There are a number of jokes that have been stuck in my head for years, but this one joke from the animated show THE CRITIC — a show created by some of the best writers and producers involved with the heyday of THE SIMPSONS — is one of my absolute favorites.
This is all you need to know going in: A young woman is being fitted for her debutante reveal. She is Margo, a liberally-minded teen who eschews this blue-blood practice she was born into but feels pressured to participate in. While being fitted for her reveal dress, the following exchange occurs between the dressmaker and herself.
“We dressmakers have a very strict code, so I need to know: Do you deserve to wear virginal white? Because if you don’t, you’ll have to wear an off-white, what we call a ‘hussy white’.
“So, which will it be? White-white?”
“…yes. Um, except for the gloves.”
I watched this episode when it first aired and was old enough to realize just how smutty the joke was and could not believe it slipped through broadcast standards & practices. I will not spell the joke out for you, as I give you enough credit to have a prurient imagination.
This joke has everything I could ever want: it’s far filthier than it initially sounds, it has a rare sense of specificity, it is loaded with cultural and sexual commentary, and the voice reading cleverly underplays all of the above. It is a brilliant twenty seconds of animated network television.
(If you don’t believe me, check out the YouTube comments on the link at the bottom, as I’m not the only one who fondly remembers this joke!)
I am in the thick of National Novel Writing Month and my novel this year is specifically focused on a bridal dressmaker and her clients. While this is a debutante reveal dress, it works in very much the same way as a bridal dress in that it is often meant to visually exemplify the best of you, as well as make the person wearing it feel imbued with the best of themselves.
I previously only thought about this joke once a month. Now I think about it every fucking day. (Don’t worry, I don’t even come close to involving any ‘hussy’ notions in said novel.)
(Eventually I’ll write a more involved post about THE CRITIC. For now? This will do.)
Unfortunately there’s no single clip available of it, but you can see it via tubi or on YouTube before a DCMA claim takes it down:
There are two things I will always post about here: 1) Harley Fuckin’ Quinn and 2) Motherfucking RATED Q screenings at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. (The Q is for Queer, in case you were wondering.) Both bring me endless joy; I live for ‘em in the best way.
The most recent RATED Q screening featured their usual boisterous trifecta of drag performances that introduce and dovetail with the music and fashions of the the screened film, which this month was the original HAIRSPRAY, willed into the world by the patron saint of misfits and the disenfranchised, John Waters.
HAIRSPRAY’s premise is thin, but results in a hell of a lot of fun. It’s the early 60s and voluminous Tracy Turnblad is a teen who loves to dance to modern rock music, especially music from Black artists. She becomes a local star on Baltimore’s premiere TV dance show. (This was back in the day when half-hours of TV were dedicated solely to a host announcing song after song and you’d just watch youths dance to said song.) Tracy then uses her newfound fame to fight injustice against segregation. Matters escalate, backed by an amazing late 50s and early 60s soundtrack.
John Waters is a master of having his cake and eating it too. He loves pop culture, but also often hates what it represents — the homogenization, the alienation of anyone who isn’t white and straight — and he is an expert at weaponizing pop culture to expose cultural hypocrisy and societal injustice.
If you are only familiar with Waters’ more family-friendly films (HAIRSPRAY, CRY BABY, and SERIAL MOM you may not be aware that he’s also a brilliant purveyor of absolute filth, and he’s damn proud of it and rightly so. If you watch MULTIPLE MANICS or FEMALE TROUBLE or DESPERATE LIVING or especially PINK FLAMINGOS, there are moments in all of those films that will haunt you for the rest of your life, scenes that you will never be able to unsee, but also scenes that — even today — will gleefully prompt you to say: “Wait, you can get away with filming that?!”)
He’s one of the few auteurs in true command of his powers as a creative, as opposed to simply forcing his voice on others. He is often unfairly dismissed as camp (although I doubt he’d deny the label), but — depending on your definition — camp is often vacuous and the works live solely for themselves, as opposed to being created for others with something to say. Waters sincerely wants folks to rethink how they view culture and society, and HAIRSPRAY delivers that wholeheartedly in a slobs vs. snobs way that still feels vital 35 years later.
