Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
It’s hard to get horror comedy right: you don’t want to be too over the top in either direction. Most films skew one way or the other. On the comedy side, you have films like Evil Dead and Dead Alive. On the horror-leaning side, there are films like An American Werewolf in London and Cabin in the Woods. 1986’s Night of the Creeps aims for the middle.
Written and directed by Fred Dekker, Night of the Creeps mixes elements from a slew of different genres. There’s horror, comedy, science fiction, slasher, action, buddy cop, and more. Dekker doesn’t have a lot of films to his credit, but all his work reflects this love of using many genres. Notice the main characters’ names: Chris’ last name is Romero. Cynthia’s is Cronenberg. There’s Ray Cameron. J.C. stands for James Carpenter. The other cops are named Landis and Raimi. It’s a running gag to see how many references to legends you can spot. Dekker wrote the screenplay for House (1986) and The Monster Squad the following year. His career did stall a little bit with RoboCop 3 in 1993, which I blame on the low budget, minimal violence, and studio interference, but here’s hoping that someday soon he’ll be back in the driver’s seat.
Night of the Creeps starts in 1959 aboard an alien spaceship. The spaceship releases a canister containing an evil slug-like creature. It lands on earth. A pair of college students run across it (plus an axe-wielding maniac). Fast forward to 1986, and we are introduced to Chris and his friend J.C. They both decide to pledge a fraternity so that Chris can gain the attentions of a girl, Cynthia. Fraternity pranks, frozen corpses, and zombies ensue. Will Chris win the girl? Will J.C. the sidekick survive? Will Cynthia kick butt with a blow torch? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.
Jason Lively plays Chris with puppy-dog earnestness. He just wants to be liked. (Side note: Lively is the brother of Teen Witch herself, Robyn Lively, and half-brother of Gossip Girl, Blake Lively). Steve Marshall as J.C. is funny and loyal to his best friend. In the role of Cynthia, Jill Whitlow has that 80s scream queen quality but also a matter-of-factness that gets the job done whether it’s standing up to her boyfriend or killing zombies. It’s a shame that Hollywood wasn’t more open to these three actors: they should have had bigger careers than they did. The real standout is longtime character actor Tom Atkins as Detective Ray Cameron. He gets some of the best one-liners and plays the jaded detective to a tee. Cameron seems like a template for the Martin Riggs character from Lethal Weapon (and Atkins actually shows up in the 1987 film as a war buddy of Riggs).
A great example of Night of the Creeps straddling the fine line between horror and comedy is the bathroom scene. The zombie-making space slugs decide to attack while J.C. is sitting on the commode. When he hears someone enter the bathroom, he makes jokes about the other person taking care of business. These slugs turn their victims into zombies by entering an orifice. Up until now, we see slugs going into the victim’s mouth. J.C.’s situation opens up other possibilities. The scene is played perfectly, balancing funny with suspenseful and scary. Dekker doesn’t even go for the low potty humor jokes. Well done, indeed.
If you’re looking for a fun throwback film that was destined to become an instant cult classic, I highly recommend this one. It uses its small budget well, and although the characters start out as stock, they morph into layered individuals. No one wants to spend the film in their predetermined box, not even the nice puppy down the street.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.