Creepshow Commentaries Season Three: Episode 5 – Time Out/The Things in Oakwood’s Past

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 5: Time Out/The Things in Oakwood’s Past

To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure if I was going to write this Commentary this early morning during my nocturnal hours. I finished most of the films of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, even as my grandmother was fading from almost a century on this Earth. Frankly, I just didn’t know if I had time.

Time.

If there is one thing this episode of Creepshow has in common it is literally the theme of time. Remember when I left off my last entry wondering what surprises this show would have for us next week? Well, they weren’t exactly surprises. When you study a literary or cinematic trope for a while you identify beats and patterns. You can generally see where the story is going when you are practiced enough, or you’ve seen a fair bit. 

It’s like knowing people are born, they live, and they die: just as you have, you are, and you will — or that there are cycles to events that will always come around again. Sometimes you might forget the particulars, or lose yourself in the moments — and those are the places and situations that stand out from what is otherwise a predictable existential framework. 

“Time Out” is a story written by Barrington Smith, and Paul Seetachitt, and directed by Jeffrey F. January. A young man named Tim gains an inheritance from his grandmother Catherine, who recently passed away. I can’t begin to tell you how that hits close to home due to the fact that as of this writing two or three days ago my grandmother also passed. But unlike The Complete Works of Shakespeare that I was given, Tim gets a wardrobe that his grandfather — a World War II veteran who also apparently had a monkey’s paw (and thank fuck it wasn’t going to be a repeat of that episode, or the story from which it was derived) — got in Germany. Tim had also been at his funeral when the segment starts, and his grandmother warns him away from the wardrobe before he can go in there with the key he discovers in the drawer.

That wardrobe is no gateway to Narnia, however, and the key is no Silver Key back to some halcyon childhood, or dreams, or other planes of existence. Instead it contains a pocket of time outside of the main flow of linear time. And Tim takes advantage of it. He does much of his academic and legal work, spending hours in that wardrobe getting it all done just come out without even a second of external time passing. I’m not going to lie: as a writer, and creator I would have abused the hell out of this artifact. Imagine how many works I could create in there: though whether or not I’d be able to get a wifi signal based on the different flows of time is a whole other matter.

No, the wardrobe has two drawbacks: the first is that time does pass for you, and you will age more quickly. The second is that you must keep that key on you. Otherwise, the doors automatically close, and they will not open.

Tim is a man that wants to make up for the lost time of his father who died prematurely in a car accident before he could finish law school, or spend time with him. The poetic cruelty is that while he accomplishes tremendous amounts of work in shorter periods of time — relatively speaking — he accelerates his own physical decline, and doesn’t spend time with the family he’s making. The man even has a mini-stroke at a younger age: with the doctor going as far as to say he has the health of a man ten years older than he should be. 

It’s the same challenges someone would have in a high-pressure job, and having a family: in the workload always being on you, and the people you love wanting to spend time with you whether you are in your own mind a success, or not. But as Tim’s grandmother Catherine puts it, “you can’t cheat time.”

Tim almost backs off. He almost listens to his wife in saying that she doesn’t care about his position, but that she just wants him to be with her and his son. He should have listened, right? But Creepshow is about more than retribution, but also morality tales. In the end, he goes into the wardrobe one last time, and his key falls out of his pocket: outside. We already saw what happened to the cat at the beginning of the segment, and poor Kitty didn’t make it to Ulthar. And what makes it worse is after Tim turns into dust, his son goes into the closet — too — and the door shuts. That is how the story ends.

Tim’s grandfather had done the same thing. His father died in a car crash. And both Tim and, presumably, his son will follow them. There is always just that one more thing, you know? That one more task. Then you can rest, right? Then you can replenish yourself, or heal. But it’s always that one more thing, that becomes many more, and even when you see it coming the pressure, and the expectations on yourself keep accumulating … until it is inevitable. Until it’s too late.

This story hit me hard, and it would have done so even before the events of this week as I write this Commentary. Even now, I’m writing this extremely late when I should be sleeping, when I’m mindful of the habits that I kept when I was younger not necessarily serving me now that I am getting older. Imagine if Tim had pre-existing medical conditions, and he used that wardrobe. It’s grim, either way you look at it. But damn, did that story deliver. Damn, did I want Tim to make other choices. 

And sometimes, as I said earlier, you don’t see it coming: though there is this nagging feeling that you should. History repeats itself, or at least human arrogance dooms us to a cycle of events. In “The Things in Oakwood’s Past” we find ourselves in a glorious animated feature as directed by Enol and Luis Junquera, written by Daniel Kraus and Greg Nicotero, and directed by Nictero and Dave Newberg. Unholy hell a lot of work went into this production. And Mark Hamill is a voice actor in it too: playing Oakwood’s self-serving Mayor Wrightson.

The story begins in a news segment obliquely referencing a Carpenter Arctic Expedition Collection: a reference to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror film The Thing, and perhaps even Lovecraft’s novella  At the Mountains of Madness.