The cast is amazing. Divine, of course, and they do double-duty as both Tracy’s mother and the evil owner of the TV station. Ricki Lake is effortlessly likable as Tracy in her breakout role. Waters wrangled both comedic icon Jerry Stiller as Tracy’s father. Pop legends Debbie Harry and Ric Ocasek, as well as general icon Pia Zadora all have extremely memorable moments! And, of course, Mink Stole, often steals the spotlight.
However, I’d love to call attention to the production and set design, which are as equally rebellious as the script and casting. From the candy-colored sets to the faux-TV cameras used during dance tests, everyone was 100% aware that this was a heightened, but somewhat underground, reality. My favorite design decision though, is the facade of the apartment building that Tracy lives in, specifically the graffiti. It literally speaks volumes. Theatrical and dirty, but also visually striking in the way that only the way that graffiti — and film — can be. It’s an amazing feat.
While I’ve waxed on about how subversive HAIRSPRAY is, I need to underscore that this a fucking fun film. It is a film that will make you want to dance, a film that will make you grin, a film you will walk away from feeling satiated, a film that nestles in the uncanny valley of genre in that it leans on all of the expected plot and character beats, while exploiting them and being vibrantly transgressive at the same time. It is a film that only John Waters could will into the world.
I’ll note that this Rated Q screening suffered from what I call a Halloween hangover — the exuberance of October peaks, then November crashes the party and you have the realization that: “Fuck, now I have to start thinking about winter holidays and presents and travel and motherfucking Chicago winter”. I was so psyched to see this — so excited! — as it’s a John Waters film that’s wall-to-wall music and I expected a lot of folks singing along and shouting out lines (“I’m big, blonde and beautiful!”) but nope. It certainly didn’t help that I’ve been burning the candle at both ends as of late. That plus my Halloween hangover caused me to nod off halfway through the film instead of hooting and hollering and clapping, which boggles my mind, but it was a thing that happened. Nonetheless, even if I don’t have peak energy, I’ll be there for each and every screening because there’s nothing else like it.
So I fucking did it: 31 days of (mostly) soft horror recommendations! I know this sort of thing is easier for some folks, but damn, I’m fucking exhausted.
As I’ve previously mentioned, my wife and I have a long-running tradition of just tucking in for Halloween, wrangling wings from BW3 a.k.a. Buffalo Wild Wings — sorry, not sorry as their spicy garlic wings are some of the best things on Earth — and eating candy and watching movies.
Beforehand I send her a list of film suggestions that encompass ‘classic’, ‘cult’ and ‘contemporary’ horror films and she chooses three from ‘em based on trailers and descriptions. (I do not want to be one of those asshole dudebros that force works onto others. Also, this year, just like with Horrorclature 2023, they were all cozy horror films.)
So here’s what we decided on this year. (These are just brief notes! I got other shit to do, y’all!)
This is the first Soviet horror film and it’s all spooky witchy folk horror goodness. Goddamn, the production design and casting here is perfect, especially during the three days the philosopher is stuck in a church with a witch. I still can’t believe that the Soviets went ~40 years without making a horror film.
THE PHANTOM OF PARADISE (1974)
This has been on my watchlist for a while, and we always love a campy musical, and this delivers in a very Brian De Palma way. If you are a film nerd, you know that De Palma is all about extolling works he loves, and this modern rock opera interpretation of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA delivers. (I’ll note: it predates Webber’s version by over a decade!) From his split-screens, to his hallmark adoration for Hitchcock, to his fondness of THE WHO’s rock operas and remarkable characters, this is quintessential De Palma and I love it.
Also, it features Jessica Harper, as in motherfucking SUSPIRA lead Jessica Harper. Also in SHOCK TREATMENT! What more could you ask for?
WEREWOLVES WITHIN (2021)
I rewatched this just a few weeks ago, but I was so stupidly excited to rewatch it again. This film is so, so, somuch fun. It is the perfect amalgamation of cast and script and direction and camerawork. It is funny and witty and spooky and occasionally gory and a glorious ride of a film.
Due to scheduling matters, we ended up screening the above the weekend before Halloween, but decided to watch one more scary work on Halloween proper, which I already featured yesterday: MILLENNIUM’s The Curse of Frank Black. There’s no trailer or anything, so you’ll have to settle for my write-up:
DOCTOR X, directed by endlessly exhausted motherfucking Michael Curtiz — oh, did you know he also directed a little film named CASABLANCA? Also, well over a hundred other films? — is mostly notable for its technical details as opposed to its plot, which is wildly chaotic.
