Night of the Creeps Review
This Halloween season has seen some great genre offerings biting into the hi-def vein. We've had An American Werewolf In London, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Drag Me To Hell, Creepshow (all reviewed separately) as well as The New York Ripper and The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (reviews coming soon), and the gory procession keeps marching along with Fred Dekker's 80's cult-favourite, Night Of The Creeps. Here was a film designed for “the kids”, starring “the kids” and actually made by one the biggest “kids” of them all. Following in the grand tradition of John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, Dekker, who wrote as well as directed the film, was little more than a student, himself, when he unleashed this amazingly inventive, ambitious and surprisingly assured horror debut back in 1986. He'd seen the bold and proud indie-hits of the seventies and early eighties and, with Re-animator and A Nightmare On Elm Street both scaring-up legions of teens all addicted to being grossed-out and entertained with hip “modern” genre-re-jigs, totally believed that he could supply more of the same, and also pay respect to the types of films that he adored when growing up. It should comes as no surprise, then, to find that the immortal Ed Wood classic-by-fluke, Plan 9 From Out Of Space, sits very happily at the pinnacle of that nostalgic assortment - it even plays on a victim's TV screen in the movie.
Pitching in a mad axe-murderer, a hard-bitten, two-fisted cop with a haunted past, skull-splitting alien parasites, a platoon of college jock cadavers on the rampage and enough frat-house pranks to entertain the Porky's and Lemon Popsicle brigade, Night Of The Creeps packs an awful lot of homage into one slick, and occasionally sick package. Commencing with a laser-beam blasting tussle aboard a passing spacecraft that could have flown out of one of Terry Gilliam's absurdist Python fantasies, and blending an act of intergalactic terrorism into a neat 50's pastiche of rock 'n' roll and country lane make-outs, lovingly rendered in black and white, the film immediately grabs you by the throat with one hand and gropes for your funny bone with the other. We enter the love-blighted world of two classic nerds, Chris (Jason Lively) and J.C. (Steve Marshall), who are soul-mates seemingly doomed to a chick-less existence way out beyond the borders of cool. But when Chris spies the truly exquisitely gorgeous Cynthia (played by teen-dream of my own hormonal overdrive, Jill Whitlow) he becomes so immediately smitten that not even a horde of brain-gestating experimental alien bugs can deter him. Mind you, he'd probably get a whole lot further with her if he could just pluck up the courage to actually speak to her in the first place.
With J.C. acting as his PR man as well as the voice of his own repressed machismo, Chris will inevitably be forced to find his inner strength in order to save the day, fend off the hordes of the testosterone-fuelled undead and get the girl. American college days, eh? Zombies, babes and flame-throwers. And all we get is Waterloo Road!
“The good new is, your dates are here. The bad news is ... they're dead.”
Presented here in its Director's Cut, with its originally intended and highly Spielbergian denouement, Night Of The Creeps is full of energy, visual panache and a sincere desire to please. That the film flopped pretty badly upon its lacklustre theatrical outing was down to blasé and inept marketing by the studio who really didn't know what to do with a horror film that was also incredibly funny and stitched together with all the left-over bits from a dozen other movies. Although Fangoria Magazine covered it reasonably well and the New York Times actually gave it a rave review, Dekker's debut went unseen by the very people who would love it the most. But that didn't stop it going on to become a consistent hitter on home video and a chart-topper in many a fan's Blu-ray wish-list.
“What is this? A homicide, or a bad B-movie?”
To a one, the cast is awesome, playing it up as both the goof-ball exercise that it so clearly is, as well as taking it seriously enough to maintain a smart level of “knowing” suspense throughout. Each and everyone of them is having fun. But, first and foremost, the star of the piece is the great Tom Atkins, B-move demigod of the 80's, who gives one of his best performances as the bitter cop, traumatised by the axe killings that we see in the monochromatic prologue set back in 1959, who finds redemption in the localised zombie-plague that is infesting the sorority and frat-houses of his Californian town of Crest Ridge. Written as a bundle of dry quips and slow-burn resentment, Ray Cameron is a mixture of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Columbo and, with a tragic past that he cannot come to terms with, Martin Riggs. Incidentally, Lethal Weapon's writer, Shane Black, was a close friend of director Fred Dekker, and appears in Creeps in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo down at the local cop-shop. Atkins, however notable he is for his roles under the direction of John Carpenter, has always been, The Fog and Halloween III aside, just part of the ensemble, a character actor with an affinity for the fantastic. Even though Dekker still claims that Atkins was simply the best person who read for the part, there is no question that the actor finds his niche with the sarcastic, alcoholic and fatalistic cop. His catchphrase of “Thrill me” is a terrifically sardonic one, yet just when we think that we've got a handle on his cynicism, Atkins goes and turns a semi-comedic confessional monologue into something much deeper and actually quite affecting despite being inherently ludicrous. We faced with a pretty naff-looking, rotting corpse puppet wielding a blood-drenched axe, Atkins totally sells the confrontation with gusto. Likewise, the scene when he pulls a shotgun on a fellow cop too hesitant to hand over to him the appropriate firepower, smiling cheerfully all the while.
