Skip to main content

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.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein (1931)
(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…