If you are older than 12, you’re probably familiar with the traditional Technicolor film look; it’s all vividly colorful and eye-popping and glorious. THE WIZARD OF OZ would be nothing without Technicolor.
That’s not how Technicolor started out. While it was one of the first non-hand tinted color film processes — in the early days of film, folks actually hand-colored individual frames, or entire reels were dunked in dye — it started as a two-color rendition, which was rather garish, mostly a glowing green and a ruddy red-brown.
While those hues were novel, they didn’t quite suit most dramas or comedies being produced by Warner Bros. who had signed an exclusive agreement with Technicolor. Then they realized: “Hey those Universal horror films seem to be doing well, and they’re just black-and-white. Let’s give that a go!”
As a result, the world received DOCTOR X and THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (which was later adapted as HOUSE OF WAX). They didn’t set the world on fire like Universal horror films, but folks did take note of them.
For a long time, the only way to watch either of them were via shit transfers of deteriorated prints. The vibrancy of the Technicolor process? Nowhere to be seen. Two-color Technicolor? More like one-color Technicolor. When I said they were shit transfers? They were shit-colored, all brown and muddy and not at all appealing.
UCLA, as they often do (along with significant backing) took considerable measures to restore both films to their prior glory. The two colors glow in a singular way that you simply don’t see in films. It’s a very specific look. However, if a film isn’t shot with that in mind, if it’s shot thinking ‘oh, this is full color’ then, well, it’ll look ill-designed and flawed.
That isn’t the case with DOCTOR X. This film was shot by Ray Rennahan, an early master of the Technicolor process. His deft handling of lighting and hues is what makes DOCTOR X exceptional. Plot-wise, DOCTOR X is definitely bizarre and intriguing while at the same time being more than a bit staid and boring. While it’s essentially the tale of a Jekyll-and-Hyde serial killer mystery sussed out by cops and scientists, the means of how they do so are rather twisted and involve a lot of handcuffs and chairs and re-enactments for what I can only deduce as dramatic intent. However, it’s also injected with a lot of pratfalls, poorly conceived attempts at humor, stuttering pacing, and a terrible romantic subplot that even scream queen Fay Wray can’t make work.
While the use of color is the star here, the sets bolster the film. They’re all angular, stark and all over-powering in a German expressionist way. They’re mesmerizing and striking and compelling and draw you into a scene in ways the script fail to do so.
In other words: this is a film where the production values justify its existence, and this restoration does the film justice and returns it to its former glory.
I’ll note that, even when Technicolor finally mastered full-color, it was mostly via extremely complex and very heavy cameras that shot scenes on three reels — one red, one green, one blue — and it was optically combined in post. Think about that when you see push-ins in films of the late 30s and 40s.
Yeah, and you think CGI FX artists have it rough.
Lastly: I had this film slated for Horrorclature 2023 before I noticed that my local favorite art house theater — the Music Box — would be screening a 35mm print and, of course, I attended. A lot of the finer production details noted above are because of the introduction the programmers at the Chicago Film Society provided. They always do great work and, if you’re in the midwest? They program films not just in Chicago, but all around!
This Sunday’s repost features John Water’s SERIAL MOM, a cutting satire of sympathy towards serial killers and celebrity culture. It also features an astounding cast who are all in on the joke and they lean so far in that you feel that the camera might tip over.
Given the terrible uptick of interest in awful true crime podcasts — don’t get me started — and Netflix sexy serial killer biopics, it was well-ahead of its time. While it has a lot to say about how outsiders view and celebrate dangerous murderers, it is hilarious and — as Waters always does — manages to balance levity with social messaging.
“On the twenty-third day of the month of September, / In an early year of a decade not too long before our own, / The human race suddenly encountered / A deadly threat to its very existence.
And this terrifying enemy surfaced, / As such enemies often do, / In the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places…”
And after that prelude, we’re thrust into the grimy doo wop of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.
Directed by Frank Oz, this is one hell of an immaculately constructed misfit of a musical adaptation of a deviant off-Broadway production. Retaining the original writer Howard Ashman and songwriter Alan Menken — both of whom went onto to craft Disney works that influenced generations — I’m gobsmacked this was ever made. (Allegedly David Geffen, head of self-titled Geffen studios was a huge fan and willed this to the big screen.)
