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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Night of the Creeps Fred Dekker 1986

Requiem for a Queen

I'd like to take this moment to mourn the career of Fred Dekker.

Now, Dekker is not the Queen in question here, but I hope to present a clumsily-rendered parallel between his tragically truncated career and the untimely demise of a character from what I think is his best film, Night of the Creeps. Semiotics students and those who found Shakespeare in Love intellectually satisfying will wet their panties over this.

Fred basically had the career that I wish that I had (to a point, at least). He was integrally involved in several films that were downright formative in my development as a movie-watcher, particularly a watcher of horror films. He wrote the story for House, which blew my 12-year-old mind in the way it mingled humor, scares, drama, and action in a tidy, fast, clever package. He wrote several episodes of HBO's Tales from the Crypt series, which similarly winked at horror conventions while doling out dark judgements on its generally greedy or nasty protagonists. He wrote and directed The Monster Squad, which both introduced me to the word "nards" and opened up the world of Universal's horror legends (Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, etc.) to a new generation of horror fans, most of which up to that point probably thought that these icons were moldy old farts compared to the villians of today. The movie is funny, slick, and infused with a love of movies that is hard to beat (although I'd like to pit Dekker against Waxwork's Anthony Hickox in an arm-wrestling match).

But Dekker's biggest contribution to our queer little corner of the world is the excellent, overlooked Night of the Creeps, a film that is just about as perfect as they come. It's got everything -- aliens, zombies, prom dresses, mutant pets, axe maniacs, frat parties, slugs, flamethrowers, convertibles, explosions, decapitations, cryogenics, and... a gay sidekick. Yes, in the oft heterocentric world of 80's studio teen horror, Night of the Creeps emerges a standout in its inclusion of a warm, genuine friendship between a gay and a straight man, and a genuinely heartbreaking scene in which they finally address their bond... after one of them has died.

The basic story is this: Chris (Jason Lively, best known as Rusty from European Vacation, although now he produces Hip Hop instruction videos) and J.C. (Steve Marshall, who, sadly, didn't do much else) are best buds, and Chris has eyes for the lovely but frat-attached Cynthia (Jill Whitlow). His loyal and handicapped sidekick (J.C. walks with crutches) does all that he can to get his shy friend to speak to the lady of his dreams, and ends up getting both of them mixed up in a frat prank that involves stealing a corpse and depositing it on the lawn of a rival house. Of course, this being a Fred Dekker film, the body houses alien slugs that crash-landed twenty years prior and belonged to the boyfriend of the axe-murdered ex-girlfriend of the local hard-boiled police detective (the scene-stealing Tom Atkins of Halloween III and The Fog), which efficiently increases our genre count to 5 (slasher, sci-fi, 50's monster movie, college comedy, and film noir).

The fact that, throughout the ensuing madness (which includes such fabulous set pieces as an overturned bus of dead, horny frat guys in formalwear being zombified by a killer pooch and a dowdy housemistress getting her head split down the middle by a dead axe-murderer while watching Plan 9 from Outer Space), Dekker is able to keep all the balls in the air and still move things along is simply stunning; any lesser director would have fumbled horribly, either displacing too much emphasis onto one of the many subplots or losing the pace altogether. But each string is delightful to watch, be it the suicidal cop trying to reconcile with his guilty past or the sorority house loser mourning over her missing cat. By the time all hell breaks loose and we are treated to the magnificent sight of Cynthia wielding a flamethrower while wearing a satin ball gown, almost nothing could break the spell. Heck -- even the strangely pessimistic ending (in which the slugs cleverly use poochie -- who apparently hasn't exploded like most hosts -- to get our gal in the end) doesn't really kill the mood (although the fact that there were several endings for different formats suggest that it didn't sit entirely well with all viewers).

Now some nay-sayers will argue that because the character of J.C. doesn't take it up the duff in the film he isn't necessarily gay. But this is why I think the movie succeeds in its portrayal of the friendship between a straight man and a gay man. The ease with which J.C. and Chris relate to one another is uncommon for horror films: there is zero posturing, no cruelty, and no competition -- the two of them genuinely want one another to be happy and are willing to go out of their way to help (J.C. more than Chris, perhaps, but the reason for this is addressed as well). They bicker like a married couple and are comfortable with each other in much the same way, and this comfort and trust create a dynamic more akin to a teen girl romp like Shag or Girls Just Wanna Have Fun than a horror film. The clues to J.C.'s sexual orientation are few and subtle, and the fact that the filmmaker doesn't trumpet the fact is incredibly sensitive and progressive for its time. When J.C. finally outs himself (on an audiotape, after he has been killed), it doesn't play as a cheap plot point but rather a moment of emotional depth that is almost laughably ambitious for a film of its kind; and yet the moment works because the bond between the characters has been so firmly established from the onset as a caring, close friendship based on support and affection. When J.C.'s garbled, pained voice croaks, "I love you", it hurts. It's enough to send Chris running to the basement to find his friend, who has sacrificed himself (as most J.C.'s in history do -- even in the Good Book) to save his friend and humanity -- and it's enough to choke up even cynical ol' me. As my inner Oprah would say, "You go, girl"!

Otherwise the camp is of a pansexual variety, and is based on twists on genre conventions and classic movie references, not drag queens or general cuntiness (although there is a nice moment early on when J.C. lets loose with a queeny "That bitch!"). And although my title jokingly refers to the demise of our beloved gay character, he's actually less queeny than his straight partner-in-crime (in fact, the love interest is butcher than both put together, but that's beside the point). Regardless, what Dekker has done is to make a horror movie that literally has it all: friendship, love, scares, humor, nostalgia, camp, drama, tension, and lots of blood and flames and pretty things. That Fred Dekker was knocked from this greatness to doing rewrites for Die Hard 4 and Ricochet is as senseless and tragic as a cripple having the crutches kicked out from under him. Maybe someday, unlike his queer, handicapped hero, he will get the slugs out of his head and start making great movies like this once again. Until then, hunt this one down.

Rating (out of 5):