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Thriller Thursday - Night of the Creeps

There’s been some debate lately in the #MutantFam and #TheLastDriveIn communities about whether or not Tom Atkins is a cinematic god and why you’re wrong if you don’t think so. Most will point to his portrayal of Dr. Dan Challis in Halloween III: Season of the Witch as the film proves to be a rallying cry for both crowds. For me, his turn in Maniac Cop as Frank McCrea hits a little closer to the mark. Ultimately though, the only correct answer is his turn as Detective Ray Cameron in Frank Dekker’s directorial debut, Night of the Creeps.

In the 1950s, a passing space cruiser jettisons a dangerously unstable experiment into a secluded hillside along the fabled Route 66…just as an axe murderer breaks out of a nearby asylum. Two teenagers in their favorite make-out spot find themselves at the intersection of these malevolent forces, one falling prey to the maniac, the other to space-borne parasites. 27 years later, the parasite infected body is loosed from its cryogenic sleep thanks to a pledge prank gone awry. Can three college students and a hard-boiled detective with ties to both past and present events keep this outbreak in check or have these parasites found the perfect planet to call home?

This is one of those movies that I’m ashamed to admit I’m only getting around to seeing now. Released back in 1986, this fantastic film has been sitting under my nose for 36 damn years so if I sound a little overzealous in this review, I’ll be honest, a little bit of it is overcompensation for having been in the dark so long.

The film opens on a starship with 2 aliens that look like mutant babies chasing after a third that’s carrying a large cylinder referred to as ‘the experiment’. While the pursuers insist that it must not leave the ship, the third manages to succeed in his task in jettisoning the object…which of course lands on Earth. From here, we transition to 1959 and the film goes black and white. This segment of the film perfectly captures the feeling of the old 1950’s sci-fi drive-in flicks and while we don’t stay in this segment for very long, it certainly feels like we could. While short and sweet, this bit is vital to setting up the tragic backstory of once Patrolman Cameron, now Detective. However, we’re not given the full story, that waits until later on in the film.

Fast-forwarding 27 years to give us what must be in the top 5 for on-screen character introductions, we find ourselves in the head of the older Cameron in a bright and colorful dream sequence that goes wrong in all the ways you’d expect in a horror movie. It’s from here it’s very clear we’re in an 80s film and, just like with the 50’s segment earlier, it too feels like a perfect time capsule of horror movies and teen comedies of the era: loser main characters? Check. Fraternity douchebags? Check. Sorority hotties? Check. We’re just as much in Revenge of the Nerds territory as we are any kind of 80s horror. But fret not horror fans, it’s made pretty clear which direction we’re going pretty quickly as our frozen patient zero eventually is loosed from his cryogenic prison and the slugs start flying…and heads start exploding.

It is important to note that in a film full of homages, for example, the last names of any character in the film is likely to be the surname of a classic horror director (Romero, Raimi, Cameron, Miner, Chronenberg, etc.) the film at no point feels slavish to those it’s tipping its hat to. Instead, Dekker here creates a picture similar to what one would imagine a horror movie buffet would look like, you choose segments from other films, arrange them on your plate and add your own flavors and from that, something new has emerged. The fact that Dekker’s career behind the lens would prove to be fairly limited is a shame, especially given the potential he shows here in what is both borrowing from those who came before, all the while creating a totally original film.

It’s worth pointing out that even though the story is more typical of zombie films, even though we’re given strands of alien invasion and axe-murderers that could have just as easily taken over the main theme of the flick, like the best of that genre, the quality and gravity of the film depends on the sacrifices made…the impact of characters lost. Obviously, I don’t want to spoil who dies and how or when, but it’s pretty poignant and serves both the story and character development so well. I say this to lead up to the depth afforded to Atkin’s character as a tragic figure. Every time we’re with him onscreen, even though he’s only a supporting character (Jason Lively’s Chris Romero is the main protagonist), we’re reminded of the private hell he’s created for himself by allowing himself to be haunted by past failure. You see, the girl that was hacked up all those years ago had been his girlfriend, out with another man as he was just starting his police career. In fact, and the film isn’t too terribly subtle in this but at the same time it’s a scene that’s pretty unique (at least to me) in cinema, prior to the final act, when he’s called to action one more time, we see Ray setting up for suicide from gas inhalation. It certainly hits the viewer in the feels. And yes, this factors into the argument for Tom’s cinematic divinity: throughout the film he’s given us this gruff, edgy, no-nonsense detective that easily lives in the world that Dekker creates for him, signaling how trapped in the past he is by his 50’s era car and being surrounded by the fiction of Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett. The fact that he makes us laugh so much at his one liners all the while that if we really look, we could just as easily cry for him is some damn fine acting. So, yeah, long way to say “Tom Atkins Rules”, isn’t it?

As is always the case, when reviewing a horror movie, of course there must be some discussion of the gore effects and Night of the Creeps doesn’t disappoint. Now, mind you, we’re still in the heyday of the Valenti MPAA, so it’s not like we’re analyzing the hacking of the Friday the 13th films, but if you’re in the market for heads-a-poppin, zombies (including zombie dogs and cats) alien slugs, then I can assure you, you’re in the right spot. Each kill we get here is satisfying and the make-up effects are on par for what we’d expect in the practical effects glory days of the mid to late 80s. While I suspect that it’s a matter of taste, really the only effects I had issue with were the giant babies at the start of the film, but given the tongue-in-cheek spirit of the film, I cannot help but think that was intentional, so as to set viewer expectations right off the bat.

Lastly, it’s worth saying that while I didn’t find anything particularly special about the score to the film, it is a standard synth score typical of the time and as such, as a child of the 80s, sounds perfectly fine.

Night of the Creeps is a horror classic, and the fact that I’m just finding this out continues to bother me. I’ve watched it three times prior to writing this review and if I’m honest, there’s a damn good chance I’m gonna watch it again once I finish this up. The cast gels exceptionally well allowing for the emotions the viewer needs to feel in the span of the film to arise easily. And yes, Tom Atkins steals the show here in every scene he’s in. His Ray Cameron alone damn near carries this movie to the perfect Hypno Cat rating it deserves, the fact that the remainder of the characters and production also climb to and meet this high standard, again, make this film a bonafide classic. If you haven’t seen this yet, like I was for so many years, do yourself a favor, stop reading this damn review and watch it. NOW!

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