‘Fright Night’ is a very much loved genre classic remaining a constant re-watch among horror aficionados during the twenty-seven years of its release. It is easy to see why it is as cherished as it is as it has an undeniable charm that just keeps working with each viewing - a film that has very much stood the test of time and last year’s terrible 3D remake could not change that. This is partly due to the perfect balance of its two distinct elements among many other positives. Horror comedy is not a term I have always been entirely comfortable with using, as there is a need to differentiate between what is an outright fusion of two genres - horror and comedy - and what is essentially a horror movie but just so happens to be genuinely funny with well-placed humour in all the right moments. This film falls into the latter. Are you confused? Well I will try to explain it as clearly as I can…
Going back to my review of Raw Meat (1973) in which I compared the flaw of its uneven tone between its horror and comedic elements to the celebrated work of the brilliant ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1982) written and directed by John Landis which gets it just right - “…Landis skilfully blended the two into a mix that at the same time does not corrupt each other they do not cancel each other out, as the comedy does not spill over ruining the horror and vice versa. The characters took the scary situations they were in seriously but the director could still very cleverly find a way to make us laugh simultaneously until the next shock tactic was enforced.” This is exactly what we have with ‘Fright Night’ as writer and director Tom Holland executes this with pitch perfect precision. The humour comes from the strong ensemble cast’s interaction with each other with their chemistry bouncing off each so effortlessly aided supremely by Holland’s wacky characterization and they deliver so expertly his sharp witty dialogue. The movie’s set-pieces are always purely horror though with the characters always reacting to the situations in these sequences as expected of anyone faced with these terrors - with natural fright.
For a prime example of a proper horror comedy, a perfect representation would be Edger Wright’s excellent zombie romantic comedy hybrid of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004). It is very much a rom-com a sub-genre that belongs to both the comedy and the romantic drama that just so happens to have zombies in it. One of the typical conventions of the romance genre is the obstacles put in the way of the two leads’ true love that overcomes these impediments. It is just that here this just so happens to be a plague of the dead returning to life and eating the living. The set-pieces here are more comedic than anything else with every sequence and including the non-horror oriented scenes just being laugh aloud hilarious. The zombie elements are used for violent slapstick comedy but retain all the rules of this horror sub-genre along with loving homages to George A. Romero’s films.
I love humour in horror but it is important to determine between comedies that use horror conventions for their funny moments and what is a straight up horror with humorous layers contained in the characters’ personality traits and its dialogue. Martin Scorsese’s landmark 1990 gangster drama ‘Goodfellas’ is one of the most genuinely hilarious movies that I have ever seen thanks to Nicholas Pileggi’s snappy screenplay so masterfully brought to the screen by Scorsese and his cast but you would not call it a gangster comedy would you?
Fright Night (1985)
‘Fright Night’ came along at a time when the vampire sub-genre’s popularity met the true death long before with the diminishing quality and lack of commercial success of Hammer Films’ contributions to the great movie monster’s mythology in the 1970s. The production company’s woes began with the advent of modern horror with George A. Romero’s seminal masterpiece ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968). It took the genre from its gothic period settings which Hammer specialized in putting it into a present day setting grounded in reality with the monsters actually being us returning from the dead and feeding off the living that embodied a metaphor for a satirical commentary on society’s ills. Hammer tried in vain to compete with the changing market with disastrous results by even taking their famous gothic characters of Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula and Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing and catapulting them into the setting of modern London in ‘Dracula A.D. 1972’ (1972) and ‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula’ (1973).
In the year of this film’s release in 1985, the American slasher had really ripened with modern horror icons now ruling the roost. Roddy McDowall’s character Peter Vincent (his name a play on two of the greatest actors of gothic horror - Peter Cushing and Vincent Price respectively) a former horror actor always in character as a vampire hunter he played even references this. He is fired from his job presenting a late night horror show that specializes in showing vampire movies often starring himself sharing the same name of this film’s title “Fright Night”. Vincent says to one of his biggest fans Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) who has come to him for help - “I have just been fired because nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore, or vampires either. Apparently all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins.” Nick Savage who played Ali one of the bikers that Jason Voorhees kills in ‘Friday the 13th Part III’ (1982) even makes an appearance here as a bouncer who confronts the vampire villain Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) in a nightclub.
‘Fright Night’ was a fresh take on the vampire formula taking it out of its gothic setting and giving it a modern twist in American suburbia so it would be more easily relatable for the audiences of the day. Unlike Hammer’s desperate attempts before this works partly because, the antagonist Jerry given a 1980’s makeover fits right in with the current setting. Lee’s Dracula was still very much rooted in the gothic and was just so out place in modern times. Although cleverly at the same time, the movie pays tribute to the very same kind of gothic horror as one of the main protagonists Charley is a massive fan staying up late to watch Vincent’s show who is himself a star of this era of the genre whose character is obviously written in part as homage to Cushing’s Van Helsing. The film would reignite the audience’s interests in vampires revitalizing the sub-genre paving the way for other fantastic 80’s vamp gems such as Joel Schumacher’s ‘The Lost Boys’ (1987) and Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Near Dark’ (1987) that were also successful modern spins on the mythos.
