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Fright Night

by Alex Kirschenbaum Oct 31, 2018

Why does Fright Night, the 1985 vampire teen horror-comedy curio, endure as a great movie long past its expected sell-by date? Because writer/director Tom Holland’s Fright Night extends its core subject matter, vampiric transformation, into a studied allegory for the painful, violent uncertainty of adolescence. And because it unflinchingly tackles the two underlying themes at the core of the best horror fodder: sex and death. In the spirit of Halloween, this writer wanted to tackle one of his favorite ’80s creature features. So welcome to the first TFH review of Fright Night… for real.

Let’s quickly cover the pitch. Devout teen cinephile Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and their odd-duck third wheel high school colleague “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) all tackle severe self-doubt, that most teenage of impulses, as they combat Charley’s new next-door neighbor, the elegant, supremely confident apple aficionado Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon). C-list horror star Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall, himself no stranger to dabbling in lower-rent genre fare), after years of faking it, finally gets to do battle with the real thing.

While the character of Charley arrives replete with the raging hormones befitting his age, his movie fandom sabotages his progress with the opposite sex at almost every turn here — because all his movie fan instincts tell him that his neighbor is a bloodsucking hell beast (and, later, because that bloodsucking hell beast wants to steal his girlfriend). Of course, he’s right. And of course, it takes a whole lot of convincing for Amy and Peter to believe him. Evil Ed discovers that his fellow horror geek Charley’s been telling them the truth about his neighbor, too, albeit a little too late to do much about it. Borrowing a page right out of The Mummy, Amy turns out to bear more than a passing resemblance to one of Jerry’s ancient conquests. She finds herself inexplicably drawn to him, and eventually she joins him in immortality. Charley and Peter must race against time to destroy Jerry and reverse Amy’s fate. 

Jerry Dandridge might be the most memorable movie vampire this side of the Count himself. Jerry seduces victims with a voracious and expansive palette, dabbling in call girls (he kills at least three that we know of during the film), in his ambiguous “vampire familiar” Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) and in a virginal high schooler (Amy). Art Evans, as the overworked Detective Lennox, and Dorothy Fielding, as Charley’s single mother Judy, round out the film’s ensemble cast with two totally grounded, funny supporting characters.

Tom Holland and his team knew exactly what they were doing in developing the Jerry Dandridge character that Chris Sarandon so memorably inhabits. The Fright Night makeup team (who made some gangbusters critters and effects on the project) added contour and blush makeup shading to Sarandon’s face to amplify the performer’s androgynous rock star sex appeal. It worked. Composer Brad Fiedel’s slick score adds a rock ‘n’ roll electric guitar lead to accompany a lot of Jerry’s most sinister moments.

Fright Night bears more than a passing resemblance to the plotting and voyeuristic themes of Rear Window (1954). And like that terrific Hitchcock thriller, Fright Night cleverly critiques our own desire for blood and guts and sexual intrigue while simultaneously delivering the goods on those dual fronts. Charley, like James Stewart’s L.B. Jefferies, has developed such a reputation as an observer thirsting for the extraordinary that, when his worst instincts are confirmed to him, it takes those closest to him far too long to appreciate the veracity of his claims. That proves fatal in the case of his best friend, and almost as damaging when it comes to his beloved Amy. Both are converted to vampirism. Amy is cured, but, in a surprisingly affecting scene, “Evil” Ed stays evil till the end.

Amy and Ed, in particular, explore a certain degree of discovering and self-actualizing their otherness through vampiric transition. Amanda Bearse’s Amy sheds her teenage skin to become an over-sexualized, hyper-aggressive woman. Bearse at the time of filming was 26, roughly a decade older than the character she portrays. As the immortal, bloodsucking remix of Amy, Bearse boasts a deeper voice, longer hair, a Seven Year Itch-era Marilyn Monroe dress, and, yes, bigger breasts (Steve Johnson and the rest of the Fright Night makeup team held nothing back in that documentary). By the time Amy corners Charley in Jerry Dandridge’s basement, while her boyfriend searches desperately for Jerry’s coffin before daybreak, Amy’s new look comes across as being so drastic that I was half-convinced I was watching a different actress.

