Written and Directed by: Tom Holland
Starring: William Ragsdale, Roddy McDowall, Chris Sarandon, and Stephen Geoffreys
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“Oh, you're so cool, Brewster!”
Most of the time, you’ve got to go out of your way to run into a vampire. They usually reside in some obscure, eastern-European country and shack up in some kind of forbidden castle that you have no business wandering into (this never stops anyone from trying, of course). However, 1985’s Fright Night supposed otherwise--what if a vampire moved onto your neighborhood block? And, in an even more nightmarish scenario for a teenage boy, what if he tried to steal your girl?
Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a typical high school student who spends a lot of time watching horror movies and hanging out with his girlfriend (Amanda Bearse). One night, he swears he sees people moving a coffin in next door; his aroused suspicions are confirmed when new neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) ends up being one of the undead. Enlisting the help of his best friend, Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and horror host (and vampire slayer) Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), he sets out to slay Jerry before he sinks his teeth into his girl.
Fright Night is one of the best attempts at demystifying the vampire, and it accomplishes it with old school horror show tricks: memorable characters, spectacular effects work, and a dash of whimsical adventure. At one point, horror host Peter Vincent has been canned and laments that current audiences just want to see “slashers running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins,” so it seems like writer/director Holland set out to craft a throwback despite the modern aesthetic update (synth scores and fashions place it squarely in the 80s). Still, there’s something sort of timeless about Fright Night--it’s a fine example of purely entertaining pop horror that’s sexy, scary, and funny.
It strikes me that this could have worked well as a typical teen/high school movie; though the ominous stuff gets underway in the opening scene, the film still takes time to introduce us to a solid cast of characters. Ragsdale’s Charley is a likeable, if not really finicky lead, while Bearse brings a charming innocence to the role of Amy that understandably makes her desirable to Jerry. It’s Geoffreys’s Evil Ed that stands out, though; a dweeby spaz who’s constantly dialed up to 11, he makes for a fine sidekick. I feel like I could watch these characters navigate the usual high school experiences that are hinted at here (bullying, girl problems), and it would work.
Of course, most high school movies do find our hero battling some pompous douche for the affections of a girl; however, not many of them had to contend with the likes of Jerry Dandridge. Sarandon is magnetic in the role, a complete old school charmer brimming with sexual energy. He pulses with menace when he needs to, but he puts on a disarming front that constantly foils Charlie’s attempts to expose him. In some ways, Dandridge feels like a perfect merger of Lugosi and Lee’s takes on Dracula because he’s both restrained and an animalistic predator. He meets a suitable foe in McDowall’s Peter Vincent (whose name is certainly meant to reference Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), who is a reluctant Van Helsing type. Though he portrays a fearless vampire killer in his films, he’s really anything but that in reality, and there’s a nice arc to be found in his journey towards accepting his role.
Holland’s direction is also confident, particularly when he places his faith in his effects crew. The film’s body count is low, but this a great splatter show that features a trio of gruesome effects sequences. They work because Holland treats them as a true spectacle: his camera lingers on them and asks us to ponder just how they pulled it off before our eyes. These practical effects still work wonderfully even 25 years later and really get to the heart of what makes an effect “special.” But what’s great is that Holland doesn’t sell his film out to this; there’s nothing perfunctory about the rest of the film, which is really sharp overall. As fun as it is, it’s also intensely moody--the sets are often draped in fog, and Brad Fiedel’s score creates a haunting, dream-like techno vibe that also accentuates the sensuality of it all. Vampires and sex have been linked for decades, but Fright Night is especially voracious; after all, what is it but a typical teen movie with a vampire thrown in?
If it weren’t for the likes of The Lost Boys and Near Dark, Fright Night would sit atop the 80s pop-vampire pedestal. As it stands, it takes a well-deserved bronze medal. Despite its popularity, it’s only managed one decade-old DVD release from Columbia, which still holds up remarkably well. The transfer is anamorphic and is generally strong--the film has a vibrant color palette that seems a bit muted at times, but the darker, moodier scenes come off well. The stereo soundtrack is still impressive and manages to immerse despite only 2 channels. With the exception of a trailer, special features are non-existent, which will dismay fans; I was hoping that the upcoming remake would give Columbia a reason to revisit it on both DVD and Blu-ray, but it seems nothing’s in the cards for now, so go ahead and pick this one up if you’ve somehow missed it. One of the main contentions of Fright Night is that they just don’t make them like they used to, but it also sets out to prove otherwise--and it succeeds. Buy it!
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