But then we have the actual story. Two hundred years ago, the people of Oakwood disappeared and left that mystery behind them. Now Marnie, the town librarian, found the journal entries of the previous librarian even as the town has discovered a time capsule in the form of a chest that doesn’t look ominous at all.

Apparently, the cycle of disappearances is older than merely 1821. They occurred in 1621, and even 1421 with the Mi’kmaq First Nation. Marnie discovers all of this in the journals, and the realization that the people weren’t killed by plague or war, but by a demonic monstrosity that slaughtered them. And, fairly soon, this iteration of Oakwood will be having its two hundredth anniversary. Marnie wants to stop this from happening, and according to the journal, the original townsfolk believed that the key to preventing their destruction is in the capsule: which, conveniently, has the date “1821” on it. It is also found under a particularly friendly tree that has the same markings in the journal and chest of not a Jack-o-lantern from hell. She and Mac, the news reporter interviewing her, have a great and wholesome attraction as they seek to solve this mystery: especially after the terrifying slides of villagers being massacred and flayed alive.

But Marnie’s father, the Mayor, has them stopped and they can’t open the box prematurely. You can already see where this is going, of course. It turns out, the chest contains the evil that they desperately seek to stop. It’s Pandora all over again. An added twist to it is that the historian Marnie is reading lies about the chest containing the salvation of the town: that an elder killed his daughter, and was then exonerated, and he told the people about the chest to make them open it, and slaughter everyone.

The monsters are grotesque and Lovecraftian. I thought there would only be one, but Hell is generous. We watch as the Oakwood people of 2021 are flayed open, cut in half, amputated, and murdered. Marnie barely escapes, with her father charging the sheriff in getting her — barely — out of town. A demon has a camera strapped to it as they all return into the chest, probably to wait another two hundred years. Why they do this, I don’t know: and it almost doesn’t matter. Demons always have rules, which I’m sure they hate but they will do whatever they can in the meantime within them to get their full of flesh and blood. No one else survives.

It’s sad as you see that these people had lives, and even the historian from two hundred years ago had his very human reasons to make that lie. We see what hell looks like as the demons not only don’t care, but they revel in showing it to viewers. The newspeople attempt to shrug it off and mention something about Rider’s Lake, and I don’t know if that is a reference to anything else. No one really learned a thing about history. The story will live on. It will continue on.

Creepshow outdid itself with this episode. Time comes for everyone involved. And seriously? If this were the last episode of the season, I would be all right with that given its strengths in making us relate to the characters, have empathy for them, dealing with the consequences of hubris and greed, and also telling some good stories, and creating even better art all around. But there is another episode, and I have to say: this one will be harder to live up to … or die for.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Episode 4 – Pipe Screams/Within The Walls of Madness

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 4: Pipe Screams/Within The Walls of Madness

So let’s get to it. The first story, “Pipe Dreams” is written by Daniel Kraus, and directed by Joe Lynch, where we are introduced to some very … sentient clogs in rusty, ill-maintained apartment building pipes.

It’s so strange seeing Barbara Crampton again, after watching Jakob’s Wife, in a totally new persona. This time, she is a racist, bigoted “Karen” landlady by the name of Victoria Smoot, and it actually gave me a doubletake to see that just by a sleek hairstyle, designer clothes, a necklace, a pink sweater worthy of Dolores Umbridge, and a nasally, unpleasant voice Barbara Crampton transforms herself into this terrible person who talks about her tenants as “animals” and even says things such as how their “hair is different because they come from different places” in the drain. Just like that, I really wanted something bad to happen to this woman, and that is all by design.

This is a person who not only has lead pipes in her terribly run apartment complex, and a general lack of maintenance and open bigotry, but she also hires one Linus Carruthers — a plumber from a company that used to be owned by him and a disreputable brother that is going under — to patch things up, and deal with the clogs in the pipes that shouldn’t legally exist. She knows he won’t report her as one more bad review will bring him under, and it is fairly certain she will try to rip him off of his pay in any case. When Linus talks about his terrible brother, or refers to him, my mind almost wants it to be Harlan King from “Pesticide” and that parallel of what he did to the homeless, though it doesn’t particularly line up, and there are dangers in trying to put things together that shouldn’t be: a lesson that Smoot never took to heart.

He goes to the apartment upstairs, after something devours a cat — and you know Smoot is evil, as she despises cats — to what seems to be the source of a clog that “squeaks” and “chirps” almost like a bird. It skitters in and out of the shadows. You know you’re not going to want to see what this monstrosity is. 
And when you see it, you don’t. It’s … So, a little while back, I was in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign Game Mastered by a friend of mine who really wanted us to confront some rats. So when we saw these rats coming — rats not unlike what Linus kept telling himself they were — we closed the door, only for those rats to bend and twist themselves under the crack beneath the door frame as if they had no bones. One of my friends, during the game, called these creatures — jokingly — octo-rats, and they were bullshit.

