Welcome to Streamin’ King, a series grave-digging through the myriad Stephen King adaptations available on your favorite streaming services. This time we’re watching the premiere of Creepshow; its first segment adapts “Gray Matter,” a 1973 short story collected in ’78’s Night Shift.
THE GIST: In 1982, George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) teamed with Stephen King at the outset of the author’s Hollywood career to create Creepshow, a five-story big-screen anthology paying homage to EC’s 1950s horror comics. An ’87 sequel saw fewer stories and scaled back involvement from Romero (producer/screenwriter) and King, who provided one concept and one story to adapt.
Shudder, the scare-hound’s streaming service, has brought Creepshow back as a show, six episodes with two stories apiece, starting with “Gray Matter.” Showrunner Greg Nicotero told CoS, “I’m not rebooting anything. It’s not like, ‘Oh we’re going to upgrade it and retell it.’ It’s really like you’re picking up another issue of Creepshow, and these are the stories.” And, he added, it’s “98 percent practical effects.”
PEDIGREE: Headed by Nicotero, The Walking Dead executive producer/special make-up effects supervisor/frequent director, also behind the camera for “Gray Matter.” First set visit as a kid wasCreepshow; first job was makeup effects on Romero’s Day of the Dead. En route to becoming legendary for his effects work, did Creepshow 2,Misery,The Green Mile,The Mist,andDesperation. “Gray Matter” stars Emmy nominee Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad), Tobin Bell (Saw), and Golden Globe nom Adrienne Barbeau, star of “The Crate” in the ’82 Creepshow. “It’s sort of discombobulating to show up on a set and have people say, ‘Oh, I loved you in the original,” said Barbeau, who’s 74 and has five 2019 feature credits and another eight forthcoming. Script by The Commuter writers Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi.
The premiere’s back half is “The House of the Head,” a story self-adapted by Bird Box novelist Josh Malerman and directed by John Harrison, the ’82 Creepshow‘s composer and Romero’s assistant director. The rest of the series will include performances from David Arquette (who starred in the SK-based Riding the Bullet), Kid Cudi, and Big Boi, and behind-the-camera work from a wide range of talent and Creepshow enthusiasts.
WORTH WATCHING FOR CONSTANT READERS? “Worth” is literal here, since you’re either already subscribed to Shudder and streaming it ASAP, or you’re considering giving the service a one-week free trial/$5.99 a month whirl. The Stevie satisfaction comes straight away, opening with Creepshow movie nostalgia, segueing from the new skeletoid Creep—and the crate from “The Crate”—to the familiar-feeling pages of a Creepshow comic book. The animated panels go live-action and we’re into “Gray Matter,” which has never in its 46 years on earth gotten a studio adaptation. It immediately hits you with a flurry of SK references before faithfully turning the 12-page yarn into a 22-minute piece with a grimmer ending and a crueler side to the kid than King’s version had. Keeping the setting near the story’s 1973 publication is a nice touch. Considering the ’82 Creepshow didn’t just ape a comics aesthetic but published a graphic novel in tandem, OG Constant Readers will be especially pleased to see how much love is given to the art form here.
WORTH WATCHING FOR KING NEWBIES/AGNOSTICS? If you’ve got no allegiance to King but a fondness for Creepshow, yes. If you’re down with modern material built around old-school horror with B-movie vibes that are present but less overt—Stranger Things, It Follows; throw a rock and hit multiple examples—be prepared for a cheesier texture here, one that religiously maintains Creepshow‘s comic book flavor. (“The House of the Head” feels a little more experimental, modern, and artfully sparse, built around a terrific child actor.) There are legitimate problems no matter where your tastes lie—just because something’s self-aware and schlocky doesn’t mean it needs copious dull lines like “It all started when…” and “That was just the beginning” and “Just so damn hot in here,” followed by, “Oh, man it smells bad in here. What…is going on?” “Oh my god. It’s a hundred degrees in here.” The scenery and effects are so immaculately crafted, lazy dialogue is beyond unnecessary. Nicotero is running a gifted and aesthetically tight ship as far as visuals and atmosphere go.
