We’ve met director, Tom Holland, before—when I reviewed the original Child’s Play film, but Holland’s directorial debut was the 1985 horror / comedy, Fright Night, and not only did Holland direct the film, he also wrote it! Fright Night is a clever, but goofy, homage to the B-Movie drive-in horror films of the 1950s and ‘60s. The film is such a direct love letter to those awful Hammer-Horror classics (and their brethren) that Holland names a character Peter Vincent (after Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, two of the Elder Gods of horror), who is played to camp perfection by Roddy McDowall. Peter Vincent is a horror host for a late-night spook show (back in the “GOOD OLD DAYS,” t.v. stations used to run horror movies late into the night, once the regular folks had gone to bed—now it’s all infomercials,) who plays low budget films about vampires—exactly the types of films that he used to star in. In one brilliant clip from one of his “classics,” Vincent is portrayed heading towards a vampire to stake her with a wooden hammer in one hand and a stake, held with the pointy end facing the wrong direction, in the other. It’s great stuff!
What Fright Night is ACTUALLY about, though, is a teenage boy, who—while trying to pressure his girlfriend into “going all the way,” (in the 80’s, this was not enough to make him the villain of the story)—sees a couple of people outside his window carrying a coffin into the basement of the house next door. The boy, Charley, (played by William Ragsdale) instantly forgets all about his girl, Amy (played by Amanda Bearse), and starts watching the neighbors through a pair of binoculars. Amy, who is finally ready to succumb to Charley’s advances, takes offense at being forgotten and storms off, leaving Charley obsessed with the new guy next door (the entertaining Chris Sarandon)—who Charley quickly discovers is a vampire—of course. And, in traditional monster movie fashion, nobody believes the kid when he says he’s seen a creature of the night, leaving Charley to save the day all on his own!
I know it’s a standard trope from the 1980s, where the kid sees an alien or a vampire or some other ferocious monster, and it’s up to THAT KID to stop the fiend, especially since no one believes him—but it’s not how I would have handled things if this situation had happened to me. I always WANTED to meet a vampire or a ghost or an alien when I was a kid. Charley learns that the next-door neighbor is a creature of the night, and he CALLS THE POLICE! Granted, Charley also has good reason to believe that the vampire next door has killed someone, but come on!!! Doesn’t he even CONSIDER trying to make friends with the monster? I mean, the vamp, Jerry Dandrige, even gives him a chance! After Charley calls the cops, and almost gets one of them to go into the basement where Dandrige’s coffin is, the vampire still comes to him and says, “You deserve to die, boy. Of course, I could give you something I don’t have. A choice. Forget about me, Charley. Forget about me, and I’ll forget about you.” See!? Jerry ain’t so bad! He could have killed Charley (and his sleeping mother) in an instant, but he’s willing to talk!
I think the most interesting thing about Dandrige’s talk with Charley is the quick attempt at making Dandrige sympathetic—the suggestion that HE, the VAMPIRE, doesn’t have a choice. He has to eat. (And, also interesting, he eats a lot of apples in this movie—which is weird. A lot of modern vampires (say, Anne Rice style) CAN’T eat anything but blood.) We never learn HOW Dandrige became a vampire, and we don’t really know anything about him other than the fact that he lives with another guy and likes to kill hookers, but it is interesting that his first option when Charley decides to get the police involved isn’t just to murder the boy and his mom, but to discuss the situation and try to make peace with them. Anyway, Charley refuses to cooperate, for some weird reason, (fear, perhaps?) and he goes to war with Dandrige, instead of trying to make friends… (Not what I would have done.)
Another interesting thing about this film is the “little buddy,” Evil Ed (played, in a very screechy voice, by Stephen Geoffreys,) and Ed isn’t so much a “friend” of Charley’s, but a guy who he seems to hate but who he talks to at school. Ed, for his part, is also rather hostile to Charley (but, to be fair, Charley comes across as a serious dick, in my opinion.) For those folks who have read Salem’s Lot, you’ll remember that main vampire, Kurt Barlow (who is just a monster in the Toby Hooper mini-series,) is a seductive, eloquent creature of the night, who convinces people that they would be better off as vampires. In this same sense, Dandrige CONVINCES Ed that he’ll be more powerful as a vampire, that he’ll be able to get revenge on all those people who have picked on him and called him “Evil” Ed. Ed isn’t turned into a vampire against his will, he’s CONVERTED to vampirism, and he’s pretty easily convinced, I’m guessing, primarily, because Charley (his only friend?) is such a jerk to him.
I’m fully on the vampire’s side in this film…except for the part where he goes after Charley’s girlfriend, Amy (who is played by the same actress that played the annoying neighbor to Al Bundy in Married with Children.) There is this one very uncomfortable scene where Dandrige has Amy hypnotized at a night club, and they’re dancing with all the 80’s night club denizens. I guess it’s supposed to be a steamy or sexy sort of scene, but to me it just comes across as incredibly awkward and silly. There doesn’t seem to be ANY chemistry between vamp and victim (or between Charley and Amy, for that matter,) and the whole sequence, along with the “intimate” scene between Amy and Dandrige that happens a few minutes late, is just uncomfortable to watch. If it weren’t for the inclusion of the song “Good Man in a Bad Time” by Ian Hunter in the night club scene, it would be too yucky for me to sit through, not because of any gore or anything like that, just because the “budding romance” between these characters is too cringy and stomach churning to watch—but I enjoy the Ian Hunter cut, so it’s a wash…
Overall, the entire film is pretty cringy. There are some fun monster make-up effects and a couple of really great puppets. They aren’t really believable or realistic, but they look pretty cool (especially at the end of the film, when the…oh, whoops! Spoiler! Uuummm… Let’s put it this way, even if the movie is too cheesy for you to stomach, try to stick with it through the final climactic battle so you can see the big puppet fight scene, which I love.) The acting from most of the characters is over the top, cheesy, and goofy—but I think it’s meant to be that way. This is, after all, a semi-parody of the Hammer films that Peter Cushing starred in, and those great, awful Vincent Price sleaze fests, like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, or the terrible but enjoyable garbage that used to play on late night horror shows, like Die, Monster, Die! or It Conquered the World… The POINT of the show is to be cheesy and funny, while shooting for a few suspenseful moments. Personally, I love those old, bad horror films, and you can tell that Tom Holland loved them as well, as he nods to about a hundred of them during the course of this movie.
It does have some bad language, some nudity, and some gruesome make-up effects that might scare the kiddies, but it’s also too silly to be considered “Mature Content,” so it cruises somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Maybe you could say it’s for “Immature Adults.” So if you’re looking for a fun, goofy, slightly sexy, slightly cringy, horror film with a little bit of blood and a large chunk of cheese, then Fright Night is going to fit the bill, perfectly. It’s badly acted and has enough plot holes to qualify for Swiss citizenship, but it’s genuinely fun, if you can go with it. (Which is more than I can say for the 2011 remake, with Colin Farrell. That version was just boring—it wasn’t as silly or as funny, and the more modern effects didn’t bring enough to the table to make the film worth watching. The point of the original was to BE silly (I think,) so having “better” effects didn’t make it a better film. Plus, Chris Sarandon was way more entertaining as a vampire than Colin Farrell…) Anyway, give Fright Night a look, if you haven’t seen it yet—and if you HAVE seen it, it’s probably time to watch it again… It’s MUCH worse than you remember—but in a good way!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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