The jury is still out on Greg Nicotero as a storyteller, but the thing that makes that man and his gorgeous locks one of my favorite filmmakers working today is his commitment in the year of our lord 2019 to keeping horror practical. That ethos, dating back to his first VFX role on George A. Romero‘s Day of the Dead, has kept The Walking Dead shambling along nicely even when the story juices run dry, and bleeds seamlessly into Creepshow, Nicotero’s streaming revival of the classic 1982 horror anthology written by Stephen King and directed by Romero. Those are two mighty names to live up to, but based on the one episode Shudder made available for review Nicotero has leaned hard into what made the original film and its sequel so endearing, creating a purposely cheesy ode to practical grossness and horror comics best read under the covers with a flashlight. I’m still not sure what the audience is like these days for anthology shows—the actual freaking Twilight Zone came back this year and was met with a resounding “okay”—but for fans of a specific over-the-top B-movie sensibility, Shudder’s Creepshow is a treat.
The premiere episode consists of two horror tales. The first, “Gray Matter”, is an adaptation of a short Stephen King body-horror gross-out with Nicotero directing and Byron Willing and Philip de Blasi providing the script. This story stars Tobin Bell (Saw) and Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) as smalltown cops investigating a local man whose infected beer appears to have transformed him into something truly grotesque. The second, “The House of the Head”, is an adaptation of a short story by Bird Box author Josh Malerman, who also wrote the script, with John Harrison (The Librarians) directing. “Head” follows a young girl whose dollhouse gets invaded by a mysterious severed head that won’t stop moving around—and, eventually, doing much worse things—when no one is looking.
Of the two, I definitely enjoyed “Gray Matter” more, but that’s speaking as a King diehard—and there’s certainly enough Easter Eggs here to keep you busy between Castle Rock seasons—and someone whose horror tastes lean toward monster mashes and rubber suit sci-fi creature features. The overall gooiness of the subject matter allows Nicotero to run wild with his FX roots, resulting in some truly stomach-churning imagery; there’s a scene featuring a slime-covered blanket that’ll have you headed for a shower. Again, the storytelling across the segment’s 20-ish minutes is a bit all over the place, but there’s an extremely charming sense that everyone involved is playing up those cheap B-movie sensibilities on purpose. Heavyweights Esposito and Bell are delightful, using their obvious dramatic weight to build up to some A+ scenery-chewing.
Even though it paled in comparison, I do appreciate how different “House of the Head” is from “Gray Matter”, giving me optimistic that Creepshow, like the best anthologies, will be first and foremost a diverse menu of scares. Unlike the opening segment, there’s no bombast or gore to “House of the Head”. It feels a lot like a classic Twilight Zone episode more than anything, pulling off a tremendous job of ratcheting up tension with little more than a doll’s head moving from a chair to the floor. Unfortunately, that tension builds to…nothing? The payoff of this episode’s second segment is such a puff of empty air it had me scrambling to find the original short story to see if it contained an actual ending.
Even still, there’s a lot to love here for fans of old-school horror, even more so specifically for anyone who loved the original Creepshow. Shudder’s series maintains the same affection for EC Comics, including scene transitions that mimick the paneled layouts and speech bubbles of those pages, and yes, the Creep himself is back as your esteemed host. He’s a practical puppet, he’s wonderful, and we simply have no choice but to Stan.
With only one episode available, it’s tough to get a gauge of consistency, but the tone and aesthetic Nicotero is striving for, at least, fill my horror-loving heart with joy. There are some major names coming down the pipeline later in the season: Special effects icon Tom Savini directing an episode based on a Joe Hill story. An adaptation of the Joe R. Lansdale tale “The Companion”. Re-Animator legend Jeffrey Combs playing a Nazi in a segment titled “Bad Wolf Down”. That all sounds fantastic, and if future episodes can keep up this sense of gory good times, Creepshow will once again be a destination for little slices of frights.
Creepshow debuts on Shudder on Thursday, September 26.