DIRECTED BY: Fred Dekker
CAST: Jason Lively, Tom Atkins, Steve Marshall
It’s always fun to watch a movie that has a tone unique only to itself. As long as it’s done intentionally, you can’t help but admire what that film is trying to do. Night of the Creeps operates under a very specific and intentional feel, becoming a wonderfully weird mishmash of genre cliches that fully functions under an umbrella of several sub-genre categories, while never feeling like it’s spoofing any of them. Writer/director Fred Dekker keeps the tone of his 1986 film firmly in his grip the entire time, crafting one of the more original horror movies of the era.
Night of the Creeps opens on board an alien spacecraft where one of the aliens is attempting to release a dangerous canister into outer space, but gets chased down by two other members of his species. The evil alien succeeds and the canister eventually crash lands on Earth. We then cut to a black and white world in 1959 where a sorority girl is being courted by her boyfriend when they witness a weird meteorite crashing nearby. The boyfriend investigates, leaving his girlfriend in the car. He quickly finds the canister, from which a small slug-like creature jumps into his mouth. Meanwhile, the girl falls victim to an axe-murderer who, simultaneously, is on the loose throughout town.
While at its best when sending up classic ‘50s horror films during the first 15 minutes of the movie, Night of the Creeps mostly operates in 1986. That’s a step down atmospherically that should have ruined the rest of the film. Instead, we forget all about it once we’re sucked into this bizarre modern world created specifically for this production.
Once we jump to present day we meet two college friends, Chris (Jason Lively) and J.C. (Steve Marshall), who are attending a sorority party when Chris spots the beautiful Cynthia (Jill Whitlow) who he’s terrified to talk to. He and J.C. decide that the only way they will get the sorority girl’s attention is if they pledge a fraternity themselves.
Despite the paint-by-numbers and amateurish exposition, along with the seemingly uninspired banter early on, the rest of the film contains a captivating series of events with masterful storyboarding and direction by Scanlon and his team. Ian and Barley’s mom reveals that their father left them a magical staff that can bring him back to life, but only for one day. Barley, who is enthused by magic card games and believes that magic still exists, tries the spell but it doesn’t work. Ian, who had always written off his brother as clueless, half-heartedly tries the spell for himself and it works…sort of. Their father comes back to life alright, but only from the waist down. Unable to speak to him or see his face, Ian and Barley are determined to find a Phoenix Stone–the only thing that can fulfill the spell. So they set off on a journey, guided by Barley’s knowledge of magic from his card game, to find clues in a world that has become long-overgrown with a very realistic outlook.
This takes them to the antagonistic Beta Epsilon fraternity, who tasks them with stealing a corpse from the medical center and placing the body at the doorstep of a rival frat. Chris and J.C. sneak into the lab and take a cryogenically frozen body that’s being observed in a secret room. The audience sees that it’s the body of the infected boyfriend from back in 1959. He comes to life briefly, scaring off Chris and J.C. who flee the premises. The reanimated corpse then heads into town infecting countless others with the slugs that have been incubating inside his brain for 27 years.
The impetus for all of this havoc being wreaked throughout town is admittedly shaky. From the protagonists’ perspective, the life-threatening risks greatly outweighs the reward. Furthermore, the boys never bother to explore any other options for getting the girl, like maybe Chris just walking over to Cynthia and actually attempting to talk to her first. But instead, they impulsively and hastily decide to join a frat and steal a corpse.
Chris and J.C. meet up with Detective Cameron (Tom Atkins), who, it turns out, we saw earlier in the film as a teenager in 1959. He was the ex-boyfriend of the girl who got axed that night. Cameron is no-doubt the highlight of this movie, and gives us easily its best moments. The brash, yet sympathetic character toys with hard-nosed ‘80s cop stereotypes, but Dekker gives him more depth than that. We see his sweet side on several occasions, but it’s never shoved down our throats either. A lot of what Dekker show during one particular moment, but that’s one of the only things that holds this movie back. Fortunately, Dekker holds the importance of the brotherhood between Chris and J.C. in a high regard, and it shows.
He never haphazardly develops their relationship or forces the issue, yet does so with a maturity and sentimentality that’s pretty rare for 1986.
At times the pacing is clunky, but this just adds to the offbeat charm of the film as a whole. Dekker executes some great directorial decisions, hiding a deceptively deep movie underneath B-movie schlock for any of us who care to uncover it. He never hands us the plot on a plate, but rather allows it to unfold slowly over the course of the movie, letting us have the reward of piecing some of it together ourselves. It’s truly a wonder why Dekker has only been in the director’s seat for a feature film only three times (the other two are Monster Squad and RoboCop 3), this being his debut.
At times the pacing is clunky, but this just adds to the offbeat charm of the film as a whole.
The filmmaker is obviously a fan of classic horror, providing subtle nods to some iconic films such as The Blob and Plan 9 From Outer Space. He also has an obvious passion and respect for horror in general, with a very aware perspective of what the genre was accomplishing around that time–every character who has a last name shares it with one of Dekker’s contemporaries–a mere microcosm of the self-awareness present throughout the project. If you can observe any flaws in this film, I’m almost positive that Dekker is already aware of them. An attentive and clear-thinking director, he not only knows that Night of the Creeps is jocular and goofy, but has made that the intention. It’s the campy horror-comedy so many filmmakers in the ‘80s aspired to create, but few were able to succeed (The Blob remake or TerrorVision also come to mind). This one executes its goal more efficiently than just about any other.