HAPPY (belated) 87th BIRTHDAY, TOM ATKINS!!!
The man, the myth the legend…Tom Atkins turned 87 yesterday!
The girls of Theta Pi stalked by a killer in Sorority Row
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Fred Dekker wrote and directed 2 of my favorite 80’s guilty pleasures, the underrated The Monster Squad (our second feature) and this B-movie blast, Night of the Creeps. A fun sci-fi/ horror that is not only a homage to the drive-in flicks of the 50’s, but is nostalgically 80’s now, too. Creeps starts out with a desperate chase inside an alien spaceship where a fugitive releases a tube from the ship carrying an “experiment” before being gunned down by his fellow crew members. The tube lands on earth in 1959 where two college students are on a date at a make-out point. The young man sees the tube land and heads into the woods to find it. His pretty date remains behind and is killed by an escaped ax murder while her date gets a face full of alien slugs when he finds the tube and it opens. We then move forward almost 30 years later where dorky college freshman Chris (Jason Lively) and handicapped bud J.C. (Steve Marshall) are desperate to join a fraternity, so Chris can impress beautiful sorority girl Cindy (Jill Whitlow). A little too anxious to accomplish an initiation prank they are assigned to carry out at the morgue, the two wander into the wrong room and wind up letting loose a frozen corpse from suspended animation…that of the young man infected by the alien slugs in the opening sequence. Now with fellow students being infected by the freed creatures and zombifying, the two team up with Cindy and a detective with a past linked to the 1959 ax murder (a great Tom Atkins) to try to stop the alien invasion from spreading through the entire campus and then the world.
Night Of The Creeps is a lot of fun. The whole thing is tongue in cheek from the campy dialog to every major character having the last name of a horror movie director. And, best of all, the audience is in on the fun. Dekker does take his material seriously to a degree so not to make a complete joke out of it and so it does have some suspense and tension, but in the spirit of the drive-in movies of the 50s, lets the deliberately absurd material, bathed with homage, deliver the fun. The cast also play their parts straight and are all good with Atkins’ cynical and grumpy Detective Cameron stealing the show with his one liners and our three leads giving us some very likable heroes and heroines to root for. Whitlow also makes for a fetching flame thrower wielding sorority girl. The entire cast seems to get the tone of the material and it really makes this work. The FX are really good too and there is some nice and abundant gore to go along with the slimy critters and their army of co-ed zombies.
A real fun homage to the sci-fi horrors of yesteryear, as well as, a great slice of fun 80s horror, too. How can you not like a movie with the line “I’ve got good news and bad news, girls… the good news is your dates are here…’what’s the bad news?’… they’re dead!”
MONSTERZERO NJ TRIVIA: Keep an observant eye out as Dekker gives a little shout out to his next movie The Monster Squad in a scene with J.C.
3 and 1/2 infected aliens!
Slither is a really fun sci-fi/comedy from writer/director James Gunn who helmed Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy flick. This creepy, gooey story is set in the small town of Wheelsy, South Carolina where a meteorite crash lands in the woods and is happened upon by two-timing husband Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) while out messing around with a local girl. Grant is stuck in the chest by some kind of organic dart from within the object and immediately starts to change physically and behaviorally. At first he tells his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) it’s an allergic reaction to a bee sting, but as Grant starts chowing down on the local pets and begins transforming into something otherworldly, Starla turns to Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) for help. As fate would have it, Starla Grant has also been the apple of Sheriff Pardy’s eye since they were kids and as the two former school sweethearts try to figure out why Grant is transforming into a ‘squid’. Meanwhile Grant impregnates local girl-toy Brenda (Brenda James), who then gives birth to hundreds of slug-like creatures who set upon the town entering their victims through their mouths and turning the locals into zombies at alien infected Grant’s command. Can Bill, Starla and whoever is left stop this extraterrestrial threat and save Wheesley and the world from this slimy alien incursion?
Gunn directs this fun flick with tongue firmly in cheek. The film doesn’t make a joke out of it’s homage filled story, but never takes itself too seriously either. And while it is light in tone, it is not without it’s share of suspense and chills. The cast are all having a good time with Fillion once again showing he can play comedy and be a charming leading man. Rooker is delightfully over the top as the infected Grant. The actor is having a blast as he transforms into an alien creature who seems to enjoy some of the side benefits of being human, such as his host’s pretty wife. Banks is quite feisty as Starla and makes a fun combo of damsel and heroine and has a great chemistry with both Rooker and Fillion. Also in the cast is Gregg Henry as the obnoxious ass of a Mayor who goes by the name of R.J. MacReady (a nod to Carpenter’s The Thing) and The Office’s Jenna Fischer in a small role as Sheriff Pardy’s sassy receptionist Shelby. The make-up FX are excellent with Grant going through numerous stages as he transforms and of course the activities of his slug-like minions and their carnage are well portrayed. It is a mix of practical and CGI, but it appears mostly practical with some very well done CGI in support, the way it should be. The production value is high on this modestly budgeted film and there is an effective score by Tyler Bates to add atmosphere.
