Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
In this review Big Ross goes full fang banger over the vamp cult classic Fright Night!
Fright Night was a great vampire movie released back in 1985. It starred a young, unknown William Ragsdale as Charlie Brewster, an average teenager who becomes convinced his new neighbor Jerry Dandrige (the always excellent Chris Sarandon) is a vampire. No one believes Charlie though, not his best friend, not his girlfriend, not even his idol, famed cinematic vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall!). But Charlie finds out the only thing worse than everything thinking him crazy is being right. Unfortunately, as happens far too often in Hollywood these days, Fright Night was bitten by the remake bug in 2011. Starring Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, and David Tennant as Charlie, Jerry, and Peter, respectively. It was moderately well received and turned a profit at the box office. I was going to write a big comparative review, but halfway through I realized the remake is so bland, so full of changes I don’t like and don’t agree with that I could little if anything positive to say about it (except maybe that it gave the great David Tennant some work and more exposure to American audiences). So instead, I’m just going to gush over how great the original film is! Welcome to…FRIGHT NIGHT!
Fright Night holds a special place in my heart. I probably saw it for the first time either on VHS or HBO in 1988 or ‘89. I was around ten years old, certainly too young to watch it, but my parents let me anyway (I guess parenting was more lax in those days). It was the first vampire movie I had ever seen, and remains one of my favorite of the genre. It holds up surprisingly well today (though the soundtrack is pure 80s and doesn’t so much). Fright Night is categorized as “comedic horror”, but where so many of those films fail to walk the line between funny and scary and simply come off as campy, it manages to remain scary while delivering the occasional chuckle. The plot borrows heavily from classic vampire films and more than a little from Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window. Charlie Brewster is your average teenager. He’s obsessed with vampire movies, and his hero is past-his-prime actor Peter Vincent, who has been reduced to hosting an Elvira-style nightly program on a local television network called Fright Night that screens old horror movies (some of his own). When Charlie isn’t watching old vampire movies or hanging out with his best friend Evil Ed, he’s trying to convince his cute girlfriend Amy to let him get past first base. His normal suburban life is disrupted when a new neighbor moves in next door, and Charlie soon becomes convinced that the suave, handsome Jerry Dandrige is a killer…or something far worse.
While the plot of Fright Night is derivative, it works in part because it is so. Charlie is as familiar with vampires as the audience is, and he has learned so much about them from the same places we have: movies. Writer and director Tom Holland plays with those oh so familiar tropes and expectations from vampire movies, and they come off as both fun and intelligent in the way they are handled. For example, while most vampire stories of the past few years have abandoned the connection to Christianity, it makes perfect sense to see that in Fright Night, a cross is only as powerful as the faith of the person holding it. This also calls to mind the greatness of Chris Sarandon’s performance, but we’ll get to that later.
A key element of the plot is that Charlie, the protagonist, suspects Jerry. We the audience feel Charlie’s terror as he learns firsthand of Jerry’s dark nature, and we share in his desperation as no one believes him. And we cheer him on as he ventures off alone to rescue his girlfriend from the clutches of Jerry the vampire.
Sidenote: I find it very interesting that one aspect of the plot is shared between Fright Night and the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola. In the latter Mina Harker is depicted as the reincarnation of Dracula’s departed wife Elisabeta. In Fright Night, a painting in Jerry Dandrige’s house and a comment he makes heavily implies that Charlie’s girlfriend Amy is the reincarnation of a former lover of Jerry from long ago. These are the only instances of the “reincarnated lover of Dracula” I can think of (I imagine there are others), and I find it interesting that Fright Night did it first.
Another major plotline of the film centers on the character of Peter Vincent. It’s no accident that he is modeled after real actors of classic horror films; his name is an amalgamation of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. Charlie first approaches Mr. Vincent as a last resort. He has become convinced that Jerry Dandrige is a vampire and is feasting on innocent victims around town, but he cannot convince any of his friends or the police that Jerry is guilty of anything wrong, undead nature aside. Charlie appeals to his hero, the great Peter Vincent, vampire hunter. Perhaps by this point, Charlie’s fear and paranoia are clouding his ability to separate fact from fiction, mistakenly thinking Peter Vincent the actor will be sympathetic to his claims and request for help. While his pleas fall on deaf ears, a recently fired and out-of-work Peter Vincent is receptive to an offer from Amy and Ed to put on a show of giving Jerry a “vampire test”, to convince Charlie he’s harmless, in exchange for cash. Jump to the 3:50 mark in the following video to witness the test, which is centered on using “ordinary tap water” in place of holy water. At around 6:20 you can see Peter Vincent’s more accurate, albeit unwitting test of Jerry’s true nature (and some great work from Roddy McDowall).
Peter Vincent, when faced with the impossible, is understandably terrified. His reaction is to run and keep running and not look back. It isn’t until he faces down a turned and truly evil Ed that he finds the courage to join Charlie in his quest to vanquish Jerry and rescue Amy. It’s a wonderful arc for his character, and helped in large part from the portrayal by Roddy McDowall. In fact, the film as a whole is helped by sound performances all around, and very likely would not be as successful as it is without the work of Ragsdale, McDowall, and in particular, Sarandan. Ragsdale does a serviceable job, and he holds his own in scenes with actors older and more experienced than himself. The two performances that really shine are McDowall’s and Sarandan’s.
McDowall is brilliant, and (IMHO) lends to Fright Night a similar quality Alec Guiness lent to Star Wars. There is a believability and genuineness to his performance of the old, fearful, and almost frail Peter Vincent that strengthens and elevates the proceedings of the whole film. Chris Sarandon, as he usually does, simply shines as Jerry Dandrige. Jerry Dandrige is a vampire in that classic, almost forgotten sense. He doesn’t sparkle in the sunlight, or drink a synthetic blood substitute due to an overactive conscience. He conveys suaveness, sophistication, charm, and menace in equal measure with nothing more than a look. And this is accomplished entirely with the talent of Chris Sarandan. Check out the two following videos. This first can be enjoyed from the beginning.
Remember what I said about the soundtrack? Yeah, so if you can get past that – heck you can mute the sound if you want – and just focus on Sarandan. Damn. I almost feel like I’ve been glamored! Here’s the second video clip; jump to the 3:00 minute mark.
Other than that one line, “She’s someone I knew, a long time ago.” Sarandan doesn’t speak a word in this entire scene. He doesn’t need to. He communicates everything he needs with his eyes. I dare you to find a video clip of a vamp from True Blood or any other vampire movie that can match the smoldering intensity and weight of Sarandan’s gaze when he is glamoring a victim. Also jump to the 9:00 minute mark in the above video to see more great stuff from Sarandan. He manages to convey a range of emotions from evil menace, amusement, disdain, boredom, smugness, and guttural, animalistic terror all in the span of about a minute. Fantastic.
There’s more I could praise, but I’ll leave you with this. At a time when vampires are keeping diaries on the CW, engaging in near softcore porn on HBO, and other likely PG-rated nonsense on NBC, when they’re not sparkling in the sun and having weirdly abusive relationships with teenage girls, it’s hard to find some good ‘ol fashioned vampires that are plain and simple evil creatures of the night. If that troubles you as much as it does me, consider this article an introduction to my old friend Jerry. And not just an introduction, but an invitation. I don’t think you’ll regret it.