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Your friend needs a psychiatrist, not a vampire killer.

Fright Night
(1985)

(SPOILERS) Horror laced with comedy, or comedy laced with horror, has now been so defined by Buffy the Vampire Slayer that precursors tend to look like they’re setting the stage rather than acting as an influence. It’s difficult to believe Joss Whedon didn’t at least have the tone of Fright Night in his head when he wrote the 1992 movie (and it’s notable that the serviceable but personality-free Fright Night remake was penned by Marti Noxon, ex of Whedon’s writing team). How does the picture stand up? It’s pretty much the same; scrappy, goofy, over-indulgent to its (endearing) special effects and anchored by a hugely charming performance from Roddy McDowall and a smoothly charismatic one from Chris Sarandon.


It might be one of those movies that presents a more consistent tone in the trailer than the actual thing, but that’s probably part and parcel of a first-time director. Tom Holland, having experienced the terrors of Michael Winner unleashed on his material (Scream for Help) opted to call the shots himself, tapping into a burgeoning horror-comedy trend with results that were more frequently hit than miss. By and large, he knows what to play straight and which tropes to have fun with; teen Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is instantly suspicious of his new next door neighbour Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) when he sees a coffin delivered, and for good reason, but his protestations of vampirism fall on deaf ears, such that girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and buddy “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) pay down-at-heel-actor-cum-late-night-horror-host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) to convince him Dandridge isn’t in fact one of the undead. Which all seems to be going fine… until Vincent discovers he is.


Ragsdale, who has since etched out a successful TV career in the likes of Herman’s Head and Justified, is the perfectly earnest straight man in the proceedings, as all around him grasp the mettle of showier roles. The picture’s key conceit is one it appropriates from the decade’s earlier lycanthrope movies The Howling and American Werewolf in London; the characters are fully aware of all the tales and fictions of surrounding vampire lore, fuelling much of the comedy (it’s this post-modern approach, more than anything, that Buffy owes its debt to). When Charley calls the police, after seeing what he’s certain is a body being bundled into the car boot of Jerry’s cohabitee, Renfeld-esque Bill Cole (Jonathan Stark), he’s initially cautious about voicing his supernatural suspicions, until, with no joy during the interrogations, he can’t help but suggest the officers look in the basement for a coffin: “You’re going to find Jerry Dandridge in it, sleeping the sleep of the undead!


Jerry Dandridge: Of course, now that I’ve been made welcome, I’ll probably drop by quite a bit. In fact, any time I feel like it. With your mother’s permission, of course.

And, while the proceedings establish themselves rather like Rear Window (or Disturbia, if you’re a millennial) with vampires, Charley’s concerns are at least as much hormonal as they are vampiric. Jerry’s arrival distracts him from his fumblings with Amy: the sexually-experienced alpha male proceeds to steal her away (and, as Kim Newman has noted, Charley’s sudden disinterest in the ready-and-willing sex offered by his girlfriend, as soon as a handsome man appears outside his window, yields a gay subtext all its own).


Sarandon’s apple-eating (he was inspired by fruit bats), Strangers in the Night-whistling vamp pulls off pullovers down the disco far better than Michael Douglas could hope to in Basic Instinct, and it’s not for nothing that he’s feted as one of the screen’s most memorable bloodsuckers, a suave, confident, personable creation, one capable of showing a range of emotions (he appears genuinely concerned over Amy’s feelings, reminding him as she does of a lost love) and convincingly making the moves on the dance floor (a scene only somewhat punctured by the terrible ‘80s beats; Brad Fiedel furnished the score, Holland having been impressed by The Terminator, and there’s a similar “quality” of it being little more than discordant synth noise at times).


Holland conceived of a “younger and hipper” Christopher Lee, and he certainly got that. The only area this falls down is in the transformed Dandridge, which is closer to a deadite than anything effectively vampiric. That said, I love the deranged vampire bat incarnation that tries to chew chunks out of our heroes at the climax (it was, apparently, a reject puppet from Ghostbusters; Richard Edlund handled both movies), and there are various effectively wacky elements, such as the wolf-ish Evil Ed (why he turns into something wolf is beyond me) and the vamp Amy, all nightmare teeth (Bearse, a decade older than she was playing, soon went on to Married with Children).


Judy Brewster: What about your nightmare? Do you want a Valium?

Holland said “I wanted a teenage boy going mano a mano with the great vampire of the world” which certainly solidifies the movie’s pre-Buffy status, as well as paving the way for similarly-poised The Lost Boys and Vamp. And, like Buffy, Charley has an oblivious mum who even looks a bit like her (and is entirely charmed by Jerry, naturally; one of the best scenes has Jerry making innocently veiled threats, having been granted access to the Brewster home by Judy).