If you know Giancarlo Esposito for his calm and calculated drug lord/chicken merchant on Breaking Bad, it’s a blast seeing him as a grizzled small town guy, hanging loose until he’s suddenly howling and shrieking. It’s got a monumentally corny ending that’s intended to be exactly that—and it’s followed by the Creep chugging a Harrows Supreme.
10 STEPHEN KING TIES, REFERENCES, AND MISCELLANY:
SK easter eggs readily observable after one or two “Gray Matter” viewings: right off the bat, a board of missing pet posters including Cujo (with adorable St. Bernard photo), Kojak (The Stand), Peter (The Tommyknockers), Winston Churchill (Pet Sematary), Candy Bill (“The Man in the Black Suit”), Buddy (Under the Dome), and a corgi whose name is illegible, but the Kings love corgis. Also a kid in a yellow rainslicker (It), a toy Plymouth Fury (Christine), the aforementioned crate, missing girls known as the Grady twins (The Shining/a bit of Green Mile), and a sign for Marsh Wheeling, the surname of It‘s Beverly. An order form with a Verrill Way address, nodding to the King-starring “Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” from the first film. An ashtray that was in every segment of Creepshow is promised to be in every segment of the series.
“Whispers from set suggest looking out for Church and Mr. Jingles, possibly Fluffy, and in the segment involving a dollhouse [“The House of the Head”], a deluge ofCreepshowreferences, including a little TV with Ted Danson’s face on it,” Polygon wrote of a set visit. Also a figurine of Chief Wood’nhead from the questionable Creepshow 2 sketch, the Shining typewriter, the Carrie bucket, young Joe Hill’s voodoo doll. Estimates from Nicotero and reviewers tease anywhere from 30 to 50 SK nods in the premiere. “I’m like, ‘No one’s ever going to notice this,'” Nicotero said,“and on set, half the crew is like, ‘Is that Chief Wood’nhead?!’ I’m like, ‘How the fuck do you guys know that? This is great.'”
The comic book cover preceding “Gray Matter” is exactly what the cliffhanger fears: the slimy creature’s constant replication until it’s huge enough to gobble up the whole world. In the illustration it towers over buildings—and an ad for Harrow’s beer.
The source material’s description of the “Gray Matter” monster reveal that Nicotero & Co. nailed:
“Its eyes were flat and yellow and wild, with no human soul in ’em. Only there wasn’t two. There were four, an’ right down the center of the thing, betwixt the two pairs of eyes, was a white, fibrous line with a kind of pulsing pink flesh showing through like a slit in a hog’s belly.” [Dramatic line break.] “It was dividing, you see. Dividing in two.”
Giancarlo Esposito, who had a bit part in Maximum Overdrive in his mid-twenties, said, “Part of the reason I took this was for Stephen King. It’s my way of thanking him for giving me a gig very early on in my career when I didn’t know who the hell Stephen King was and didn’t even care at that time.” He also noted for Polygon that SK once called Gus Fring “the best villain ever on a continuing TV show.”
Greg Nicotero said he “actually wrote Stephen King and said, ‘Can’t be Creepshow without a Stephen King story. What do you think?’ And he’s like, ‘I have just the story!’ Within 20 minutes, Stephen had two different stories that he had proposed.” They opted not to film “Survivor Type,” an unforgettably icky Skeleton Crew tale about self-amputation.
Also, helping Romero move offices as a teen, Nicotero found and kept a letter. “It was from Stephen King to George Romero, typed on the old onion paper with white-out and all of that shit. It was a three-page letter about Creepshow, and it had some of Steve’s ideas for the script. On the last page, off to the side, handwritten, it read: ‘Hey what do you think about Joe playing the kid in the opening of the movie? Wouldn’t that be cool? I don’t know if he can act, but it would be great.'” SK’s reaction when Greg sent him the letter in 2018? “That’s fucking crazy that you still have that.”
