My First Fright featuring Paul Michael Anderson

Author Paul Michael Anderson
Paul Michael Anderson

I love anthology horror movies. You get a variety of stories, often exploring wildly diverse themes and subject matter, presented with the compactness and plot-driven fun of a short story. While anthology horror movies had certainly come before it — including the iconic Trilogy of Terror and Black Sabbath — it was 1982’s Creepshow that really set the standard, paving the way for an explosion of anthology horror shows and movies in the ’80s. Creepshow being one of my favorite horror movies, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film helped inspire a love for horror in author Paul Michael Anderson.

Paul Michael Anderson is the author of the collection Bones Are Made to Be Broke and the novellas I Can Give You Life and How We Broke with Bracken Macleod, which will be re-released as a limited edition hardcover by Thunderstorm Books.  His novella Standalone will be released by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing in summer 2020.

(Interview conducted by John Brhel)

CEMETERY DANCE: What book/movie/show/etc. got you into horror?


How old were you when you saw Creepshow and under what circumstances?

Creepshow came out in ’82, and I was born in ’83, so by the time I became aware of it, it was kind of just around, particularly in my household. I’m from Pittsburgh, originally, and George Romero was a big deal there, and my mother had watched Night of the Living Dead as a kid on Chiller Theatre (the show hosted by “Chilly” Bill Cardille, the on-the-scene reporter for NOTLD). Horror was just around when I was a kid because my mum loved it, so while she didn’t plonk me down in front of the television to watch Creepshow (or The Fly or the A Nightmare on Elm Street films), she didn’t hide it away. I saw bits and pieces of the film over the years between, say, 3 and 8 (E.G. Marshall being terrorized by bugs in the “They’re Creeping Up on You” segment, the agonizing wait between when Viveca Lindfors reunites with her dead father and the exploration of that dark kitchen particularly stand out to me). It wasn’t until years later when I sat down and watched it straight through, already an acolyte to Romero’s Dead films (first the original Dawn, then Night, then Day in the order I saw them), and I was delighted to recall the child-like nerves during those segments, to remember the terror of the tide coming in around Ted Danson’s head.

Was there any segment that stood out for you?

“They’re Creeping Up on You,” definitely. Bugs by themselves don’t necessarily bother me (although if you threw a whole pile, I’d be unnerved, sure), but it was the idea of being closed in with the bugs, with the power out, not knowing where they’re coming from or how many, that bugged me (pun not intended). The final reveal, that the roaches had hollowed out the corpse, was both the gross-out but also cathartic — NOW I know where the bugs went!

The other segment that got under my skin, then and now, was “Something to Tide You Over.” Ted Danson, being stuck and watching his doom, never failed or fails to make me antsy. That loss of control and inevitability of his doom-yeesh.

Conservely, though, that same helplessness and inevitability in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” just depressed me, then and now. That poor schmuck never had a chance and you knew it was all over when those first tufts of alien grass show up.

Had you read horror comics before? Were you at all like the kid in the movie, Joe King/Hill?

I mean, not really? My older brother, who was never really into horror, had the Bernie Wrightson comic, but when I was a kid, I was all about superheroes — Batman, the X-Men, whichever cartoon was on Fox Kids Saturday in the early 1990s (I also fell in love with Ben Edlund’s original six issues of The Tick). I wasn’t naturally drawn to horror when I was little — it was just THERE, in the air, like the smell of snow during the winter. My mother grew up on it and, indirectly, so did I. I didn’t discover horror as a genre to call my own until around the time I discovered punk rock (when I was 13). I fell out of comics during that time — mostly because, when you’re being raised by a single mother, you move a lot and no one takes a kid’s comic collection seriously — and only now rediscovered them.  

So I can’t speak for horror comics back in the day, other than seeing references to the Lady Death and Evil Ernie characters in old issues of Wizard magazine, but horror comics now are wonderful. Joe Hill’s supervision of the DC horror line is stunning, and there’s one comic, Lonnie Nadler and Jenna Cha’s Black Stars Above from Vault Comics, that I’m absolutely adoring.  

With Creepshow, I think the short anthology segments were just the right length to catch a kid’s attention — the arcs are quick, if present, at all, and the punchline is forever barreling towards the viewer. The longest segment, “The Crate,” barely registers in my memories from childhood because it’s the slowest build of all of them.

Do you like the tone of Creepshow? It’s not necessarily scary/straight horror. It’s more campy and fun. Are you a fan of that type of horror?

I’m omnivorous when it comes to the strains of horror I like. Creepshow is fun but played with mostly a straight face, unlike, say, Tucker and Dale Versus Evil or the Evil Dead sequels. The Kevin Smith movie Tusk is similar, to me, to the tone of the original Creepshow — some of these are ludicrous, but you play them seriously.  

And I think that intent has to be considered. The old EC comics that Romero and King were doing a homage to could be absolutely bonkers, but they came from a seed of stern, almost puritanical, seriousness. Like old-school fairy tales, the stories in EC Comics or Creepshow came from nuggets of absolute seriousness, but switched the angle to highlight the grue or the hilarity (I’m thinking of an EC Comics story where a cheating player is disemboweled and the other team uses his body parts and organs as game equipment) because that’s what the audience wanted.  

