I am lost in the outskirts of Atlanta. It’s late at night, and my cab driver’s GPS offers little help to distinguish our current location: curbside of a nondescript building hidden amidst a labyrinth of identical office parks. Thankfully, before popping an artery, a parking lot full of trailers comes into view and signals civilization. I hop out of the car into a storage closet full of body parts, monster masks, and a familiar skeletal figure who previously haunted by childhood, and finally feel any sense of comfort.
The Creep is back. First introduced in the 1982 anthology film Creepshow, the ghoulish animatronic puppet host has been reanimated by Shudder for a new series arriving on Sept. 26. Forty years ago, Stephen King and George A. Romero honored the pulpy EC Comics of their youths by stringing together five jolting tales as a theatrical anthology. The streaming series version revives the Creepshow spirit, which was an idiosyncratic, complex tone to capture.
“What I love about creep as opposed to horror is you’re interested, you’re engaged, but you’re also afraid, and then the twist comes at the end, which makes you think,” professes Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, who stars in “Grey Matter,” an episode based on one of King’s short stories. The actor says the distinction with the original Creepshow is it “allowed your imagination to soar in a different way than just being frightened.”
Esposito huddles myself and the other flies on the Creepshow wall around two o’clock in the morning, on break from the shoot. Tonight, he and Tobin Bell (Saw) are filming the climactic scene of “Grey Matter,” in which their characters, flashlights in hand, enter a home and discover the remains of missing twin girls, and the horribly transformed man responsible for their disappearance.
Later, I take my own walk through the location, a mold and moss-infested apartment with animal carcassses and empty beer cans littering the floor. The whole thing smells funky (but probably not as bad as if were all too real). Back at the monitors, we watch Esposito and Bell investigate the situation. “Richie?!” the men shout, take after take after take, as the camera tracks them through the living room and kitchen, then down a hallway. A smoke machine spews fog to catch their light. Esposito, as “Doc,” eventually arrives at the overgrown bathroom. After being fed an oatmeal mixture, he expels fake vomit.
As with the first two Creepshow movies, the new series presents a diverse collection of short-form vignettes, two per episode in a six-episode season, with a wraparound motif featuring animated dissolves modeled after comic book panels. In addition to the Stephen King adaptation, there’s a segment from his son, Joe Hill, and authors Joe R. Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep) and Josh Malerman (Bird Box), among others, plus original tales by the likes of Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series) and John Harrison (Tales from the Darkside).
In the same enormous space where “Grey Matter” is filming, other sets rest nearby in various stages of construction. Positioned side by side, there’s a jail cell, then a cluttered garage, then a TV news station, then the offices of a company selling fat-sucking leeches as a weight loss fad. The set of Creepshow, by nature, is a fun house that transports us from weird scenario to weird scenario.
Rob Schrab, who comes from comics (Scud: The Disposable Assassin) and comedy (Community), is hanging around the grounds during my visit, prepping a segment he wrote and will direct about a werewolf in World War II (he’ll be using the jail cell). For him, the original Creepshow is still the best comic book movie ever. “The frames and the lighting was so ahead of its time,” he says. “There are so many anthologies, so many that get it wrong, but that one is just like the sweet spot. Every story has an iconic threat. It’s so colorful and disturbing but incredibly funny at the same time.”
Showrunner Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) means for the series to hit that same sweet spot. “Every episode has a different vibe and flavor to it. That is something that sets us apart from other anthologies,” he promises. “The thing I liked about the original Creepshow was the stories were all a little bit different — some were scary, some were suspenseful, some were gross, some were funny. It’s like going to a great restaurant and you have no idea what you want to order but you’re going to be happy with whatever shows up in front of you.”
On this March night, Nicotero is busy with a balancing act while directing the gross and suspenseful “Gray Matter” segment. His background is in effects makeup — one of his first gigs ever was the 1987 sequel Creepshow 2 — so he’s clearly eager to get to the oozing monstrosity at the center of the story, but he’s also attending to blocking of Esposito and Bell, which he’s meticulously planned, and listening to their ideas (“What I love about Nicotero is he’s very open,” Esposito says). There’s a lot to get done, and Nicotero and the crew are an efficient multitasking machine. They have to be, with the production shooting 10 pages of material a day over the course of their tight schedule.
Months later, over the phone, Nicotero says it was important for him to capture the charm of Creepshow, which requires a certain physicality to the sets and effects. “It’s such an immersive experience,” he affirms, referencing all the constructed environments. Nicotero’s team was “over the moon” about getting to do creature effects, and horror fans will appreciate them. But in addition to being a throwback to the way they did things in the 1980s, there’s the validity factor. “Knowing that we have stories that have scarecrows and werewolves and creatures and monsters, I wanted that stuff to be practical,” he professes. “I wanted it to feel real.”