“They got Alfalfa ...”
A real boon that was evidently needed but, in fact, quite unforced was the chemistry between the two young leads, Jason Lively and Steve Marshall, who present a totally genuine affection for one another. This bond is an element that makes the film all the more memorable. Naturally, we are rolling our eyes in amusement every other minute, but there is something tangible and extremely likable about these two nerds who have more believable attitude than Allan Kayser's ego-inflated jock, Brad (or “the Bradster”!) and his posse of hopped-up frat-rats (most of whom are actually played by the special effects team). Fallible, bumbling and biologically out of their depth on so many levels, their tenacity and innate geekiness become the very things that we are forced to rely on. Whereas Lively is the most unlikely of lads ever to win the heart of the cutest girl in the school, Marhsall has that Artful Dodger type of appeal, his crutches and physical impediment (something that is addressed in the film several times, though never actually explained) only adding to his impish charm. He also looks like a teenage version of Tony from Coronation Street, which possibly delivers him a little potential darkness of his own. Jill Whitlow fits the tongue-in-cheek vogue excellently, as well. Vulnerable, flirty, loin-sappingly gorgeous, the brunette's sudden infatuation with Chris is never once convincing, but, man, she looks awesome sporting a flame-thrower and cremating dead-heads!
And then there's the appearance of the cameo-king, Dick Miller, the genre's fondest walk-on scene-stealer in everything from Gremlins, The Terminator and The Howling to Chopping Mall and Innerspace and a sure-fire stamp of cult-movie authenticity if ever there was one. Here essaying a police quartermaster who just happens to have a back-pack mounted flame-thrower to hand, Miller brings that grizzled, jaw-lopsided charm that makes him Cinema's most amicably hangdog of salesmen. And even Drag Me To Hell's whimsical bank-boss David Paymer can be seen here as the young science student tasked with looking after the weird cadaver kept in cryogenic suspension down in the basement. Dekker goes overboard with the genre name-dropping, though. We've got Cameron, Cronenberg, Hooper and Romero as our two leads, Chris and J.C., a Det. Landis and even a Sgt. Raimi - yeah, we get you, Fred, you've seen a film or two. Whereas that other more renowned exploitationer, Joe Dante, could get away with a truckload of in-jokes - The Howling, Matinee, Gremlins - Dekker labours the point until it bursts like John Hurt's chest as he births SF's most infamous xenomorph. But this is only a small caveat in what is, otherwise, a very confident, if engagingly relaxed fantasy.
“Corpses that have been dead for twenty-seven years do not get up and go for a walk by themselves!”
Dekker's flair not only exists for impeccable casting and spot-on characterisation, but, just like his notorious forebear, Sam Raimi, for incredibly audacious visuals, as well. Okay, the film wears its threadbare budget like a badge, but Dekker's use of wildly colourful film-stock gives the flick a mightily welcome comic-book aesthetic. He has his camera perform some simply outrageous tricks - Atkins doing his bullet-blasting, skull-plugging twirl, the sudden rush up a girl's face when she realises that she is going to have to go and lock a “particular” door at possibly the worst time, and, of course, that cherished reverse-zoom shot from Jaws brilliantly riffed-on for one of Ray's arresting dream sequences and a subsequent shock reunion. In fact, Dekker rarely lets the camera rest, preferring it to prowl and loiter, track and crane around his mixture of actual locations and sets. He is even bold enough to carry out some lengthy scenes in one single take - a pretty arrogant trick for a first-timer. His action scenes are smirk-inducingly adept, too. I love the moment when Ray takes off after reports of another axe-killing and demands to know where his back-up is, a second before police cruisers arrive out of nowhere to join him, front and behind. A last-ditch refuge in a tiny garden-shed for our two love-struck zombie-battlers is like a little nod to Arnie's John Matrix taking a breather from another army in Commando. J.C.'s tense skirmish in the toilets with a horde of recently hatched bugs is also a terrific tour de force - hilarious and exciting. But it is the subtlety of some of the horrors that exemplify just how much of a talent Fred Dekker could have been if only his film had reached more of an audience on that first cinematic run. Cynthia sitting down on the porch to tell the smug Brad that she is finishing with him, totally unaware of the fact that he is emphatically dead and zombified. A long-deceased murderer appearing suddenly behind an oblivious cop, his axe clanging down just a galvanising second too late to claim another bonce. An infected mutt resurrecting an overturned bus full slaughtered jocks and the resulting mob shambling off down the street in search of fresh meat in that time-honoured fashion. All good stuff delivered with alacrity.