“Gray Matter” predates It by 13 years, but the tale of George Kelso is awfully Pennywise-ish. The Bangor Public Works employee one day “went down into a sewer pipe on Essex laughing and joking just like always and came up fifteen minutes later with his hair just as white as snow and his eyes staring like he just looked through a window into hell.” (Ditto Henry Bowers.) Before drinking himself to death in two years, Kelso answered a friend’s curiosity by asking if he’d “ever seen a spider as big as a good-sized dog setting in a web full of kitties an’ such all wrapped up in silk thread.” Followed by that great line Tobin Bell delivers a version of, the fact that “there’s things in the corners of the world that would drive a man insane to look ’em right in the face.”
Also cats and homeless people (an “old Salvation Army wino” in the story) being snatched at night to satisfy a worsening home murder ritual is a plot in the Different Seasons novella “Apt Pupil.”
A filmmaker named Red Clark made a “Gray Matter” short after raising $10,600 on Kickstarter in 2012. It’s not online, but it’s got a cool poster.
Tobin Bell led a 2017 short film adapting “My Pretty Pony,” from 1993’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes collection. Bell also acted in the movie Boogeyman 2; the story preceding “Gray Matter” in Night Shift is “The Boogeyman.”
Robert Draper is cinematographer for the entire series; he also worked on 1996’s Thinner. Tim Williams, who scored “The House of the Head,” got his first composer credit on 2005’s Gotham Café, a short film based on a gory yarn from Everything’s Eventual. He’s also credited as conductor for the 2017/19 It duology. Later this season Tom Savini, veteran of both Creepshow flicks, will direct an adaptation of a story by King’s author son Joe Hill. John Esposito, who made his screenwriting debut with Graveyard Shift in 1990, wrote a segment, and Apt Pupil/ Kingdom Hospital actor Bruce Davison will appear.
Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights has a Creepshow maze running this fall, partially created by Nicotero, with portions dedicated to “Gray Matter,” the Episode 2 segment “Bad Wolf Down,” plus three of the first movie’s segments. Nicotero said, “I really felt that being able to intermingle the original ‘Creepshow’ with my Creepshow is the perfect way to not only please fans of the original, but entice people who haven’t seen it, to make them go…‘I need to go watch this now!'”
EARLY CRITICAL CONSENSUS: Pretty warm, with some mixed charitable takes, some confused ones. Collider found that “the overall gooiness of the subject matter allows Nicotero to run wild with his FX roots, resulting in some truly stomach-churning imagery.” Consequence of Sound enjoyed how it’s “winking demonstrably at Romero’s arch, Expressionistic visual style,” but notes the low budget makes “houses and general stores look like 20-square-foot sets, and the whole thing’s lit and shot like a commercial for your local suburb’s annual haunted house attraction.” Comic Book also noticed “the walls of a scene feel as though they can be blown over, yet this mirrors Tales from theDarkside and adds a bit of surreality to the experience, unnerving us in a fascinating way.”Slashfilmopined it’s “distinctly unlike Creepshow” and more “akin toAre You Afraid of the Dark, but for grown-ups.” Comic Book Resourcessaid it “feels strangely disconnected from the original film. It isn’t particularly pulpy or over-the-top.” CBR also digs how it “exploits the destructive, transformative dangers of body horror and physical decay, building and building upon every new piece of information until it culminates in its grotesque, almost Lovecraftian finale.” Bloody Disgustingfelt “The House of the Head” bests “Gray Matter” and “really demonstrates how much fun this new series is going to be.”
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL CONTEXT FOR “GRAY MATTER” (1973): Published in Cavalier magazine the year before King’s first novel, Carrie, and included in his debut collection Night Shift in 1978, the year The Stand arrived. Other stories that have been put on film include “Graveyard Shift,” “Children of the Corn,” “The Lawnmower Man” (“adapted”), “The Mangler,” “Sometimes They Come Back,” and “Trucks,” more or less, as SK’s movie Maximum Overdrive; he personally adapted “Quitters, Inc.” and “The Ledge” for another anthology film, Cat’s Eye.
Zach Dionne can’t wait for the flood of Uncle Stevie references that will be Castle Rock season 2.