Returning to my occasional series, “Inspirations,” wherein I examine the literature, film, and pop culture that influenced the writer I became, I take a look at a mostly forgotten vampire flick, Tom Holland’s Fright Night.
It’s hard for me to believe this movie is 30 years old. It was released in August of 1985 as I was starting my senior year in high school. I was not looking for a good scary movie to go to. I wasn’t really into horror films, although I had seen a few — notably Jaws, The Howling, and ‘Salem’s Lot. The last of those scared the hell out of me. When Danny Glick comes floating up to his friend’s window, begging to be let in after he’s been turned into a vampire, I practically crawled under the couch. In fact, the memory of that scene was so strong that when I read the novel in college, I slept with my windows locked for a month.
Monsters had always scared me as a kid, so I wasn’t really looking for a good monster movie to take my girlfriend to as school was starting.
“What would you do,” the trailer’s narrator asked, “if you accidentally discovered that the house next door was occupied by something that wasn’t human?”
This piqued my curiosity. Just as the ad-writers intended, I wanted to know more.
“No one will believe you — not your mom, not your girlfriend, not even the police.”
At this point it was obvious that the protagonist was a young man my age living in a similar small Midwestern town.
“You’ll do anything to protect yourself,” the narrator said. “But it will do anything to protect its secret.”
Cue montage of monsters, people in danger, and lots of scary imagery with dramatic music under it all.
I was hooked. Despite not being a horror buff, I had to see this film. I didn’t know what it was about, but I totally identified with the teen-aged main character. I had to know what happened to him.
On the first available Friday night, I persuaded my girlfriend to go see it. As the theater darkened, I had no idea what I was in for.
Aside from the cleverly written ad that made me identify with the protagonist, the thing that most hooked me was that the trailer doesn’t explicitly identify the monster next door. The narrator calls the fiend, “something horrifying” and “something unspeakably evil.” But he never identifies the villain as a vampire. He only ever refers to the thing in the house next door as “it.”
So I was surprised to discover this was a vampire movie. That fact alone contributed to my high opinion of the film. Before Anne Rice made vampires sexy, before White Wolf made them tragic heroes, before Stephanie Meyer made them sparkle, vampires were a pretty pedestrian movie monster. Vampire flicks fell into a certain formula that harkened back to Dracula and had gotten largely silly. Stephen King’s deft treatment of them in ‘Salem’s Lot notwithstanding. the vampire had become so overexposed and overdone that 1979’s Love at First Bite, a romantic comedy that starred George Hamilton as Dracula in the Disco ’70’s of New York, was the best film treatment of the undead blood-drinkers I had seen.
Had I known that Fright Night was a movie about vampires, I would have come in with a much less enthusiastic attitude. I’d have expected something bad.
And Fright Night was very good. Holland, who wrote and directed the film, seemed to understand the pop cultural problem with vampires. The structure of his movie embraces it.
Teenager Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) loves watching the late-night horror movie program, Fright Night, on the local television station. It’s hosted by washed-up actor Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), who mostly plays his own, awful vampire movies from the ’60’s.
But when a real vampire, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), moves in next door, Charlie accidentally discovers it. He foolishly doesn’t keep his knowledge a secret. And soon, Dandridge will stop at nothing to silence Charlie.
Holland effectively uses veiled threats and double entendres to ratchet up the tension. Standing next to Charlie’s mother, who doesn’t know her very attractive next-door neighbor is a monster, Dandridge smiles at Charlie and says, “See ya. Soon.”
The special effects are excellent for the time period — and the makeup is extraordinary. Holland is careful to build them so that we don’t see everything right away. He saves his best effects for the film’s climax, putting the terror on a slow crescendo.
Fright Night is well paced, tense, and scary. it brings you to the edge of your seat.
That’s a Laugh
But the genius of the movie is that it is part comedy. Over-the-top performances in the supporting cast create many lighthearted moments that help enhance the horror.
Roddy McDowell was clearly having a ball as the has-been, low-talent Peter Vincent. McDowell plays him like a cringe-worthy community theater actor, who is entirely self-absorbed and somewhat clueless about his own lack of skill.
Charlie seeks out Peter Vincent for help, because Vincent has been billed as “The Great Vampire-Killer” in his movies, and he’s said on his TV show he believes they are real. Desperate, Charlie attempts to enlist his aid.
When he refuses, Charlie determines to kill Dandridge himself. His girlfriend and best friend go to Vincent and pay him to perform a vampire test on Dandridge to prove to Charlie he’s wrong. But in the course of this exercise, Vincent accidentally discovers the vampire is real indeed.
