Fred Dekker is a genuine genre legend. The filmmaker behind “Night of the Creeps,” “The Monster Squad,” and a handful of the very best episodes of TV’s “Tales from the Crypt,” doesn’t have a huge filmography, but what he has contributed has left a lasting mark on an entire generation of filmmakers and fans. Which makes this new Blu-ray release of “Night of the Creeps,” from the fine folks at Shout Factory’s Scream Factory imprint, such a gift. (There’s even a limited-edition box set version with a little Tom Atkins figurine.)
The 1986 film, Dekker’s first as director, is a charming and gooey low-budget chiller about some alien space slugs that turn young people into violent zombies. (You know, that old story.) With its mixture of practical effects, bursts of drive-in-worthy sex and violence, and knowing humor, it positions itself as a perfect send-up and loving celebration of the kind of B-movies from the 1950’s that Dekker and his ilk grew up with.
In an in-depth and wide-ranging conversation, we talked about the legacy of “Night of the Creeps,” what he learned from the production and whether or not he’d want to remake any of his earlier films. Plus, we get some details on the troubled productions of “Titan A.E.” and last year’s creatively compromised “The Predator.” Dive in!
Moviefone: Are you still surprised by legacy of “Night of the Creeps?” I read an interview around the time it was released that said you wrote it in five days.
Fred Dekker: There's a little hyperbole in those interviews. I think the first draft was probably more like three weeks. I did write one script in college in one weekend, just because I'd heard the John Landis had done it. I just wanted to see if I could do it. But that was not a script that I ever showed to anybody. I just put it in a drawer. But “Creeps” is probably three weeks for the first draft and then tinkering there-after. But I had a lot more energy and a lot more chutzpah when I was young.
As far as the legacy, you know, it's impossible to know what the effect of what you're doing is going to have. You can hope and you can dream. I continued to be bewildered.
It seems like stature of the movie has grown over the years and even looking on this new Blu-ray, the big screening you had in Austin was in 2009. And it feels like the momentum is still gaining.
I mean, it definitely has a life beyond anything I could've imagined. I have obviously a personal relationship to the movie that is uniquely mine. I really disliked it for years and it wasn't tied to its success or failure at the box office. I mean, it did fail although it did have a big following in Germany. All of my films have had these strange legacies. It's like “Creeps” had a big following in Germany and I'm not sure, but I'm think that may have had something to do with Roland Emmerich casting Jason and Jill in “Ghost Chase,” which came afterwards. It makes sense to me because it's not like they were, you know, uh, uh, Fred Astaire and ginger Rogers for anything. I love them, but they weren’t Becall and Bogie.
Other than that it didn't really catch fire. But that doesn't mean anything to me both in the films that I've made and films that I love. Some of my favorite films completely tanked and are very obscure. But I love what I love. With “Creeps,” all I saw when it was finished were the mistakes that I made. And that stuck with me for quite some time. Obviously if it had been a giant hit, my ego would have taken over and I would have said, “Of course it's great. I knew it would be.” But it took me many years to start to appreciate the good stuff about it. The bad stuff still bugs me. There's still a lot of wincing that I do when I see the film, but the stuff that's good I think is better than I thought it was at the time.
Well, I mean, what was your major takeaway at the time?
I definitely learned a great deal from having made that first film because I never went to film school. They wouldn't accept me. So I ended up making a lot of films with my buddies in college and shooting video and editing it myself. And so I definitely wasn't a complete neophyte, but I was a little bit enamored with certain directors at the time who are still my heroes, the Spielbergs and Mike Nichols and Kubrick -- all the directors who seem to have a real vision and you can spot their movies a mile away. The Coen Brothers, Michael Mann and people like that. So I was very beholden to smy vision of the movie in my head. And the problem with that is that I ended up shooting things in a particular way.
On the Blu-ray Michael [the editor] talks about the scene in the frat house where Chris and JC are pledging. And the Bradster is sort of doing a very subtle Nazi indoctrination. And I storyboarded that very meticulously and every shot is exactly as I storyboarded it, but I wasn't paying enough attention at the time to pace. The thing that I learned from “Night of the Creeps” that went going into “Monster Squad” and anything else that I had done since then is to have a stopwatch and make sure that however long it takes to play the scene or the take, that we do a couple at different speeds and presumably faster. If you look at the Preston Sturges comedies of the forties or some of the great comic directors of those days or even Howard Hawks, where he had everybody talking over each other very quickly. I think that's a great litmus test because people will almost never blame you if your movie goes too quickly, but they will get their noses out of joint if it's too slow. So the lesson I learned on “Creeps” was pace. But there's times when it takes its time and that really, really works for it. Making movies is trying to catch lightning in a bottle and it's very, very tricky to do.
Well, has anyone ever approached you and have you had any interest in, in adapting “Night of the Creeps” for TV or doing a remake? Was that ever a possibility or something that you want to explore?
