostly alternative relatively comforting). As I sprouted up and my imagination ripened, my toleration of this horror did not grow at all: the Lamp Lady starred in a series of bad dreams, and formed a childhood-long source of dread.

Here’s an old photo that I somewhat-reluctantly dug up that shows the lamp in the background. Perhaps mercifully, the figure’s head is cut off in the picture, since it was the part about her that spooked me the most. Her glaring white eyes and stoic (to me: stern and menacing) expression seared their way right into my psyche.

So to all the (non-dancing-clown) denizens of the Macabre Republic, I say: Welcome to my nightmare. You can keep it for yourselves; I don’t want to have it anymore.

 

Balloon Quotes

Phrases such as “We all float down here” and “You’ll float, too” have entered the pop culture lexicon, and red balloons have risen to horror-icon status. In Stephen King’s magnus opus IT, though, there is a lot more clowning around with balloons than most people might recall. Time and again, Pennywise wages psychological warfare and terrorizes the Losers Club with balloons emblazoned with messed-up messages. Here’s a quick quiz for Constant Readers, to see how many of these flashes of malefic wit they can identify. Answers appear in the comments section.

 

1.What appears scripted on each of the myriad of balloons that appear following the mauling of Adrian Mellon?

2.At the end of “Derry: The Second Interlude,” Mike awakens to find a balloon tied to his reading lamp. What does he see on the balloon?

3.Fill in the blank: When grownup Ben returns to the Derry Library, Penywise manifests and displays a pair of balloons with phrases written on them. They read “HAVE A GOOD DAY! __ __ __!” and “I KILLED  ___ ___!–PENNYWISE THE CLOWN.”

4.What Pennywise p.s.a. “COMPLIMENTS OF CENTER STREET DRUG” is an adult Eddie subjected to while visiting the baseball field?

5.After chasing an adult Beverly from her childhood home, Pennywise is seen holding a bunch of balloons bearing what legend? (hint: it’s the title of a 1953 science fiction horror film)

6.Fill in the blank. Appearing in place of the Paul Bunyan statue, Pennywise stands holding a balloon that reads “RICHIE TOZIER’S ‘___ ___’ ___ ___.”

7.Fill in the blank. Perhaps Pennywise’s greatest quip is delivered in Chapter 14 “The Album,” when Mike enters the library’s staff lounge and discovers a balloon that reads “THE LOSERS ARE STILL LOSING, BUT ___ ___ ___  ___ ____!”

BONUS: What is written on the back of It’s varsity jacket when the Teenage Werewolf attacks the Losers Club in the house on Neibolt Street?

Seize the Season

At long last, the calendar has flipped to the most important time of year in the Macabre Republic: the High Holiday season, in the merry month of mayhem. These thirty-one days always seem to fly by faster than a witch late to a sabbath, so I encourage you to start celebrating early. Here’s hoping that your October is stocked with autumnal treats and attractive haunts, and that your Halloween proves a harvest of horror.

Speaking for myself, I am to be in the spirit all month long here on this blog. There will be plenty of Halloween-related posts to follow. Thanks to the recent release of the second cinematic chapter, this isn’t just the season of the witch but also the season of IT. I accordingly have a lot of items planned relating to Stephen King’s epic novel that should float the boat of Constant Readers.

First, for all those who can’t get their fill of fall, here’s a poem to kick off the season. It is from my collection Autumn Lauds (for a closer look inside this book, click the designated heading in the menu above).

 

Octoberzest

Apple cider
Perfectly perfumery bottle, eau de orchard

Candy corn
Fairy horse of sweet tricolor bicuspids

Yankee Candle
Flaming aromatic–earthy wood, sere leaves

Pumpkin pancakes
Limited time: we all bound to IHOP

Decorative hay bales
Squarely redolent of rural remotes

Cinnamon-sugared doughnuts
Dessert worthy of the Van Tassel banquet table

Not just of mists and mellow fruitfulness
(as Keats asserted)
But a season of scents and tastes to savor

 

E.C. Writer: Nine More Stephen King Works That Would Make Great Creepshow Adaptations

Counting the films Creepshow and Creepshow 2, and the premiere episode of the new streaming series, there have been nine Stephen King pieces brought to the screen to date as pseudo-shudder-comics segments. What other King stories might be ripe for adaptation on future (assumably green-lit) seasons of Creepshow? Here are my nine ideal candidates, chosen from works that have yet to be adapted elsewhere (as anything more than a dollar-baby):

 

1. “The Reaper’s Image” (1969)

Some brilliantly dark atmosphere could be recreated by drawing on this early story, set in the “Samuel Claggert Memorial Private Museum” and centering on a reputedly haunted looking-glass stored with other Gothic bric-a-brac in a gable room. Also, the inevitable appearance of the Reaper in the mirror would allow for the practical-effecting of a particularly Creep-y ghoul.

