Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mini-Monsterthon: Night of the Creeps

Blending comedy and horror is something filmmakers have done a lot, but it's always fraught with peril. Unless you're outright spoofing the genre, you have to balance the tone and make sure the audience doesn't get whiplash, and too often a horror comedy (or comedic horror film, or whatever) will turn into a bland mush without the courage of either conviction. Night of the Creeps stays on the lighter side of the equation for about 90% of the time, throws in just enough drama to keep things interesting, and the resulting mixture is fairly pleasant. There are a few amateur touches and some problems with the story, but it's definitely one of the good B-movies.

A strange canister is ejected from an alien spacecraft and lands on Earth in 1959, disgorging a worm creature that burrows itself into the head of a local college student. Local scientists put the student on ice, until years later, when freshmen Chris (Jason Lively) and J.C. (Steve Marshall) accidentally thaw him out when trying to pull a prank to get into the college's most exclusive fraternity, so that the former can get closer to sorority dreamgirl Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow.) The unfrozen student, now a host for alien brain worms, soon dies explosively and releases many of the sluglike creatures, which hide around campus and slowly start infecting people, just in time for the big dance.

This is a very silly film, which is established when the first scenes of the films show babylike aliens shooting rayguns at each other in a half-scale corridor. The 50s sequences are shot mostly in black and white, there are references to that immortal alien-undead classic Plan Nine from Outer Space, and Cynthia Cronenberg isn't the only character named after a prominent genre director. J.C., a nice amiable paraplegic, provides some gentle comic relief, and the Beta fraternity is straight out of Animal House (or one of its many ripoffs.) By 1986, the initial wave of slasher films had played itself out, and there was a move towards different, more inventive kinds of horror, including the comical. Night of the Creeps checks off a few of the required cliches, including gratuitous sex and violence, but doesn't overdose on either- there's a certain comic restraint that makes it agreeable.

The film isn't entirely a comedy, and its detours into more serious horror have mixed results. There's a lengthy subplot involving Tom Atkins as a detective obsessed with a serial killer who axed his estranged girlfriend on that fateful night in 1959, and it's never clear how seriously we're supposed to take all this, and though it's relevant to the overall story it feels like a subplot that's been grafted on. More successful is a scene involving one character's enslavement by the creatures and their strange, heartfelt goodbye as the alien mind takes over.

The best moments of the film are when it's focusing on delivering full creature feature mayhem in all its implausibility. It's never really scary, but it's lively and inventive, with one sequence in particular anticipating Peter Jackson's Brain Dead. The climax revolves around an attack on the sorority house by zombified fraternity brothers, which leads to the classic line, "The good news is, your dates are here. The bad news is, they're dead." It's that kind of movie.

Night of the Creeps isn't the most memorable of horror comedies but it's successful at negotiating the balance between the two genres, and that's a rare accomplishment in and of itself. It's got a solid if occasionally oddly constructed story, some interesting visuals, and an overall good-natured vibe that makes one inclined to forgive its shortcomings. It's a solid addition to any seasonal horror marathon, warts and all.

Written and Directed by Fred Dekker

Grade: B

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