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Fright Night

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 26th, 2017 at 12:27 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

36 Responses to “Fright Night”

  1. Another gem Holland wrote is Scream for Help, which was directed by Michael Winner in between Death Wish 2 & 3.

  2. This is my kind of 80´s horror movie! It pays homage to the classics but still manages to be an urban horror movie in its own right with incredible and enjoyable effects.

  3. Such a great movie. Although a bit underrated, if you can call a hit movie, that was well received by critics and got a sequel and a remake, which also got a sequel that was actually another remake, that. It’s one of those rare crossover hits, that plays well with different kinds of audiences. It’s horror enough for the horror fans, but still light hearted fun and more on the thriller side, to play well with viewers who aren’t into horror movies at all.

    And that fucking awesome poster! I got that on my wall, even signed by Amanda Bearse (who is one of the nicest and most charming celebrities who I ever met at a convention) and Stephen Geoffreys.

  4. The old-timey Dracula legend states that he can turn into a wolf, along with a bat, and in some cases, mist, so I’m guessing Evil also inherited those powers?

    I saw this for the first time a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it

  5. Recently rewatched this two weeks ago and it’s pretty great. As someone who had a local horror host who was still doing his thing when I was younger, I especially enjoyed that aspect of this one. I didn’t care for the sequel or the remake or the remake’s sequel though. I think one of the reasons why this one works as well as it does is because at it’s heart it’s basically an ’80s nerd vs jock movie.

    Happy to see more realize why I did this year as well, that Tom Holland is under appreciated and it’s a shame that his career didn’t really sustain itself it seems.

  6. Dracula can use rats. As it is in the novel. And according to Stephen Kings´DANSE MACABRE, the doctor one of the vampire slayers in SALEM´S LOT was supposed to die not from the lame ass knife impaling in the final verison, but to be entirely devoured by rats. In fact when the doctor screams for help a rat runs into his mouth down his throut and suffocate him.

    Stephen Kings editor kept him from keeping this. Thanks, Bill Thompson. You asshole…

  7. The end of this review made me tear up a bit, thanks Vern!

  8. Nice re-review! This movie should rank among the 80s horror classics, but I think people forget about it because its combination of 80s horror/comedy & 60s horror/nostalgia makes it seem “soft.”

    Anyway, I think anyone who cares about STRANGER THINGS should see this movie.

    I also just re-watched THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE on Netflix. HELL HOUSE also stars our dear Roddy, and it’s also another dated horror classic that deserves further viewing. Old movies can surprise you–sometimes they can even surprise you more than recent movies. Keep the old stuff in mind.

  9. I haven’t watched this in about 15 years. But I could recollect it beat for beat like it was nothing to this day. It was always played on TV back in the day and every other online geek beat “You’re so cool Brewster” into the ground by 1998. I think it has sustained a lot of relevance I mean they even remade it. Twice. Since apparently the remake sequel is a remake in itself.

    Meanwhile all I remember from FRIGHT NIGHT PT II besides the poster which hung at my local video store till it finally closed in 2001 was Peter and Charlie in the city. Also that it was directed by Tommy Lee Wallace who directed HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. Just brought that up to say that unlike SEASON OF THE WITCH you get to see the cool monster face from the poster in this movie.

    I never saw the remake. I saw no need for it. It’s like remaking NEAR DARK or something. Why bother when they got it so right the first time?

  10. I haven’t seen this since 2005, but I remember it totally fucking blowing me away, like I couldn’t believe how awesome it was especially since I had never even heard of it before.

    Unfortunately then I tried watching the sequel which I thought sucked, I turned it off very early, from what I remember right from the start the tone felt totally off.

    What was it about the 80s though that allowed them to put spins on classic movie monsters and creatures that felt so totally fresh? I think of this, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and GHOSTBUSTERS, compare that to modern crap like DRACULA UNTOLD or TOM CRUISE MEETS THE MUMMY or GHOSTBUSTERS FOR HER.

    I see no reason to watch the remake though since as Broddie said what’s the point when they got it so right the first time?

  11. This is my favorite vampire movie. And not only does Tom Holland deserve recognition, but this movie reminds me that Chris Sarandon is a goddamn great actor and should have been in everything.

  12. Grimgrinningchris

    October 26th, 2017 at 11:30 pm

    The local con that I’m involved with has a full reunion coming in Feb.