To think that it all started with this oddity of a basement musical based on a Corman B-movie, a B-movie that is mostly only known because it was one of Jack Nicholson’s early films.
(Can you imagine a world without the influence of Roger Corman? I sure as hell can’t.)
The premise is twisted but simple: botany enthusiast Seymour works at a flower shop in Skid Row — a very destitute downtown in an unnamed city full of poor loners and losers — and finagles an interesting plant that he names Audrey II, after Audrey, the co-worker he has a crush on. It turns out that the interesting plant is a carnivorous alien that feeds on human blood. Seymour nurses it into a monstrous creature and matters escalate.
The process of converting a counter-culture work from the stage to screen can be trepidatious, especially when you’re spending a lot of money and working with a major studio. Fortunately, all of the stars aligned for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. It features the best of both worlds, which you immediately see in the set design.
“…so I live downtown … that’s your home address / You live downtown … when your life’s a mess / You live downtown when depression’s just status quo. / (Down on Skid Row.)”
While Skid Row does look like a Hollywood set, all flat and confined, the streets and alleyways are covered in dirt and grime and shame. (In other words: Hollywood.)
“Someone show me a way to get outta here. / ‘Cause I constantly pray that I’ll get outta here. / Please won’t somebody say I’ll get outta here. / Someone gimme my shot or I’ll rot here.”
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS manages to straddle the best of both worlds: it’s wildly, vividly strange and unique and still has the anarchic energy of subversive theatre, but also has so much fucking Hollywood money behind it. (At the time, it was the most expensive Warner Bros. production ever.)
“Come and look at the plant some more! It’s just going to get bigger and more interesting!”
The cast is astounding: Rick Moranis is perfection as dweeby Seymour and has pipes that you never, ever would have expected from him. Ellen Greene as Audrey is the only one retained from the off-Broadway production and I can’t imagine this work without her; the fifties blonde hair, her nasal, high-pitched, breathy — but surprisingly not irritating — voice imbues Audrey with so much character. You are not human if you aren’t moved by her half of Suddenly Seymour. Steve Martin practically steals the show with his sadomasochistic dental practice number. Bill Murray is one of his patients! Motherfucking John Candy is an over-the-top radio host!
“Let me guess: you got tied up.”
“No, just handcuffed a little.”
I’d be remiss to neglect the invincible, untouchable Greek chorus: Tichina Arnold as Crystal, Michelle Weeks as Ronette, and Tisha Campbell as Chiffon. (If you’re of the age that I am, you may remember Campbell as the charismatic Gina from the TV show MARTIN.) They’re all hilariously brusque when they aren’t perfectly performing doo wop accompanied by tight dance routines. They tie the entire work together, and they riff off of a number of prior musical works including WEST SIDE STORY.
“We’re on the split shift!”
“Yeah, we went to school ’til 5th grade, then we split!”
The real star, of course, is Audrey II, voiced by Levi Stubbs of THE FOUR TOPS. His gregarious and dramatic and uniquely pitched voice breathes life into one of the most articulated and astoundingly animated puppets ever created. The amount of work put into Audrey II — willed into the world by veterans of Jim Henson’s puppet company — is astounding. (I’ll note that working with Audrey II required certain compromises from the performers, such as having to lip sync in half-speed during certain scenes. The fact that you can’t even notice that while watching is not only a testament to the puppeteers but also the performers.)
“I’m just a mean green mother, a real disgrace, / And you’ve got me fightin’ mad. / I’m just a mean green mother from outer space, / Gonna trash your ass! Gonna rock this place! / I’m mean and green, / Mean and Green! / And I am bad.”
I touched on the sets previously and while they’re claustrophobic and often constricted, this adaptation is shot with the verve and energy of a Barry Sonnenfeld film, making the most of tight close-ups while also utilizing deep focus to layer background action, and somehow feeling cartoonish but grounded at the same time. Especially of note is how the Greek chorus is slowly revealed — almost as angels — to back Seymour and Audrey when they finally admit their feelings for each other.
Lastly, goddamn, Menken’s songs. They’re all so wildly catchy and captures the hooks of classic Motown while also being subversive in only the way Menken could pen. Once you watch this film, you’ll be humming and haunted by his songs for days and days.
