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Creepshow Episode 1.01 Grey Matter/The House of the Head - Review



SPOILERS AHEAD - PLEASE DON"T READ UNLESS YOU'VE WATCHED CREEPSHOW 01.01! Yes, you've been warned!

 First off, writing reviews for the first season of Shudder.com's flagship Creepshow series feels...a little off kilter. Not so much b/c it exists in the first place after the misbegotten Creepshow 3 effectively killed off the film franchise back in 2006 after being doormat since 1987's underrated sequel (yes, "The Raft" is my favorite segment of the whole series), but b/c I'm finally getting around to reviewing it a full six months after they were uploaded weekly to Shudder and became the AMC-owned horror streaming service's biggest original series thus far (yes, even bigger than Joe Bob Briggs' The Last Drive-In double features). I just got too over-committed at the time and was originally going to just wait around until the second season appeared around on the service to type about them. However, that was before the worldwide (and very Creepshow-appropriate) COVID-19 pandemic delayed the production and AMC announced that they were going to air the first season on their more conventional network to expose it to a broader basic cable audience over six weeks in May and June, 2020 instead of the three week double-episode-airings they had originally wanted.

 As some of you already know, each episode of Creepshow consists of two relatively short horror films written and directed by a different well-known marquee horror author/auteur, meaning that it's really twelve episodes in season one and not just six. Eight of these stories are adaptations, while four are original stories. It is a classic anthology series format that is only connected by wraparound segments featuring a puppet version of the hooded, silent host, The Creep (it was portrayed by a costumed actor in the films), that HBO's Tales From the Crypt's Crypt Keeper puppet might have had more than a little inspiration from in the design department.

One of the biggest surprises for me was that the producers decided to display The Creep in both live-action segments (which give The Creep some serious Trilogy of Terror 's Zuni Fetish Doll-vibes) and animated segues depicting old-school horror magazine ads that transition into the stories themselves. When it comes to TV horror, the more the merrier...even when it's hit & miss as this first season turned out to be. I will be reviewing each segment, along with the episode as a whole.

Grey Matter

 One of the selling points of the first season when it was announced was that Stephen King had finally given permission to have his short story, Survivor Type, from his collection, Skeleton Crew, adapted for television. By some strange, unknown occurrence....that didn't happen (hopefully, it will for season 2) and, instead, we get an adaptation of Grey Matter, that was first published in Cavalier magazine in 1973 and ended up shortly after in his 1978 short story collection, Night Shift. As many Creepshow audience members already know, Stephen King co-wrote and even acted in the first Creepshow film and co-wrote Creepshow 2. So, if anyone was going to kick off this series, it would be him. The segment was directed by make-up legend Greg Nicotero and adapted for TV by Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi.

For King fanatics, it set in the same universe as his classic novel, IT, and is set around the same geographic area that his novel, Dreamcatcher, was set in. However, I didn't spot many clues to these meta-connections in re-watching the episode, except for a yellow raincoat, a possible reference to Bill from the 1st scene in IT and the character, Timmy, looks a little too much like one of the kids cast in the 2017/2019 film versions. However, there was an odd reference to the Grady twins from The Shining, the name "Doc" from The Shining, along with animal posters featuring Gabe, the cat from Pet Semetery and Cujo from....well, Cujo. There is even a reference to the county that AMC's The Walking Dead is set in. It boasts an all-star cast including horror legend Adrienne Barbeau, Saw series star Tobin Bell, and Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad's breakout star, Giancarlo Esposito.

 The basic premise is that it takes place during a snow storm in Bangor, Maine, one of Stephen King's most well-known settings. A boy rushes into a convenience store. He is the son of Richie, a local worker who had an accident and was granted a lifetime workman's comp (which has suddenly become very relevant in today's world of record unemployment claims). Since Richie has no need to work any longer, he becomes an alcoholic recluse in his apartment and drank some cheap beer that contained a mutagen, gradually turning him into a murderous monster, which Stephen King is so fond of. Richie's son, Timmy,  has been sent to fetch his father's beer and tells the locals all of the horrible things he has seen, like how Richie has started to eat cats. The characters, Doc and Chief go to the apartment to investigate and find that Richie is now more mutant than human and has been eating humans, thus is responsible for a rash of murders lately. After absorbing Chief in a gun battle (seriously, why do stock characters think it's all a matter of bullets to stop monsters?), we see that Richie is starting to separate into multiple beings. The cashier, Dixie, calculates that this new species will outnumber humans in six days, effectively screwing all of the characters and feeling really anti-climatic.

It was pretty faithful to the original story, save for the omission of the first-person narration, and that could be its main problem: like a lot of Stephen King stories, it doesn't work as well on-screen as it does in your imagination without serious directorial changes, which many are afraid to do now since Stephen King approves anything that gets adapted from his work. Despite the impressive pedigree of on-screen and behind-the-scenes talent, great creature make-up work and special effects, along with a campy and colorful old-school horror feel, this is one Stephen King short story that I felt should have stayed on the page.

 

The House of the Head

 From the ridiculous, to the....sublime?! Book of Blood director John Harrison (who also composed and 1st AD'd the 1st Creepshow film) directed this adaptation of Bird Box author Josh Malerman's short story (who also adapted it for television) that out-stages even the great Stephen King in making this pilot episode indispensable. A little girl, Evie (played by the new Star Wars' films' Young Rey and child star of several The Walking Dead episodes, Cailey Fleming) is living a waking nightmare when she starts seeing a decapitated head in her dollhouse, along with dolls seemingly being re-positioned on their own within the rooms of the dollhouse. We see a story-within-a-story starting to happen where a family of dolls witness the head harassing them and literally pray to make it go away.

Evie tries everything to rid the family of this menace. She gets a police doll (which gets decapitated) and purchases a Native American doll (a reference to the evil spirit from Creepshow 2), but nothing works. For some reason, she decides to not tell her clueless parents anything (like precious kids usually do)and convinces them to donate the dollhouse to an older woman (like she could handle it any better), leading to an ending jump cut that shouldn't work due to its miniature silliness, but does for some odd reason.

There are numerous references to The Shining (that carpet!) like in the previous segment and even references to the segments from the first Creepshow film, The Crate and Father's Day. Using the close-ups of the miniature dolls achieves a creepiness the more expensive and elaborate special effect sequences of the season could only aspire to. Plus, not having the dolls move on screen added a bonus layer of ambiguity I appreciated all too well. The only part of the story I didn't care for was when Evie interacted with the life-size decapitated head and disposed of it...by placing it inside the dollhouse and closed the door like it was a microwave (yes...that'll do it). That could have been changed to something less ludicrous. Other than that, I found the whole segment to work on its own terms. I was not a fan of Bird Box (book or Netflix film), so I wasn't expecting much, so maybe those low expectation are partially why I enjoyed it so much. Six months on, I have found it to be one of the more memorable and, yes, haunting segments of the whole first season. It's sad the rest of the subsequent segments didn't quite match its promise.

 

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