Fright Night (1985)

Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) helps Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) from the neighborhood blood drive.

Written and directed by Tom Holland. Produced by Herb Jaffe. Music by Brad Fiedel. Photographed by Jan Kiesser. Edited by Kent Beyda. Production designed by John DeCuir Jr. Starring Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowell, Stephen Geoffreys, Jonathan Stark, Dorothy Fielding, Art Evans.

Fright Night is the newest in our neverending succession of remakes, and that is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because the premise (a teenager begins to suspect that his next-door neighbor is a vampire) is too good to be trapped in cinematic amber, and deserves a good-natured retread. Sure. Why not. But it’s a curse because the original Fright Night is very much a film of the 80’s, and benefits from the very qualities that would make it hopelessly “dated” for today’s audience. Here is a movie that features the subversion of idyllic suburbia, the encroaching horrors of teen sexuality, role models, good values, and other things that (Hollywood now believes) kids have no patience for. It values innocence and dignity, not just because pitting those qualities against vampires makes for a good story, but because back then, movies believed in those kinds of things. Those were the days.

It’s appropriate that I begin a review of Fright Night by reminiscing about the past, because the movie itself was nostalgic for vampires and Hammer horror movies at a time when kids wanted to see serial killers in hockey masks. (Of course, nowadays kids want to see movies about vegetarian vampires that sparkle, so the goalposts are always moving.) Fright Night is the kind of movie that harbors a sneaky affection for old horror/thriller classics, and plunders their tropes with the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old dusting off toys found in the basement.

And then, it goes a step further and invents a full-fledged icon: an actor named Peter Vincent (the great Roddy McDowell), a superstar of vampire movies and creature features who is broke, unemployed, desperate. He seizes an opportunity to fight a horde of real-life vampires, partly for the chance to feel relevant, and mostly to collect a $500 savings bond. Study that character name, by the way. Peter Vincent. Perhaps a double-barreled tribute to the great Peter Cushing and Vincent Price? That’s a pseudonym, however, we never learn Peter Vincent’s true name. I like to think it’s Christopher.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. Before we meet Peter Vincent, we have the delightful opening passages of Fright Night, which begin with the promise of sex before transitioning to the implication of violence, as Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) in mid-makeout with his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), finally convinces her to shed her virginity, the pig, and then is distracting from sealing the deal when he spies suspicious behavior out his bedroom window. The framing here, of the willing girl being forgotten by a man’s obsession with something secret happening outside, recalls nothing less than Hitchcock’s Rear Window. But in that movie the suspicion is that the hero’s neighbor is a murderer. Fright Night sees that and raises it: Charley’s neighbor is a flat-out vampire, fangs and all.

The evidence is not exactly hidden. A coffin gets moved into the next door basement. The windows are all painted black. Sexy women visit the house and then mysteriously disappear. And then one night, he spies into a window and watches Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) convert a bedroom encounter with a playmate into a late-night snack, complete with hypnotism, fang-marks, and a knowing look from Jerry, who notices he’s being watched. When did movie vampires lose their mystique, by the way? At some point after this movie, they all became super-fast thuggish terminator-wannabes. Nobody seduces anymore. It’s a shame.

Charley, quite reasonably, calls the police. The police, quite reasonably, think he’s crazy. Here we have a dependable archetype, The Kid That No Authority Figure Believes, who is perhaps a direct cousin to The Cop With A Theory No One Believes. By showing his hand, Charley makes himself a target, opening a delightful string of sequences where the vampire sets his sights on the boy, and begins to toy with him. Fright Night is not exactly a scary movie, but I think it draws some creepy awe by the way Jerry practically sits back and bides his time, reflecting that when you’re a vampire in a rational-thinking universe, the world is your type-A oyster.

Charley stocks up on vampire lore and tokens: crosses, garlic, holy water. But garlic really never gets used much in vampire movies, because it doesn’t make a handy weapon unless someone feels like baking the vampire a loaf of bread. Charley’s aware of the traditional rule that vampires cannot enter a home uninvited. Oh, but his mother is just so sweet and welcoming of the new neighbors, that…well, what do you know. And those invitations, by the way, are way tough to revoke.

It’s only through a miracle that Charley survives a late-night visit from Jerry, which ends with a creepy phone call and threats. And that’s when the legendary Peter Vincent enters the picture, and the movie finds its heart. Recently fired from his job hosting midnight movies on TV, Peter Vincent needs money, and agrees to Amy’s proposal that he play “himself” in order to convince Charley that his neighbors are harmless. Unfortunately, it is poor Vincent who ends up being persuaded that Jerry Dandridge is the real deal, and how this foregone conclusion unfolds itself is one of the movie’s niftiest little scenes: the movie plays fair with long-established vampire logic, and seeing the characters’ reactions to how those rules ensnare them is one of the movie’s real pleasures.

