Billy and his best friend Tom have a tradition of renting videos every weekend and vegging out in Billy’s basement. Horror videos have everything they need: crazy monsters, heroes they can identify with, and of course, girls. They’ve seen every scary movie at the video store multiple times, which comes in handy when spooky-as-hell alien creatures set-up camp next door with no intention of letting humanity spoil their fun. Video Night by Adam Cesare is a fun and frightening look at identity, and it’s got a little bit of something from every genre you remember at the local the video store. Let’s rip this thing apart.
First off, let’s just get the nostalgia point out of the way. Does this appeal to a general shared nostalgia for younger days and 80’s ways? Of course, it does. Reading this literally made me stop what I was doing and run to the store for a bag of Pizza Rolls for Christ’s sake. But, there is so much more going on in this story that the nostalgia factor becomes just a sweet bonus.
Of course, we’ve got to talk about the scares, and Video Night has enough to make the old Halloween horror display at your local video store proud. Cesare’s version of an invasion is terrifying. The alien takeover is two-fold. There’s cognizant aliens that take over the minds and bodies of their hosts and use their slowly rotting human costume to masquerade around town figuring out different ways to spread the eggs of their gnarly demon sea-urchin puppies. Once they’ve done that for a couple of days, they can toss away the old human skin to reveal their real form and up the terror a notch. There’s a particularly cringe-inducing makeover scene that I think about every time I pick up a razor. And, then there’s those alien puppies I was talking about. It seemed like they were supposed to be “children” since the “adult” aliens would mate to produce the seeds, but they honestly seemed more like dogs. The “adult” aliens would infect a host with the seeds and the seeds would quickly develop and use their human host as a tasty breakfast before busting out to follow the adult’s orders and continue their chaos elsewhere. But don’t let the dog connection fool you--I swear I could hear their legs clacking and the bones cracking when those guys would be making a grand entrance.
The aliens and their babies are the obvious scare, but Cesare’s real grasp of horror is most present in his characters. Cesare doesn’t go easy on his readers--he makes you care about small characters even when you know they’re doomed. You’ll be trying to talk yourself out of the emotional investment because you can see their plot-forwarding death coming, but Cesare doesn’t let you look away. All of his characters become real--even those who we only really get to know for a couple of pages, and that makes their fate even worse. Cesare makes you take a long look at the life he’s destroying and really settle into it before he drops the axe (or the alien stinger thingy in this case).
You know if Cesare is spending that much energy on his side characters, then his main characters are going to be even quicker to illicit an emotional connection. If The Breakfast Club has taught us anything, it’s that there’s more than one way to apply your lipstick, but also there’s always more than meets the 80’s teen-movie cliché eye. Identity is an obvious theme for an alien possession/takeover story, but Cesare makes the connections so layered that the connection never seems old or lazy. Our main character Billy has the nerdy dork thing down—he’s fairly straight-laced, succeeds in school, and he’s pretty much a failure in any aspect of what’s typically deemed “cool”. But, despite Billy’s uptight nature as well as his own misgivings about his friend Tom’s juvenile delinquent tendencies, Billy never gives up on his friend. Billy may be picked on at school, but he doesn’t let that bleed over into his friendship with Tom—he lets Tom get his way on the day to day stuff, but Billy’s not going to let him throw away his future. Billy doesn’t want their friendship to be torn apart because the guy didn’t even try—especially when Billy knows Tom is more capable than even he may believe.
Tom may play the tough guy, but he genuinely fears a life without Billy. Tom can’t try to break the cycle and risk possible failure, so he’s at least going to have some fun while he can, even if it causes a little trouble. He resents their diverging paths and he tries to avoid any responsibility for it by hiding out in Billy’s basement. They don’t have to talk about the what-if’s because there’ll always be another video to watch. Billy and Tom don’t have to try to figure out how to avoid their own impending doom because they’re busy watching their ill-fated counterparts do the same thing on the screen.
Billy’s love-interest Rachel similarly avoids her own issue—Rachel doesn’t know where her image ends and she begins. To her classmates, she’s the moderately pretty girl with the big boobs and the loud friend, Darcy. She fills in any gaps for Rachel with her boisterous personality and loud everything—Darcy’s got the voice, the clothes, and the partying to distract anyone from seeing Rachel as anything besides another accessory. Rachel doesn’t have to have herself figured out because she can hide behind Darcy. But, more and more she is questioning her actions and what those things really mean about her. Her agreeing to join Billy, Tom, and Darcy in Billy’s basement is the beginning of her figuring out who she really is and what she wants. She doesn’t agree to go as a favor to Darcy--she goes because she is curious about Billy and wants to see what a life with him in it could be like if she wanted it.
Once the alien shit goes down, everyone is forced to face what they’ve been avoiding. I’ll keep examples limited to a few, but don’t mistake that for any failing of Cesare’s—everyone’s got a part to play and no one is cheated out of a connection. Rachel quickly realizes she can’t rely on Darcy to dictate her image or serve as a distraction. She’s on her own and she figures out she can take charge—she’s not just a sidekick. Rachel can push aside grief to focus on survival, and she can figure out how aliens work even if she’s not as familiar with them as Billy and Tom. This was a great about-face moment for me. In the horror videos of their time, it would have been rare for Billy and Tom to encounter a girl so strong. A girl may survive until the credits roll, but plenty of her female friends would get naked and die, and it was rare for them to keep it together to save the boys if they weren’t already lined up for the Chopping Mall… er, block.
Rachel’s sister Rhonda serves as an example of what happens when self-realization doesn’t happen. She’s missed or is avoiding any kind of introspection and is just floating through life letting her boyfriend dictate who she is and how she behaves until she decides to do otherwise. She’s the perfect host because she is already something she doesn’t recognize. It’s a similar story for Lieutenant Darl—he hides who he really is and keeps it behind a more socially acceptable macho exterior, a lot like the way he “stays” inside the mind of his possessor. His body may be taken over by an alien, but he never gives up complete control of his mind. He couldn’t confront who he was in life, so he’s certainly not going to let someone else tell him who he is anymore. In this way, Darl reminded me a lot of Hopper from Stranger Things—he may have his own shit going on, but he’s not going to let it stop him from doing what’s right. (But, let’s give some credit, Darl was Hopper before Hopper was Hopper.)
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the big reveal of the alien plot (for our teen protagonists anyway--don’t worry, the reader is in on the whole terrifying thing from the start) takes place in Billy’s basement. His basement has always been a refuge. It’s somewhere the kids can turn off their brains and keep their fears as far away as the TV screen, but it’s now become the place where they must face a terrifyingly heightened and terrifyingly real version of those fears. They’re forced to quickly figure out who they are before they don’t get a say in the matter anymore. Video Night takes readers from the safety of the screen, to the terrifying reality of an out of this world horror, and back, and it provides plenty of complex and memorable characters from start to finish. For a book that could have easily rested on 80’s nostalgia and a tired alien theme, Adam Cesare decided to take a closer look behind the doors of a suburban nightmare and show just how horrifying it could be to not know who you are anymore.
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