Here’s the thing. I mean, I've made three feature films. I directed an episode of “Tales from the Crypt.” And that is the oeuvre that I have; that's kind of my entire filmography. And that's not by choice, by any stretch of the imagination. If any of these pictures had done really, really well, if “Monster Squad” had been a hit, I already had a deal to make the next film, which was going to be the “Johnny Quest” movie. And then when “Monster Squad” tanked, obviously the studio and I don't blame them, went, “Well I don't know.” The idea that I would go back and remake one of my three movies is, to me, just insane. Life is too short as it is.
Are you opposed to somebody else remaking them?
Absolutely I am. I'll be completely honest, Shane Black and I have both been approached about adapting “The Monster Squad” for television. Was it my first choice? No. But I'm a big fan now of long form television. I think “Breaking Bad” was a seminal viewing experience for me that I equated with “The Godfather.” I think it's the modern version of “The Godfather.” It just happens to be 62 hours long instead of, you know, two-and-a-half to three-hours long. So I'm a big fan of that. And figuring out a way to take “Monster Squad” and turn it into a long form series was very exciting to me. But when we were approached, it was right after “Stranger Things.”
Hollywood has, as you must know, a monkey see, monkey do a business where, Oh, well that's successful, so let's just rip that off. So Shane and I had a meeting at Paramount. I said, “Let me just clarify -- you guys want us to do a rip off of a rip off of us?” And they all sort of laughed. But that's basically what it came down to. And my other thought was on “The Monster Squad” was to show us the squad as they are now, because the fans that discovered the movie when they were very young, the age of the kids in the film, they may not have seen in the movie theater. They may have seen it on HBO or on video, but they grew up with it in the same way that the characters in that movie would have grown up.
I thought, well, let's make this movie for the people who fell in love when they were kids and say, “Where is the squad as adults?” And Shane said to me, “Well that's it.” I said, “Yeah, it's a great idea.” And he goes, “No, that's Stephen King's ‘It.’ the first part of the book and the first movie is them as kids fighting monsters and the second movie is them as adults fighting monsters.” So as a fan of the genre, there is nothing to me remotely interesting or new about “Monster Squad” as a movie or a TV show. Maybe in 10 years, maybe in 15 years. But right now it's like, well everybody's already doing it.
I did set up the director's cut ending of “Night of the Creeps” as a kind of a wink. Not to say that you know, there's going to be another one or there's more to this story because I wouldn’t want to do one without Tom Atkins. Depending on which version of the movie you see… The movie that I disowned was the theatrical version, he is presumably dead, but not necessarily. In the director's cut, he is definitely dead. So unless it's a dream and he wakes up and the phone rings and he says, “Thrill me,” it's really hard to bring him back. And I think he's the money. I think Tom Atkins in that movie is to me half of the movie. If you took him out or put another actor in there, I just don't think it would have any of the of the magic or the juice that it has.
And it bugs me when people make sequels to movies are freak occurrences. I'm a big fan “Die Hard 2,” but it goes down a little hard. I even like the third one, “Die Hard with a Vengeance” is terrific but “Die Hard with a Vengeance” at least acknowledges that John McClane is being chosen to run this gauntlet because of previous things he's done. It isn't like, “Isn't that a coincidence that there are terrorists every f*cking places guy goes?” And the “Jaws” sequels are the same thing. So for me “Night of the Creeps” is a one shot. I don't know what more you do with that idea that's going to make it interesting or expanded. I wouldn't know how to do that. That's one I wouldn't mind if somebody went off and said, “Hey, I want to do a sequel to this.” I would be interested to see what they came up with.
Just to touch on some of your other work, you helped on “Titan A.E.,” right? What was that experience like?
Yeah. I wasn't gun for hire. I needed work and I was approached by Fox because I think they were fans of mine and they saw in “The Monster Squad” a slightly before its time, PG-13 family movie, where you're edgy enough so that the teens don't completely look down their nose on it, which is why, by the way, teens didn't go see it. The movie was a bomb because kids couldn't get in because it was PG-13 and teens thought it was cheesy and adults wouldn't take their kids because they thought the kids would be scared. So it canceled out every possible audience it could have had, strangely. It was the same reason that I was brought on to do “RoboCop 3,” because they wanted to skew younger, but they wanted to skew younger in a way that wasn't going to be looked on as cheesy, which ultimately it was much to my dismay. So that’s why Fox approached me, I think. But I was really just a gun for hire. They gave me stuff that I did not create, that my heart really wasn't in. And to me it was kind of a no-win situation.
Can we talk about what happened with “The Predator?” We’ve seen set photos of good guy predators driving armored cars and you’ve alluded on your Facebook page to it not being the movie you and Shane wanted. Can you talk about that?
