“Thrill me.” This simple phrase, uttered numerous times in Fred Dekker’s 1986 sci-fi horror film Night of the Creeps, is both a command and a challenge. The characters want to be thrilled and so does the audience. Luckily, we both get our wish, as Night of the Creeps still delivers thrills almost 35 years since its debut.
There’s a chance maybe you’ve never heard of Night of the Creeps. This would be understandable. The film was a bomb when it was initially released, but—as tends to be the case with movies of that era—later gained a fan base thanks to home video and cable. Just recently, it got a brand new special edition Blu-ray from Shout Factory, which is how I was able to rewatch it. And yet, even among cult classics, this is still a deep cut. Probably because, despite being a gleeful celebration of ‘80s movie tropes, it only occasionally rises above that. There’s gore, cheesy one-liners, “babes,” “bros,” “nerds,” all of it. It’s basically a hodgepodge of ‘80s hits all rolled into one and only occasionally becomes its own thing.
One place Night of the Creeps gets that balance right is at the beginning. The film has basically the same opening as Star Wars: Some bad guys on a spaceship (who are, in this case, aliens) try to recover a special package from a good guy/alien who shoots the package off of the spaceship. It then lands on a random planet—in this case, Earth. That’s all in color. Cut to 1959 and the whole film goes to black and white as we see the first casualties of this alien invasion.
So, right off the bat, you’re expecting Revenge of the Nerds meets Critters, and Dekker gives you a Star Wars homage meets a 1950s sitcom. It’s jarring and kind of awesome. From there, the film goes back to color and we find ourselves at a row of sorority and frat houses on a 1986 college campus. You’re thinking, “How does this line up with what happened before? Did someone mistakenly edit in scenes from another movie at the beginning of this?”
In 1986 we meet Chris (Jason Lively) and JC (Steve Marshall), two losers who fairly quickly find themselves in the middle of what’s about to become a much bigger story. They mistakenly unlock the alien virus from the beginning of the film, and in the process unleash hell on their campus and the surrounding areas. Throughout this middle section of the film is where Night of the Creeps can, at times, feel like it’s just going through the motions—nerds, jocks, pranks, the occasional head explosion, etc.—some of it is fairly mundane, though it does contain tons of setups that pay off later in the film.
Soon we’re also introduced to Detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins) who joins the boys in trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Ray is a hard-boiled detective from another era. He’s the one who answers the phone “Thrill me” while driving around in an old police car, carrying around a 12-gauge shotgun, drinking Scotch, and munching a cigar. Basically, he’s a walking, talking stereotype, but he gets the best lines in the film and we love him anyway.
Chris and JC’s antics, Ray’s past, the aliens, the flashbacks, all of it comes together by the third act, and though it takes a little bit to get there, it’s all kind of bat shit and amazing. Lawnmowers, flamethrowers, zombie dogs—you name it, the movie probably tosses it in. It feels very Sam Raimi Evil Dead-inspired or a precursor to Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. After two acts that sprinkle the wow moments fairly sparingly, the third act more than makes up for it.
The biggest downside to Night of the Creeps, though, is that it’s very much a product of its era. JC, one of the main characters, has a physical disability which is blamed for his inability to embrace his sexuality, which may or not be hetero. Cynthia, played by Jill Whitlow, is little more than a prize to be won for most of the movie. We see her naked for absolutely no reason and it’s never quite clear why she ends up falling for Chris before the third act. These are both problematic issues, but in an ‘80s movie, you unfortunately just have to roll with them.
At the time characters with disabilities were not handled respectfully, women were more than regularly objectified, and if your movie was R-rated, it was very likely to have female nudity only. The hero rapes a girl in Revenge of the Nerds, Porky’s most famous scene is about spying on women in the shower, Soul Man is “comedy” about a white man posing as black to get a scholarship, etc.. It’s not an excuse for the content, but noting how Hollywood operated at the time is a good way of seeing how far we’ve come and how far we can still go.
Despite that, first-time filmmaker Dekker (who made The Monster Squad a year later) shows the kind of flair that should have made him a household name. Though there are a few questionable directing decisions (like copious shots of feet slowly walking around), most of the film contains hilarious and excellent choices—like adding a character’s eyes popping out to enhance a big crash, or creepy insert shots of zombie pets, or timing the post-kill one-liners just a beat too long to enhance the zing on them. The practical effects throughout are also much better than you’d expect for a relatively low budget movie. Though neither Night of the Creeps nor The Monster Squad were hits when they were released, you can easily see why they both became such cult favorites. They’re directed with a flair of a true film fan who gained even more polish as he went along.
Whether it’s for the first time, or a long-overdue revisit, put Night of the Creeps on your schedule. Sure, not all of the plot points come together as well as they could have. Yes, there are problems when the film is viewed through a 2019 lens. And no, you never feel like you’re watching something iconic. But Night of the Creeps still delivers the goods by blending sci-fi, horror, comedy, melodrama, noir, and more together in a slightly messy, slightly offensive, but otherwise completely entertaining package. Thrill us, it did.
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