Whether it’s paying homage to The Thing, The Shivers, Night Of The Creeps or The Blob to name a few, Slither is just a real fun, gory and very entertaining night at the movies with a great cast and it’s heart in the right place. Much like some of the films it pays tribute to, Slither was sadly overlooked when it first came out, but seems to have now found it’s audience and developed a bit of a cult following. A highly recommended and delightfully gooey movie.
3 and 1/2 disturbingly shaped alien slugs.
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Honorable Mention: SLITHER
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1. Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo
2. The Fog
6. Maniac Cop
7. Two Evil Eyes
9. My Bloody Valentine (2009)
10. Drive Angry
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To me, the 80s is one of the best decades ever for horror flicks…with the 70s following right behind it. Sure, every decade since films started being made has it’s classics from 1922’s Nosfeatu to 2007’s Trick ‘r’ Treat, but in terms of sheer proliferation and the number of classics that came out of it, the 80s was an amazing time to be a horror movie fan and I am glad I was in my theater seat for it all the way. And as I have said before, it was a time where low-budget B horrors could still be seen in a theater, where they belong and a time I will always cherish. I will also admit there was a lot of garbage to sift through to get to the gold, but even those had their entertainment value, especially when you and your friends were sitting in your seats giving those lesser efforts the old MST3K treatment, years before that show even existed…and that classic show is also a product of the 80s, might I add. But the one thing I also find striking about 80s horror is a distinct tonal shift in the style of horror flicks as the decade wore on that can only be appreciated now as we look back in nostalgia. Darker and more somber slashers became flicks that were lighter in tone, more colorful and with far more of a sense of fun about themselves. Let’s take a look…
John Carpenter’s Halloween may not have been the first slasher, but it is the film whose success started the early 80s slasher trend as studios and indie filmmakers realized you could make a lot of money on a shoestring budget. The early 80s cinemas became filled with films that followed the slasher formula with the stories being set on or around a special event or time, such as the prom in Prom Night, or college hazing as in Hell Night, or a fateful day like Friday The 13th. And then, within that setting, having a group of young high school or college co-eds being stalked and cut down by a killer with a grudge, till one feisty young girl…or sometimes a couple…is left to fend off our killer. For the most part these films took themselves very seriously and had a somber mood and moderate pace with the violence level being anywhere from fairly tame, like in thrillers like Terror Train or over-the-top gory as in Willaim Lustig’s Maniac or Charles Kaufman’s Mother’s Day…though, let’s not forget that some of the gorier entries where a result of the success of George Romero’s ultra-violent Dawn Of The Dead which started it’s own trend of extremely violent horrors that predominately came out of Italy and was spearheaded by filmmakers like Lucio Fulci. There were some rare instances where a director had a more humorous approach like Joe Dante’s The Howling or An American Werewolf in London, but horror/comedy is nothing new and the early 80s horror films predominately followed a more serious direction at this point in time.
Monster movies like The Boogens or Without Warning or supernatural horrors like The Fog and The Boogeyman also followed the slasher format with victims being isolated and killed off one by one, leaving a frightened heroine to fend for herself with the occasional surviving love interest to help her survive. And for the first two or three years of the decade, theaters where inundated with such horrors to the delight of screaming fans. And we got many a classic horror flick out of it. But like any trend, such as the 70s possession flick trend inspired by The Exorcist, these things run their course. But not only did 80s horror start to open up with more supernatural themed flicks like the A Nightmare On Elm Street films, that cleverly added an incorporeal villain and surreal elements to the slasher formula, but the films started to reflect the overall buoyant mood of the 80s with brighter cinematography, more humorous tones and even began to reference and acknowledge past films and filmmakers. The first ‘inside’ reference I can remember was Sam Raimi’s subtle shout-out to Wes Craven by having a The Hills Have Eyes poster displayed in the basement of the old cabin in 1981’s The Evil Dead…to which Craven responded by having Heather Langenkamp watching Evil Dead on TV in the first Elm St movie. In terms of the lighter tone, the first time I noticed it was back in 1982 with Friday The 13th Part 3. When I saw it at my beloved Oritani Theater, I was kind of taken back by it all. The film had a very colorful production design, had a lot more humor than the first two installments…including characters that seemed to be there just for comic relief…and seemed to almost be having fun with the fact that we’ve been through this twice before. Jason went from a creepy, deformed backwoodsman to a hulking comic-bookish monster complete with iconic hockey mask. The film’s trademark kills were a bit more elaborate and far-fetched, as if the filmmakers were getting a bit playful with Jason’s M.O. The tone shift seemed to be starting, but without knowing what was to come in following years, I was simply disappointed with the flick and had no idea the trend would continue.
