I remember thinking FRIGHT NIGHT was pretty good in the ’80s, but honestly I was skeptical that it would hold up as well as its reputation. I should never have doubted! Writer and first time director Tom Holland (CHILD’S PLAY) revived the classical style of vampire tale for 1985, now souped up with some of the hallmarks of the era: quirky teen comedy, postmodernism/nostalgia, and most of all imaginative, gooey, wonderful creature effects. I was surprised by how much of that last one we get.
This is the age of home video and having a TV in your bedroom, so our teen protagonist Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale, ROAD HOUSE 2: LAST CALL, Justified) is very familiar with horror movies, having watched many of them as presented by the local horror host and former star of Hammer-esque vampire films Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall, CLASS OF 1984 [which was written by Holland]). In the opening scene he’s got Vincent’s show “Fright Night” on in the background while he attempts to make out with his reluctant girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse, Married… with Children). Then he happens to look out his window and sees his new next door neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Jack Skellington himself, Chris Sarandon) getting it on with a woman who is found murdered the next day. After some spying Charley sees Jerry turn into a bat and have fangs and claws and suck blood, so he determines that Jerry is a vampire who is luring women to his house and killing them. For some reason nobody believes him.
There’s a good set of supporting characters. Amy is a really sympathetic character well played by Bearse. She’s very put-upon by her dumb boyfriend and has a hard time standing up for herself, so even though Charley is the one dealing with a vampire problem I get mad at him for not recognizing her need for occasional attention from him. He’s constantly spacing out and ignoring her because of something he sees out the window or on the news and then it comes to a head when he’s on the phone at the dance club and is completely oblivious as she’s hypnotized and walks away from him, to first dance sexily with and then be abducted by Jerry. It takes a long god damn time to happen, right under his nose, and it’s completely believable because you know how some dudes are.
(I re-read my review of the 2011 remake – which, without benefit of having seen this recently enough to compare to, I thought was pretty good – and I notice that I complained about Charley’s inattentiveness to Amy. Here it seems like an intentional comment, so I don’t know if I was being uncharitable there or if that relationship lost something in remake translation.)
More famously there’s Ed, a.k.a. “Evil” or Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys, 976-EVIL). He’s a weird, squeaky-voiced outcast dude who Charley doesn’t seem to exactly be great friends with but he thinks Ed can help him because he’s into morbid things. Ed doesn’t really want to help until he’s paid $8 to just tell him some basic things about vampire mythology that I thought he’d already know from watching Fright Night.
Also, Charley’s mother (Dorothy Fielding, THE PURSUIT OF D.B. COOPER) is a particularly good ’80s teen movie mom. She’s single, kind of guy crazy, not uptight, but not the standard mean alcoholic going out with some asshole type of single mother.
By the way, Charley’s bedroom provides further evidence for my argument against today’s ’80s-set movies where all bedrooms have posters for now-beloved movies on the wall. Here’s a character whose horror fandom is important to the plot, but he doesn’t have an EVIL DEAD poster. He has a bunch of posters of cars and a stolen stop sign. That’s just how it was.
Holland started as a writer, his biggest hit as a screenwriter being the better-than-expected PSYCHO II. With that sort of understanding of Hitchcock it makes sense that FRIGHT NIGHT uses a REAR WINDOW sort of dangerous-voyeurism for suspense, turning Charley into The Young Man Who Saw Too Much Vampire Stuff.
Many times you wonder why horror protagonists don’t go to the police. Here, Charley does it immediately, and actually gets Art Evans (DIE HARD 2) to come over and question Jerry’s roommate Billy. But when Charley brings up Jerry having a coffin the officer is embarrassed, laughs it off and tells the kid never to bother them again. There’s a great shot of Billy’s incredulous “Vampires? Are you kidding me?” smile dissolving away as he watches them leave.
This is my preferred brand of horror comedy. There are laughs, but the horror is serious. Once Charley’s friends and the police laugh him off, and the barrier of entrance has been removed, it’s a one-on-one fight between him and Jerry, who stalks him and messes with him and turns into a monster and Charley just barely survives the attack. Only then, in desperation, does he decide to ask his favorite TV vampire hunter for help. And of course Peter Vincent has his own arc. He’s a struggling actor from a dying genre, he thinks these kids are a bother until they offer him $500 just to do a “vampire test” to prove to Charley that he’s imagining this whole thing. And then of course he realizes that in fact the kid is right, there are vampires, and now he has to come to terms with being an old man with a bag full of movie props trying to hunt a vampire for real.