At this point, he transforms into a total coward, not at all the heroic slayer of fiends from beyond he’s played in the movies. This performance is even more charming and amusing than the schmuck actor. Naturally, he has to team up with Charlie in the end.
And then there’s Stephen Geoffreys’s brilliant performance as Charlie’s friend, “Evil” Ed Thompson. Geoffreys steals every scene he’s in as the macabre- and horror-obsessed nerd. As a classic geek, he’s socially inept, but he knows all the vampire lore Charlie needs to do battle with creatures of the night. Like everyone else, he doesn’t believe Charlie, and he insensitively teases him repeatedly.
When Charlie’s girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) smashes a chili burger into Charlie’s face for not listening to her apology, Evil Ed laughs hysterically and says, “Oh, you’re so cool, Brewster! I can’t stand it!”
When he becomes the film’s obligatory sacrificial lamb, he is more frightening as a vampire than his master, Dandridge. Sent to kill the cowardly Peter Vincent, he mocks his prey before turning deadly.
“Now, I used to admire you,” Ed says as he backs Vincent into a corner. “But of course, that was before I found out what a fake you are!”
It’s a memorable performance that stands out among many others.
Additionally, Holland’s film is not just a new take on the vampire movie; it’s a loving homage to the truly cheesy vampire flicks of the past.
“Ah, Mr. Vincent, I’ve seen all your films,” Dandridge says when they first meet. “And I found them . . . very amusing.”
When Charlie and Vincent break into Dandridge’s lair for the film’s final battle, Vincent says, “So far, everything’s been just like it is in the movies. We just have to keep hoping.”
Moreover, the film has a comical, postmodern sensibility. It’s filled with pop cultural references designed to bring the ancient vampire legend into the contemporary world.
When Dandridge slips into Charlie’s bedroom to kill him, he whistles “Strangers in the Night.” When Peter Vincent refuses to help Charlie kill the vampire, he says, “Sorry, Charlie” — a deliberate invocation of the famous Starkist Tuna ads of the ’70’s and ’80’s. When Charlie tells the police detective that Jerry Dandridge is a vampire, the cop responds, “Yeah, and I’m Dirty Harry.”
It is a knowing script that gives you a wink and nudges you in the ribs as it scares the hell out of you.
This perfect mix of humor and horror totally won me over. I became completely entranced with vampires from that point forward. Over the next several years, I would read ‘Salem’s Lot, Dracula, and Interview with the Vampire. I would play and run multiple campaigns of White Wolf Game Studio’s iconic role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade. I went to see The Lost Boys and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in theaters.
And I would write a vampire novel. In the early ’90’s I made my first serious attempt to become an author by writing a novel about a vampire who hated being what he was and desperately trying to undo the curse. I solicited agents, trying to push this take on the classic trope, which was something of a new approach at the time. It’s been done to death since, by people who actually got published.
I’ve rewritten that novel several times, trying to get it right, and I plan to do so again in 2016, targeting it for a June release.
I’m a little saddened that vampires have become so ubiquitous again. They sparkle and have mostly lost connection to their previous legend as nightstalking bloodsuckers, who can only be repelled with a cross. I enjoyed the first few seasons of HBO’s True Blood, but too many of the vampires were good guys or at worst, misunderstood monsters. While that makes for compelling television, it isn’t really what I want from my vampires.
Indeed, the vampire seems to have become more of a trope for erotica than horror. And while overwhelming sexual charisma has been a part of the legend as far back as Stoker’s famous novel, they should be more than Christian Grey with fangs.
But Fright Night stays with me. The disappointing 1988 sequel doesn’t ruin my memories. Nor does the 2011 remake, which, while being a very solid vampire flick, has none of the charm and style of the original.
Fright Night taught me to love monsters, to love vampires. It showed me how to take something old and make it fresh without completely changing it. It showed me that balancing terror and comedy is an effective way to create tension.
It is an excellent film, and as it turns 30, I wish for it to be remembered. Rent it or stream it. Put yourself back in 1985, when Michael J. Fox was zooming to the past in a nuclear-powered Delorean, when James Bond was still fighting the Soviets, and when vampires were not sexy bad boys who sparkled in the daylight.
Instead, they were fiends. And if you accidentally discovered one was living next door to you, you were in serious danger of becoming the next victim. Jerry Dandridge himself put it best in a phoned threat to Charlie midway through the film:
“I just destroyed your car, Charlie. But that’s nothing compared to what I’m going to do to you . . . tomorrow night.”
Welcome to Fright Night.