When Jerry corners Ed in a smoky city alley, he appeals directly to Ed’s being an outcast at school. Though Holland intended for that speech to address Ed’s interest in the occult and his general weirdness, Geoffreys’ internal reality at the time as a closeted actor lends the moment an extra, deeply felt dimension.

Ragsdale and McDowall’s chemistry, packed full of memorable dialogue, adds a fun wrinkle to the traditional horror movie mentor/mentee relationship. Ragsdale, the pupil, is the earnest believer here, and McDowall is an openly cowardly skeptic. Peter Vincent’s character evolution is fascinating. We are first introduced to him defeating vampires in a movie-within-a-movie at the start of the film, which serves as background noise to a hot-and-heavy make out session between Charley and Amy. Peter — his name clearly a nod from Holland to horror heroes Peter Cushing and Vincent Price — hosts a Ghoulardi/Vampira-esque horror show locally, and presents himself as a money-hungry cynic when Charley first approaches him for help in murdering his next door neighbor. When first confronted with the true nature of Jerry’s vampirism, Peter initially flees.

The second half of the movie’s B story really is about Peter grappling with his own cowardice, and ultimately overcoming it to lend Charley some much-needed support in the fight against Jerry. In a conversation with Gilbert Gottfried earlier this week, Holland hammers home the point that Peter Vincent acts as the character who undergoes a quintessential hero’s journey, rather than Charley Brewster. Peter evolves from coward to hero throughout the course of Fright Night.

Richard Edlund (fresh off Ghostbusters and Return of the Jedi) headlines a stellar special effects team here. The movie benefits from some spectacular creature designs, courtesy of Randall William Cook and Steve Johnson. Though the look of Amy’s final vampire transformation was rushed, it was so memorable that a ghostly illustrative interpretation of it adorns the film’s iconic poster art. I would be remiss, too, if I didn’t talk about the movie’s terrific score, courtesy of The Terminator composer Brad Fiedel. Fiedel’s most integral contributions stands as one of the great unheralded ’80s theme songs, “Come To Me”. The track oozes sexuality and danger, laying a vampy theme down amid a thick bed of synth layering and snakily programmed drums.

Holland leveraged his success as the screenwriter of Class of 1984 (which came out in 1982 for some reason) and the under-appreciated Psycho II (1983) to mandate that he be allowed by Columbia to direct his own script. Holland paid careful attention to his cast. In You’re So Cool, Brewster!, we establish that Holland instructed all his chief players to expand on their characters’ own back stories, and carved out two weeks for scene rehearsals before production began in the winter of 1984. Holland and cinematographer Jan Kiesser create a wonderfully evocative, autumnal suburban atmosphere — Charley’s neighborhood exteriors were shot on the Disney backlot in Burbank, and the interiors were filmed at what was then Laird International Studios in Culver City. Their soft edge lighting, all captured in anamorphic lenses (at a mega-widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio) and employment of evocative blue and purple tones lend the romantic scenes a wild atmosphere.

What ultimately gives Fright Night such longevity is its masterful balance of teen comedy, gallows humor, genuine eroticism and stylish horror. All the core players in front of and behind Jan Kiesser’s lens shared a collective intent, and succeeded where so many other movies before and since have failed, in earnestly checking off each of those very distinctive tonal boxes.

Fright Night yielded a strong sequel four years later, Fright Night Part II, from Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and It (1990) director Tommy Lee Wallace. Holland went on to helm the first Child’s Play (1988). Ragsdale and McDowall returned amongst an otherwise entirely different cast.But that’s a tale for another time…

Reviewed by Alex Kirschenbaum