23 November 2014

I got good news and I got bad news, girls, beloved B-thespian Tom Atkins intones to a room full of permed-and-panic-stricken sorority sisters, his lantern jaw barely budging (notice how perfectly perpendicular his cigarette remains between his gritted teeth).

The good news is that your dates are here...
What’s the bad news?
...They’re dead.

And so it was that Night of the Creeps (1986) secured its well-deserved station in the pantheon of Horror Films Way Ahead of Their Time.

With its tongue planted so firmly into its own cheek as to punch right through that piece of desiccated flesh, this horror/sci-fi pastiche takes a bite out of nearly every well-tread subgenre and chews it all together into a smooth retro-pulp to spit back down our beak.

No niche goes unnoticed in this ninety-minute mini-masterpiece - which, within the pre-Tarantino era that Creeps was made, by first-time auteur Fred Dekker, feels unfathomably prescient in its hodge-podge homage mise-en-scène. It is no exaggeration to say that Creeps offers up a little bit of everything for horror film fanatics… and then some.

A little dab of teen sci-fi schlock a la The Blob?
Got it.
A pinch of early 80's sex romp comedy a la Porky's?
Got some of that, too.
What about ax-wielding serial killers? Brain-invading space parasites? Animal House frat attacks? Gumshoe-inflected monologuings in the vein of Sam Spade?
It's Miller time.

And lest we criticize Dekker for forgetting to throw in the kitchen sink, we'd be remiss without mentioning the true coup de gras of Creeps - zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. Frat zombies. Dog zombies. Cat zombies. Cryogenically frozen zombies. Handicap zombies. David Paymer zombies. Kitchen sink zombies.

The testament to Dekker's preternatural talents is his uncanny ability to take all these disparate elements and fuse them into one zippy film. The sheer intricacy of the first act, not to mention the precision and care in which Dekker allows his narrative to unfold, is a Rubik's Cube of cinema that should be studied by genre enthusiasts everywhere.

What other film has seamlessly slid within its first fifteen minutes from onboard an extraterrestrial laboratory manned by rubber-suited midgets to a wholesome-as-apple-pie ax-attack in 1950's black-and-white Americana to a synth-saturated college campus circa every 80's sex comedy committed to celluloid?

Even the inspired casting of Jason Lively, heir to the role of Rusty Griswold in National Lampoon's European Vacation, adds a knowing wink to the film’s 80's Technicolor patina, truly making Creeps an undeniable forgotten classic that needs to be heralded as a pre-Scream meta-mashup.

So...why should you Netflix Night of the Creeps right now? Why should you, dear reader, celebrate the long-overdue release of Creeps onto DVD along with me?

Here's a simple check-list:

  • REASON # 1: Creeps is the definitive SAT's for any horror film aficionado. The sheer number of in-jokes littered throughout the movie makes for a fun fanboy test of mettle. Quick pop quiz, kids: See how many characters are named after famous horror directors. (I counted at least ten.)
  • REASON #2: Creeps is a master class in storytelling. Scripts don't get much tighter than this. Spun with an EC Comics-inspired sense of nostalgia, it's nearly impossible not to view this movie as the product of a fevered brain fed on a steady diet of Tales from the Crypt, Dashiell Hammett novels, every horror movie made under the sun, and...Revenge of the Nerds (1984). Dreams of rooming with Dekker back in his UCLA days, along with fellow flat-mates Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) and Chris Matheson (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) in their now-infamous film nerd frat pad are on heavy rotation in my mind nearly every night...
  • REASON #3: Creeps is a subtle lesson in acceptance of homosexuality.
  • Say - what?

    You think I'm joking - but let it be said: What should place Night of the Creeps in the annals of horror film history, beyond being a fun, fun movie - is its achingly under-the-radar secondary storyline of two freshmen roommates, one straight, one gay, and how their friendship endures hardship after hardship all in the midst of an on-campus invasion of zombifying space slugs.

    Creeps centers around "lameoid” Chris (Lively) and wiseacre sidekick J.C. (Steve Marshall). In the thick of pledge week, these two marginalized freshmen navigate their way through a kegger at Corman (ahem) University - only for Chris to discover The Girl of His Dreams: sweet and pretty Cynthia (Jill Whitlow).

    Cynthia is, of course, way out of Chris's league - but that doesn't stop J.C. from doing everything in his power to bring these two young love-birds together...or die trying.

    And I say to myself - What the hell? J.C., the eternal third wheel, explains to Chris. I'm sure as hell never going to get laid, so I may as well help my friend...

    For anyone even remotely familiar with such horror film tropes, it’s simple to see that the deck is tragically stacked against J.C. from the very beginning. If his sense of humor wasn't a dead giveaway, to tip the scales even further away from J.C.'s favor, Dekker gives the kid a damned handicap - a handicap for the love of God, a booming declaration of intent from the director to kill off this doomed character.

    What J.C.'s actual impairment might be is never made clear (Polio? Cerebral palsy? Multiple sclerosis?) - but upon first seeing J.C. strutting across campus with the aid of his arm braces, we know that fate has damned him to the role of death-impending sidekick.

    Much in the same way that horror films are oft-criticized for killing off its characters of color, there seems to be little if any hope for J.C. ever making it to the final reel of the film.

    Even he seems to know it. The sheer selflessness of J.C.'s personality is near saintly (J.C. = Jesus Christ? John Carpenter?), where every gallant act to help his best friend meet his dream girl is bestowed with an air of campy tragedy.

    ...I push and I push and I don't give up, J.C. vents to Chris. And why? Why?! You don't even know. You don't even care. Because it's important to me that you're happy. Is that crazy?

    Granted, the stock sidekick character is nothing new to these kinds of comedies.