“Shing-a-ling, shing-a-ling-ding, what a creepy thing to be happening! / (Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!) / Shang-a-lang, feel the sturm and drang in the air. / Sha-la-la, stop it right where you are. / Don’t you move a thing. / You better / (Tellin’ you, you better) / Tell your mama somethin’s gonna get her / She better — everybody better — beware!”
I’ll note that the theatrical cut’s final act is wildly different from the Director’s cut. I will not spoil matters, but the Director’s cut is very self-indulgent, cost a fuckton of money, and — even for my goth sensibilities — very cruel and dark. I will simply say this: it is extremely nihilistic and goes full kaiju.
“You’re not gonna get away with this! Your kind never does!”
I appreciate being able to see both cuts nowadays via Blu-Ray, but holy fucking shit, if I’d seen the Director’s cut as a youth? Sheer fucking nightmare fuel.
“I’ve done terrible things, Audrey.”
This is a production that has inspired so many over so many years, and this film adaptation not only does it justice, it also makes the most of the medium while staying true to the work’s roots. It’s a remarkable film that will certainly inspire more for years to come, which is an odd thing to say about a film centered around a blood-thirsty singing plant, but we all find inspiration and empathy in the oddest of places.
What if I were to tell you that there’s an episode of TV that features Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. trek out to a Chicagoland hotel to brainstorm horror ideas for a cooperative project?
You might not believe me. It sounds like something a horror fanboy would either pitch, or get their friends together to make a homemade version of said idea.
It absolutely exists. It was an episode of the hit TV show ROUTE 66 entitled Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing and was the fourth episode of the show’s third season.
PETER LORRE: “What frightened them in then in the dark ages, it still frightens now. Fear is born into people […] And don’t you sell it short, Boris!”
If you are pressed for time, here’s a brief summary: NAKED CITY and THE NAKED CITY TV show creators Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant pitched the idea of two younger men — the over-educated Tod and the suave lady’s man Buz — band together and tour the U.S. and picking up odd jobs along the way to fund their efforts. Unlike just about every TV show at the time, each episode was shot on location, turning ROUTE 66 into a weekly U.S. travelogue.
Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing does take place in Chicagoland.* As previously mentioned, Lorre, Karloff and Chaney Jr. want to brainstorm a project together. Lorre suggests meeting at an innocuous conference Chicagoland hotel ‘The O’Hare Inn’ and they agree. Karloff suggests that they replace their surname with reversed versions of their first name because, sure, that’ll fool everyone.
It just so happens that Tod and Buzz have wrangled a job at the inn as Junior Executives in Charge of Convention Liasons. The job thrills them — especially Tod — as the inn is hosting a large ‘Executive Secretaries of the Midwest’ conference and features a number of attractive women.
TOD, remarking on the number of young women exiting a bus: “What makes you think it’s a convention group?”
BUZZ: “When two or more girls get together and there’s no guy in the group, it’s just got to be a convention.”
TOD: “Buzz, there are things carved in marble with not the one-tenth of content of that last authoritative remark.”
While Tod and Buzz work on wooing secretaries, the three horror maestros finally meet up. Lorre requests a very specific coffin from Tod before Karloff arrives, so he can give Karloff a special reveal.
Tod quickly sees through Lorre’s scheming and suggests that Lorre and Chaney Jr. try their own brand of old-school terror on the secretaries. Chaney Jr. makes himself into one of his classic monsters and matters escalate. Meanwhile, Karloff consoles a secretary who pines for a love who left her.
It’s roughly fifty minutes of self-satisfying indulgence for writer/creator Silliphant but, happily, is also a raucous and memorable crowd-pleasing episode. This might not be the venue we wanted to see all three of these masters together for, but it is a lot of fun.
I rarely link to full episodes, however, if you’re in New York City, you can also watch it for free at the mind-blowing New York Paley Center which is exactly the first work I watched upon my initial visit.
To Chicago residents like myself, there is a difference between Chicago and Chicagoland. A lot of folks who live in Chicago suburbs often say they live in Chicago. Chicago residents often classify those who live outside the radius of Chicago’s L train support as living in Chicagoland.
This is more horror-adjacent, but I’ve wanted type about this series for some time. My apologies but my blog, my rules!
I know there are a number of folks out there that are disgruntled with season three of ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING.
Is the mystery not all that engaging? Yes.
Is the podcast — the fulcrum of the prior two seasons — severely backgrounded? Yes.
