We all know that this Halloween will not look like other Halloweens from years past. And yet, the month of October waits for us all the same. It is about time we put the spirit of Halloween back into that abandoned department store that we call the year of 2020. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema have put together a curated, month-long series called Screen Screams. This time, we will be covering all things zombies. And tonight’s program is a personal favorite of mine, the ever zany Night of the Creeps.
Where do I start? Night of the Creeps does not merely follow one-track-minded horror conventions. It pulls a few pages from John Hughes’ handbook, throws in a line or two about slashers and sci-fi, and obviously concludes with the living dead. All the while nudging our elbows with the sort of self-aware mischief you might expect from the 1990s. Writer/director Fred Dekker has a kaleidoscopic vision here, and within all those brilliant rings of light, not one color seems out of place in the hodgepodge. It all feels so cohesive that you cannot help but wonder if witchcraft was involved. Rest assured, you won’t find witches in this film. Night of the Creeps is cinematic magic, that’s all.
You will be convinced by the opening shot alone. No, the story does not tread on the familiar grounds of a cemetery, that’s too easy. Instead, Dekker gives meaning to the phrase ‘the sky is the limit’ because we open aboard a spaceship, with a rogue alien shooting an experimental capsule out into space. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Earth, the capsule lands smack dab into the black-and-white photography of 1956, where a college couple mistakes the capsule for a crash-landed shooting star. As they go out to investigate, two unsuspected frights come into play. An ax-wielding insane asylum patient and parasitic slugs from space. If that all sounds overwhelming, then just you wait until we jump twenty-seven years into the future at pledge week.
Chris Romero (get it?), our university outcast, has a tough time talking to girls. Supported with the help of his best friend J.C. (John Carpenter?), Chris soon falls in love with Cynthia Cronenberg (Alright, you get the point). He will do just about anything to impress her, even if it means joining a fraternity. And so, hazing ensues, and our heroes break into a research lab, where they steal a cadaver from a cryogenic chamber for the noble task of setting it on the front steps of a rival fraternity. All of this may sound fine and dandy, if it was not for the cadaver still being alive, setting into motion a disaster as these space slugs reawaken past demons and reanimate the dead. And yet, I promise this movie is not scatter-brained. Dekker has all of his brain cells in check.
If he was missing a few, then we would not have gotten one of the greatest performances in all of horror. Enter the legend himself, Tom Atkins as Detective Ray Cameron. This man can act. Although most campy B movies delight in the absurdity of their premises, rarely do we ever see charismatic performances from them. Instead, you might find actors as wooden as tree trunks. But not with Atkins. He does not give his role the sort of impression that he is in on the joke. Sure, he has his one-liners, but he does not let them define him, and we soon come to care for him in ways that you may not find in other smug and ironic flicks. Those types of movies always indulge in winking at audiences-in-the-know-of-pop-culture, but rarely do they commit to anything else.
You do not need to know everything there is to know about horror to enjoy Night of the Creeps. If anything, it serves as an entry point for what came before it. A love letter to cheese. Late-night monster features at drive-ins and rinky dinky video stores. And yet, it also stands alone as just another 80’s college flick about girls and jocks and nerds. A familiar sub-genre to us all, but one that I personally adore the most, even if Creeps raises the romantic stakes. After all, we are talking about brain-eating slugs, zombies, and ax-murderers, aren’t we? But nothing ever feels quite as mean-spirited or outdated as the sex comedies of this film’s time, either. Dekker balances camp with a sensitivity for feeling that you won’t find at Ridgemont High, or anywhere else for that matter.
Jill Whitlow as Cynthia Cronenberg makes for one of my favorite 80’s heartthrobs. I feel some need to talk about her because she has been largely forgotten in the canon. It does not quite make much sense to me. Has Phoebe Cates ever plowed through a horde of zombies with a flamethrower? Has Molly Ringwald ever flicked off her boyfriend with style? I didn’t think so. And to tell you the truth, not once did I ever get the impression that she was merely some nerd’s love interest, either. Whitlow holds her own, whether that be with some loser named “the Bradster” or an alien invasion. The Brat Pack could never. And although it does make me a little sad that she has not gotten the recognition she deserves, I would like to think that she was ahead of her time by a decade, much like this film. – Daniel Hrncir
Night of the Creeps is available on Digital HD and Blu-ray.
The film stars Jason Lively, Steve Marshall, Jill Whitlow, and Tom Atkins.