    Nearly every 80's sexcapade saddled its protagonist with a slightly-less-attractive, slightly-more-charismatic best bud, someone to slip in a pithy one-liner or two when the hijinks shift into high gear.

    Creeps follows this model to the 'T' - but where J.C. strays from the rest of the cinematic pack of horn-dog Sancho Panzas is that he is, well...queer.

    When you're depressed, J.C. confides in Chris, I'm depressed.
    Yeah, well, Chris jokes back at him, fuck you too.
    You'd try it.
    You'd let me.
    You'd want me to.
    You wish.

    In most hetero-studio movies, the "gay sidekick" has become such a patented cliché, that even the mere fusion of the two words "gay" and "sidekick" could quickly conjure up an entire montage's worth of images of sassy snapping fingers and flashy outfits.

    Mainstream Hollywood uses gay stereotypes as a means to an end for a quick titter in nearly all of its male-dominated comedies (See: Boat Trip), its frat-protagonists parading their homophobic punchlines around with pride - while we in the audience are supposed to laugh and accept this sense of humor as a variant form of male bonding. The bro-down. All dudes do it...because all dudes see dudes in movies do it.

    So I say with all conviction and admiration for Fred Dekker that there's something truly progressive happening here in the midst of his mid-80's horror-comedy. The most shocking element of Night of the Creeps aren't space parasites or ax-maniacs...but the fact that buried within this thick gene-splice of genres is a sincerely moving portrait of two young men, one of whom just-so-happens to love the other. Selflessly, unconditionally.

    Never overt in his sexual orientation, J.C. stands by his oblivious best friend as he pines over the equally oblivious Jill, creating a bizarre love triangle no Erasure song could quantify.

    Enter the space parasites.

    Through a series of comedic mishaps far too complicated to explain here, all revolving around a fraternity pledge prank gone horribly wrong - a horde of zombie-spawning slugs is unleashed onto campus.

    No amount of table salt will kill these little buggers. Fast-moving, they enter your body through your mouth (?), turning your cranium into their own condo in which to lay their eggs - not only bringing about the birth of more space slugs, but turning their human hosts into an ever-growing horde of the walking dead.

    J.C.'s foretold fate is finally met in a bathroom stall, becoming host to his own parasite and thereby providing Creeps with its most tragic - and yes, I'm being very serious here, utterly heartbreaking scene. A handheld tape record becomes the centerpiece to J.C.'s final valiant act as a member of the living before committing self-immolation in their dorm basement. It isn't until Chris stumbles upon the recorder that he realizes his best pal has left him the following message:

    Chris...There's one inside me. Got in through my mouth. I can feel it. It's in my brain. I don't have a pulse. Or a heartbeat. Think I'm dead. I killed one. I lit a match to it. Seems like fire will kill them. I went down to the furnace room. In the basement. If I don't come back... Heat will kill them. I walked, Chris. All by myself - I walked.

    I love you. Good luck with Cynthia.

    It's arguable that for this to be a truly progressive film, the gay-sidekick wouldn't have to sacrifice himself for the sake of the straight kid getting the girl - but I digress.

    For most adolescents who encountered Night of the Creeps either in theaters, on cable, or VHS in the 80's - I would imagine whatever innuendo to J.C.'s sexuality there is simply went over their heads. But on some subconscious level, we young heterosexual suburban viewers encountered a friendship that didn't quite fit the standard bromance we've grown accustomed to in our movies.

    That simple disconnect could potentially lead to further analysis over the dynamic between Chris and J.C. in an attempt to understand the modestly-complicated nature of their friendship. Certain gay stereotypes perpetuated by other 80's movies, both horror and/or comedy, suddenly break down when contrasted against the nuance of J.C.’s character and his relationship to Chris.

    Rather than draw attention to J.C.'s sexual orientation, Dekker lets the truly fraternal bond between these two boys simply exist on its own - no commentary, no bold statements. It simply is what it is - so what we see onscreen is a subtle portrait of a friend whose feelings for his best pal sadly go unrequited. And it's a heartbreaker.

    To grapple with homosexuality in a horror film such as this, it turns what had begun as a modest romp into some rather enlightened viewing. Not bad for a movie that also includes a girl all decked out for the Spring formal brandishing a flame thrower.

    But as Dekker also proved with his equally moving The Monster Squad, stock characters can be infused with a strong emotional undercurrent that resonates long after the end credits. And for a young hetero from below the Bible-belt such as myself to encounter a character like J.C., this film becomes a fundamental building block towards acceptance of sexual identities most Hollywood movies would prefer I just laugh at.

    So, ultimately - as artifacts of 80's cinema goes, Creeps stands out as a true terror objet d'art in its gleeful synthesis of hammy horror and meta-comedy, being both a product of its era and a post-modern commentary on those times. The knowing wink here doesn’t sabotage its sense of storytelling, much in the way that Kevin Williamson's overly self-aware meta-monstrosity Scream confines its characters to its own narrative tropes while attempting to make a critique on them.

    Where the hapless teens in Scream are photocopies of photocopies of characters from other horror films, navigating their way through a hall of mirrors made up of “the rules” of horror - director Dekker decides to let his characters breathe freely within his pastiche, granting them a sense of humanity that would be considered a waste of time in most films of its ilk. Once again, Dekker elects cult fave Mr. Atkins to serve as his proxy, saying it best:

    Zombies? Exploding heads? Creepy crawlies...and a date for the formal? This is classic.

    I couldn't have said it better myself. Night of the Creeps is a classic indeed.

    Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the rigorous storytelling session The Pumpkin Pie Show. He is the author of two books: rest area, a collection of short stories, and miss corpus, a novel, both published by Hyperion. He teaches writing at The Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University.

    Special thanks to Stephen Ryan.

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