With Halloween closing in fast, Shudder’s new take on Creepshow is almost here and the first episode delivers a pair of promising tales—one from Stephen King and one from Bird Box author Josh Malerman—wrapped in a package that evokes the comic-book vibe of the King-penned, George A. Romero-directed 1982 film.
Fear not, we won’t be spoiling any plot reveals from episode one, which contains King’s “Grey Matter” (adapted by Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi and directed by show creator Greg Nicotero) and Malerman’s “The House of the Head” (directed by John Harrison, a longtime associate of Romero’s, whose credits include serving as assistant director on the original Creepshow). We will say, however, that both keep to the squishy side of horror and that the episode does a good job setting the mood for the rest of the series.
“Grey Matter” is a particularly apt kick-off, since not only is it from a King story (you can find it in the 1978 collection Night Shift, which also contains “Children of the Corn,” “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “The Mangler,” and other classics), but it also stars Adrienne Barbeau, who had a memorable part in the 1982 film. She’s a lot more sympathetic here, playing a woman who tries to help a young boy that blows into her store one dark and stormy night.
With a hurricane rumbling into town, the kid should be prepping to evacuate, but what he really needs, and he makes this very clear, is a case of beer for his father. Two other locals who’re hanging out in the store (played by Better Call Saul’s Giancarlo Esposito and Saw’s Tobin Bell) offer to deliver the booze and, you know, make sure everything is OK on the home front—but this being King’s world, they discover something far more disturbing than simply a sad man drinking himself to death.
The monster elements are groovy, but the real fun in “Grey Matter” comes from picking up on all the King-related Easter eggs that creep in around the edges of the story: a reference to the “Grady twins,” a familiar-looking yellow raincoat, a remark about someone spotting something spooky in the sewers. At one point, Bell’s character makes mention of how there are “things in the corners of this world that if you look ‘em right in the face, they’ll drive you insane”—which sure sounds like a perfect sort of mission statement for Creepshow as a whole.
While “Grey Matter” is very gloomy and grimy, “The House of the Head” is bathed in warm tones—the ideal palette to convey the wholesome joy a young girl feels as she tends to her prized toy, an elaborately decorated dollhouse (check out the wee crate in the attic, clearly a wink to the 1982 film). Things take a turn for the ghoulish when a severed head—something that has no business being anywhere near the dollhouse family, or the girl’s perfectly cute real family, for that matter—suddenly appears and grim mayhem soon follows.
The fact that Malerman and Harrison are able to wring high-stakes tension from a mystery that unfolds on such a tiny scale is impressive—we never actually see the toys moving, just the aftermath, but the imagination required to make a dollhouse “come to life” in the first place is easily repurposed to connect the dots when it comes to each of the head’s hideous crimes.
It’s best to enter into Creepshow fully understanding exactly what the show is trying to be: a live-action embodiment of an old-school horror comic, just like the film that inspired it. This is something the show reminds you over and over again, from the graphic opening credits to the comic-book panels that frequently fill the screen, especially during scene transitions (“later that night...”). In this episode, the comic-reading experience is further replicated between stories with glimpses of print ads for things like X-ray glasses and monster masks.
It’s a fun gimmick, but it’s also a constant reminder that these are meant to be bite-sized tales that don’t dig particularly deep, which unfortunately can make the stories feel a little less than fully satisfying. That’s not to take away from the production values or the talents of the actors, writers, and directors—it’s just to say that with two complete stories packed into episodes that run less than an hour, there’s not a ton of room for things like character development, and could lead to problems with pacing and suspense depending on the stories each installment’s trying to tell.
It’s understandable that Creepshow wanted to jam in as many stories as possible, but might 12 segments crammed into six episodes be too much of a good thing, even if there are some excellently gross and shriek-inducing sights to be enjoyed along the way? We’ll have to wait to see the rest of the series—which includes some intriguing casting (David Arquette, Jeffrey Combs, Big Boi, Tricia Helfer), as well as more directing turns from Nicotero, Harrison, and others like special effects legend Tom Savini, who worked on the original Creepshow—to decide.
Creepshow premieres Thursday, September 26 on Shudder.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.