Creepshow’s segments are weird, though. In “Father’s Day” or “The Crate,” the people aren’t outright evil (although, in the former, the father’s head WAS bashed in, but that was in response to years of abuse) and the “bad” guys — the murdered corpse, the annoying wife — get the full-bore violence. Whereas in “Something To Tide You Over” or “They’re Creeping Up on You,” the baddies most decidedly get what’s coming to them. So the tone is kind of all over the place, but focusing on how “horror” it can be (beheadings turned into cakes, a monster under the stairs eating the wife, the bugs exploding from the corpse, or the waterlogged zombies coming to exact revenge…slowly). The truly tragic one — and the one I would argue is the most played for “laughs” — is “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” Dude was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and, although King chewed the scenery all over that motherfucker, the bare bones of it is the audience watches someone who is doomed slowly coming to realize that they’re fate is inescapable. For story elements, I always come back to that one because it “grabs” me the most. Ted Danson or E.G. Marshall for the effects, but King as Jordy for the absolute “true” horror — that helplessness.

Have you watched Creepshow in recent years? If so, how does it compare to watching it when you were a kid?

It’s been about a year — I splurged on that big ol’ special edition Shout! Factory put out — I watched it back-to-back with The Burning, which had come out the year before, and it was fun seeing the difference between style and execution. Romero was a guerilla filmmaker that knew how to make a shoestring-budget film look like a blockbuster. Creepshow had an $8 million dollar budget, and he makes every penny shine. The Burning had a budget of $1.5 million and it looks like it was slapped together with the $28,000 budget Kevin Smith used for Clerks (to be clear, I like The Burning). 

Seeing Creepshow stacked against other same-era films is mind blowing. He was ridiculously talented and it shows.

The film is also King’s best script. I tend to be a defender of King’s adapting of his own work (I like The Shining miniseries), but even I can admit that his screenplays are…hokey? The sentence construction of the dialogue is just…goofy. But Creepshow is a sharp script, well-paced and well laid-out. It knows what it is and leans into it’s strengths. 

It’s in later viewings I’ve come to appreciate “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” It’s my favorite segment, now. Ten years ago, it would’ve been “They’re Creeping Up on You,” probably, if only for the gross-out bug scenes.

Have you seen any of the Creepshow sequels?

Only the second one, but it hasn’t stayed in my head like the first one. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it — Michael Gornick, who was Romero’s cinematographer forever, directed it from a Romero script based on King’s stories, but none of the three segments really last in my head (I had to look up to confirm that there were, in fact, only three segments), beyond “The Raft.” I remember bits of “Old Chief Wood’nhead” (oof is that name problematic or what) and “The Hitchhiker,”  but nothing cohesive. However, I’ve basically memorized the first Creepshow at this point, so…

I’ve never seen Creepshow 3, but based on what I’ve heard, that’s for the best for everyone. I hear it’s a dumpster fire of awfulness

Do you think Creepshow influenced your writing in any way and/or do you have any stories that might work in a future Creepshow movie

It’s funny you ask me that, since today’s January 24, the second anniversary of Jack Ketchum/Dallas Mayr’s passing. As I started to get my writing in some form of order so that I could have a fraction of perspective of it, I saw both Ketchum’s writing in my work and the work of Harlan Ellison. Ketchum for the humanity — as dark as that can get — and Ellison for the absolute bonkers extrapolation a what-if question can achieve.  

But I rarely see the gross-out stuff in my work — I don’t think I’ve written anything like the bug explosion in “They’re Creeping Up on You,” but the way Romero/King handled the slow building of the climax in both “Something to Tide You Over” and “Father’s Day” (particularly the latter; there’s just something so ominous about after Ed Harris bites it and the climax to me) is something I’ve tried a number of times in my own stuff. Moreover, I’d love to put something akin to the overlying-but-building tension that pervades “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” The closest I’ve ever come is “The One Thing I Wished for You”, which appeared in an issue of Unnerving magazine, or “All That You Leave Behind,” which appeared first in the Lost Signals anthology, and then I collected in my first collection Bones Are Made to Be Broken. But, even with the latter story, it had a moderately upbeat, if ambiguous, ending, whereas “Verrill” ends on such a downbeat.  

Hmmm. With stories for future Creepshow installments, I don’t know, honestly. A lot of my stuff lacks the punchline ending of a Creepshow/ EC Comics story — that’s not a slight against either one. I just don’t tend to write/think in that kind of arc. The closest I would think could work is a story I published in Space & Time magazine called “How I Became a Cryptid Straight Out of a 1970s Horror Movie,” about a guy who gets transformed into a carnivorous, living lake, and that’s because I was *thinking* of the segment “The Raft” from Creepshow 2 (I wrote one scene where a swimmer gets yanked off a raft as an homage, but I can’t remember if that made it into the final version).  

Another story that was SUPPOSED to be published (but wasn’t because I pulled it for a number of reasons) and could potentially work is this Christmas story I wrote called “Well, You Asked for a Miracle,” about a disillusioned mall cop during Christmas in Florida coming across an old god who’s hiding out as a mall Santa.  It was supposed to be published in an anthology that will now never happen (I wasn’t the only one who pulled his story), but it came pretty close to the punchline ending a lot of Creepshow’s stuff has.

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