    Well, full minus McDowell, of course (sadly).

    Sarandon, Ragsdale, Bearse, Geoffreys, Jerry’s familiar (sorry, I don’t know that actor’s name offhand) AND Tom Holland.

    Quite a coup for a smaller, regional con. That’s some big city shit.

    I’m so excited.

  13. How come you’ve never reviewed PUMPKINHEAD, Vern? I know it’s probably not possible to do before Halloween, but it seems like a prime candidate for your slasher search. Stan Winston’s directorial debut, Lance Hendrickson stars and lotsa cool, practical effects.

    Give it a shot?

  14. As for the subject at hand…

    I love Don Mancini and what he’s done with Chucky, but it sure seems like Tom Holland gets the short end of the stick. He’s a great director who added a read sense of scope and ambition to a number of 80s classics and near-classics, but his name never gets brought up amongst the greats. Why is that?

  15. …actually, I was conflating Holland, Eric Red and Robert Harmon in my mind. But still, Holland shoulda had a bigger career and doesn’t get enough love for what he has done.

  16. The remake of this ain’t that bad. Especially if you like David Tennant. Farrell looks like he’s come straight from a rural pub in Ireland as usual, but cool movie.

    This is better of course.

  17. Pumpkinhead wouldn’t count as a slasher film. Lance is so good in it.

  18. I don’t know why I haven’t reviewed PUMPKINHEAD. I watched it not super long ago and was surprised at how good it was. Much better than I remembered, and an unusually sympathetic role for Henriksen, which is always cool.

    Amanda Bearse lives in Seattle. I’ve encountered her and her wife a couple times and they seem incredibly nice. Luckily I hadn’t seen this in forever so I had no temptation to bother her about it.

  19. Grimgrinningchris

    October 27th, 2017 at 5:56 am

    Where do you see them out, Vern?
    Bars, ever?

    I’m hoping she at least drinks socially.

    My main goal every Con weekend is to do shots with ______ and/or ______.

    And I usually succeed.

    This year my goals are Bearse (cuz Fright Night and MWC) and Kristy Swanson (cuz Buffy and… Hubba).

  20. You guys are being a little hard on the remake. The Peter Vincent stuff is definitely much less effective, and I wouldn’t have turned down some more practical effects, but it’s got a lot going for it. The setting is unique, the leads have chemistry, Yelkin has more going on than your usual honkey milquetoast horror lead, his relationship with Evil is more interesting (The portrayal of Evil himself is more of a lateral move but I don’t mind it), and Farrell is slyly great as a condescending alpha bro vamp. The action is interestingly blocked and Marti Noxon gets to pull off some moves that I’m sure she’d been trying to use on BUFFY for years, like a vampire blowing up a house he hasn’t been invited into and the invention of a MacGuffinistical cure for vampirism as a plot device to let the hero cast see how the other side lives without sacrificing the happy ending. It is not the rich subtextual stew that the original is but it is a very fun, well-crafted studio horror movie.

  21. I agree that the remake isn’t THAT bad, but other than a few clever ideas, some well staged scenes and great Colin Ferrell performance, it’s pretty dull and joyless.

    Now the DTV sequel for that remake on the other hand, which is actually another remake (It’s about another Charlie Brewster who this time encounters a vampire lady on a field trip to Romania and seeks help from another Peter Vincent, who is this time the host of a GHOST HUNTERS like reality show) is actually much better. Still not even close to the original, but very watchable, especially for a shot-in-Romania DTV cash-in.

  22. Crushinator Jones

    October 27th, 2017 at 10:42 am

    I revisited this one thanks to Vern’s review. It’s really good, better than I remembered. The practical effects work really well.

    One thing I like about Chris Sarandon’s vampire is his pretend-to-be-conflicted moment in the movie with Charlie. When he first breaks into Charlie’s room he spiels out some nonsense about “I’m going to give you what I don’t have…a choice” like he’s some tormented monster who is tortured by his need to drink blood. That all goes out the window the second he gets stabbed in the hand (total over-reaction to it IMO) while trying to murder a kid and flips his fucking vamp-wig and decides to make Charlie’s life a living hell. Although I really am surprised that he let the mom live.

    Also, Vern, folklore is that Vampires can turn into bats, or mist, or wolves. I think we see all 3 in the movie.

