Fright Night (1985)

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Yet again, I am a big horror fan and yet, somehow, I have managed to miss seeing the original Fright Night before now. This has been properly rectified, and I am pleased to say that the hype was not misplaced.

Fright Night tells the story of Charley (William Ragsdale), a high school student who decides that he’d rather watch the weird neighbors next door than have sex with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse). Although I know that subsequent events were largely out of Charley’s control, there still seems to be a moral in that story: sex first, vampires later. What Charley does see that fateful night are his new neighbors moving a coffin into the basement; this, in addition to the appearance on the TV screen of Fright Night, a late-night spookfest featuring “vampire killer” Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), provokes Charley to believe that his neighbor might be a vampire. This is later confirmed by the arrival and subsequent disappearance of a prostitute, whom Charlie sees going into the house. When the prostitute later winds up dead, Charley’s suspicions are confirmed. Consulting his friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), Charley learns about the best way to fight against vampires – but not before his mother has invited the offending creature into the house. And no wonder! Our vampire is dashing Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), by whom most of us would not object to being bitten. Will sexy vampire triumph over horny teenager? We’ll just have to wait and see!

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Fright Night makes excellent use of the vampire mythos we all know so well – and anyone who has ever watched a vampire movie, from Dracula to Dracula Untold, will recognize certain important rules that are made, subverted, and at times even broken. The film melds tradition with a unique story, as the vampire moves in next door and heads to dance clubs. Dandridge is a charming but wholly unsympathetic villain, avoiding at every turn the pitfalls of modern vampires that are just “misunderstood.” He’s not misunderstood – he’s an evil lord of the undead, taking sadistic pleasure in torturing Charley (whom no one will believe) and seducing fair young maidens. While I cannot avoid thinking of Chris Sarandon as Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride, he makes a credible vampire.

Roddy McDowall is the other major force at work here, channeling everyone from Peter Cushing to Vincent Price (Peter Vincent, anyone?), with a smattering of Elvira. He’s an actor playing a vampire killer, now faced with an actual vampire – and when he finally gets into the swing of things, it’s a pleasure to watch. The other actors in the group are a cut below McDowall’s hamming, the most obnoxious being Evil, who shouts and giggles like a demented Renfield to no apparent purpose. Charley and Amy are likably bland, as are most heroes and heroines in vampire stories.

My sole objection to Fright Night is a reveal nearing the end, where a rule hitherto established and accepted is bent and then broken with little to no explanation. Vampire movies depend upon their rules: if your vampire is repelled by crucifixes but not by garlic, can’t cast a reflection in glass but can in water, all well and good. But you don’t introduce a new and non-traditional rule at the eleventh hour and then fail to explain it. That’s just bad form.

But for that single caveat, Fright Night is a glorious love letter to the vampire genre and a classic in its own right. There are no sparkly vegetarian vamps here: these guys are strictly carnivores.

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