Tagline: ‘If you scream… you’re dead!’
Director: Fred Dekker.
Writer: Fred Dekker.
Starring: Tom Atkins, Jason Lively, Steve Marshall, Jill Whitlow, Wally Taylor, Bruce Solomon, Allan Kayser, Ken Heron, Alice Cadogan, June Harris, Suzanne Snyder, Elizabeth Cox
18 / 88min / Horror, Comedy, Science Fiction.
Budget: $5,000,000 (estimated)
How my childhood would have fared without Fred Dekker-penned genre classics such as Night of The Creeps is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as colourful.
Night of The Creeps starts in a spaceship and detours to 1950s America where an axe-wielding killer is terrorising rock ‘n’ roll kids. Subsequently, the viewer is hurtled, via an alien parasite and monochrome axe murder, to the bad pop eighties of a college campus full of frat packers, where shortly after a pledge prank gone awry weird stuff begins to happen and folks begin to die.
Taking its cue from drive-in genre classics of the fifties and mixing in a dash of cut-price noir and some John Hughes inflected teen comedy for extra good measure the film is a hodgepodge of referential craziness, and therein lies its appeal. In a post-everything genre mash composed of seemingly conflicting stylistic components, Dekker’s debut is a knowingly ironic deconstruction of a multitude of archetypes that pre-dates Wes Craven’s Scream by an entire decade.
Whether through use of filmmaker surnames to label characters (Landis, Carpenter, Hooper, Cronenberg, Cameron, and Raimi are just some of the unsubtle monikers in circulation!), TV clips of Ed Wood clunker Plan 9 From Outer Space, cameos by B-movie legend Dick Miller or cheeky references to Dekker’s subsequent feature during the bathroom sequence when ‘Go Monster Squad’ can be seen scrawled on a toilet wall, the film juggles genres like a clown flinging bowling pins.
No genre is disregarded by this movie. Featuring everything from rubber space aliens, axe murderers, suicidal noir detectives, head-popping parasites, zombie jocks, and undead killer pets, Night of the Creeps is horror-comedy gold. It is such a charmingly disorganised and tonally unconventional experience it’s impossible not to grin as it flails through its running time.
A relatively unknown cast of youths, including Jason Lively as mild-to-moderately miserable Chris Romero, and Steve Marshall as his long-suffering, smart mouthed roommate JC, do well with the flippant dialogue, and are ably supported by pretty love interest turned flame-throwing action heroine Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow).
However, the accolade for best in show has to go to Tom Atkins as Detective Cameron, the film’s hand-cannon wielding gumshoe-gone-feral, who munches scenery, cigarettes and quips like rare steak, and whose wildly caricatured presence provides the film’s best comedy scenes.
From the moment he utters the immortal catchphrase “Thrill me!” to the grandiose, blood-soaked finale in which he pretty much steals the show, (and especially in the original ending where he *spoiler alert* inadvertently releases a bunch of creeps via the charred remains of his split-open head into the unfortunate environs of a local cemetery!) there is no doubt that here is an anti-hero whose cult status is assured.
Night of the Creeps treads a fine line between horrific and hilarious and would never have been as enduring without practical effects work to reflect this. On hand to provide them is the legendary David Miller, the man responsible for Freddy Krueger’s terrifying visage in A Nightmare on Elm St, and future KNB EFX alumni Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger, whose work on the film’s creeps and zombies respectfully pays tribute to the Cormanesque schlock that inspired them.
It’s safe to say the film didn’t perform at the box office, sinking without trace upon its initial release and establishing a limited following on VHS amongst dedicated horror fans lucky enough to find a copy. In the intervening years, the film’s reputation has grown, and its influence is now visible in everything from James Gunn’s similarly overlooked 2006 horror-comedy Slither to the early work of Peter Jackson.
After languishing in the horror movie equivalent of the phantom zone for decades, the film has now become a cult movie milestone whose longevity is as much to do with its ironic treatment of subject matter as audience nostalgia for the glory days of top-loader video rentals.
Take your pick. There are enough shot-gunned heads spouting slugs and peeled off faces to fill up any best of kill list. Still, my personal favourite is the lawnmower zombie kill, which would be used to more spectacular effect in Peter Jackson’s 1992 splatterfest Braindead.
Most Admirable Moment
My most admired moment, classic one-liners (of which there are plenty) notwithstanding, is when Detective Cameron spins around (on a dolly by all accounts), shooting his gun with the camera in his face and creating a strangely disorientating waltz-like close up. The excellent editing and weirdness of the shot is as audacious as it is unique and perfectly encapsulates the film’s propensity for off-the-wall, forward-thinking strangeness.
Most Absurd Moment
The tonal and aesthetic shift from an industrial starship filled with diminutive, rubber-suited ET’s to the black and white backdrop of 1950’s American youth culture takes some beating. Still, zombie pets and an undead axe-murdering serial killer give the opening a run for its money in a film that is chock full of absurdist humour.
Most Absurd Dialogue
The film’s standout interaction has to be when Detective Cameron informs a bunch of airhead sorority queens that their dates have arrived. There are plenty of quotable lines in the movie, but this remains the best of an impressive bunch:
Detective Cameron: ‘I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here.’
Sorority Sister: ‘What’s the bad news?’
Detective Cameron: ‘They’re dead.’
Given Night of the Creeps’ durability and the odds it overcame to even be in the running for such an accolade, the very least it deserves as recompense for years in the cinematic wilderness is to take its place near the head of the comedy horror table. As an ode to the past glories of genre cinema it’s a delightfully whimsical offering packed full of quotable dialogue, and as a signpost to the future it remains an innovative gem brimming with inventive carnage that was unjustly dismissed by a film-going public who were unsure of what to make of it.