Creepshow is a surprisingly durable horror franchise. The original Creepshow was part of a wave of horror anthologies in the '80s and boasted an uncommonly accomplished pedigree. The 1982 movie -- which spawned a pair of sequels -- was directed by horror maestro George Romero and written by Stephen King, and the five installments contained appearances by a pre-Cheers Ted Danson, scream queen of the era Adrienne Barbeau, and King himself as a man turning into a plant after exposure to a meteorite infected with an alien parasite. It was frightening and gruesome, but it didn't take itself too seriously, and it danced a tightrope of scary and funny.
Now, Creepshow is back. The anthology movie format barely exists anymore, but anthology TV series are thriving. The new Creepshow takes the form of an anthology series for the AMC-owned horror streaming service Shudder (it's the platform's first original series). The first season is airing on AMC proper on Mondays from May 4 to May 18, ahead of Season 2, which is coming to Shudder later this year.
The new version is overseen by The Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero, a Romero acolyte, student of horror history, and master of gory special effects makeup. He knows how fun horror can be, and in his capable hands, the new version captures the dark and playful tone of the original.
The six-episode first season contains two shorts per episode from a variety of writers and directors. The premiere has "Gray Matter," directed by Nicotero from a script by Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi, that's an adaptation of a classic Stephen King short story; and "The House of the Head," directed by Creepshow movie first assistant director John Harrison and written by Bird Box scribe Josh Malerman.
"Gray Matter" features the ubiquitous Giancarlo Esposito, making his first appearance in a Stephen King adaptation since very early in his career; in 1986's King-directed killer trucks movie Maximum Overdrive, he had one line: "Yo Mama!" Esposito, Saw's Tobin Bell, and the original Creepshow's Barbeau star as old-timers in a declining beach town who are hunkering down to survive a hurricane when a local kid comes in to buy beer for his dad. He starts to tell a story about what's happening to his father, and when Chief (Bell) and Doc (Esposito) go to check on the man, they find something horrifying. Esposito and Bell commit hard, and the sense of creeping dread has a cathartic payoff when the monster gets revealed.
"The House of the Head" stars Cailey Fleming, a talented child actress best known as The Walking Dead's Judith Grimes, as a girl who watches in horror as a really gross-looking severed doll head wreaks havoc in her dollhouse. It's a thin premise acted out primarily through tableaus of dolls inside the dollhouse, but Fleming sells it, and the dollhouse itself is an impressive prop. Nicotero makes sure all the practical details -- the miniatures in the dollhouse, the design of the monster in "Gray Matter" -- are of a very high caliber.
Later episodes have a murderer's row of random-ass cast members, from David Arquette in John Harrison's "Times Is Tough in Musky Holler," to Kid Cudi in Rob Schrab's Nazis vs. werewolves short "Bad Wolf Down," to Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer in Roxanne Benjamin's "Lydia Lane's Better Half," to Big Boi in Dave Bruckner's "The Man in the Suitcase." Not all of them hit; the scripts tend to be thin, and sometimes there's just not enough for the actors to latch onto. Some chapters feel padded to fill out their half-hour runtimes.
Casual horror fans may not really get the appeal of Creepshow, but it's not made for them anyway. Horror aficionados, on the other hand, will find a lot to like.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
Two episodes of Creepshow Season 1 air back-to-back Mondays starting at 9/8c on AMC through May 18. It's also available to stream on Shudder.