EXCLUSIVE! INTERVIEW WITH NIGHT OF THE CREEPS DIRECTOR FRED DEKKER
Thrill me indeed.
News this past summer that Night of the Creeps, one of the ‘80s’ most underrated horror films, was finally being released on DVD (it’s out today, Oct. 27) after years of online petitioning by devoted fans and the persistence of director Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, Robocop 3) was welcome news to those of us who remembered the film from late-night TV screenings two decades ago but hadn’t seen it in 20 years. And when Dekker participated in a post-screening Q&A at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema a couple of years ago, organized by Rue Morgue Magazine (www.rue-morgue.com), it only stoked the flames of Creeps’ well-deserved reputation.
Now, quibbles about the universally loathed cover art aside, fans of the quintessential ‘80s horror comedy – about a college campus invaded by space slugs that turn their victims into slug-spewing zombies – can get their fill of mighty co-star Tom Atkins (The Fog), midget aliens, awesome ‘80s hair, slug-spewing head explosions and cummerbund-sporting zombies.
The Dark Lord Bunnykins spoke to Fred Dekker by phone earlier this month.
I was at the Night of the Creeps screening in Toronto which Rue Morgue Magazine put on a couple of years ago, where you participated in a Q & A. At that point, a Creeps DVD release was still a long way off. At what point did Sony approach you about it, and, from your understanding, what convinced them to do it?
In my opinion, three words: The Monster Squad. Michael Felsher, who produced the special features for Monster Squad at Lionsgate and also Creeps for Sony, had been wanting to do Night of the Creeps for years when he was at Anchor Bay, and he could never really get any toehold.
And he approached Lionsgate when he realized they had the rights to Monster Squad; really spearheaded that DVD coming to life.
And I think much to everyone’s surprise, Lionsgate in particular, it sold through the roof. And I think what happened was that Sony saw the hard numbers and realized that they owned a title of a genre from a similar era from the same director and just saw the writing on the wall, and thought that maybe now was the time to do it.
At what point did the film’s fan base become apparent to you?
Really with the rise of the Internet. As a kid I loved comics and loved movies, and it was usually just my friends or at the occasional comic convention where I would find kindred spirits. But with the Internet you find kindred spirits literally all over the world you didn’t know existed.
And so what I found searching the title, or my name or my films, I found that there were all these pockets of rabid fans everywhere, and it was really gratifying since the movie did not do very well when it first came out.
John Landis famously claims that he never intended An American Werewolf In London to be a horror comedy, but your film contains its fair share of both scares and laughs. Do you consider Night of the Creeps to be a horror comedy or is it just a horror film in your eyes?
I’d say it’s a horror comedy because there’s a certain element of tongue-in-cheek to it and a certain element of pastiche, and I think it would be pretentious on my part to downplay the fact that a lot of it is intended to be, if not funny, just sort of fun.
I don’t consider it a spoof, though. I think the important thing whenever you make a genre film of any kind, whether it has humour in it or not, whether it’s science fiction or fantasy, horror, whatever, is that it has some basis, not necessarily in reality but in characters that you can engage in and believe in.
And so that was really important to me, that we liked these guys and liked the girl and were invested in their journey. I think that’s really important.
To that end, how conscious were you of balancing the scares with the laughs?
I think it all has to do with conviction. I see a lot of movies that sort of look down their nose at the genre they’re in, there’s a kind of disdain for it. And I think the key for me was just to make sure what I thought I was doing, if it was supposed to be funny that I was amused by it, it if was supposed to be scary that I thought it was scary. It just has to do with conviction and doing it for real, not cheating or doing something that you think will work.
That’s not to say I think the movie works 100%. I have a lot of problems with it. But I went in kind of with this fresh-scrubbed, first-time director ‘I want to make my movie’ kind of approach. And I think that affection and enthusiasm and conviction shows in the movie.