Not that everything is tangible — Esposito also shot some green-screen shots that same night — but standing in the “Grey Matter” apartment set, there’s an earthiness to the that has me feeling grimy and in need of a shower. The blue goop applied to the prosthetically enhanced actor playing the mutated blob that was once Richie was substantially slimy and sticky. (I don’t mind gore and other scary things when they’re just visuals; terror for me is touching glutinous goo, so being invited to touch that stuff was my real horror moment.) The atmosphere entrances all of the senses.
“It didn’t take much for me to get where I needed to be emotionally because I felt like I had walked into the weirdest place I had ever been,” Esposito confessed to Nicotero, who relays the quote. To us on the night, the actor expresses his appreciation for the details of the set dressing and props, including the decaying human forms his character finds in the bathtub. “I walk upstairs and get slime on my hands,” he tells of moving through the scene, “These twin sisters in this tub, this very evocative pose — they look real, and that gave me the opportunity to have a real reaction.”
Many of the physical objects scattered around the mossy set (which intentionally evokes the “Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” segment from the first film) are Easter eggs. They include a toy of Christine’s red Plymouth sitting on a kitchen table and a certain prop appearing in every segment of the original movie and now in every segment of the series. “Watch out for the ashtray,” spoils Tom Savini, another icon from the first Creepshow who directed the Hill adaptation, “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain.” Yes, it’s the same ashtray.
The creatives tip us off to more King references hidden in the shadows of the series. A typewriter from The Shining here, Carrie’s “tip bucket” over there. Whispers from set suggest looking out for Church and Mr. Jingles, possibly Fluffy, and in the segment involving a dollhouse, a deluge of Creepshow references, including a little TV with Ted Danson’s face on it, as well as the crate and Chief, plus a miniature of the ashtray. There will be more to find.
In a way, though, the cast and crew themselves are also King tributes. Adrienne Barbeau, who also lends her voice to the “Lake Champlain” segment, is a living, breathing Easter egg in “Gray Matter.” The actress is well-associated with her character Billie from “The Crate” in the first movie. “It’s sort of discombobulating to show up on a set and have people say, ‘Oh, I loved you in the original,’” she says of coming back to this and the Swamp Thing reboot. “Billie was really well received. I hope I can do as good a job, and I hope it will be enjoyed as much.”
Others have worked on various King projects throughout the decades. John Esposito, who penned the new “Night of the Paw” segment, previously wrote the screenplay for Graveyard Shift. Actor Bruce Davison starred in the Kingdom Hospital miniseries, Apt Pupil and more. David Arquette was in Riding the Bullet. Tobin Bell recently acted in a short film based on My Pretty Pony. And Esposito acted for King the director on Maximum Overdrive.
“Part of the reason I took this was for Stephen King,” he confesses, noting that King once lauded his performance in Breaking Bad (“the best villain ever on a continuing TV show,” the author wrote in Entertainment Weekly). Esposito now hopes the gratitude shows in his portrayal of his character on Creepshow “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.”
Honoring King’s characters, whether in the writing or directing or performances, is definitely key to anything based on the author’s work, and that’s another marker Nicotero strived for with Creepshow. “It’s all about relating to the characters. If I’ve learned anything in my 35 years of makeup effects, it’s that if you don’t care about the characters, then the coolest monster, the coolest set piece, the coolest visual effect, none of it matters if you don’t care about these people.”
That’s one of the reasons the original movie was so memorable, as Barbeau can attest. “What’s important when you’re playing something like that is that you understand why she is,” the actress says of the Billie character, who may be unlikable but is still relatable. “Nobody thinks they’re a bitch. Nobody walks around thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a nasty person that nobody likes.’ You had to understand why Billie was. She was so disappointed that her life didn’t turn out how she expected.”
For “Gray Matter,” Barbeau gave her character a whole backstory that is mostly for her own reference but helps in fleshing out the role in a way that will come across on screen. Esposito and Bell, who’d never met before this, worked out their character’s history to help them pass as old friends and make us care about their relationship. “If you don’t care about the people, you’re relegated to what horror always was, which was a guy outside the screen door at night,” Bell says. “It can be more than that. It can make you think. It can make you question. It can make you care. And you can have all of the other elements of horror at the same time.”
Screenwriters Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi (The Commuter) knew of the importance of character and relationships when adapting “Gray Matter,” as well. “We start from there, the central relationship, the central conflict, the central theme and how do we embellish that,” de Blasi explains while watching the shoot, making sure to acknowledge where it goes from there. “What’s the best way to bring it out and make it fun. This is Creepshow. If it’s not fun we’re not doing our job right.”
Creepshow debuts on Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. ET, on both on the Shudder TV live-stream and on demand.