Also like Buffy, Charley has an uber-geeky sidekick, one who provides the requisite comic relief. Geoffreys has since become more (in)famous for eking out a career in hardcore gay porn, but his eccentrically-vocalised, wired-haired teen with a memorably sarcastic catchphrase (“You’re so cool, Brewster”) is easily identifiable as one of the decade’s great lead-eclipsing buds (the other main notable being Two and a Half Men’s Jon Cryer as Duckie in Pretty in Pink; Geoffreys’ performance is gauged somewhere between Duckie and Bobcat Goldthwait’s Zed from Police Academys 2-4). It was surely Holland recognising his star turn that earned Ed the final line.


Ed: Then he’ll be able to suck his way through the entire town. Not that it would be much of a loss.

There’s also a gay subtext to Ed’s “seduction” by Jerry, who observes how the teen is persecuted for being “different” (albeit, while readily endorsing this reading, Holland has stated he rather had in mind Ed being simply a bullied EC Comics geek). It’s further evidence of the empathy exhibited by Dandridge. Ed’s certainly a more unnerving transformed vampire than Jerry, particularly when he appears in Judy’s bed sporting a red wig, waiting to scare the living daylights out of Peter Vincent. Who is also given to curious compassion; having staked Ed, the whimpering wolf creature garners his sympathy, before he thinks better of getting too close.


For me, it’s McDowall who made this movie as memorable as it is, portraying an unapologetic ham actor and coward required to rise to the challenge of a real supernatural threat. He’s basically Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers, or Abbot and Costello up against the Universal horror catalogue, but transposed to the ‘80s.


Holland has it that Love at First Bite killed the vampire movie for a spell (despite John Badham’s Dracula coming out later the same year and doing reasonable business). That may have been the case, but he’s really taking his cues, as noted, from Dante and Landis, particularly the former. After all, in The Howling it’s Dick Miller occult bookstore owner who provides the lowdown of the movie-popularised defences one should use against the werewolf curse, and Vincent serves a similar function (“So far, everything has been just like it was in the movies. We just have to keep hoping”). Dandridge even professes “Mr Vincent, I’ve seen all your films. And I found them… very amusing” (with titles like Orgy of the Damned, and the footage we see, that’s about right). Asked by Charley if he is serious about vampires being real, Vincent replies:

Peter Vincent: Absolutely. Unfortunately, none of your generation seems to be. I have just been fired because nobody wants to see vampire killers any more, or vampires either. Apparently, all they want are demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins!


Of course, if Holland’s borrowing from Dante, Dante would return the compliment in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, with Robert Prosky’s has-been Grandpa Fred and his cable show, bemoaning the lack of respect for old fare (one might consider that, rather than George Hamilton, it was those very madmen in ski masks who made the traditional vamp seem rather passé). Lest there’s any doubt about the Dante influence, the original ending of Fright Night (the screenplay) had Peter Vincent transform into a vampire live (dead) on air, which was exactly the ending of The Howling, only with a werewolf.


Indeed, reaction at the time was as much concerned with the effects as the gags, and not everyone was overly impressed. While Nicholas Royle in Time Out called it “a farrago of cartoonish exaggeration… knowing humour and ‘80s camp, it shouldn’t even begin to work, and yet, strangely, it does, sort of, thanks to the assured handling of writer/director Holland and two performances in particular – Geoffreys as Charley’s pal Evil, and McDowall as the timid vampire killer”, Kim Newman contrasted it with its superior werewolf predecessors, commenting in Nightmare Movies that it “should do for vampires what The Howling does for werewolves, but gets side-tracked and emerges as a Count Yorga movie jazzed up with some admittedly astonishing transformation effects and an unhelpful dose of high school comedy”.


He felt such an approach was negative, bracketing Fright Night with the likes of The Lost Boys, arguing they “reduce the genre to Scooby Doo, Where Are You? with children, adolescents or childish young men in the leads, and with one scene of knockabout looning for every dose of effects-dripping monstrousness, the films provide the MTV generation with something to watch every three minutes but are unable to get seriously scary, or even seriously funny. All they prove is that nobody needs a safe horror movie”. A little unfair, but from a horror diehard like Newman, probably understandable, as he has his own dubious standards to uphold.


Vincent is back on his show come the final scene, which is a relief, and McDowall and Ragsdale would return for Fright Night Part 2, sans Holland, which I have to admit I've never got around to seeing (I may have to remedy that; I always found the trailer amusing, but recall the movie being roundly slated). I don’t think Fright Night quite stands the test of time the way some other horror comedies of the period do (Evil Dead II, Vamp), but then, that may be because it was never that great in the first place; it’s the nostalgia factor that has elevated it. If Holland’s directing chops are fairly rudimentary, he undoubtedly brings a confident tone, martialling scares, laughs and fine performances (McDowall and Sarandon especially). And buckets of green goo. It was the ‘80s.



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