The third season of a show is always trepidatious. The first two seasons of ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING (ONLY MURDERS going forward) are laser-focused on discussing, reflecting, broadcasting and ultimately solving a crime that others cannot.
ONLY MURDER’s third season backgrounds all of that to showcase the characters and their trials and strife and personal dissonance. In my opinion: Fuck the haters.
If you haven’t seen the show before — and trust me, you can jump into this season without having watching the first two, but the first two are fun and smart! — it features co-creator and absolute fucking legend Steve Martin as Charles-Haden Savage who for many TV seasons acted in a crime drama show as Detective Brazzos. Charles spends most of his days in a multi-unit NYC building cooking omelets and keeping to himself. Also residing in said building is one semi-retired Broadway writer/director Oliver Putnam, played by a surprisingly restrained Martin Short, who often interrupts Charles’ solitude. Also in the building is the solitary Mabel, charismatically portrayed by Selena Gomez.
The three of them initially bond over a murder that occurs in the building. They decide to will their thoughts into the world via a podcast, which becomes quite popular. Matters escalate.
As noted above: that’s mostly pushed aside in the third season. This season is all about character work. Charles gets entwined with fish-crazy Joy Martin, the effortlessly delightful Andrea Martin. Oliver gets entwined with talented-but-oft-overlooked actor Loretta Durkin. Somehow they managed to convince motherfucking Meryl Streep to play her, and it’s amazing. Mabel gets entwined with documentarian Tolbert, and actor Jesse Williams? Certainly showing off his blue eyes.
This season centers around Oliver finally getting back to Broadway. He directs a stodgy show named DEATH RATTLE. It is centered around a murder in a lighthouse where three babies are the suspects.
Yes, it is a schlock parody of Agatha Christie’s THE MOUSETRAP. (I love Christie, but even I have to admit that THE MOUSETRAP is one of her lesser works (even if it’s the longest running play ever). Tacky TV actor Ben Glenroy, gamely played by Paul Rudd is cast as the lead, and Charles is enlisted as a supporting actor. Ben gets poisoned, bleeding out on-stage in the opening performance. He survives. Then he’s pushed down an elevator shaft in Charles and Oliver and Mabel’s building.
Oliver re-imagines DEATH RATTLE as a musical. Matters escalate, again.
That sounds like a lot of plot and intrigue, but really it’s all about personal interaction and reaction and attempts at growing as people. Sure, narratively that’s not the most propulsive facet to lean on, but I love it.
There are two musical numbers that the season builds up to, solely to hold a mirror to not only Loretta but also Charles. All of the prior preamble? That’s not necessary to enjoy them. The first — Look for the Light — is penned by Sara Bareilles, GIRLS5EVA star and showrunner and the songwriter of the Broadway hit adaptation of WAITRESS. (Seriously, she has all of the accolades. Look her up. She is amazing.) Everyone involved here knocks it out of the park. I especially love the cello swells.
These two performances are so goddamn passionately perfect. There’s a lot going on in the undercurrent that I won’t detail because of spoilers, but to see Streep and Martin do what they love to do brings me endless joy. The fact that it narratively bolsters the show? Icing on the cake.
Back-to-back cosmos-enacted zombie horror films! First, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS and now a quintessential take on Los Angeles: NIGHT OF THE COMET!
This is another repost, as Sunday is a day of rest. I’m not religious, but I do think it’s a it’s a healthy action and I will be relying on Sunday reposts here on out because I do need to prepare for NaNoWriMo.
I fucking love this film. It’s a whimsical teen zombie film, witty, surprisingly progressive, vibrant, and has one of the more nuanced sisters dynamic I’ve seen in genre films. It’s brilliant and well-worth your time this month.
NIGHT OF THE CREEPS opens on a darkened spaceship. One alien creature embraces a black experimental canister as it runs from two aliens in pursuit, guns blazing.
“That experiment must not get off this ship!”
Of course, the experiment is forcefully freed from the ship and finds its way to Earth. The experiment? Sluglike things that infect creatures through the mouth and immediately turns the host into a desiccated zombie.
The experiment ends up being unleashed at Corman University and matters escalate, mostly around semi-dweebish Chris Romero and his disabled friend J.C. Hooper who requires crutches, as well as Cynthia Cronenberg, the schoolmate Chris pines for, but a blockhead named Brad stands in the way.
“Sorry, Brad. Don’t take it personal.”
NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (CREEPS going forward) writer/director Fred Dekker has had quite the Hollywood career, spanning close to 50 years, writing everything from HOUSE to THE MONSTER SQUAD to IF LOOKS COULD KILL to 2018’s THE PREDATOR. However, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS feels like his mission statement, his visual thesis for his love of films.
From the knowing winks with a number of character’s surnames being shorthand for Dekkers influences. As noted above, you already have (John) Romero, (Tobe) Hooper and (David) Cronenberg. There’s also Detective Ray (John) Cameron, Detective (John) Landis, Sergeant (Sam) Raimi, and officers (Wes) Craven and (Mario) Bava.
There are also a number of other great inserts, such as Corman mainstay Dick Miller — see GREMLINS 2 and CHOPPING MALL — and all-around horror actor Tom Atkins (the aforementioned Detective Ray Cameron), as well as a mother watching a late broadcast of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.
Those who know, know, and horror fans will feel like they’re in good hands.
“Zombies, exploding heads, creepy-crawlers… and a date for the formal. This is classic, Spanky.”
While CREEPS doesn’t quite have the menace or scares it could, that’s beside the point. While it moves surprisingly briskly it’s the characters here that shine, notably Chris and J.C.
“OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD.
“Do you think it’s taking the Lord’s name in vain to say ‘OH MY GOD.’ a whole bunch of times really fast like that?”
“I believe you’re allowed to break the commandments in certain situations.”
J.C. is one of the more positive portrayals of a disabled person I’ve seen from a genre film of the 80s. Genre films of that time rarely featured them or if they did, it was in a ham-fisted, clumsy, and insensitive way. While we never quite know exactly why J.C. can’t walk without the aid of crutches, we do see that he is very self-sufficient and accepting of needing them, and his friend Chris is also accepting and never patronizing. He is a good, respectful friend, although occasionally an unappreciative asshole.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: male friendship is very rarely the focal point of films, and they have an intense friendship. They look out for each other and have each other’s best interests in mind. Early in the film, J.C. is the one who steps up and takes the initiative in order to draw Cynthia’s attention to Chris, while also deflecting her blockhead boyfriend Brad.
“I bust my ass to help you and you get chickenshit again. And I push and I push and I don’t give up. And why? You don’t even know. You don’t even care. Because it’s important to me that you’re happy. Is that so crazy?”
Like many mid-80s genre films, there is definitely a queer subtext here. Hell, it isn’t even really subtext, although it’s never exactly addressed in the film’s dialogue, but, well, just read the following excerpt:
J.C.: “[You] just get depressed all the time like you are. So fuck you.”
Chris: “Yeah, well, fuck you too.”
J.C.: “You try it.”
Chris: “You’d let me.”
J.C.: “You want me to.”
Chris: “You wish.”
[PILLOW FIGHT BREAKS OUT]
Granted, J.C. isn’t ‘swishy’ like how most gay men were portrayed in genre films at the time. However, more than a little of the dialogue indicates that J.C. is definitely queer.
“I walked, Chris. All by myself. I love you. Good luck with Cynthia.”
It is not subtle! I’m shocked that folks argue about this! (That said, I do spend a lot of time reading and writing about queer genre works.)
To reiterate: this portrayal of J.C. is far more sensitive and well-developed than most genre folks penning horror at the time, and still feels positive. Yes, he’s ‘Chris’s queer best friend’ but he also has nuance and heart and feels real.
I will note that there is one way where the film lets us down regarding J.C., but it’s a spoiler, so see below:
Unfortunately, this film does bury its gays. And the disabled. J.C. was doomed from the get-go, sadly.
Setting that aside, Tom Atkins is brilliant as hard-boiled Detective Ray Cameron. He gets some of the best lines and his performance straddles both serious and camp. Allegedly, it’s his favorite film that he’s been a part of, and that’s high praise.
NIGHT OF THE CREEPS is an eminently watchable film, fantastic for Halloween, but also just for everyday viewing. Dekker put his heart and soul into this film, was bolstered by everyone he knew he wanted to see his creation through, and it paid off in every which way.
There are two different cuts of this film: the Theatrical Cut, where the ending is very bleak, and the Director’s Cut, which sets up a sequel. Obviously, go with the Director’s Cut. I have no idea why the producers and/or editors thought that the theatrical ending would result in better financial success because yikes. It is an utter killjoy of an ending.