Collins’ Crypt: Like The Shirts Say, Tom Atkins Rules

The new NIGHT OF THE CREEPS Blu-ray lets us enjoy one of the veteran actor's greatest performances all over again.

I never expect anyone I've interviewed or done a Q&A with to remember who I am. However exciting it may be to me, I always remember that it's one of a million such occasions for the talent, and that it's unlikely it'll set itself apart from the others should our paths cross again. But there is one exception that left me mortified: Tom Atkins. "How can that be a bad thing?" you might be asking, so let me tell you. In 2008, I moderated a few of the panels at the Halloween 30th anniversary convention, including the one for Halloween III which featured Atkins, who I introduced as something like "The man, the legend, TOM M----R F----N' ATKINS!" to huge applause from the equally excited crowd. I didn't think anything of it until a few months later, when I had been asked - and quickly agreed - to do a phone conversation with Tom for the release of My Bloody Valentine, and when the publicist connected us I told him who I was. With barely any pause, Tom replied "Oh, you're the one that was swearing!"

My affinity for profanity has been an issue for literally as long as I can remember (my oldest memory is repeating a curse word I heard on TV courtesy of one Chevy Chase, and my parents' subsequent not-amused reaction), but in the nearly 30 years since - the embarrassed slipups in front of my mom, my dad overhearing me using some colorful descriptions for a particularly difficult video game I was playing, etc - I never once felt as ashamed as I did right then, knowing that I made an impression on an actor I loved not for any particularly good question or anything, but for having a trash mouth. I've tried to watch my tongue ever since. I'm not particularly successful at it, but since it was easier to edit the words I put on a page as opposed to the ones coming out of my mouth, I kept the F-word's usage to the barest minimum for my book, specifically in Tom's honor. 

But still: Tom Atkins knows who I am!!! Lethal Weapon was probably the first thing I ever saw him in, but I really took notice of him in his John Carpenter films (I'm including Halloween III in that group, for the record) and ever since have always gotten that much more interested in a film when I knew he was in it. In fact, the first time I saw Night of the Creeps was because a friend told me "It's got Tom Atkins saying one-liners and shooting zombies", and let's face it: that's twice as much info as I need to get on board. To be fair, Atkins isn't the star of the movie, as it primarily focuses on a trio of college students who inadvertently play a part in the zombie outbreak Atkins' detective character is trying to stop, but he's by far the most memorable character anyway. In fact, those who ponied up for the deluxe edition of the release got a Tom Atkins action figure, and it should surprise no one to discover that they quickly sold out and now fetch a premium from resellers.

For those who haven't seen the film - that above image is how we're introduced to the actor as Detective Cameron (everyone in the movie has a genre director name - it's a tired gimmick now, but in 1986 it was relatively fresh), though it's actually a dream he is having about the life he should have had. In reality he's a drunken burnout who thinks nothing of wearing his pajamas to a crime scene, though - as the movie actually shows us - he's still the type to stop and smell the roses. The reason for his current demeanor is shown in flashback: as a young officer, his ex-girlfriend was killed by an axe maniac, and he took it upon himself to dish some vigilante justice on the killer, burying his body under the sorority house. He's still traumatized by the whole thing, so it doesn't help when the corpse of the killer rises and he has to kill him again.

This is, of course, a ridiculous plot point (and I didn't even include half of the details), but Atkins makes it work perfectly. Dekker's script is very much tongue-in-cheek, as he wanted to pay tribute to "Creature Feature" type movies from the '50s and '60s and write a script that, in his own words, included "every B-movie cliche you've ever seen", and not every actor in the film seems to be in on the joke. But Atkins gets it perfectly - even the way he tosses away a cigarette has this sort of heightened self-awareness, like the character himself was mimicking a Charles Bronson-y kind of cop. The actor has said more than once that it was his favorite of all the movies he did, and it's easy to see why: even though it's not a lead, he gets to own every shot he's in, and get all the best lines (including the film's most famous one, which is too long to repeat here but got used as the tagline on the poster, and of course the immortal "Thrill me!"). 

But it's probably The Fog and Halloween III that really endeared him to horror fans like me, because in both of those movies he manages to hop in the sack with a beautiful (and younger) woman within a few hours of meeting her. In Fog it's Jamie Lee Curtis as a hitchhiker he picks up; they meet in their first scene together, and are in bed in the next. He's not quite as speedy in Halloween III, but he's hilariously more shameless about it; a woman whose father died in his care (he was playing a doctor in this one) thinks something about his condition was suspicious and wants to go to where he worked to investigate, so he does what anyone would do: blows off his own kids, buys a six pack of Miller Lite, and gets in the car with her for an impromptu road trip. When they arrive in town a couple hours later, they get a room with one bed and... well, he's Tom Atkins, so what do you think happens?

Amusing side-note to his on-screen prowess with the women - his libido is to thank for him being an actor at all. In a lengthy, career-spanning interview on the Creeps disc (titled "Man of Action", natch), Tom explains that when he was in college he was seeing a girl who was part of the local theater group, and getting frustrated that she didn't have as much time for him lately because she was always with them. "So why don't you come over and do something, it'll be fun!" she suggested, and figuring that would solve his problem he readily did so, joining a production of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. And then in turn, he wanted to spend more time acting than with her, so they went their separate ways while he kept working on his newfound craft, and now we have Dan Challis, Nick Castle, Frank McCrae, and of course Ray Cameron as a result. Legend! 

Adding to his appeal to our crowd is that he's a normal looking guy - he looks more like your uncle than a traditional movie star, and that's something even Atkins himself seems to recognize. On that same interview he tells a story of how Shane Black would be on the set of the film (as Black and Dekker are close friends and were already starting work on Monster Squad) and how the young writer - also a fan - gave him a script he had set up at Warners called Lethal Weapon, and how he thought Atkins would be ideal for the role of Riggs. Atkins' reply was to tell him Warner would in no way make a movie like that with him in the lead role as they'd want someone famous, but Black still wanted him in the movie, which lead to him getting the smaller role of Hunsaker, landing himself the movie's most GIF-able moment, if nothing else (it involves egg nog). 

The actor moved back to Pittsburgh at some point in the '90s, which unfortunately meant that his film/TV roles were more sporadic as he stayed active with the theater world there. His return to the big screen in 2009's My Bloody Valentine was a huge selling point for the horror crowd, who missed him dearly, and - with my above anecdote still fresh in my mind - he got the movie's most memorable line: "Happy fucking Valentine's Day!" (that film's creative team of Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier brought him back for a cameo in Drive Angry, and he will appear in their upcoming Trick, as well). But his '80s classics like Creeps and the Carpenter stuff continues to find new appreciators, and I see younger horror fans wearing their "Tom Atkins Rules" shirts all the time at screenings and cons, so it's safe to assume he doesn't need to star in a dozen VOD movies every year like some of his peers to stay on our minds. He may only pop up on occasion now, but that just makes it all the more exciting when he does, and here's hoping he does it long enough to forget all about that potty mouthed writer.