 

2. “The Blue-Air Compressor” (1971)

King’s modern-day conte cruel (whose story idea developed from the author’s reading of E.C. Comics) concerning a vengeful fledgling writer offers up some nasty violence and horrific imagery that would be right at home on Creepshow. Even better, King’s self-identifying intrusion into the narrative makes this potential adaptation the perfect opportunity for him to film his latest Creepshow cameo.

 

3. “Suffer the Little Children” (1972)

In his endnote to this story in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, King writes: “it feels a little bit like the Bradbury of the late forties and early fifties to me, the fiendish Bradbury who revelled in killer babies, renegade undertakers, and tales only a Crypt-Keeper could love. Put another way, ‘Suffer the Little Children’ is a ghastly sick joke with no redeeming social merit whatever. I like that in a story.” Enough said.

 

4. “Nona” (1978)

This story checks all the (f)right boxes: more rats than you can shake a stick at, a violent killing spree, a supernatural femme fatale, and a graveyard climax. The fact that “Nona” is set in a little town called Castle Rock would make this a timely adaptation (given the series of that title currently streaming on Hulu).

 

5. “Popsy” (1987)

Featuring a reprehensible lead character who receives his macabre comeuppance, this story seems tailor-made for Creepshow treatment. Throw in a terrific twist ending and some grisly concluding imagery, and you can’t help but wonder why the producers of the new series didn’t turn here first (rather than to “Gray Matter”) when searching for a King story to adapt.

 

6. “Sneakers” (1988)

Creepshow has never qualified for highbrow status, so a tale of a haunted toilet stall would hardly compromise its aesthetics (as the story’s protagonist notes, the very idea combines the “gruesome” and the “comic”). The graphic horrors filling “Sneakers” (nightmares of a “slumped mossy thing”; the eventual encounter with the ghost of a mutilated corpse) would certainly keep such an adaptation well-clear of the crapper.

 

7. “Mile 81” (2011)

This story (one of King’s professed favorites) has a happier ending than those typically adapted for Creepshow, but features an eerie setting (an abandoned rest area) and a series of spectacularly grotesque set pieces. The monster car driving this narrative makes Christine seem like a kid’s toy.

 

8. “The Little Green God of Agony” (2011)

A Gothic shocker (in which a less-than-admirable viewpoint character is forced to learn the errors of her ways) that seems another perfect fit for the Creepshow mold. I can imagine the series’ fx specialists taking wicked delight in designing the story’s eponymous abomination (a slimy, pulsing, sentient sac of pulp).

 

9. “Bad Little Kid” (2015)

The ongoing trials of a hapless protagonist mark this darkly humorous tale as ready-made for adaptation. No doubt there’s an underlying malevolence to the antics of the potty-mouthed problem child of the title. This demon seed wearing a beanie hat with a propeller on top is every adult’s worst nightmare.

 

In Anticipation of IT

In my previous post, I grumbled about the new Creepshow series’ intrusive allusions to other Stephen King works in its adaptation of “Gray Matter.” Arguably the most prominent call back is to the book and film versions of IT. Reference is made to cataclysmic events in 1958, and the character Timmy shows up wearing a bright yellow raincoat just like the one recently popularized by Georgie Denbrough. Ironically, though, what at first seems the most facile reference to the epic narrative is anything but, and actually turns out to be drawn directly from King’s short story.

In the story, the narrator shares an anecdote about “a fella named George Kelso, who worked for the Bangor Public Works Department.” The Constant Reader’s attention is instantly caught by the choice of first name, not to mention the town (Derry would become King’s fictionalized version of Bangor) and area of employment. George Kelso, we are told, abruptly quit his job after venturing into the sewer and experiencing something horrible: “Frankie Haldeman, who knew him, said George went down into a sewer pipe on Essex laughing and joking just like always and came up fifteen minutes later with his hair just as white as snow and his eyes staring like he just looked through a window into hell.” This sudden loss of hair color prefigures Henry Bowers’s new look after encountering Pennywise underground in the 1985 novel. Perhaps the most suggestive parallel forms when George Kelso in “Gray Matter” eventually reveals the source of his terrible fright: “Turned around on his stool, George did, an’ asked Frankie Haldeman if he’d ever seen a spider as big as a good-sized dog setting in a web of kitties an’ such all wrapped up in silk thread.” Following this mention of a monstrous spider that makes the sewer its lair, the narrator proclaims that “there’s things in the corners of the world that would drive a man insane to look ’em right in the face,” which also sounds like an apt description of It’s mind-blowing deadlights.

