As Film4 screens 80s comedy-horror Night Of The Creeps for the first time, writer/director Fred Dekker looks back on his filmmaking debut…
Night Of The Creeps was written in three weeks.
At least, that’s what I read on the Internet. To be honest, I don’t remember how long it took. What I do remember is that my fledgling career circa 1985 was shifting into a higher gear with each passing day — I’d gone from being an English major at UCLA to a working member of the Writer’s Guild of America in less than a year.
My first writing job was an American Godzilla movie to be produced and directed by Steve Miner who, after helming the second and third Friday The 13th installments, decided it was time to fry bigger fish… or bigger prehistoric reptiles.
The movie was never made (its $30 million budget was considered too exorbitant!) but working with Steve opened the next door on my journey…
I’d wanted to be a director since the day I saw Jaws, so for me screenwriting was really a preamble to the director’s chair. I had an idea for my first film. It would be a low budget shocker, albeit with some redeeming social value, about a Vietnam veteran who decides to face his demons by writing a no-holds-barred memoir about his war experiences. I decided he’d hole up in a house alone, and slowly but surely the proverbial scary shit would start to happen. The audience, in turn, would wonder if he was suffering from PTSD, or if the house was actually haunted (spoiler alert: the latter).
I wanted to call it House (clever, eh?) and shoot it down-and-dirty in the very house I grew up in — my parents’ Victorian in Marin County, California. I mentioned the project to my college roommate, Ethan Wiley, but for various reasons – the Godzilla script, girl watching, making short films with my friends or having dinner with James Cameron about working on his script for Aliens (yes, that happened)… whatever the reason, I just never got around to writing it.
So Ethan asked if he could take a crack at it. The script he wrote was more comic in tone than the movie I’d imagined, but liked it enough to show to Steve Miner, who loved it and showed it to Sean Cunningham — producer/director of the original Friday The 13th. The next thing I knew, my first screen credit –“Story by”– was in front of the cameras (three sequels followed, although I never saw a dime).
Somewhere in the midst of all this was the apocryphal “three weeks” during which Night Of The Creeps was born. Again, I don’t remember exactly. What I do remember is this: a sleepless night, and a vision of a hard drinking, hard-boiled gumshoe picking up a phone and saying, “Thrill me.” (After I saw The Terminator, I named the character “Cameron” after my one-time dinner companion. Because why not?).
So… I had a character, and one line of dialogue. That was pretty much it. But I knew he was a detective, so the question for me as a writer became: what was he investigating?
The floodgates, as they say, opened.
Because long before I was writing seriously, long before I’d come to Los Angeles to break into “the business,” long before any of that: I was a movie nerd. Correction: genre movie nerd.
So I allowed the library of genre movies in my head to spill out. I loved Animal House and the films of John Hughes, so what if there were a college romance plot? And what if that was the reason the detective’s investigating something? What if a sorority were besieged by an axe-killer? Or better yet – a zombie axe-killer? Or better yet – a zombie axe-killer infested with alien parasites?
Calling Night Of The Creeps original would be an error. But calling it an affectionate nod to all the B-movie tropes I’d absorbed in my misspent youth? Bingo. I was doing the mash-up to end all mash-ups long before anyone knew what the hell a mash-up was.
My agent found a producer who liked the script (his name was Chuck Gordon, and he would go on to make movies like Die Hard and Field Of Dreams and Waterworld. Nothing big). The first studio Chuck showed it to said yes.
It was official. I was going to be a director! I was also officially having an anxiety attack. But I soldiered through, and with the help of an amazing cast and crew, managed to cobble a movie together.
I had never had any formal training, and everything I knew about making movies was learned on the fly when I was young, shooting and cutting 8mm films or video. That, and watching anything I could, from any era, in any genre.
My “self-taught” approach made for some awkward moments on the set and in the cutting room, but my naïveté was also responsible for the film’s occasionally bravura style (my favorite scenes are Detective Cameron’s dream/nightmare, and the scene where he tells young Chris Romero the deep, dark secret that’s been haunting him for 27 years).
What did I learn from making my first feature? Three things, mostly. 1) Cast properly. I think it was Martin Scorsese who said that’s 90% of the job right there, and he’s right. 2) Keep an eye on pace, and get enough coverage so you can speed a scene up or slow it down in editing. And 3) Be veeery nice to the executives who are giving you the money to make your movie.
(Quick side-note on casting: I didn’t have an actor in mind when I wrote the detective, but Tom Atkins read for us and the second he left I turned to our casting director and said, “That’s the guy.” To this day, I think Tom is the glue that holds the movie together.)
As for the in-joke character names? An extension of the homage tone I was going for. After all, if you’re going to rip off a bunch of other movies, why not at least acknowledge the guys who made them? (Romero, Landis, Corman, etc.) More importantly, since this was my first feature – and it was ostensibly horror – I chose to specifically reference directors who had started out, or specialized, in the genre. That’s why there are no characters named Kurosawa… although Spielberg, Kubrick and Peter Hyams were probably my biggest influences at the time.
As we were shooting, I concocted another “mash-up” that was near and dear to my heart; a comic-horror adventure that would pay tribute to the “Our Gang” comedies and the Universal monster films. I asked my talented college chum Shane Black to write it and we were making a production deal for The Monster Squad even before Creeps was finished. Suffice to say, there wasn’t much time for me to reflect on the cultural impact of the work I was doing, and frankly, I was having too much fun to worry about it. It was only after both these films were released… and bombed horribly… that I realized they were barely blips on the Hollywood radar. I had committed the cardinal sin of any fledgling filmmaker: I had made two unsuccessful films in a row — a critical blow to my directing career.
It was years later that both films began to find their audience via cable TV and video rentals and word of mouth. Although considered “cult classics” now, at the time they came out they were redheaded stepchildren, beloved by only a few discerning genre buffs. Frankly, the disappointment was crushing.
So what’s the moral of the story? Well, for one thing, if I had it to do all over again, I might not have made two “comic horror” films — an oddball hybrid in any era, and rarely successful on a blockbuster scale (Zombieland notwithstanding). My true loves are adventure films and thrillers, and had I gone in that direction (i.e. more mainstream), my career might well have gone a different route, too.
But hey, hindsight is 20/20. And I’m truly gratified that at least Night Of The Creeps did find its audience… eventually. And maybe as part of Film4’s FrightFest, it’ll attract a few new fans, as well. You know what that would do?
Los Angeles — August 2014