Director: Tom Holland
Welcome to the final night in the Halloween countdown series with blog friend Mike’s Take on the Movies. Tonight’s theme is A Personal Favourite, so welcome to the first horror movie I ever saw at the cinema, “welcome…to…Frrrrright! Night! For real.”
Fright Night (1985) isn’t the greatest vampire film but it is a clever 80s reinvention, a great time capsule of era music, style and filmmaking and a loving spoof with many things for fans of classic Hollywood and horror to enjoy. In the opening scene we approach a nice house in the suburbs (a very recognizable Midwest Street on the Warner backlot) and hear dialogue from a classic horror movie playing on TV while teenagers Charley (William Ragsdale) and Amy (Amanda Bearse) make out. The couple almost drops everything to hear the outro by that movie’s star, who is now much older and the host of the broadcast, Peter Vincent, “Vampire Killer” (Roddy McDowall). What ends up distracting Charley from both TV and Amy is the sight of his new neighbour Jerry (Chris Sarandon) carrying a coffin into his home with his carpenter roommate Billy (Jonathan Stark).
Strange things have been happening since Jerry moved in, and after some more murders, some snooping through the hedges and peeping with binoculars and a horrific up-close encounter, Charley confirms that Jerry is a vampire. Naturally, when Charley rants about fangs and neck bites everyone thinks he’s watched too much Hammer horror, so Charley goes to the one man left who believes in vampires and is qualified to fight them: Peter Vincent. Before the duo manage to defeat the vampire, Charley’s goofball buddy Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) is turned into Jerry’s cackling servant, and Amy into Jerry’s lookalike lost love.
Part of the terror for the teen target audience was the behaviour of adults that are supposed to protect you, not condescend, mock and ignore like these grown-ups do. The police Lieutenant laughs in Charley’s face and his single mom (Dorothy Fielding) is reduced to giggling flirty mush by Jerry’s charms. She quickly invites him in, which of course is the only way a vampire can enter your home. Jerry has it made; nobody believes in vampires anymore, anything out of the ordinary can be explained in this era as an alternative lifestyle, and he’s irresistibly attractive, suave and fashionable. Sarandon exudes villainous confidence, giving his opponents a smarmy welcome by mocking Vincent’s signature TV welcome line and guffawing at his command “back, spawn of Satan!” because he senses Vincent’s fear.
A charismatic vampire like this is a big asset but the best part of the film is Roddy McDowall’s wonderfully rich and funny performance as the bitter and egotistical yet sympathetic washed up movie star (the character’s name is an amalgam of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price). When Charley approaches Vincent for help, he’s just been fired over low ratings. He blames viewer apathy about classic film and vampire movies, and scolds that all “your generation….want are demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins!” He thinks Charley is insane, admits to being a complete phony who thinks vampires are nonsense, and is a coward who spends the rest of the movie trying to work up the courage to help fight Jerry. When he’s told this matter is vital he replies, “what could be more important than my autograph?” Evil Ed manages to stroke his ego by quoting scenes from his movies, but has to pay him to take part in a ruse to convince Charley there is no monster, and this results in the funny sequence where Vincent nonchalantly enters a real vampire’s lair while Charley is fooled into thinking his saviour has arrived to help.
Richard Edlund’s practical effects are great and still disturbing: Jerry’s different forms include a slimy bat and an ancient monster, the monsters bleed green goopy blood and have orange eyes, vampire Any has a grotesque Joker grin, Ed’s forehead is branded by a crucifix and his wolf transformation still creeps me out, Billy decays and his skeleton scatters down the grand staircase. These are all impressive images that should look decent to audiences raised on cgi and not just to me through my nostalgia glasses.
I finally watched the whole 2011 remake this week and it compares fairly well, keeps to the spirit and basic plot, and even recreates a few scenes. Some updates are appropriate, like making Peter Vincent a Vegas magician in an age of few TV movie hosts, while others suck likability and fun from the story, like Anton Yelchin’s Charley being a self-aware nerd and self-made hipster, or the poor substitute for Evil Ed that’s sidelined too early. Ironically the remake seems far less risque and subversive, and the arc of having pathetic Vincent learn some bravery is lost when he knows vampires exist but just doesn’t feel like facing them. Colin Farrell has a grungy charm that works for me, and apparently on Toni Collette, who gets a much meatier, less ditzy role as Charley’s mother. There’s even a funny Chris Sarandon cameo, so I wasn’t disappointed, but don’t see myself revisiting it as I will my dear original version.
Happy Halloween, hope you had as much fun with this series as we did! Thanks to Mike for this fantastic idea, and all 9 reviews are now archived at the intro Why Horror? post.