With the stakes (yeah, I couldn’t resist) now clearly established, we are fully prepared for Fright Night’s final third, which is basically a compendium of horror beats, highlighted by both Richard Edlund’s impressive monster effects, John (Ghostbusters) DeCuir’s production design, and the really quite good acting of both McDowell and Sarandon, who are clearly having fun as vampire hunter and vampire, respectively. Sarandon dispenses with the usual gimmicks found in vampire movies and instead creates a villain who has a low-key, smug charm. Perhaps he gets a little hammy in the end, but it’s only in self-defense: it becomes clear that if Jerry had his druthers, he would spend eternity living in suburbia and miding his own business, save the occasional tasty housewife.

Then there is Roddy McDowell, who is one of those actors who is so very British, so well-though-of, so stiff-upper-lip dignified, that it is with difficulty that one finally remembers he was never in many great movies. He was however, great in many of them, and he is great here, as the aging actor with little life and no friends, who is poignantly disappointed when someone turns him down when he wants to give away an autograph. (“What’s more important than my autograph?”) He rises in our estimation as the movie progresses, going from endearing to foolish to pathetic and then ultimately approaching bravery, trudging up the steps of Jerry Dandridge’s home to meet his doom. In many respects, Peter Vincent is like the hero of the movie, because we worry about the old man more than Charley.

Fright Night is actually really quite clever, not least in the way it runs with the formula established by Carrie, which was the rare teen horror movie that was actually about something. Certainly Fright Night is not as well-made or visceral as Brian De Palma’s classic, but it is similar in the way it combines horror elements that tap into teenage fears, and you can sense a growing excitement during Fright Night, as if the movie itself is noticing that this is really working. During a chase scene where Jerry corners Charley and Amy in a dance club, there’s an eerie and confidently erotic sequence where the experienced vampire hypnotizes the young girl into tantalizing submission. The entire sequence is deeply alluring, and the effect is raised in a following bedroom scene full of pregnant looks and perverse tenderness. Rarely has a movie vampire mesmerized so effectively.

Now here’s a question: what are we to make of the character of Charley’s mom (Dorothy Fielding)? She is so clueless that she almost plays like a parody of her own character. She’s a woman who has no reaction to her teenage son’s frank sex talk with his girlfriend, who takes no notice when her son starts calling the police, hanging out with old movie stars, and decorates his bedroom with more supernatural talismans than can be found at Hot Topic. Then she disappears halfway through the movie, with no ending followthrough. Ah well. We do get a nice little arc for Charley’s annoying friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), who learns the hard way that when you’re starring in a horror movie and you are not a piece of the alpha couple, well…you know how it goes.

The movie is blatantly (and not very subtly) about the fear of oncoming sexuality, personified by the piggish Charley and the innocent Amy, who accepts losing her virginity under duress but ends up losing a lot more. There’s also Jerry’s live-in ghoul friend Billy (Jonathan Stark), who brings to the table a low-key gay subtext that crystalizes the movie’s buried themes of clashing lifestyles. If it is true that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is about the detection of sinister undertones underneath rigid Victorian sexual mores (and it is), then it was Fright Night’s masterstroke to bring that sensibility into the present day by tying it into the timid steps of teen sexual maturity. From here, the way was paved for the subsequent teen dramas that joined vampirism with teen angst: The Lost Boys, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight... Hmm. Well, quality-wise, two out of three ain’t bad.

I make the movie sound deeper than it is. It is not deep. But it is quite good at what it does, and holds up rather well, thank you very much. Despite the blood and shocks and gruesome special effects, Fright Night has a lot of innocence and affection that makes it much better than it sounds. I hope, somehow, the remake retains that sensibility, because Fright Night is all about innocence: having it, losing it, regaining it at the rising of the sun. It’s a surprisingly good-hearted little movie, made with love, enthusiasm and not a little creativity. I hope that all carries over. We’ll see.

Perhaps my only complaint is that the final climax is a little too traditional and (perhaps) predictable. But no matter. When we see a horror movie, the whys are wherefores of how the monster is defeated is immaterial, what we like is the comfort that they can be defeated. Vampires are staked. Good triumphs over evil. Young lust becomes young love, teenagers grow up, and has-beens come back better than ever. Oh, yes…and movies long thought buried are given the vampire’s kiss, and are remade to live once more. I guess that’s not such a scary thing. In fact, it’s kinda neat that whenever anyone now says “Fright Night,” they have to be asked “the original or the remake?” Unless they mean the sequel, Fright Night Part II, but let’s not get into that. Some things just should never be dug up.

GRADE: B

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1989 – Glory

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1968 – Planet of the Apes

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