FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)
When a teenage boy realises his next door neighbour is a vampire, his friends and family refuse to believe him...
Tom Holland made his directorial debut with Fright Night, having first made a name for himself writing 1983’s sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which had a script good enough to lure Anthony Perkins back to play Norman Bates. Hitchcock’s oeuvre was perhaps on Holland’s mind when he came up with Fright Night, as the concept has a faint nod to Rear Window—with 17-year-old Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) spying on his next-door neighbour Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) and realising he’s a vampire.
Fright Night is now seen as a cult classic, which inspired a less successful sequel in 1989, an underrated big-budget remake in 2011 (which itself spawned a direct-to-video sequel best forgotten), and an assortment of merchandise far beyond what one would expect of a mid-’80s horror movie. It’s become Holland’s signature work, along with Child’s Play (1988), and has just been re-released by Eureka in a definitive 4K remastered Blu-ray that includes the comprehensive fan-made documentary You’re So Cool, Brewster!
It’s a notable movie in my own lifetime, too, for one very particular reason. Fright Night holds the distinction of being the first “scary movie” I ever saw—although I left the room the moment Charlie stabbed Jerry through the palm with a pencil and triggered a furious his vampire neighbour’s furious transformation. I didn’t sleep very well after seeing Chris Sarandon in his monstrous make-up, pinning William Ragsdale to a window frame with an ungodly howl of pain… as one might expect any 8-year-old to be.
Back in 1985, of course, vampires were “golden age” monsters everyone associated with the outdated Count Dracula stereotype, which has waned in popularity during the 1970s when counter-culture horrors like Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre took over from Hammer Horror adventures with Christopher Lee coddling women under his cape.
The ’80s were largely full of slasher movies inspired by Halloween and Friday the 13th, which traded on grim realities gone askew, but Fright Night helped bring more imaginative ghouls back into vogue—helped by Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street the year before. It’s hard to imagine movies like The Lost Boys (1987) getting made without Fright Night blazing the trail a few years before, and with the likes of Near Dark (1987), The Monster Squad (1987), and Vampire’s Kiss (1989) round out the decade, for awhile ’80s horror felt synonymous with vampires. Of course, by today’s standards, vampires were a relatively scarce commodity!
What works about Fright Night is the deliciously simple but compelling idea, which must have been an exciting one to develop. Our hero is Charlie Brewster, an average teenager on the cusp of adulthood. He’s dating perky Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse), but they haven’t slept together, and he’s still drawn to more adolescent pursuits like watching late-night horror movies and hanging out with his childhood friend “Evil” Ed Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys). However, it’s Charlie’s overactive imagination and affection for horror that saves the day, as he realises he must slay a genuine vampire who’s preying on the town. To help, he recruits retired horror movie star Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), who initially believes Charlie’s little more than an overzealous fan, and ultimately matures into a brave young man during their adventure together.
The clever thing about Fright Night is the particular threat Jerry poses to Charlie, as someone who goes after both his closest friendship (transforming “Evil Ed” into this story’s Renfield), and then his girlfriend Amy. The latter being a particularly relatable agony, as Jerry represents an attractive older man who’s more masculine and experienced than a “kid”. The famous scene at a disco may appear quite dated and slightly silly now, mainly because of the music and fashions, but it’s a moment where the fact Jerry’s a vampire takes a backseat to what he represents as a love rival when making a move on young Amy.
Setting aside all that, it’s foremost just a very good comedy-horror, with perhaps more of an emphasis on the scares than one may expect. They certainly didn’t pussy out when it came to throwing lots of strange and graphic imagery at audiences, using cutting-edge techniques and make-up that advanced things pioneered by An American Werewolf in London. The movie has perhaps become identifiable by the comical exaggeration of its fangs (seen in the one-sheet poster, with a vampire leering over a suburban American street), which are memorably worn by Amanda Bearse across the entire lower portion of her face towards the end. It’s a visually hardcore movie, even by today’s standards, full of dripping gore and old-school animatronics that are imbued with a weirder vibe than what’s achievable using slicker digital effects.
It would have been incredible to have seen Vincent Price in the role of fake vampire hunter Peter Vincent as originally planned (a character that’s half his namesake, together with Peter Cushing), but Price wasn’t accepting horror movie roles towards the end of his career. And at the age of 75, Price would have liked the sprightlier energy of Planet of the Apes legend Roddy McDowall, who was cast after appearing in Class of 84, which Holland wrote. It’s now hard to imagine anyone but the dandyish McDowall in the role, as he delivers a character who’s recognisably old-fashioned in his temperament and reactions to everything happening, but manages to overcome his fears to inhabit his greatest screen role for real.
Overall, Fright Night is arguably one of the best modern cult movies around, as the idea still holds up, it’s only “dated” in some interesting ways, there’s plenty here for fans of ’80s horror, and it has a cocktail of laughs and gasps you just don’t get today. And if you’re only lukewarm on the idea of picking up the disc, Eureka Video’s plethora of additional material makes this a must-buy for anyone with even a mild interest in 1980s horror and filmmaking.
writer & director: Tom Holland.
starring: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys & Roddy McDowall.