Sure. I think we were halfway through the shoot. Um, we had devised a sequence which, which I confessed was my idea, which was essentially, our heroes have to get from point A to point B and they commandeer military convoy. And at that point in the film, we had established a pair of Predator emissaries, basically good guy predators. What was interesting to Shane and I was to ask a question that nobody to give a shit about, which is, what do predators do, except for hunt? Because they've invented interstellar spacecraft. So they're not stupid. They're not just a bunch of Arkansas rednecks who come to Earth to play the most dangerous game. They actually have a civilization and a culture. And presumably that's worth exploring since none of the other movies do it.
So our idea was that their planet is dying. And so they've decided to take what previously was explored, which is to dope up creatures with the DNA of other types of predators from alien worlds and create new targets for their hunt. But now they realized, well, hey, we need maybe to upgrade ourselves just to survive. And then they go to themselves, well, hey, earth is warming up. We like a warm environment. Maybe we should move in. So the premise of the movie is that in the third act was these two predators come aboard the ship and everybody's freaking out and the predators actually want to communicate. They want to say, “Hey, we’ve got a problem, you have a problem. Maybe we should team up.”
So that whole convoy was trying to get the emissaries to the ship to get away and they were going to be chased by A, the upgrade who we meet in the finished version of the movie and B, and this was a huge change from our initial premise, is that at the beginning of the movie, you see the first Predator that shows up in the movie. He leaves the ship and we push in on this container in the, in the ship. And what they ended up with was the terrible ending that I have nothing to do with it. Shane didn't write either. That was sort of someone decided it was a good idea.
There's something on the ship. Well, originally there was a whole bunch of those in the ship. And what those were was those were the gestating hybrids. Essentially what they were nurturing and growing in these pods were the hybrids of Predator DNA mixed with the DNA of creatures from all over the galaxy that would enable them to basically eradicate mankind so that they could populate it themselves. And so the convoy chase, the idea was that it would be all of our heroes on these badass, big military vehicles and the upgrade releases the hybrids and chases them and the hybrids jump onto the convoy. And it's a big, rootin’, tootin’ fantastic action sequence.
Shane storyboarded it. And we had a pre-viz and animatics and it was I think a really cool idea. At some point or another, the studio, I think, and I'm not pointing fingers at anyone in particular, but there were these misgivings that we were straying too far from what people expected the movie to be. And so we sat down and went, “I guess we need to do a hunt and it needs to be at night, so it's scarier.” So we ended up going in that direction, which I don't think served us because it didn't top anything we'd seen before. I’m actually quite pleased with the first half of the movie, but it kind of goes off the rails by, and Hollywood does this all the time by, trying to appeal to everyone, you appeal to no one.
I think that the convoy chase should have been done at night to be scarier. And I argued for it, but I was just the co-writer, if I’d been a producer on the movie, they would have listened to me more. But believe it or not, that's the short version of how it became what it is.
How close did you come to getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to come back?
I think personally, and I argued, again, I was not a producer on this movie, so I could just say things and people will all nod or shake their heads. I believe the convoy chase, had we done it and had we done it at night, would have been something that had never been seen before in a movie. Whether you think it's a Predator movie or not is up to you. But I thought it would have been cool.
And the other thing I said is, “We have to have Arnold Schwarzenegger in this movie.” Because, like it or not, one of the master strokes of “The Force Awakens” is that ending. Because even though Luke doesn't do anything except turn around and have a beard, it touches that little nostalgia button in you and you go, “Oh cool.” And then you go to the credits and there's no way that movie's not going to be a big hit. Even though there's not a single original thing in it, all it is just “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” combined and you switch it around a little bit and you change characters, but there's not a single moment in that movie where I go, “Oh, that's an interesting, cool thing.” Because I saw it all before. I love these movies so I know them pretty well. And I know when you're showing me something from another “Star Wars” movie. Hollywood doesn't like to do that these days. They want to just trot out. This is why there's so many remakes that we don't need. So they filmed that again with a worst Chucky doll? Why do we want that?
Fred called me back later that day to clarify the potential Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo at the end of the film. This is what he said:
We very much wanted him in the film but what we had written was a cameo that would have spring-boarded into a major role in any sequel. He decided it wasn’t enough of a role and nobody was willing to put money on the possibility of a sequel. He would be taking a pay cut. He would have said, “Come with me if you want to live.” Shane had a talk with Arnold but at the end of the day, the sequel wasn’t a done deal and this is really not a lot of screen time for Arnold to go and fly to Canada and do a half day.
I also asked for him to clarify what he and Shane had to do with the ending that actually made it into the movie:
We shot it. I wrote that very last line. But I wasn’t happy about it. The whole thing seemed to not be in step with that particular franchise. It was one of many ideas that we floated and shot. We shot a version where Ripley was in the cocoon and we shot one where Newt from “Aliens” was in the cocoon. Sigourney didn’t want to clear any future for Ripley in the franchise and ultimately I don’t think anybody remembers Newt well enough for that to have meant anything.
“Night of the Creeps” is now available on Blu-ray from our good friends at Shout Factory. It’s a wonderful edition and very much worth it.