NIGHT OF THE CREEPS - Blu-ray review

What's not to like about alien leeches that attack the brain and turn people into zombies?

James Plath's picture

A third of the way through "Night of the Creeps," a hard-boiled detective who never left the Fifties quips, "What is this? A homicide, or a bad B movie?" Later, as a Greek housemother sits in front of her TV-set, she's tuned to Ed Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space," which some have called the worst B movie of them all. And if you didn't get that the main characters are named for B-movie and horror/sci-fi directors, perhaps you caught the sign advertising the campus where it all takes place: Corman University. As in Roger Corman, the legendary B-movie director and producer who gave us 385 films shot on the cheap during his Hollywood career--though Corman preferred the term "low-budget exploitation films."

So what would you call a $5 million tongue-in-cheek homage to horror/alien B movies that's deliberately campy? A B+ movie?

Corman knew he was peddling cheap thrills, and so does writer-director Fred Dekker, who was born in 1959, the year that this film begins and the year that Ed Wood gave us "Plan 9" and Corman unleashed his "Attack of the Giant Leeches." The year before that, Corman produced "The Brain Eaters," and it's no coincidence that Dekker's plot involves leech-like critters from outer space that enter humans through the mouth, then lay eggs in their brains and expand, multiplying, so the leeches basically take over and turn them into zombies. And it's probably no coincidence that we fast-forward in time from 1959 to 1986, the year this film was released and also James Cameron's "Aliens," in which main character Sigourney Weaver revives decades later and finds that the pesky aliens she'd already dealt with have multiplied and are now infiltrating a human settlement. In this film, Det. Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins) is the living anachronism, while everyone else has gone into the future. He still drives an old car from the Fifties and puts his little red light on the top, while the rest of the cops drive modern squad cars with flashing blue lights. And he still dresses and acts like a Fifties-era detective.

In 1959, Ray was called to the scene where a make-out couple was murdered--the guy discovered in a trench in the woods made by a space capsule that crash-landed, and the girl (his girlfriend who dumped him) discovered in a billion pieces, hacked to death by an axe murderer who escaped from the mental hospital. Creature killers and a psycho, both laid to rest . . . until now. Now, people are getting hacked up again (because these leeches have the ability to somehow reanimate corpses as well as taking over the living) and the leeches are running rampant.

If you've ever seen "The Blob" or any number of B-movie horror movies like it, the story always involves high school or college-age kids who make the discovery and play that oh-so-common horror genre game of attrition, usually in the dark, alone. Who dies or gets transformed first? Second? Third? Which towns get overrun or trampled? And how long before the scientist(s), military, or cops track down the source of terror and figure out how to stop it? It's a simple formula, and Dekker doesn't deviate from it. In fact, he celebrates the formula.

The focus is on a couple of college nerd roommates named Chris Romero (as in George A. "Night of the Living Dead" Romero) and James Carpenter "J.C." Hooper (as in John "Halloween," "Terror from Space" Carpenter and Tobe "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" Hooper). As with any high-school or college setting, we get the usual dorks wanting to get laid plot, with Chris having the hots for Cynthia Cronenberg (as in David "Scanners," "The Fly" Cronenberg). But she goes for Betas, and that means the hapless roommates are forced to confront the cool-guy bullies to ask how they can become members. Steal a corpse and dump it on a rival house's lawn, they're told. And somehow they manage to get to the facility where the corpse with those alien leeches still trapped inside it has been cryogenically frozen all these years. Sometimes it's a nuclear blast that activates the monsters; this time it's a fraternity prank.

There's not much more to tell, except that surprisingly, for a tongue-in-cheek self-aware movie, Dekker doesn't deal much in parody or even satire. He doesn't have a lot to say about the genre--no axe to grind (so to speak). There are plenty of subtle tongue-in-cheek moments, though, as when on a dark, isolated road after a space capsule crashes the guy leaps out of the convertible and disappears into the woods. "You stay here," he tells her. "You're kidding, right?" she replies. At such times, you get Dekker's playful wink-wink at genre conventions, while other times he just seems happy to craft a film in the mold of all those B-movie horror and sci-fi alien flicks that apparently made a big impression on him. It's pure homage, from start to finish, and Dekker stays faithful to all of the B-movie conventions. Which is to say, "Night of the Creeps" doesn't really bust out of the monster suit or try to bedazzle it. It's a film that's simply content to wear the suit, trusting that audiences won't have changed all that much since Corman's time.

"Night of he Creeps" Director's Cut is unrated, but of course where there are college girls there's a shower scene with frontal nudity. And there's the usual traumatize-you gore. Though I'll say this: when you see the "aliens" who are obviously humans wearing alien suits in low-budget Ed Wood fashion, and you see them jettison their experiment looking a bit like evil Teletubbies, it's hard to get scared. And the tone is set to relax and giggle a bit through the rest of the film, too. Actors Jason Lively (Chris), Steve Marshall (J.C.), Jill Whitlow (Cynthia), Ken Heron (as the egocentric frat leader), and Atkins must have been forced to watch some of Dekker's favorite B movies, because they deliver spot-on performances. Not great performances, mind you. Just performances that remind us of those B-talent B-movies. But hey, it works.

"Night of the Creeps" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and while I saw no artifacts from the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, there were a few moments of skip-print playback that may be the result of the disc, or may be the result of player incompatibility. It's nothing serious or terribly distracting, but I thought it worth mentioning. Dekker does a nice job of aging the black-and-white sequences so that you even see "emulsion" flaws on the film, along with a nice layer of film grain. The picture gets clearer and finer-textured when we jump to 1986 and color, though there's still slight grain throughout. But black levels are strong, skin tones are acceptable, and for a modern B movie "Night of the Creeps" looks pretty good in Blu-ray.

The audio is even stronger, and for a horror/thriller sound design is crucial. All six speakers get involved, and the FX are nicely delivered and naturally spread across the channels. There are only a few instances where sound emanates from a source that seems slightly off-location. Overall, though, there's a nice dynamism to the English 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. Subtitles are in English and English SDH.

Surprisingly, there's a decent bundle of bonus features here. It all starts with a nice commentary from Dekker and business partner Michael Felsher, who pick apart the film and talk about what contributes to the B-movie feel and also talk about things they learned NOT to do. For fans of the genre, it's a must-hear commentary.

I can't say the same about the actors' track, though, which features Atkins, Lively, Marshall, and Whitlow on a banter-track that doesn't yield the same level of information or even anecdotes. But fans will probably enjoy it, still.

Included on this Blu-ray (which is BD-Live enabled) is a trivia track that's pretty average, with Atkins taking us on a tour of Pittsburgh and talking about his career and movie. Other bonus features include an hour-long documentary that touches on the writing, the B-movie "touch," casting, production, special effects and make-up, the musical score, and the director's cut version of the film. Rounding out the bonus features are seven deleted scenes that run about a minute each and the theatrical trailer.

Bottom Line:
It's hard not to like a film where a hard-boiled detective seems oblivious to three decades of progress as he continues to live and talk like a Fifties' gumshoe, surrounded by detective magazines. And what's not to like about alien leeches that attack the brain and turn people into zombies? This B movie may be restricted by the B-movie conventions it pays homage to, but it's still fun.


Film Value