For anyone who chased the bounteous waterfall of VHS horror in the ’80s, the video clips immediately above should bring back a flood of happy memories. The identity bumpers for New World Pictures and Vestron Video would’ve preceded any number of A-plus evenings spent with preteen friends watching B-rate genre offerings. Seeing either of these reddened orbs dot the center of your screen somewhere between the F.B.I. warning and the opening credits of C.H.U.D. or House II: The Second Story or Ghoulies or Troll (or apparently any movie ever made about malevolent, knee-high terrors) was a reassurance, a comforting message to viewers that, if they weren’t about to actually have the daylights scared out of them by something classic and time-tested, they were at least in for the sleepover equivalent of a trip through the proverbial carnival haunted house. They promised nothing so extreme as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or any of the proliferous Faces of Death; generally just your average, bargain row, big hair ghosts and goblins. Think of those orbs as bloody teething rings.
As it turns out, both companies distributed Creepshow 2, the sequel to the 1982 surprise sleeper hit from novelist Stephen King and director George A. Romero, in different markets.
And the year of its release—1987—marked a moment of transformation for both companies. New World Pictures, which had for decades operated as one of the prime legacies of legendary Scotch-tape-and-paper-clips auteur Roger Corman, was diversifying its holdings and emerging as New World Entertainment. Vestron was enjoying the fruits of blockbuster success with the release of Dirty Dancing. Both emerged with shiny new logos, accompanying product that (perhaps inspired by the hip gyrations of Patrick Swayze) frequently aimed for greater cachet, but often failed in downright lovable ways. The horror anthology Creepshow 2 is one of those movies, and the disparity between it and its Warner Brothers antecedent basically encapsulates what made watching New World, Vestron, New Line, Cannon and the rest of their ilk so much disposable fun.
The key word being “disposable.” Of course, I yield to no one in fandom for the original Creepshow. I developed a fear of insects because of what fate befell E.G. Marshall’s unscrupulous, germ-phobic Upson Pratt. I wish every moment of crisis in my life was accompanied by red and black lightning bolts being projected behind my head. Every time I see Hal Holbrook playing Mark Twain, I wonder what Pudd’nhead Wilson would look like wearing his balls for earrings. When I turn 50, I want a birthday cake in the shape of Carrie Nye’s severed head. And Mrs. Danvers better not glaze the ham before it’s time, if she knows what’s good for her.
The tagline for the original Creepshow was: “The most fun you’ll ever have being scared!” And though the accompanying one-sheet image of a pop-eyed skeleton selling tickets from a cobweb-strewn, red-velveted box office perfectly sums up many undemanding horror fans’ state of mind whenever they settle in for a screening, there’s something a little too rarified about the 1982 film’s brand of fun for it to register as “disposable.” Yes, it’s often as campy as any of the Crypt-Keeper’s puns, but it’s also frequently legitimately scary and its mise-en-scene is downright impressive. It sets out to bring those beloved EC horror comics from the ’50s to life and succeeds. Conversely, Creepshow 2 aims to recapture the original’s seamless pastiche (it’s an imitation of an imitation) and fails. But it has an easily digestible, junky sense of humor about it. (Witness the first segment, in which a reckless hood is shown leafing through a rotating newsrack filled with issues of the Creepshow comic from the first film before mockingly spinning them to the floor.) Preferring the second to the first might be empirically wrong, but it at least makes sense given a certain sort of mindset, à la Pauline Kael preferring Earthquake to The Towering Inferno.
Even from the very opening scene, the movie earns splatter movie critic John McCarty’s tag “Cheapshow.” Young Billy (now presumably enjoying life as the child of a single-parent family since he voodoo dolled his callous, sex book-hiding father to death at the end of the first movie) is shown chasing a gothic publishing truck down an empty, somewhat Douglas Sirk-ian New England town’s main drag. It’s morning deliveries (recalling one of Stephen King’s memorably blunt stories in the 1985 short story collection Skeleton Crew), and when a laughably made-up Tom Savini emerges from the truck’s curtained chassis as a newly fleshy version of Creepshow’s master of ceremonies, The Creep, he calls Billy out by name: “I never met anyone as impatient as you, Billy. As if your life depended on getting the first copy off the presses.”