King was only a fledgling writer submitting stories to men’s magazines such as Cavalier in 1973, and I am not suggesting that he already had his magnus opus of twelve years hence already mapped out in his head when he wrote “Gray Matter.” But the details are certainly intriguing, and the imagery and scenario of subterranean terror appear to have simmered in the author’s imagination a long time before being served up in IT‘s full-fledged feast of fear.

 

Creep Calm and Carrion: A Review of Creepshow’s Series Premiere

The first episode of the new streaming-series edition of Creepshow immediately links back to the original movie: an animated bit shows the Crate (which in the film segment contained the carnivorous Fluffy) being pried open to reveal a heap of Creepshow comics. In his moldering look, the horror-hosting Creep (nicely realized here as a practical-effect puppet) also recalls the ghoul in the original film. I like the restraint shown by the show’s producers, who don’t make over the Creep into a chattering Crypt-Keeper type; he expresses himself mainly through growls and evil chuckles, with his mordant and alliterative wit being limited to shots of the comic book’s story intros. Such connective tissue forms a great part of Creepshow‘s aesthetic strength. The dissolves from comic panels to live action are wonderfully done, and I love the glimpses of interstitial pages of the issue featuring advertisements for iconic Monster Culture items like horror masks and (“Aorta” rather than Aurora) model kits.

It’s only apropos that the series opens with an adaptation of a Stephen King story–the Night Shift piece “Gray Matter.” In this segment, a grieving father’s descent into alcoholism takes a grim turn when the man consumes some mold-contaminated beer. Richie’s subsequent transformation is gruesomely gooey, an at-squalid-home mutation reminiscent of “The Lonely Death of Jordy Verrill” in the original film (perhaps not surprisingly, considering that both King stories are inspired by the weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft). The motivation of Richie’s son Timmy is radically altered from King’s 1973 text, yet this serves to justify the boy’s recitation of the backstory of his father’s drunken demise.

Great suspense builds as the heroic police Chief Connors (Tobin Bell) and the cowardly Doc (Giancarlo Esposito, likewise playing against [suave-and-sinister-Gus-Fring] type) warily investigate the dark, decrepit house in which Richie resides. The creature revealed in the climax is impressively monstrous, another testament to producer Greg Nicotero’s fx mastery. “Gray Matter” plays the horror razor-straight, which unfortunately makes the resort to more familiar Creepshow-style campiness in the segment’s conclusion (as the characters engage in hammy hysterics while pondering the apocalypse) tonally jarring.

Speaking of jarring, I thought the manifold allusions to other King works (CujoPet SemataryIt) unnecessarily distracting. Must every King adaptation these days include a basketful of Easter eggs? These knowing winks are fast growing trite and tiresome.

In the second segment, “The House of the Head” (scripted by Josh Malerman, adapting his own short story) a young girl named Evie (the adorable-as-ever Cailey Fleming from The Walking Dead) finds her dollhouse haunted by the bizarre intrusion of a decapitated, zombie-like noggin into the stagings of domestic bliss. The story unfolds in fantastically uncanny manner, as inanimate objects appear to rearrange themselves while no one is looking. Both eeriness and black humor abound in the increasingly-horrified reactions of the dollhouse family, and Evie’s concerned attempts to introduce figures of physical and spiritual protection into the scene lead to some terrifying tableaux.

“The House of the Head” is no doubt creepy, but in the end doesn’t really feel like a Creepshow tale. It starts with a killer premise but fails to pay off: there’s no explanation given for the mysterious head’s games, and the climax fizzles with an abrupt, and markedly undramatic, resolution. This had the potential to be a classic installment, but the story concludes not with a bang but a sigh-inducing whimper.

Still, don’t get skittish, kiddies. This premiere episode might have its peaks and (death) valleys, but there’s enough scary fun on display here that I can honestly say that the series promises to form an honorable hommage to the Creepshow films and E.C. horror comics alike.