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Some Films Deserve a Vote

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES March 2006

In my university days I had served on committees charged with life and death recommendations for fellow instructors – tenure, promotions, contract renewals. One of my compatriots on the committee unvaryingly and unhesitatingly voted in the affirmative no matter how poor the qualifications of the candidate in question. Asked why he did his he answered that everyone deserves at least one vote to keep up hope. Well, I feel something of this for certain films. Oh sure, there are films that are so unquestionably bad they receive the dubious fame of historic standing. The films of Ed Wood, as his “Plan 9 From Out Space”, fall into this category – films so transcendently bad they are good for being camp. But the films that receive my vote, a vote to leave them with something of dignity, are never that bad. They are the ones that tried, that bear some nobler ambition, that even boast of limited technical care and competence. These are not films that enjoy the good fortune of being forgiven because of low budgets or youthful enthusiasms or first-time inexperience, as were “Clerks”, “Blair Witch Project” and more recently, “Cry Wolf”. No, the films for which I harbor compassion do not necessarily aim for a high-minded theme or great artistic quality yet do wish clearly to be compared favorably to the best of the genre in which they were produced, to be seen as serious endeavors – only to laughingly fail. These unlucky films quickly disappear and are forgotten but for their honest, if misbegotten, efforts they have, at least, my lonely vote.

“Night of the Creep” is one such film. It has been strangely unearthed to die a second death for cable film and it may make its channel rounds for the next several years. You would be hard put to it to find “Night of the Creeps” in any of the standard film references – only the 1997 edition of Film Guide begrudgingly recognizes its existence, later editions drop it. Nor will the actors be cited in Halliwell’s, although the director, Fred Dekker and his brief filmography, is. While you might be initially deceived into thinking the film is a parody, the opening announces the year as 1959 and a scene of some remarkably rubbery aliens in a space ship letting slip a canister containing an unidentified experiment, it is not. The canister plummets to earth and found by teenagers necking in an open convertible who, of course, let loose the Creeps at which point the film jumps to 1986. Now right off the bat the filmmaker has made a problem for himself. By 1986, when the film was made, an audience was surely aware of the previous decades of horror films that bore bizarre titles, gaggles of frightened teenagers, and a mysterious and deadly visitor from outer space. What else could be done now save mock those old genre clichés. The beginning of Creeps actually does a fair job of mimicking those 50’s films – same ill-paced editing, same deadpan stilted acting, same contrived dialogue – if this was a black and white you’d think we were back in the 50’s and having a good laugh about it. However, that is not to be for suddenly we’re in the present time and amidst a passel of people doing their best to appear as college students. Confusingly these old/young actors don’t look anything like the college age youth we knew in the 80’s. Nothing at all looks like the world of culture we knew in the 80’s. How to account for the scene of the sorority dance, the woman gowned, background music dreamily playing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”? The men throughout sport neatly coiffed hair and have seemingly been clothed by Lands End. No drugs, no booze – what kind of a college is this?  What’s going on here? Adding to a certain and unintended surreal sensation is the sight now and then of a face that is eerily familiar but you can’t place it – the credits ring no bells, unknown names, who are those ghosts? Stare at the leading actor, a youngish man, it pops into mind; wasn’t he the teen playing Chevy Chase’s son in the 1984 “National Lampoon’s European Vacation”? Look it up, right, Jason Lively. Here’s another, the elderly detective – you’ve seen him in bit parts on television? Credits name him Willy Taylor but a search doesn’t turn up anything more. He’s trying to be seen as a serious actor – hard to do in a ridiculous film. Quick flash of a face in TV’s Growing Pains. And what about the actor who plays the fraternity jock that gets his head blown apart – wasn’t he the juvenile delinquent in Mama’s House? Damn, this film is loaded with aging refugees from old sit-coms. At one time they must have been aspiring Brad Pitts, Nicole Kidmans, Tom Cruises – this must have been their last chance.

There is a sadness to this, all those faces gone after 1986, not to be seen again, their names ignored by compilers of film references. Only the director, for another film or two, manages to survive. Maybe recognizing the errors of overreaching he goes for straight-out goofing. His 1987 “Monster Squad” throws together Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Gill Man and the Mummy – and, I guess, so none of the cast of “Creeps” could hit him up for a job, the panicky youngsters are all pre-teens.

“The Night of the Creeps” tries, it really does, but its hopes for a classic spot in the horror film pantheon, perhaps next to the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or the sleeper box-office smash “Friday the 13th”, are thoroughly dashed. Yet it did try and so gets my vote. By the way, the Creeps are about three inches long, look like leeches, run like cockroaches, jump in your mouth, lay eggs in your head and for unexplained reasons you become a murderous zombie while they incubate.

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