Friday, October 23, 2020

Performance Piece: Leslie Nielsen, "Creepshow" (1982)

The performer: Leslie Nielsen

The performance: Playing Richard Vickers in Creepshow (1982)

Why him?

George A. Romero and Stephen King's film Creepshow is remembered for many things. Usually, what comes to mind among fans is the comic book aesthetic, the monsters present throughout, and that wonderfully macabre 80's synth score. In addition to these, an aspect that is often fondly regarded by fans is the cast. Creepshow gathered an ensemble of actors to get their baroque on through the film's five segments. This includes the likes of Ed Harris, King himself, Adrienne Barbeau, EG Marshall and the man of the hour, Leslie Nielsen, who plays the antagonist featured in the film's third segment, "Something to Tide You Over".

Leslie Nielsen as Richard Vickers in Creepshow

The casting of Nielsen in Creepshow was no accident: Despite having an acting career dating back to the middle of the 1950's, Nielsen had just gained significant attention two years before Creepshow for his role in the film Airplane! The film, now considered a comedy classic, a parody of disaster movies, focusing on an escalating emergency occurring during a flight. Nielsen, whom was known as a dramatic actor, had never done a comedic film before and it ended up transforming him into a genre star overnight. Which is what his enduring legacy became, especially after following up Airplane! with films such as The Naked Gun franchise, as well as the third and fourth Scary Movie installments among other titles. With his star image in mind, viewing Nielsen as the antagonist in a horror film seems like a jarring concept. I personally remember that when I was first shown the film, all I knew Nielsen for was from his role in the aforementioned Scary Movie sequels.

And that's significant in regards to why Nielsen's performance works: Knowing him as the president from Scary Movie 3 or the doctor from Airplane! lets the audience lower their guards and expectations. In this specific segment, as well, it is taken even further with the on-screen pairing of Nielsen and Ted Danson, star of sitcoms such as Cheers, Becker, and The Good Place. While Danson is still playing his usual nice guy role, Nielsen quickly shows he's not here to play nice as Richard. His presence is deemed threatening right from the very beginning, as he is introduced voice-first demanding Danson's presence with threats towards the well being of Harry's lover (and his wife) Rebecca. Nielsen plays Richard's escalating threats towards Harry's wellbeing with the utmost affability, which creates an intentional dissonance. This is hammered home especially when Richard and Harry arrive at Comfort Point, the private beach property owned by the former, and Richard pulls out his gun to enact his punishment on Harry for his affair with Rebecca.

From verbal to physical: The escalation of Richard's threats

The addition of the gun brings out an interesting contrast within the character and, subsequently, the performance: The two sides of Richard brings out two aspects of Nielsen's acting, with the confident, menacing, gun-toting side requiring more serious acting. Includes imposing taunts like "I always keep my promises, Harry, and I do have the gun, don't I?", coldly mocking Harry's pleas for help as he tries to resist the forced self-burial, and his simple dismissiveness after he enacts his torture on Harry and Rebecca and yet finds their holes empty after their deaths. The latter of which he impressively conveys with a couple of lines of dialogue and a tossing of the sand bucket. However, after the segment's twist occurs and Richard is confronted by the watery zombies formerly known as Harry and Rebecca, the performance shifts with the twist. While Nielsen gives Richard faces of morbid fascination when he first sees the zombies, his expressions soon shift from fascination to fear to sheer insane laughter. Especially after multiple attempts to shoot the zombies fail, signifying the now flaccid nature of his former threats.

The turning point for Richard (and Nielsen)

 The facial acting done wordlessly conveys Richard's realization that he can't defend himself from the revenge he has sown, allowing for Nielsen to lean back into his comedic chops. Nielsen's reactions are so over the top that it brings to mind those aforementioned comedy roles he became for, leading up to what many consider one of the most iconic shots from the segment (and film as a whole): A totally insane Richard, bug-eyed and in full Large Ham mode, screaming as he remains buried chin-deep in the same spot he buried Harry. While some argue that the ending ruins the mood of the piece, that would go against the purposeful casting in the first place. The final shot, complete with Nielsen's delivery of "I CAN HOLD MY BREATH...FOR A LOOOOOOOONG TIME!!" is meant to be humorous as it shows the true nature of the character as an unstable and terrified man. Something expressed with just a single expression that concludes the segment, as well as his performance.

The end of Richard and "Something To Tide You Over"

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