Ah, Fright Night. My teenage years; here they are.
Nervous teenager Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a passionate fan of Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), who, in better years, starred in films as “Peter Vincent, Vampire Slayer,” but is currently relegated to the role of late-night monster-movie host on a show called Fright Night. Now Peter’s show is getting cancelled, because, as he puts it, today’s kids are only interested in “demented madmen running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins,” and an eviction notice is waiting for him at home. Charley needs his help. He’s just received conclusive evidence that Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), the handsome and charming man who’s just moved in next door, is a vampire: partly because through his window he witnessed Jerry about to bite into the neck of a pretty young woman, and partly because Jerry, fangs bared and eyes glowing red, has just invaded his bedroom and tried to murder him. Much like that one police officer, Peter thinks Charley’s crazy. But soon they’ll both be up against Jerry Dandridge in a battle for the soul of Charley’s girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse). Movie props are pitted against shapechanging bloodsuckers in “Fright Night – for real.”
It might be one of the iconic 80’s horror movies, but I still think Fright Night’s been undervalued in the two-and-a-half decades since its release. As with many of the films of Joe Dante and John Landis, writer/director Tom Holland has a genuinely reverent, Famous Monsters of Filmland-style affection for out-of-fashion monster movies. But it ranks among the best of the decade’s retro-minded horror films not just because the pre-CG special effects (by Richard Edlund) are still very impressive, but also because it doesn’t buckle under the weight of nostalgia and sentimentality. Fright Night not only has a serious beef with those films about “madmen running around in ski masks,” but it treats its themes seriously. Amy is confronting an emerging sexuality which frightens her, but which Jerry Dandridge draws out with a confidence Charley can only envy. Charley’s spasmodic friend, “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), is condemned to be a social outcast until Jerry offers him a way out, a means of having power over those who would torment him. Both Charley and Peter are forced to emerge from their claustrophobic worlds, and it’s charming to watch one guide the other on – as they figure out, together, how to become heroes in the face of real danger.
Fright Night is wish-fulfillment for horror geeks (what if Peter Cushing or Vincent Price helped you kill real vampires?), but it also takes care to ground each moment with humor and feeling. Peter Vincent does not become a fearless vampire killer in the space of a heartbeat. There’s a lovely moment after he’s steeled himself to the task, and hesitates just on the brink of the walkway leading up to Jerry’s house. Then he overcomes that hesitation, and marches confidently forward, determined to do the right thing despite his nerves. (And even then, he’ll run in terror when their strategy immediately falls to pieces.)
The script stays sharp as a stake throughout, and Holland is at the top of his game when he stages a dance of seduction between Jerry and Amy on a dance club floor, or when Peter tries to prove to Charley that Jerry is not a vampire by giving him fake “holy water,” and Jerry pauses with the flask near his lips, hoping to the Devil that it’s really fake. Sarandon, chomping on apples and flashing smiles at Charley while smooth-talking the boy’s mother, gives a performance that’s been justly praised. But to revisit the film many years after I last saw it, I’m struck now at how much Ragsdale’s performance is keyed to McDowall’s. Roddy McDowall’s acting has always had an affectation, which can crumble into camp in the wrong role. Young Ragsdale pitches his line delivery to McDowall’s, giving it a similar kind of affectation, and so, subtly, sells the idea that Charley is just a younger version of Peter, and Peter just an older, more world-weary Charley.
Much of the reason Fright Night clicks so perfectly is the pairing of these two actors, who make such a great team that they had to be reunited…although Fright Night: Part 2 was a sad disappointment, saddled with a script that couldn’t quite balance its satire with its horror, and lost this film’s youthful, exuberant flush. Undoubtedly the very-80’s score has aged less well, too often just squealing guitar solos, or smothering the warmer scenes with schmaltz. It regains its footing, you’ll notice, in the climax, aping James Bernard’s muscular scores for the Hammer horror films of the late 50’s and early 60’s, while we’re watching scenes that pay direct tribute to those films. You can slap your head now: the whole film should have been scored this way. But it’s hard, for one of my generation, to not feel a rush of nostalgia during the club scene, scored to the max with a medley of New Wave and power pop: non-hits, the lot of them, but as reassuring as comfort food nonetheless.
The 2006 repackaging of the DVD prominently displays the names of Sarandon, McDowall, and Bearse (best known for Married…with Children), but curiously not the star of the film, Ragsdale, who went on to do Herman’s Head for FOX, and continues to work consistently in television.
I originally wrote this review for my old website, but in honor of today’s release of the remake, I’m digging this piece up again as a reminder of the original Fright Night‘s virtues. (Two remakes open today – thanks, Hollywood! – but I already covered Conan the Barbarian last week.)