“Screaming like banshees!”
What is strange is that Chris is so uniquely geeky that you really have to strain the credibility that such an obvious babe would fall for him, irrespective of her brain-dead, jerk-off alternative, yet, once the action kicks in, you totally stand by him as the nerd who saves the day. By comparison, JC (perhaps a nod to the equally self-sacrificial Jesus Christ, as well as the more obvious John Carpenter) is profoundly self-aware, confident and the most likely out of the duo to score, crutches or not. He has the brains, the wit and the charisma, but - and this is the masterstroke for such a low-brow FX-fest - the doom-laden acceptance of fate that brings his relationship with Chris to something very dangerously close to heart-breaking. Dekker deserves kudos for placing such an emotional connection into what is, ostensibly, just an easy-please zombie/parasite bodycount flick and, more so, actually making it work. That beyond-the-grave message that is left on the answer-phone hits a raw nerve and shocks you all the more simply because it announces itself in the middle of a gross-out comedy-horror that you thought wasn't taking itself seriously. Following on from that, the tearful arrival at Ray Cameron's door with bad tidings just heaps on the pathos. You don't expect to be moved - even in such a small, throwaway manner - by a film like this.
“I killed you once already!”
With special effects crafted by David B. Miller, Howard Burger and Robert Kurtzman (the latter duo of KNB fame), Night Of The Creeps was, at the time, a fine cavalcade of latex and prosthetics. Now, however, those hinge-heads, bugs-on-wires and angry, butt-ugly rubber aliens look positively kindergarten, and yet, proving that age definitely adds to some films, this comparatively amateurish showcase now looks as though it is part and parcel of the 50's homage-pack that Dekker envisaged all along. There's even a vague hint of Cronenberg's Shivers about it - the squelchy turd-like bugs that inhabit their human hosts, driving them to acts of violence - but Dekker's “body-horror” is much more comic-book and lurid, and far less metaphorical than that of the Canadian auteur. There is a definite sense of fear and loathing once a skull has opened-up and deposited its payload of slimy alien eels, the sight of them scuttling at high speed all over the place quite skin-crawling. Special mention must also go to Todd Masters who worked some pleasing stop-motion animation into the pulsating mass of the things that have taken up residence in the sorority house basement. The score from Barry (The Warriors) DeVorzon is a pure Carpenter-esque festival of electronica. Great cues for JC.'s battle in the toilet and the alien escapades provide a uniquely 80's vibe. But Dekker is also happy to plant plenty of period ditties into the mix, as well, with Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by The Platters, The Stroll by The Diamonds and Put Your Head On My Shoulder by Paul Anka crooning merrily away in contrast to the noggin-lopping, bug-splatting fury on display.
Finally, Night Of The Creeps represents a idiom as old as Cinema itself - self reverential parody. Even the mighty genre foundation stone of Universal found boundless capacity for such quick-fix fun with numerous Frankenstein sequels and, most notably, the two Karloff/Lugosi smackdowns of The Black Cat and The Raven. For every James Whale, Wes Craven, George Romero, Tobe Hooper and Sam Raimi there is someone so hopelessly betrothed to their visionary excess that the genre's sister of “loving homage” always remains alive and well. Shortly after Fred Dekker made his mark with this and The Monster Squad (check out the prescient graffiti on the toilet wall that informs us where Dekker intended to go next), a filmmaker called Peter Jackson sought to emulate the very same alien/zombie sick-bag, fan-boy indulgence with Bad Taste and Brain Dead ... and just look where his delirious inventiveness took him.
Dekker, sadly, did not reach the heights that Peter Jackson rose to, but this does not detract from the wonderful sense of film-savvy fun that he evoked with both this movie and his subsequent Universal pastiche, The Monster Squad. With only the incredibly poor - and TV sanitised - Robocop 3 following on from this impressive duo, as well as a producing stint on the largely unloved Star Trek Enterprise series, we can really only speculate upon where he could have taken such a charismatic style to. His problem may well have been that he chose to parody the parodies rather than the very things that inspired them in the first place, relegating his free-wheeling aplomb with such material to little more than love-letters to the genre. This said, though, Night Of The Creeps remains one of the better horror-satires to have come along, possibly even influencing the likes of the excellent Slither, after the style of its own extraterrestrial bug-fest.
Great fun, folks.