Horror and comedy go together like Henry VIII and spousal murder. Both are cathartic experiences, designed to exploit certain primal emotions and elicit a particular response from the viewer; to that end it makes sense that they compliment each other as they do.
Combined they are the perfect vehicle to explore what is known as ‘gallows humour’, a dark type of comedy focused on misfortune and unpleasant circumstances. It’s like being back at secondary school, where a bully once wedged me into my own backpack. Much to the amusement of all.
There are two types of horror comedy: those that are legitimately enjoyable in their own right – think Shaun of the Dead, Beetlejuice, Gremlins, Fright Night, and so on. And those that emulate the ethos of the B movie. Consciously, or not.
The Evil Dead for all of its attempts at pushing the boundaries of acceptability with its violence is widely considered an accidental horror comedy due to the wooden acting and corny special effects. This unintended appreciation impacted the future of the franchise, as it made the transition to screwball comedy for Evil Dead II. With Army of Darkness and Ash vs Evil Dead, the series became a meta parody of itself and horror tropes in general.
One movie always comes to the forefront of my mind whenever I discuss this subject – Night of the Creeps. A film that sees the B movie identity as an accolade, not a scarlet letter designed to shame it.
Night of the Creeps is a strange film to describe. It’s equal parts fifties’ alien/zombie B picture, teen rom-com, and film noir, in an earnest attempt at creating a truly subversive horror comedy.
Opening with a minor alien invasion in 1959, director Fred Dekker quickly introduces his eclectic key concepts: a young couple encounter the crashed experiment, resulting in the boyfriend being assimilated by a space slug and an escaped mental patient hacking up his date. Flash forward twenty-seven years, and a couple of feckless college kids inadvertently help spread the original contamination; triggering a zombie apocalypse. Dekker’s primary skill is weaving deftly together a playful take on B movie clichés without ever having to resort to anything quite as lowly as outright mockery.
A modern(ish) point of comparison is Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a British TV series that served as a parody the conventions of pulp horror and 80’s television but does so by using those tropes to generate its own brand of humour. In doing so, it gained its own identity and became genuinely funny as opposed to say, Scary Movie 5, which merely points out something and demands that we laugh.
Fred Dekker does the Garth Marenghi thing. Which is why the film noir sequences with Detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins), a bitter cop whose dialogue consists entirely of one-liners, works as well as it does.
Ah, Tom Atkins: the Gherkin to my Big Mac. Regular readers of my reviews will no doubt be aware of my appreciation of Tom Atkins. One of my favourite B movie actors from the Eighties, I’ve always placed him in the same category as Bruce Campbell or Ron Perlman; an actor whose career hasn’t quite gone the way they envisioned, but who has nevertheless ‘owned it’. In his movies he is always the Renaissance man: the rugged doctor who breaks hearts and faces, the soul-searching cop with arresting one-liners, and a top shagger who meets Jamie Lee Curtis and introduces her to the Atkins’ diet in the time it takes a smoker to get off the sofa.
Without the Detective Cameron subplot, I’m not convinced that, for me, Night of the Creeps would have held special appeal. Part of the fun is in his deadpan cynicism at inappropriate moments; such as his spouting “thrill me” whenever he enters grisly crime scenes, or the perfectly delivered: “The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is…they’re dead.” Atkins brings a certain levity to the film. This isn’t to say that the rest of the movie is lacking.
The central plot follows colleague student Chris (Jason Lively) in his attempts to get into a fraternity and win over love interest Cynthia (Jill Whitlow), somehow unleashing the zombie hoards in the process. That screw up must be a small consolation to anyone who has ever embarrassed themselves in front of a prospective partner. Until the parasitic zombies attack on mass, Night of the Creeps feels like a deconstruction of the stereotypical Eighties teen comedy. Chris even has the friend whose sole mission is to help him lose his virginity.
But a smart, rapid-fire script and excellent acting help elevate what could have been two-dimensional characters. By the end, I was genuinely gutted by Cameron’s sacrifice, having grown accustomed to his surly ways. This is unique in the spoof genre, which typically relies on cheap caricatures to establish comedic momentum. Again, it comes down to Night of the Creeps being Dekker’s love letter for the B movie. He knows what he likes about the genre, and fills his movie with appropriate references and sight gags – the Roger Corman College being on the Devil’s Highway, for example.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Night of the Creeps is how marginalised it is. The film stands as Dekker’s great work and one of most efficiently crafted I’ve seen – but still circles the pit of obscurity. Multiple plot threads are strewn together with mastery, and Dekker does more with a one and a half hour runtime than most films do at double its length. Beneath the visceral thrills of exploding heads, Night of the Creeps is a lesson in affectionately sending up a genre. But if you don’t care about the intricacies of filmmaking, then the flame-thrower finale makes for damn awesome watching. Thrill me.