The new Creepshow TV series had one of the best horror trailers I’d seen in recent years. It had the Creep all done up with practical effects, a fair amount blood, monsters, the EC comic book feel of the original movie, and even a perverted Nazi or two thrown in for good measure. It was Horror with a capital H, which is why the first episode of the new anthology series feels like such a letdown. It’s the exact opposite of the carnival of horrors we were treated to in the trailer, and it’s shockingly quite boring.
Creepshow starts off with two stories crammed into an hour-long episode: “Grey Matter” (directed by Greg Nicotero) and “The House of the Head” (directed by John Harrison). Each segment is based on an original short story. “Grey Matter” comes courtesy of Stephen King and “The House of the Head” belongs to Josh Mallerman (Bird Box), who also adapted it for TV. The anthology series as a whole will have 12 stories divided into six episodes, released weekly on Shudder.
In the pilot, both segments are graced with strong horror concepts. “Grey Matter” sees two old men checking up on a frightened kid’s alcoholic father in the midst of a heavy storm. “The House of the Head,” the more interesting of the two, follows a girl who thinks her dollhouse is haunted. Unfortunately, strong horror concepts live and die by the filmmaker’s ability to generate tension and dread, or at the very least a sense of unease. None of those things make an appearance here.
The general lack of tension really hurts. “Grey Matter,” for instance, does start off with an air of mystery and a heavy tone, and it is initially effective, but it never evolves into anything darker. The two old men, played by Saw’s Tobin Bell and Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, do their best to come off as trusted friends with a long history together—and they succeed for the most part—but nothing surrounding them helps amplify the situation in which they find themselves. They’re just flowing through the motions at a steady but unchanging beat that never raises the stakes for anyone involved. We don’t spend nearly enough time with them to care for them, either.
“The House of the Head” is the more compelling of the two stories in the Creepshow pilot, mostly due to it being such a fresh and innovative concept. The haunted dollhouse possesses a miniature toy family that is always a treat to see onscreen. In fact, had the producers of the show been bold enough, this whole segment could’ve played out just with the toy family and the thing that haunts them. No real human characters necessary. Sadly, this wasn’t the case, and the episode suffers for it.
While Bell’s and Esposito’s performances elevate their segment somewhat, “The House of the Head” wasn’t as fortunate. The girl that is trying to figure out what’s happening with her dollhouse just isn’t believable. Her reactions to what unfolds with her toys is treated in an oddly casual way and her parents are boiled down to being one-dimensional characters just there to move the story along. Honestly, they could’ve been completely cut out of the segment just to keep everything squarely focused on the girl and her dollhouse.
The dollhouse itself was a good opportunity to experiment with angles and frames, maybe some playful choreography, but the chance was wasted on recycled shots and simplistic horror sequences. Lack of tension, dread, or stakes of any kind carries over here as well, but only whenever the girl’s involved. The toy family’s plight is compelling, and some of their sequences do work well, especially during the haunting’s earlier stages. You can’t help but fear for the toys and their safety. The potential for some truly memorable TV is there. A bit more effort could’ve made this segment one to remember.
On the show’s overall look and feel, there seems to be a severe crisis of identity. Many of the comic book elements from the original movie make it into the series, but they are sorely underused and implemented in a very clumsy and arbitrary manner. They actually feel out of place in both stories. The source material, I fear, might be to blame here.
Whereas the George Romero film relied on original material specifically created as a love letter to EC horror comics in style and format, the stories adapted for the show seemingly aren’t conceived in that tradition. What’s here is erratically applied and then forgotten. “The House of the Head” basically forgets all about the comic book gimmick after its opening minutes.
The comic effects basically feel like a box that needs ticking to please fans. Other than the fully illustrated comic book introductions for each segment, the Creepshow spirit is never really felt in the episode. The Creep’s there as our host, but nothing memorable comes out of it. The explosion of comic book colors seen in the trailer aren’t really there either, which was such an important part of the source material.
Creepshow has a lot of ground to cover in its remaining five episodes, should it want to measure up to its namesake. The stories that are coming up have more than enough ideas to bring the series back to life. As it stands, the first episode of Creepshow feels like a painfully missed opportunity to usher in an exciting new era of horror for fans both old and new.