A swarm of animated bats tears the paper from the stack of new issues and the party begins again. Only in place of the original movie’s segment-connecting artwork from Jack Kamen (one of EC’s original artists), the sequel boasts chintzy, anonymous-looking sketch-work credited to Ron Frenz and set into motion with all the panache of an imported Saturday morning cartoon show. A prime example of less being more, Creepshow 2 (in contrast to the original’s linking segments, which mainly involved a thunderstorm turning the pages of the discarded comic book to get to the next story) invests a lot of energy into its wraparound segment, which features Billy (again) receiving his newest macabre mail order whatsit, only to be thwarted by a pack of dirt bike-riding bullies, who are in turn menaced by a patch of giant man-eating Venus flytraps that Billy presumably planted earlier. It isn’t scary in the slightest, but falls in place with King’s history of monstrous things devouring the young. If the 1982 film paid tribute to the scary delights of its creators’ childhoods, the sequel often seems unintentionally pitched at children.
The original Creepshow was always more about its atmosphere than the dramatic integrity of the stories it featured, but the sequel’s overall lack of atmosphere (director Michael Gornick, the original film’s director of photography, has a disappointing lack of visual sensibility) leaves little else to focus on but the stories, which is bad news here. I’ve already said about as much as I care to about the first two segments in my Slant review for the film. The lopsided first, “Old Chief Wood’nhead,” takes about four hours to actually get past its epic exposition and onto the poetic (frontier) justice meted out by a knotty whittled American Indian war chief, and then spends about twenty seconds on the actual carnage. But I know that almost every homemade horror movie I videotaped with my friends ripped off the scene where an axe murder is depicted through shadow puppetry and a watery blast of fake blood onto a nearby wall. “The Raft,” the second story, features tits.
It’s only the third tale that transcends the movie’s pleasant aura of video cult hit mediocrity. “The Hitchhiker” pits Lois Chiles’ horny representation of upper class entitlement against her own hardly latent racism. A parable for everyone who sits in their car at stoplights and pretends to be listening to the radio whenever they pull up next to a homeless person with a cardboard sign summarizing their plight in one or two sentences, “The Hitchhiker” enriches the EC living dead template by addressing a larger social ill. Chiles’ Annie Lansing is attempting to rush home from her weekly tryst with an enterprising male hooker and accidentally drops her post-coital cigarette onto her Italian leather interiors. While trying to simultaneously stub out the butt and tally the cost of her butterfingers, she loses control of her Mercedes and slams into the title character, whose weatherworn sign indicates he was looking to head to Dover. Rather than own up to her mistake, she flees the scene, leaving Stephen King to clock in his cameo as a semi driver who surveys the smashed-up dead body and still manages to discern that it “looks like a black guy, huh?” But, as he tells a bystander, it “happens all the time.” Indeed, it does. But when Annie’s journey home is repeatedly interrupted by visits from her bloody victim—always compliantly grinning, “Thanks for the ride, lady!”—both her sanity and sense of social order are peeled away layer after layer as she kills the hitchhiker again and again. Chiles’ unhinged performance drives home the unsavory possibility that rich bitch Annie actually comes to enjoy the task of clawing, kicking, pinning, running over, shooting, and ultimately mashing the penniless vagrant against a tree with her car. Nearly as much as her victim enjoys unveiling his new cardboard sign reading: “You killed me!”
Sifting beyond Creepshow 2’s lame first and second acts, its shallow, indistinctive visuals, its mostly rudimentary scare attempts, its cut-rate animation, and Les Reed’s thinly synthesized musical score (which really pales next to John Harrison’s memorable, taunting themes from the first film) is all worth the effort to reach “The Hitchhiker,” which in its low-rent way is like a microcosm of the New World and Vestron style of horror moviemaking having its revenge on far classier counterparts.