And the shift did continue with the advent of Freddy Krueger who was creepy at first, but quickly became a wisecracking, demonic gremlin that pulled people into his dream world for elaborate and outrageously gimmick-laden fates. The movies were far more fun than scary, but these films at least were more creative and imaginative than the simple stalk and kill films that came before them, though I missed the intensity and the serious tone of films like The Prowler. Flicks also started to jokingly reference their inspirations, like 1986’s Night Of The Creeps which names every character after a horror film director of that era like “Chris Romero”, “Cynthia Cronenberg” and James Carpenter-Hooper”. We also got MTV inspired films like the music filled and music video styled Return Of The Living Dead, the classic The Lost Boys, as well as, the neon-lit Vamp. Those films were far more entertaining than they were frightening as The Lost Boys even has a touch of Spielberg in it’s over-all tone…reminding us of the stark example of what happened when Carpenter’s grim and gory extraterrestrial The Thing went up against Spielberg’s bug eyed visitor from E.T. in 1982. No better an example of the start of audience change of taste in the 80s than was the beating Carpenter’s now classic sci-fi/horror got from critics and at the box office…though, I saw it at least three times in a theater!
The trend continued with even lighter and more humor-laced films as we headed toward the 90s with flicks such as Waxwork, Chopping Mall and Night Of The Demons which were loaded with as many laughs as they were scares and gore. The MTV generation was being fed films that were faster paced, brightly colored and took themselves far less seriously as the arrival of music video and the end of the Cold War had created an era that was a bit more overindulgent and the films of the day reflected this. Even somewhat more serious horror like 1988s Intruder and the 1985 classic The Re-Animator still openly had a good time with their premises and occasionally winked at the audience, which films now acknowledged were sitting there and were familiar with the type of flick they are seeing. Earlier 80s films rarely acknowledged that they were a movie and that there was a horror savvy audience watching, but the second half of the decade was filled with movies that referenced those earlier films and were quite aware of themselves and who their audience was. They played to that audience instead of simply telling their scary story. And at this point Freddy Krueger was turning girls into giant cockroaches and Jason was a zombie battling telekinetic teenagers. Even the old school boogiemen had traded in their scares for more outrageous and silly story lines with each installment, as almost every horror hit became a franchise. Michael Myers also returned in 1988 to now stalk his young niece…why not his second cousin too? Needless to say by the time 1990 rolled around, horror had become burnt out and silly until horror master Wes Craven would revive it as pop-culture-reference filled heavy nostalgia with a bite in Scream… but that is another story.
Another aspect of the shift that may not have been as noticeable to the average audience, but was very noticeable to film buffs was in how these films were now being made and how they looked. By 1985 the home video market was in full swing. I should know, I worked at a Palmer Video back then. Direct to VHS films were starting to appear due to the cost effectiveness of not having to produce film prints for theater showings. And a lot of the horror films of the later decade were being made with the home video market in mind. Even some of the ones that got theatrical releases lacked that theatrical look. Gone were the cinematic visuals and widescreen presentations. Flicks like Witchboard and Waxwork had the look and feel of a TV movie and were filmed in the more TV screen friendly 1:85 format. Only some of the big studio releases and films by veterans like Carpenter and Craven maintained that theatrical look in their visual styles and still looked like a movie made for theaters. A disappointment to those who find the film’s visuals as important as their story and content. And another example of how drastically movies changed from 1980 to 1990.
Whatever the course the horror films of the 80s took, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for these movies, good or bad. Whether it be the more serious chillers of the early years, or the reference heavy, lighter toned flicks that came later on, it was a decade when I came of age and was most influenced by movies and was still a time where a low budget flick like Galaxy Of Terror or Final Exam could see the inside of an audience filled theater. And not only was I proudly there to see it, but will never forget it. And now, decades later, many a night when my social calendar is empty, I can be found in a darkened living room, on the couch, with some of my favorite brews, reliving those days long gone, but never…ever…forgotten!
… and one of the reasons I now share my passion for those movies with all of you!
The Oritani Theater: 300 Main St. Hackensack N.J Photo from the Mitchell Dvoskin collection
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