Whatever Happened To Fred Dekker?Posted: October 28, 2014
I’ve been aware of Fred Dekker as a person for awhile now. I know that he made some cult horror movies in the ‘80s, directed an awful Robocop film, and worked with Shane Black a bit. Up until Sunday afternoon I hadn’t seen any of his work, and I wasn’t sure how much of the enthusiasm for his movies was based in the Nostalgia Wave. But then I had myself a double-feature of Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad, and my perspective changed dramatically. I now see Fred Dekker as one of the great unsung filmmakers of the 1980s, and I see his 20+ years of inactivity as a terrible waste of a talent that seems to have been ahead of his time.
Night of the Creeps is an absurdly ambitious film, not just in terms of the number of different genre elements put together but also in relation to what must’ve been a very limited budget. This is probably no more apparent than in the opening moments of the movie, where we see aliens that can only be describe as giant mutant Cabbage Patch Kids with one sneering facial expression running about an anonymous starship corridor. But Dekker’s ambitions don’t end with merely outpacing his effects budget, as we see once we depart the alien ship. The whole prologue sequence is a great black-and-white ode to (and slight mockery of) the sort of cheap ‘50s horror flicks that Dekker himself probably grew up with. This whole sequence actually wound up reminding me of the Halloween stories episode of Community, where Abed ably deconstructs the same tropes that Dekker references here. From that retro starting point, Dekker then weaves together contemporary college film hijinks with another throwback: the haunted cop with nothing to lose. The mashup works surprisingly well, and with tongue planted firmly in every available cheek. While the film is certainly hampered somewhat by it’s limited budget, and I think Dekker made one major misstep by killing off the wrong college kid early on, there is an infectious energy that drives this big honking jalopy of a movie, that makes the whole thing unerringly likable.
As for Monster Squad, I never would’ve guessed during the film that the ending would almost make me cry, and yet so it was. Once again, Dekker scores by combining a contemporary film structure with old-school horror tropes. In this case, it’s the kids-on-an-adventure movie and classic Universal monsters. And Dekker (along with co-writer Shane Black) solve both sides of this equation with ease: the interactions amongst the kids have the same sort of honest, natural flow that can be found in E.T. or Stand By Me, while the monsters feel like they stepped right out of their old features, albeit with a fresh look courtesy of Stan Winston. Much like its ‘80s brethren, Monster Squad uses the larger-than-life genre elements as an extension of a much more grounded emotional issue. Here, the parents of Sean and Phoebe are going through a rough time in their marriage, and there’s certainly an unspoken strain among the family. It’s unsurprising that the kids would turn to monster movies as an escape, and of course their adventures with the real monsters help bring the family back together again. Though for me, the most effective emotional beats actually come from young Phoebe’s interactions with the Frankenstein monster (played beautifully by Tom Noonan), which true to the original story betray a level of innocence in the towering undead man. Indeed, all of the monsters are depicted in very loving and canonical terms. Though the circumstances of their reunion seem a little coincidental, Dekker again imbues the proceedings with such unbridled enthusiasm that I never felt too compelled to question the flow of the story.
Like many other genre films in the ‘70s/’80s, Night of the Creeps and Monster Squad were the result of their creators’ enthusiasm for the movies of their youth. However, unlike many of their genre kin, these films directly reference their influences, both visually and conceptually, and at least in part for laughs. That is what makes them stand out in relation to the Spielbergs and Carpenters of the era, and set the groundwork for the Wrights and Gunns and Harmons of the present. It’s the sort of callback/mashup style of filmmaking that isn’t done very often even now (outside of spoofs, and for the most part fuck those movies). To see this sort of filmmaking coming out of the ‘80s makes it even more impressive, and makes me wish that there were 20 years worth of Dekker films that I could catch up with in the immediate future.
Unfortunately that isn’t the case. Outside of the terrible Robocop 3 (a movie I’m inclined to not completely blame Dekker for), he’s done pretty much nothing, outside of some work on Star Trek: Enterprise, and that was over a decade ago. I can’t help but wonder what the hell happened for such a sharp talent to completely walk away from movies for so long. But it might not be for too much longer; when Shane Black was announced to be developing a Predator reboot, it was said that Dekker was working with him on it. With Black having numerous other irons in the fire, my hope is that he will have to walk away from Predator and that Dekker will get a shot to return to the big time. While so much time away might have dulled his cinematic voice, after watching his movies this past weekend I really can’t wait to see what he might have up his sleeve after all these years. With those two movies, Fred Dekker marked himself as a really great cinematic talent, and I really hope he isn’t done just yet.