  23. Crushinator Jones

    October 27th, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Oh and I really like that Sarandon’s vampire is just a classic monster-style vampire with a human veneer. When he gets nailed by the sunlight we see that he’s not even human. Ultimately, he’s got a beasts skeleton with the skin of a man over it. Nice stuff. That shot with the fingernail scraping off the wood is wonderful.

  24. Mr. M’s right, you can’t touch the original FRIGHT NIGHT but the remake is amazingly solid for what it is, mostly thanks to Farrell and Yelchin, and the fact that the story itself is pretty different (in fact, so much so that it really seems like they should have just ripped it off instead of paying for the rights to use a name which was always going to guarantee that however good the film turned out, it would always just be a footnote and a disappointment to the only people who even cared about the name to begin with)

  25. I didn’t hate the remake and will agree that it has some good stuff in it *SPOILER* I really the whole sneaking the girl out of the house sequence *SPOILER* There was no need for the Peter Vincent stuff in it though I feel. It pulls the movie. On the bright side I mostly don’t like Farrell but he was really good in it.

  26. I know that Bram Stoker had Dracula turn into a wolf (and a moth), but in both FRIGHT NIGHTs there is one member of the crew who turns into a wolfMAN, and does Ed have a bat form? I don’t think he necessarily does. Meanwhile, Jerry and the others are never seen in wolf form. So it seems to fit the tradition of werewolf more than vampire.

  27. I can’t speak to Part II, but Evil Ed didn’t turn into a wolfman. He turned into a wolf, got staked through the heart (which will do fuck all to a werewolf), and temporarily got stuck in an intermediary stage of transformation halfway between wolf and man as he died.

  28. In Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula book series, vampires can technically shapeshift into whatever the hell they want to be, they just usually pick animals for simplicity’s sake.

  29. Just great characters all around. Even Jerry’s “familiar” was great in his small role as a seemingly laid-back uncle type who is also kind of a dick.

    I love that Jerry is petty enough to wreck Charlie’s car. He also eats apples, which is odd. And his hands looks straight out of a casket.

    And that night club sequence has some serious sex appeal before it turns chaotic as hell.

  30. Jerry eats apples for unlawful carnal knowledge.

  31. I really like this one. The creatures are great and terrifying. They nailed that teenage angst of, “oh, shit, I have to take care of this because the grownups won’t?!” And I love the mix of the old timey horror with the new 80s take.

    At the time I thought Sarandon was a miss as a charismatic and sexy vampire. What can I say? I was a dumb kid and he didn’t have the androgynous pretty boy looks that were so hot at the time. He was too adult or masculine or something, but I see the error of my ways now.

  32. I guess I forgot that he’s a wolf-man, not just a wolf. Yeah, that is weird

  33. I saw this a couple of decades ago and wasn’t terribly impressed, then saw the remake a few years ago and wasn’t so impressed with that either. I thought I’d give the original another go yesterday, and … I still don’t like it very much. There are definitely things I enjoyed … the special effects sequences, especially the reverse werewolf transformation … but for me the tone is just a little too far in the direction of teen comedy. (Not being an American, and having been a grumpy old man pretty much my whole life, I’ve always had a hard time with American teen comedies.) I also thought the McDowell character was a little too over-the-top hammy, though at least it was better than the awful version they dreamed up for the remake. And, although it might seem like a small thing, for me the score wasn’t entirely successful: the central theme aside, just too much random synth plink-plonk for my taste.

    I did like Sarandon’s supercilious characterisation of Jerry, though I think I actually prefer Farrell’s swaggering asshole take on the role. But can I also say how refreshing it is to have a vampire called “Jerry”, rather than Lucian, Victor, Jasper or Amelia. I think we need more Steves and Bills in the vampire world.

  34. Grimgrinningchris

    October 30th, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    “‘Jerry’, the vampire???”

  35. Grimgrinningchris

    October 30th, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    I saw Dracula 2000 this morning for the first time in ages (maybe since original release).

    Man, there are some really cool ideas and concepts in that one, but the execution is just so lame and nearly all of the characters (including the then unknown Gerard Butler’s take on Dracula himself) are so fucking bland and unappealing.
    The lead girl is cute, but a total black hole of unxharismstic blah.

    The only character I actually liked was Colleen Fitzpatrick’s Lucy.

  36. Grimgrinningchris

    October 30th, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    Both versions of Fright Night have far more engaging characters pretty much top to bottom.

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