Monday, October 5, 2015

Fright Night

The original Fright Night (1985) arrived during a banner year for comedy-horror. Many movies from 1985 - Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead, and The Stuff - proved equally capable of offering chills and laughs, and of those titles, Fright Night shares a close kinship with Return. While the Dan O'Bannon picture spoofed zombies while keeping them scary, writer-director Tom Holland does the same thing with vampires in his movie.

Vampires have gone through many different interpretations in the modern era, but Fright Night is a throwback in that its bloodsucker is a traditional creature of night. He can appear charming, suave, and seductive one minute and a hideous, ravenous monster the next. Fright Night gets great mileage out of its vampire by locating him in modern suburbia where he's knows he's safe by the knowledge no one believes in his kind.

Fright Night begins as a variation of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Teenaged horror movie fan Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) looks out his bedroom window one night to see new neighbors next door moving in what seems to be a coffin. Before long, Charley learns his affable new neighbor Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire, and when the police don't believe him, he turns to local horror movie host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), who doesn't really believe in vampires but needs the money (his show is where the movie gets its name). Threatened, Jerry goes after Charley's girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and best friend "Evil" Ed (Stephen Geoffreys).

Plot-wise, there's not much really new that Fright Night has going for it. What it does have going for it is gross but cool makeup effects, a fast pace, great laughs, and most importantly, a strong cast having fun. Sarandon is excellent as Jerry. When he meets Peter for the first time, he tells him he's seen all his movies and found them "very amusing." All things considered, Jerry is a smooth, hip, gentlemanly villain, and his monster guise is rather terrifying. His best moment comes at the end when Peter and Charley confront him, and he greets them at the top of the staircase with an over-the-top, camp delivery of "Welcome to Fright Night!" Then he folds his arms and assuredly states, "For real."

The real gem of the movie is Roddy McDowell's performance as the cowardly, hambone actor who finds he must really become a vampire hunter. In his review of the Fright Night remake, James Berardinelli noted that Peter Vincent is the "heart and soul" of the story. Charley might be the determined young hero we identify with and Jerry the villain, but Peter is the one who undergoes a dramatic arc. Fright Night was very much a product of the 80s because late night horror movie hosts such as him were still around, but they were definitely on the way out as cable began its rise. Plus, the Hammer style that Peter's movies seem to be was very much passé during the slasher boom. As Peter puts it, "I have just been fired because nobody wants 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."

Peter is bitter, broke, and washed up, and like some of his celluloid quarry, he's out of his time, not really fitting in to the modern world, unlike real-life vampire Jerry, who ironically has adapted quite nicely. Over the course of the film, Peter has a pathos as he finds the courage to be a hero and protector. For an 80s comedy horror, his journey is very moving.

As can be expected of a vampire tale, there is a strong sexual undercurrent. The movie begins with Amy rejecting Charley's bedroom advances, but later, she is swayed by an older, more mature and dashing man in Jerry. Jerry, for his part, seems to swing both ways. Not only do he and his resident ghoul Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) seem very close, Jerry lures Evil Ed in a back alley in a manner that plays like a gay pickup. "You don't have to be afraid of me," Jerry tells him "I know what it's like being different. Only they won't pick on you anymore or beat you up. I'll see to that. All you have to do is take my hand."

Much of the movie's humor stems from the characters finding themselves in situations that are "for real." After he learns that a vampire can't come into your house unless he's invited in, Charley goes home feeling safe, only to walk in and see Jerry having a pleasant chat with his mother. Later, Peter brandishes a crucifix against Jerry, who bursts out laughing; not in an evil way but more in a you-really-think-that's-going-to-do-anything kind of way. The movie also mines laugh from Peter's blatant cowardice in the face of genuine vampires. Certainly, Peter Cushing or Vincent Price wouldn't run away from terror, but it certainly is a realistic reaction. That's part of what makes Fright Night so funny and logical.

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