The film is a pastiche of many genres: horror, ‘50s sci-fi, film noir, etcetera. How important was it for you to take the script seriously, despite the horror in-jokes, like naming characters after famous horror directors?
Vitally important. I’ve always believed that the only way to make a joke work is to play the reality of it.
And it applies to directing actors too. What you learn when you take acting workshops, study Strasberg and the Method and all that, is that actors need to believe what they’re doing. The worst thing you can tell the guy who’s playing the villain is that ‘you’re the bad guy’, because bad guys don’t think they’re bad guys. Bad guys think they’re doing something for the greater good. So you have to take it seriously. If it’s a joke on the page, you have to play the reality of it.
To what extent are you Chris Romero, the lead character?
Oh, very much so. That was me in college pretty much to a T. I was a bit of a nerd, I was a romantic. I spent a lot of time trolling the frat parties, the ones that wouldn’t kick me out, girl-watching and wishing I could be in the in crowd.
I’ve always been kind of an outcast. My movies are always about people who are kind of outcasts. They’re not the in crowd; they’re the wannabes, or the ones who form their own kind of cliques.
There’s a remake of another underrated horror classic, 1987’s The Stepfather, coming out today in theatres. Has there been any chatter that you’ve heard about a remake of Night of the Creeps, and what would you think about that idea?
It’s a terrible idea, for a couple of reasons. One, the movie is so much a product of its time. I think one of the problems that I see in people doing remakes is they’re not cognizant of the fact that the movies are made at a certain time, and they’re successful not just because of the quality of the movie but because of the time that they are released and the zeitgeist of the culture in response to it. You can’t just take something and dust it off and redo it and expect the audience to react the same way, because it’s a completely different audience and a completely different era.
Creeps is an oddball movie. I mean, it wasn’t particularly successful. It took awhile to find its audience; it’s a bit of a niche movie. I think the fact that Zombieland was so successful is kind of telling that audiences see things slightly differently. In some ways I think audiences are more sophisticated than they used to be, and in some ways I think they’re stupider than they used to be.
But mostly I think if you look at James Gunn’s movies, Slither… I mean, which I like. I think, and he’s a Facebook friend of mine, I think even James would admit that the movie did not do what he had hoped. I would make the argument that zombies with space slugs in their heads is probably not a very good box office bet.
The ending of the director’s cut involves the aliens coming back to Earth, ostensibly to reclaim the Creeps, although when I watched it for the first time, that wasn’t obvious. Now, I imagine you were hampered by time and/or budget, but how did you envision that sequence playing out, and why did the aliens wait 27 years to come back to Earth?
Well, you have to remember the galaxy that the canister came from is potentially another solar system. So they may have hit the gas – they would probably have to have light speed so they probably hit the gas the second they realized that that canister was exponentially leaving their realm – and, to catch up with it, it may have taken them 27 years.
Both endings leave the door open for a sequel. If the DVD sells well, would you have any interest in helming a sequel?
Yeah, I would. And I’ll tell you really why is that I had the great experience of reuniting with the cast in Austin, Texas, at the Alamo Drafthouse for the world premiere of the director’s cut. And I don’t know if you have this experience, but when you have really close friends and you haven’t seen them in a really long time and you get back together, it’s like no time has passed. The old in-jokes come back and there’s a real warm rapport.
And I realized, in reassessing this movie, one of the good things about it, despite my problems with it, one of the things that really works in it is the relationships between these characters. And I think the reason is that that relationship is real, the actors really have that relationship. Jill [Whitlow] and Jason [Lively] and Steve [Marshall] and even Tom [Atkins], as you’ll see in the DVD extra features, they’re really close-knit, and I’m close-knit with them. I want to work with them again, and I can’t think of a better opportunity.
Night of the Creeps is very much a ‘80s film in terms of its music, style, and the haircuts. Would you want to recapture that period or contemporize it?
