starring Jason Lively, Steve Marshall, Jill Whitlow, Tom Atkins
written and directed by Fred Dekker
by Walter Chaw A childhood favourite, Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps generally underscores the danger of revisiting childhood favourites with a jaundiced eye; this and his sophomore feature, The Monster Squad, show that Dekker was rejected from the USC and UCLA film schools for a reason. I realize it's all supposed to be a cozy, funny-scary homage to the terribleness of low-budget B-movies as a genre unto themselves, but the picture is terribly edited and disastrously paced--the very things that effectively kill both comedy and horror. Unconvinced? The first misstep might be its choice to leave a charming, 1950s-set black-and-white prologue in favour of a faux-Hughesian '80s fandango that, like most of the era's mainstream teen dramas not made by John Hughes, lacks an ear for how we actually talked, and insight into how we actually felt. In any case, it's hopelessly incongruous to go from Ozzie & Harriet to leg-warmers and Wall of Voodoo, resulting in something that isn't a spoof of bad filmmaking so much as an example of it. Night of the Creeps joins The Goonies for me as one of those cult classics I just can't wrap my head around. I remember sort of loving it when I was twelve, meaning only that twelve-year-olds are idiots.
Chris Romero (Anthony Michael Hall look-alike Jason Lively) is a doof in love with sorority princess Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow), whose heart he conspires to win with the help of his irreverent buddy James Carpenter Hooper (Steve Marshall). Neat thing is that JC is disabled without much comment; less-than-neat thing is that the disabled guy is of course martyred while having nary a whiff of a ghost of a chance with the Girl, or bothering to try.* Seems that in 1959, a rogue alien scientist drops a canister of mind-controlling worms (which bear a strong resemblance to the sex pickles from Cronenberg's Shivers) on an unsuspecting college town the same night an escaped axe murderer stalks Lover's Lane. Cut to 1986, to the middle of the bustling campus of Corman University (sigh), where a fraternity pledge-prank gone sadly awry leads to the release of said space slugs, which have been inexplicably held in cryogenic stasis for a couple of decades. It's not that I'm looking for an airtight explanation, it's that I'm looking for a savvy, ironic explanation and what Night of the Creeps gives you is a post-modern shrug. There's nothing affectionate about suggesting that all those old sci-fi movies were arbitrary and inept. Defending something for that dandelion wine-scented queef of nostalgia, however arbitrary and inept, is "MST3K"-style patronizing.
The tortured gumshoe is Det. Cameron (Tom Atkins), who was just a rookie when his true love met a grisly end that fateful night in '59. And although there are a few gratuitous boob shots (including a convention-breaking one from Whitlow) and some sincerely awful special effects that are, again, forgiven for being the product of borrowed invention, there's nothing at the centre of the exercise except an invitation to wallow in our youthful lack of critical facility. Night of the Creeps is a throwback in the sense that whatever cachet it holds is dependent upon its ability to stroke its audience's basic knowledge of horror movies. It's a film about shoestring, kitchen-sink genre pics made by the fratboy villains instead of the hero geeks, and the cult that's sprung up around it is based on hearty belly-laughs and beer burps. (The cheap resolution, with Chris getting Cynthia, feels so hackneyed and tortured because the moment of gratification is as uninvested as the rest of it.) This is a dumb-dumb movie--not a smart-dumb movie.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Night of the Creeps arrives on Blu-ray from Sony in a "director's cut" that restores the original, too-serious ending of the picture. It supplants the truer-to-tone finish of the theatrical cut, demonstrating that Dekker never really knew what he was doing and still doesn't. The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is surprisingly good, handling the early shift from b&w to colour with aplomb. It's perhaps a little too clean for my tastes (albeit not artificially so--DVNR was left in the toolbox), but its slickness is good commentary in and of itself on the multiple levels at which the film fails. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD audio represents a remix that adds a decent bottom end to the soundtrack and proves far more conscientious of spatial dynamics than your average '80s movie. This, alas, creates something of a dissonance, as it now feels as if the visuals aren't simply lacking in imagination, but comparatively lacking in imagination.
A ubiquitous presence on zombie-related DVDs, Michael Felsher prompts Dekker in the first of two yakkers, the latter exhibiting a nice sense of self-deprecation about the whole shebang. Dekker seems slightly nonplussed by the cult attention afforded Night of the Creeps since its release; the overwhelming impression is that he doesn't understand why it's gained traction in the intervening years. Statements especially on editing ("Well, I asked myself how long a scene should be and then I cut it in half") clarify the DIY trial-and-error of the thing--which, no matter where you fall out on the film, should come as a shock to no one. A second commentary with cast members Atkins, Lively, Marshall, and Whitlow is a standard example of such things: it bristles with no information and forced bonhomie. Here is the first of many times, incidentally, that we'll hear how this is Atkins' favourite experience in his long career. Oddly, Whitlow makes overmuch about her nude scene, followed fast by her confession that said topless glimpse was her idea. Beyond that, shooting the picture was apparently the most fun everyone's ever had doing anything ever. For these Yay-hoos, it's probably even true.
"Thrill Me: The Making of" (60 mins., HD) is a new multi-part retrospective docu with nice, lengthy recollections from all involved. It's indispensable for the fan of the flick and shows Whitlow to have aged really well. I particularly liked when she confesses that she used to be a bit of a bimbo and thus connected with her bimbo character. Atkins is venerated throughout as some sainted avatar from Elysian acting veteran fields for whatever reason when the real object of veneration should be Dick Miller. The Atkins love-fest continues with "Tom Atkins: Man of Action" (20 mins., HD), wherein the actor offers a talking-head autobiography of his career from schooling through Creeps that's interspersed with key, oft-repeated lines from the film. Seven "Deleted Scenes" (SD) contain no increase in tits or splatter but rather seven more minutes of Dekker's juvenile, empty calories, while the "Original Theatrical Ending" quarantines the DC's rimshot in which a stupid-looking spaceship searches Earth for the mind-slugs twenty-plus years after losing them. Make sense? Not remotely. It also doesn't make any sense when Dekker notes in his commentary that the special effects in this film are "pretty good for 1986," considering 1986 is the year of Aliens and Cronenberg's The Fly, for starters. Let's be honest here: the special effects in this picture aren't even pretty good for 1956. The film's theatrical trailer, in HiDef, closes out the disc along with HD spots for Ghostbusters, Hellboy, Men in Black, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Sony's Blu-ray slate. Originally published: October 30, 2009.
*Also not terribly neat that many characters (including a Sgt. Raimi) are named after genre directors in a manner equivalent to flashing a neon "clever" sign whenever they're introduced. What I'm saying is that it's not clever. return