Fright Night (1985) / Horror-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for nudity, gore, violence, and language
Running time: 106 min.
Cast: William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys, Jonathan Stark, Dorothy Fielding
Director: Tom Holland
Screenplay: Tom Holland
Review published September 16, 2007
Charley Brewster (Ragsdale, Romy and Michele: In the Beginning) is a typical suburban teenager with a special interest in old-time horror flicks, the kind seen on the local creepfest TV showcase, "Fright Night", hosted by the self-proclaimed king of vampire hunting films, Peter Vincent (McDowall, Planet of the Apes). It's all fantasy to Charley until he spies on his new neighbors in the house next door to discover that there is a man there that is, in fact, a vampire himself (Sarandon, Protocol). As bodies end up dead throughout town, no one will listen to Charley's assertions.
Trouble brews when his tenaciousness draws the ire of Jerry, the vampire himself, who threatens that he's going to take down Charley and everyone he loves before Charley can take him down first. Knowing he needs help, Charley turns to the only man he knows known to kill vampires, Peter Vincent himself, though he's no killer -- he just plays one on TV. When Jerry has his sights set on Charley's girlfriend Amy (Bearse, "Married with Children"), the war is on between the men for love and continued life.
A cult favorite horror-comedy of the video/cable era, Fright Night provided a bridge between the classic B-movie horror films and the more modern gory slasher movies that ruled the early 1980s. It takes a simple vampire premise and tosses it in the middle of suburbia, where a teenage boy has nowhere he can hide from the clutches of a powerful vampire who can literally watch his every move. It's the "boy who cried wolf" story with a vampire tossed in, merging a De Palma-esque sleazy, sensational thriller with goopy (but mild) gore, and making an entertaining adolescent fantasy film for lovers of the macabre.
Good casting is a strength of this enjoyable release, with newcomers Ragsdale and Bearse very appealing as the protagonists, a memorably energetic turn in a dual-toned role by future gay porn actor Geoffreys (Moon 44, 976-EVIL) as "Evil", and Sarandon oozing menace underneath his charisma in every scene he's in. However, it's veteran actor McDowall who proves to be the one to watch as Peter Vincent (his character name derived from old school horror greats Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), trying his best to show bravery, with knees wobbling from out-and-out fear with every step closer to Jerry's presence.
Unlike most other combinations of comedy and horror, Fright Night works because we like the characters and their interactions. Like Ghostbusters the year before, we're on the side of the good guys not because we hate the bad guy, but because we learn enough about the protagonists to not want them to fail. We can even claim to not despise the bad guy here, as Jerry is seductive and, on occasion, surprisingly merciful in willing to let Charley off the hook for knowing what he knows, provided he agrees to forget. However, we have an irresistible force and an immovable object in both of their character make-ups, and the real test comes in seeing which one will fold first.
However, Ghostbusters plays more for laughs than scare, and Fright Night isn't really funny as it is comical, generating most of its amusement from the comic relief provided through the tensest of moments than in anything that would be funny on its own. Without the lighter tone, and the allusions to classic horror of days gone by, this would be fairly routine stuff, very derivative of other vampire flicks that have come before. Like An American Werewolf in London, the interest raised is in the telling of the story, rather than the story itself, and Fright Night spins a pretty good vampire yarn with a comic book mentality that works.
Fright Night isn't the sort of film one points to as an example of a trendsetting horror film so much as one that took pre-existing conventions of the time and blended them into a satisfying hybrid. It took all of the popular teenage films of the early 1980s (campy horror, voyeuristic sex comedies, suburban paranoia, etc.) and capitalized on their appeal enough to overcome any redundancy in its execution to other films. Writer-director Tom Holland, who had already penned a few minor camp classics in the early 80s with Psycho II, Cloak & Dagger, and Class of 1984, tested his ability to conceive his own vision with this first directorial outing. As Fright Night shows, he studied the old films and brought their visual appeal to a modern generation quite well.
-- Followed by Fight Night Part II (1988).
©2007 Vince Leo