This sentient clog, and its kind, are basically octo-rats: malformed, twisted, and they eat flesh. I thought once this thing took the flesh off Linus’ hand, he was going to lose that limb. Then when it got to his face, I thought he was fucked. I thought he’d die, and we would cut to the skittering, bulbous, furry, tentacled clog going after the other tenants in the building, and then Smoot. But likely, it’s coded pretty clearly that Linus is a good man that isn’t just doing the job to save himself, but to protect the children that he knows in his heart is living in the building: the child of the mother that lets him into her apartment, and owned that poor cat that’s eaten.

He survives, gives a good fight, and the mother comes back to actually save him. And this is where, between the two of them, instead of calling the authorities we get some beautiful EC Comics justice in the form of poetic retribution. Oh, it is wonderful. I knew, the moment the tenants, with Linus the plumber, were all down in the basement — and he somehow lured Smoot back — that they weren’t going to simply beat her with tools. No, that is too easy for someone like her. Instead, they lure her to a drain where, as Linus put it as she’s stuffed in there being consumed by the creature, she “is home.” There is something timeless, but timely about this story when you consider the state of landlords and property and tenants during dire times of recessions, and in particular COVID-19. I do feel bad, though, that no one told the girl about her cat, but at least she leaves pretty pictures for her pet by the drain. Oh well, at least the octo-rat might appreciate it.

Speaking of tentacles, and disturbing things, we find ourselves at “Within the Walls of Madness” written by John Esposito and Greg Nicotero, and directed by John Harrison. Imagine William Shatner shouting “There is. Some-thing. On. The. Wing!” from the classic “Terror at 20,000 Feet” in a world created by combining H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” with “At the Mountains of Madness,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and in the spirit of The Thing and you might see the resonance of this story.

It starts off with a graduate student named Zeller held at a military prison being interviewed by a lawyer named Tara Cartwright as he is accused of murdering three of his scientific team in — you guessed it — the Antarctic. What happens is something had already dealt with the rest of their expedition, and the survivors ran back to the base. Zeller had apparently been having an affair with a fellow graduate student named Mallory — who was dating their hostile head of security — but when the latter goes to look for their leader, Professor Trollenberg as played by Star Trek Next Generation veteran Denise Crosby — reality ripples around them into a wormhole as the two students are attacked by an entity from a wormhole.

Of course, the Professor and the security head come back to find Zeller with an axe and Mallory in pieces, and seem to think the worst. But there is security footage that would exonerate Zeller. Unfortunately, it becomes clear that the Professor had erased that footage and kept only him attacking the security head who attempted to kill him.

As it so transpires, Professor Trollenberg found the remains of what she calls the Old Ones — yes, Lovecraftian beings not unlike the ones in the Cthulhu Mythos — who apparently gave humanity Earth millennia ago before dying out, only to have humanity misuse it. She saw through a wormhole that she summons with a strange sonic instrument: an organic bonelike flute or ocarina, almost like a Key — and we know from Cthulhu Mythos lore that “The Silver Key” is not only a Lovecraft story, but it is an artifact that can unlock places between dreams and other realities. I see it as an analogue of that, though it uses sound to create wormholes through space-time in this narrative. Anyway, the Professor used it to manipulate time to when the Old Ones still lived, and believed they would punish humanity for destroying the world: that she would help them usher its destruction and return it all to the sea.

Zeller doesn’t want this, or to be framed for murder and when she summons another wormhole, he kills her. Now, this is where things are interesting. The expedition was a secret government one, which claimed to have them work for medical purposes. They know full well they were dealing with extraterrestrial elements, and they want Zeller to take the fall so that this incident will stay underwraps. It also helps that they genuinely don’t believe anything he says. Hell, even the lawyer claims to want to help him plead insanity, but really just wants all the rights and royalties to the book she will publish about his case. By the time we get towards the end of the story, Zeller’s had a lot of time to think about all of this. He is slated to be executed, which the governor or official along with Cartwright even talks to her about the insanity plea she decided not to pursue.

Zeller starts to see that humanity — its society, its hypocrisy, condemned him to this fate — and wasn’t listening to him when he says “they would come through the walls.” This is where it all goes down. For his last request, he asks for the alien instrument: which he blows. Zeller never gets that lethal injection, but everyone else gets grabbed and torn apart by tentacles from another dimension. What we realize is that Professor Trollenberg didn’t look into the past to find the Old Ones, but the future. And we see, as this paradox trope plays itself out — in which her own words “Time is an illusion” — come back to haunt her as she sees Zeller on the table and the Old Ones everywhere. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy as they both see each other between the past and the present, life and death.

Everyone has betrayed Zeller: from the security head, to the Professor, to the lawyer, to the government, to humankind. And he decides, instead of continuing to warn them, knowing they won’t listen and they will kill him anyway, that if he’s going to die he is going to take them all down with him. His last words are with him cackling, Lovecraft end-sentence style, “They are in the walls! In the walls …” And honestly, this is a story I can get behind, that when you disregard confusing temporal mechanics, it is humanity’s arrogance and abuse of power — and the hatred of one human that supersedes even that of an eldritch otherworldly species’ coming to destroy it all — everyone gets what they deserve. I … love it, frankly, Cartwright’s self-serving book Our Demons, Ourselves says it all.