It’s like spoiler alert. Maybe I won’t answer that one. I have a very clear concept kind of what I would do, and I don’t want to give it away.
Ideally, then, you involve the surviving cast as opposed to starting fresh.
Oh, absolutely. A niche movie like this really demands that the sequel be aimed at the people who love the movie. Rob Cohen has been talking about doing a remake of Monster Squad apparently, [and] I just think it’s a catastrophic idea because that particular arena of young people fighting monsters is so glutted in the marketplace. I would feel that it was unfresh and unoriginal if I saw it, even if I hadn’t made the movie. I’m much more interested in, with Night of the Creeps, finding out what’s going on with these characters now, and how this incident had affected them and all that kind of thing.
I assume you’d somehow involve Tom Atkins?
I’d never do it without him.
I assume you’d prefer practical effects over CGI for the Creeps
I think the problem with CGI is that it’s too readily available. There’s a [computer] program called After Effects that was designed by some folks at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic]. I have it on my computer, and digital effects are so accessible to people who have never taken a photograph or have never built a miniature model or have never sculpted that you end up with a lot of effects that look like videogame effects.
The truth of the matter is I think the perfect effects movie is Jurassic Park. Because in that movie you’ll have one shot that’s forced perspective and then you’ll have the next shot that’ll be complete CGI of a dinosaur. Then the next shot you’ll have a Stan Winston animatronic. You need to use whatever effect suits the shot that you decided to do.
So, with a sequel to Night of the Creeps, I would have to think about tone. There are a lot of kind of funky effects in that movie – some of them work quite well, some of them I look at with a little bit of a grimace, no offence to David Miller and his team; it’s unforgiving. Nowadays you can digitally remove wires and you can alter things.
You know, I look at that zombie dog and it always gets a laugh because it just looks like a dumb puppet. But the truth of it is in that movie, it gets a laugh but it’s affectionate. People look at that and they laugh; they’re not laughing at the movie, they’re going, ‘This is fun. The director is having fun because he’s got a dumb puppet dog’, and I like that. And I don’t know if a sequel might have a slightly more realistic tone to it, in which case the effects would have to be definitely state of the art, but it all depends on the shot. Sometimes CGI looks better, sometime practical works better. It all depends on the shot.
Your last film as director was Robocop 3 (1993). How anxious are you to return to the directing chair?
I’ve always wanted to direct more than anything else. I only ever became a writer in order to direct. The sad truth of it is that you’re only as good as your box office. I’ve had a tough road because, of the three films I’ve directed, the one that probably made the most money was Robocop 3, but it was so universally hated by everybody that it really put a taint on my career. I wished I’d been making movies ever since then, and there’s nothing more I’d rather do.
The DVD of Night of the Creeps is finally coming out. How does that feel?
It’s a long time coming. I mean, it’s just great to have re-mastered it and been able to have a hand in making it look and sound really great, and present it to both the people who already are familiar with it and love it and people who haven’t seen the movie before, showing it in its best light, and it’s very exciting.
I first discovered Night of the Creeps on TV back in the ‘80s when I was a teenager. How do you feel about a new generation discovering the film?
Well, I hope they like it. Like I said, it’s a strange little movie, and I think that’s part of its charm. I don’t know what somebody the age that I was when I made it or the age that you were when you first saw it, I don’t know what they would make of it. I think it holds up. I think it still has resonance because, again, these are very likeable characters, and it’s a really kind of a crazy story, and it’s kind of tough to go wrong with those two things.
NIGHT OF THE CREEPS
(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
∙ Commentary with director Fred Dekker
∙ Cast commentary
∙ Original Theatrical Ending
∙ Deleted Scenes
∙ Birth of the Creeps
∙ Cast of the Creeps
∙ Creating the Creeps
∙ Escape of the Creeps
∙ Legend of the Creeps
∙ Tom Atkins: Man of Action
∙ Trivia Track
∙ Original Theatrical Trailer