When vampire horror movie fan Charley (Ragsdale) discovers that his recently moved in next-door neighbour Jerry is a vampire obviously everybody including his mother (Dorothy Fielding), girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), friend Edward "Evil Ed" Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys) and the police are sceptical thinking that his imagination is running away with him. One night after paying him a visit, Jerry gives Charley the choice to forget about him and in return he will do the same or he can die. Not being able to bear the idea of a vampire living next door to him murdering people for his need to feed on human blood Charley tries to use his crucifix on him but Jerry stops him. When Jerry tries to throw Charley out of his bedroom window, he stabs Jerry in the hand with a pencil he managed to grab from the table to the left of the window. Interrupted by Charley’s mum calling out to him Jerry leaves but destroys Charley’s car.
When he goes to his hero Peter Vincent (McDowall) for help, he turns away Charley dismissing him as just an obsessed fan. Fearing for his sanity Amy and Ed seek out Vincent to prove to Charley that vampires do not exist. When he at first refuses, Amy offers to pay the just fired and financially destitute Vincent and with that, he accepts. However, upon the four of them visiting Jerry’s home Vincent accidently discovers that Charley is telling the truth when he does not see Jerry’s reflection in his pocket mirror which he drops on the floor and breaks. After they leave, Jerry realizes that Vincent has found out his true nature when he finds a shade of glass on the floor from Vincent’s mirror and so he sets out after them. From then on, “Fright Night” really begins.
One of the unique aspects of the film is the very moment Charley finds out that Jerry is a vampire as he spies on Jerry with a beautiful young woman as Charley looks on from his opposite window with a pair of binoculars in a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece ‘Rear Window’ (1954). The peeping tom sees Jerry’s fangs come out as he is about to bite into the woman’s neck and at the same time Jerry spots Charley looking in. Soon after the same night, Charley sees Jerry with his henchman Billy (Jonathan Stark) getting rid of the body. Both Charley and Jerry become aware of each other’s secret at the exact same time. Charley discovers that Jerry is a vamp and in turn, Jerry knows that he knows building the tension as Charley busts a gut to get his mother and friends to believe him knowing that he is in mortal danger making for a frustrating time for us hoping that Charley will get through to them before it is too late.
The pace really picks up steam when Jerry realizes that Peter Vincent has also found out about his true self that puts all four of them in extreme danger. Jerry pursues Charley, Amy and Ed to downtown while Vincent has returned to his apartment. After Ed is separated from Charley and Amy after an argument, as he refuses to believe there is such things as vampires Jerry corners him in an alleyway and turns him sending him after Vincent while he takes care of Charley and Amy. Jerry kidnaps Amy in a nightclub to give her the same fate all leading back to his house for an exciting climatic confrontation after Charley persuades Vincent to become a vampire hunter for real.
The characterization and the acting all round is incredibly strong bringing to life some unique and very memorable characters. Chis Sarandon’s suave portrayal of Jerry Dandridge ranks high up there as one of the all-time great screen vampires. He is clearly enjoying the role taking a big bite into it with much relish. Roddy McDowall excels as Peter Vincent a self-obsessed former horror movie star taking inspiration for his role from the very same bad actors from this era of genre filmmaking and is very much the embodiment of the genre’s clichés that the movie is all too aware of. William Ragsdale as Charlie Brewster does effectively well as a whiny protagonist who manages to never border on the annoying. The big scene-stealer here is Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed who is off the wall wacky and weirdly interesting and that hyena like laugh is just unforgettable. Jonathan Stark is quietly threatening as Billy Cole and remains an enigma until the reveal in the climax although it is still never quite clear what kind of beast he really is.
Amanda Bearse as Amy plays an important part in the film’s overt sexuality with her performance in the aforementioned nightclub sequence with its depiction of her seductive dance with Jerry. It is a pivotal scene in summing up the overall sexual overtones the movie is covered in reinforcing the concept of vampires as being creepy yet sexy all rolled into one with the these contradictive characteristics going hand in hand gelling rather than cancelling each other out. Brad Fiedel’s sexualized electronic soundtrack helps to elevate the film’s sexiness as well as its overall atmosphere.
Richard Edlund’s special make-up effects is nothing short of brilliant and it all still stands up very well today. From Jerry’s hideous vampire look to Evil Ed’s transformation back to human from being a wolf (not a werewolf as vampires have the ability to change into wolves depending on the storyteller drawing from the mythology) plus all the blood splatter that is sprinkled throughout - Edlund’s work here is a key example of the 80's SFX fuelled era of horror.
The movie embraces its own clichés and it works supremely well because at the same time it has a sense of humour while not making a joke about those limitations. It is a perfect example of a true horror film that just so happens to have lashings of humour. Atmospheric, exciting, funny, great characters and performances delivering sharp dialogue, scary, sexy, well plotted with well-paced direction and always entertaining ‘Fright Night’ has everything. It is an old school vampire movie encapsulated in a colourful 80’s energy. This is an essential genre work.
**** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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