Feasting on the remains of the American postwar horror canon, 80’s filmmakers employed their overindulgent viewing habits as inspiration for genre reinvention, creating works that bow in reverence to their paranoid cultural ancestry and function as a litmus test for the dedicated few. Though constructing an entire cinematic school from a catalog of annotations sounds unambitious on paper, artists like John Landis and Joe Dante found marrow in the bones of their ancestors, updating the Saturday Matinee structure to incorporate social critique and sanguinary special effects.
Finding humor beneath shock cinema’s solemn stare, Fred Dekker mutated Atomic Age innocence and 70’s cynicism into the butt of the joke, peppering Night of the Creeps with references so deeply ingrained in the cult lexicon that they border on condensation symbol. Unlike his aforementioned kindred spirits, Dekker is far more concerned with playing a visual game of trivia than striking civic or aesthetic poses, allowing his encyclopedic knowledge of tropes and talent to distract from the crux of his divergent narrative threads. Thankfully, his directorial eye absorbed far more than the closing credits, apprehending an ability to coax out claustrophobic atmosphere and the piquancy of the comic medium, salvaging this endearing merger of camp and coming-of-age comedy from the dustbin of vapid homage.
Taking the viewer back to the splendid source of his cinematic muse (1959, to be exact), Dekker shoots a prologue in flat black-and-white, hammering home the primary clichés of the era through dewy-eyed romance and the sway of poodle skirts. He raises the stakes on mid-century schlock by incorporating two antagonists, preserving the prerequisite flying saucer and pairing it with the contemporary slasher, allowing the juxtaposition to define the boundaries of dark fantasy. Though the tonal disparity provoked by these paragons hampers Dekker’s intended conviviality, the visual bill of fare in the introduction and main narrative are ethereal and economical, conjuring shadow and starlight from unremarkable venues and obvious sound stages, transforming empty corridors and cryogenic chambers into hollow, sinister chasms.
Carrying the established adversaries from the commencement into the meat of the motion picture feels both sentimental and satirical, embracing the anodyne nature of nostalgia while dragging it through the mud of modern superficiality. Yet, this marriage of the sincere and sarcastic doesn’t feel deceptive, it simply capitalizes on deviation in the name of farce, reveling in the absurdity of a baby-boomer “corpsical” inseminating Pledge Week pranksters with cranium-splitting alien slugs.
Like most splatstick films, the sentiment is jocular, but the presentation is lurid, continuing Dekker’s passion for contrasting mood and bearing the influence of David Cronenberg’s biological terrors, replete with salivating, penetrative gastropods. The effects team’s ability to realize these repellent creations is splendidly squirm-inducing and moments of animatronic finesse bristle beneath the effortless glide of Robert C. New’s camera, which moves through the set with the fluidity of Sam Raimi’s infamous “Vas-O-Cam.”
Ingenuity aside, these technical triumphs never gel with the scant fragments of expository dialogue, leaving face-to-face interactions hanging in the air without symphonic or directorial accompaniment. The only performer capable of understanding the cadence necessary for the artistically exaggerated is Tom Atkins, lending his chain-smoking detective a tacky catchphrase (“Thrill me!”) and a pair of skeletons in the closet straight Out of the Past. His youthful peers rarely fare as well, confusing volume for candor and struggling to playing the right notes in a juggle between the solemn and the snide, landing each line with the nuance of a Summer stock amateur.
Despite having an atonal cast at loggerheads with an overly eclectic script, Fred Dekker manages to invoke chaos in the final reel, toppling a busload of infected frat boys onto a sorority row lawn and snickering endlessly as carnality and formality clash in the hallowed halls of academia. I’d be remiss to deny the pleasure of this concluding maelstrom, but believe the next generation of horror fanatics improved upon Dekker’s amiable cinematic identity crisis (see Dead Alive and Shaun of the Dead), capitalizing on the merger of the grotesque and goofy without sacrificing wit and substance.
Night of the Creeps (TriStar Pictures, 1986)
Written and Directed by Fred Dekker
Photographed by Robert C. New