One theme is that kids of the ’80s – with exceptions like Charley and maybe Ed – are into slasher movies instead of old fashioned vampire movies. Vincent’s show is cancelled and he says “Apparently all they want are demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins.” So it’s ironic that in this very movie we’re watching, that is reviving the vampire hunter vs. vampire archetypes, Amy’s virginity is crucial to the story. She’s recently agreed to have sex with Charley, but hasn’t done it yet and is very timid about it. Then when Jerry hypnotizes her, all of her pent up sexuality and sensuality comes pouring out, and she completely transforms. And I think you can safely read into it that Jerry meant to do that and gets a kick out of it.
Jerry also seduces Ed, though it’s up to interpretation whether it’s sexual or not. He appeals to Ed’s feeling of being an outsider. “I know what it’s like being different,” he says. “Only they won’t pick on you anymore, or beat you up. I’ll see to that. All you have to do is take my hand.” And this could definitely be taken as him saying that Ed is a weird dude who doesn’t fit in. But I think you can also read it that Ed is gay and Jerry senses it. It seems significant that both Geoffreys and Bearse are gay in real life, but I don’t know if anyone knew that at the time.
It should also be noted that Sarandon – who of course worked with Holland again as the cop in CHILD’S PLAY – is great, an infuriatingly handsome vampire in the mold of Frank Langella’s Dracula, but more of a cruel bastard. He’s not tortured – he clearly loves what he does. A kid finding out about him is not so much an inconvenience as a wonderful opportunity to have some fun.
Holland’s under-recognized (at least by me) storytelling cleverness is on full display here. I love the momentum of the story from scene to scene. Charley telling his mom that the neighbor is a vampire cuts straight to Amy’s incredulous reaction to the same story. Ed telling Charley that a vampire can’t enter your house without being invited goes right into mom saying “There’s someone I want you to meet” because Jerry’s in the living room, having been invited over for drinks.
Holland is constantly reminding you to stay on your toes. During a confrontation in a crowded dance club Charley says “You can’t kill me here!” and Jerry explains that he doesn’t want to kill him. It seems to confirm that Jerry won’t do anything in public. Except… then he decides to slash two bouncers and turn into his monstrous form, cause a big scene sending a couple hundred screaming people stampeding out of the club. It’s completely needless too, the bouncers are helping him out by dragging Charley out. I think he just wants to show that he’s willing to do it.
The classic movie rules for vampires turn out to apply (crosses, garlic, sunlight, no reflections) but there is a weird thing with werewolves. Vampires can turn people into werewolves if they want to? Or maybe werewolves are a type of vampire? They don’t really explain it, but it doesn’t matter.
What’s important is there’s an amazing werewolf transformation sequence, and this too is a spin on what we’ve come to expect, because it’s in reverse. A wolf – an actual wolf – runs down the hall and leaps at Peter, knocking him through a banister, but falling past him, slamming into a chandelier, plummeting and being impaled on a broken wooden post. There’s a very convincing puppet crawling and twitching in pain and then it very slowly, pathetically turns into a wolfman and eventually a man and then a dead man. And Peter watches in sympathy, reaching for him, crying at his pain, before he even necessarily recognizes him as Ed.
Then he sighs and pulls the stake out of the naked dead kid and goes to kill the adult vampire who turned him into that thing.
Richard Edlund (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) and Steve Johnson (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, BLADE II) worked on the visual and makeup effects right after they did GHOSTBUSTERS, and I probly would’ve rewatched this sooner if I’d remembered any of these cool monsters. I like Jerry’s monstrous look, and he has a spectacular death sequence, and (SPOILER) Amy turns into a great vampire with a giant smile that they made look real long before the age of digital touchups. You guys know I’m no anti-CG zealot, but you see a movie like this and you remember the beauty of rubber monsters. Not only does the computer stuff lack the tactile quality of these effects, but they rarely bother to do transformations and disintegrations and stuff this elaborate anyway.
FRIGHT NIGHT is the real deal. I can see now why some were harder on the remake than I was. It’s fun as it’s own thing, but this is something else, with two levels of charm to it: the tribute to the earlier era of vampire movies, and the time capsule of the now-just-as-long-gone-as-that-was era of fun ’80s effects movies. It also makes me realize that I have undervalued Holland as a Master of Horror. CHILD’S PLAY is not his only classic.