Sunday, October 16, 2011

October 13th: Night of The Creeps (1986)

It's 1959 and Corman University student Pam (Alice Cadogan) is spending the night watching the stars with new boyfriend Johnny (Ken Heron) when they see what appears to be a flaming meteor crash into the woods near Route 66. Discovering the meteor to be a canister from outer space, Johnny is attacked by a slimy leech while Pam is chopped to pieces by an escaped mental patient (Ivan E. Roth).
27 years later, Corman University is celebrating Pledge Week and Chris Romero (Jason Lively) has decided to pledge to a fraternity in the hopes Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow) will notice him. Along with his roommate J.C. Hooper (Steve Marshall), Chris and J.C. are tasked by fraternity leader Brad (Allan Kayser) with stealing a corpse and dumping it in front of the Phi Omega Gamma house. Finding Johnny's body in cryogenic stasis, Chris and J.C. release him, but run when he regains consciousness.
When Johnny's body is found at Cynthia's sorority, Cynthia tells Chris and J.C. that Johnny came to her window and his head split open, with dozens of leeches crawling out. The next night, Chris, Cynthia and the rest of Corman University are preparing for the formal when the leeches re-appear; killing many of the fraternity brothers, the leeches possess their corpses and start attacking the student body. Armed with shotguns and flamethrowers, Chris and Cynthia fight back, joining forces with Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins), a grizzled detective with a personal connection to the creeps.
Growing up, one of my all-time favorite movies was Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad, which told the story of monster-loving children fighting iconic horror villains Dracula, Frankenstein's Creature, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. As a fan of the Universal Studio Monster classics from the '30s and '40s, I fell in love with The Monster Squad and my infatuation with the film continues to this day.
Night of The Creeps is not that film. As much as I was looking forward to it and hoping Dekker's first outing as director would be as enjoyable as his second, I was disappointed with the finished product. Rather than being a successful blend of horror and humor, it feels like a misguided homage to science fiction films from the 1950s, zombie movies from the '60s, slasher films from the '70s, and special-effects extravaganzas from the '80s.
While I enjoy a good homage (Tremors, another childhood favorite), Night of The Creeps' mistake was to not go with just one genre. This was clearly meant to be an update/homage to '50s sci-fi classics, especially The Blob and Invasion of The Body Snatchers, and Dekker should have stuck to that. The presence of zombies and an axe-wielding psycho make no sense.
I get the impression Dekker had a bunch of different ideas for this movie, but made the poor mistake to throw all these unrelated ideas together. The result is a film with no real sense of direction, not to mention tone. I'm assuming Dekker meant to make a horror comedy here, but there's no cohesion. In good horror comedies, the director makes it abundantly clear what you're supposed to find funny and what's supposed to be horrifying. Night of The Creeps is just messy and feels tossed together, as if Dekker had no vision for what he wanted.
Dekker also struggles with pacing the film right. The Blob, clearly the template here, had the Blob land on earth and make contact with mankind within the first ten minutes while the characters and their relationships were being established. In Night of The Creeps, the Creeps land on Earth and make contact with Johnny; then, we're subjected to Pam getting hacked up (albeit offscreen), followed by 20 groan-inducing minutes of character setup. Now I get that character setup is needed, but Dekker could've incorporated this so much better into the beginning of the film by having the Creeps land on earth in modern day and Chris, J.C. or some fraternity brother discovering it, at which point the Creeps escape. Opening the movie in 1959 and showing how the Creeps got to Earth just feels disjointed and misplaced in the rest of the film.
That being said, I'd be willing to be more forgiving were Dekker to introduce strong, enjoyable characters like he did in The Monster Squad. That, to be polite, sure as hell ain't happening here. Meet Chris, played by actor Jason Lively, half-brother to actress Blake Lively of Gossip Girl and The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants fame. I get Chris is supposed to be nerdy and shy, but that doesn't mean he has to be idiotic, not to mention unlikeable. Steve Marshall and Jill Whitlow fare slightly better; they clearly got charisma and acting chops, but the script gives them little chance to show that skill.
Tom Atkins is a beloved icon of '80s horror, best known for his work as Nick Castle in John Carpenter's The Fog and Detective Frank McRae in William Lustig's Maniac Cop; let's not forget films like Halloween III: Season of The Witch, Escape From New York, The Ninth Configuration, and Creepshow. Atkins' grizzled, tough guy attitude is awesome and he always brings something colorful to his work. Night of The Creeps is no exception, although Atkins would've been better served if he were spared such horrid dialogue as "What is this? A homicide or a bad b-movie?," a line ironically suited to my feelings about this film. Furthermore, Dekker plays up Atkins as being semi-unhinged, but it goes nowhere and he just doesn't get enough to do, other than show up and say "Thrill Me" every other sentence. "Thrill Me" is an awesome catchphrase, but it's said way too many times. It's like if Bruce Campbell said "Groovy" every five minutes in Evil Dead II.
What of the Creeps themselves? They might be small, but size matters not. Gremlins and Kingdom of The Spiders both showed that small monsters can be frightening; the key is that there has to be hundreds of them, organized and striking with intent. The creeps are barely seen and when they are visible, they're few in numbers, save for one stop-motion animation shot in the climax. Not only that, the Creeps never come off as intelligent foes, but rather parasites infecting at random. They're just not a big threat; all you have to do is keep your mouth closed and it's game over. They're also easily killed, just like the zombies in George Romero's films.
Unlike Romero's zombies, the Creeps aren't intimidating or in large numbers. The makeup designs are nothing spectacular, which is surprising given that proven effects artists like David Miller, who designed Freddy Krueger's makeup for the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger, who would form KNB with Greg Nicotero two years later, worked on the effects. Either they had no creative say here, or they just took an easy paycheck. Either way, the Creeps are unmemorable and unsatisfying as antagonists.
The film's most unforgivable mistake, more than the bad characters, painful dialogue and overstuffed script, is its climax. Rather than getting the epic, flamethrowing, shotgun-toting battle royale this film should have had, we get Chris and Cynthia killing Creeps from a distance and Detective Cameron shooting in a circle before blowing the house up, all accomplished with less than 20 MINUTES to go. After all this unnecessary 1959 buildup and worthless character development, we're treated to a wham, bam, thank you ma'am finale with no payoff and no satisfaction.
I got good news and bad news. The good news is Tom Atkins makes the most out of his role and turns in another kickass performance. The bad news, pray tell? Everything else sucks. The characters are unlikeable heroes, the Creeps are ineffective villains, the special effects fail, and the script is confusing and oversaturated with homage after homage. While I still hold Dekker up in high regard for The Monster Squad, I'm starting to think Shane Black was that film's ace card. Night of The Creeps sure could have used Black's talents behind the script because, at least at this point, Dekker doesn't have it. 1.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 14th: The Thing (2011)

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