A retrospective essay

John Odette

“Oh, you’re so cool, Brewster!”

Ye be warned – spoilers ahead!

The middle stretch of the 1980s horror scene was infused with creatures and masked killers. The classic monsters weren’t the prominent figureheads they once were. Werewolves launched back on screen in the early part of the decade with classics such as The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. But the vampire and his curse of living forever had taken a backseat, resigned to watch the torch being carried by teenage slashers. It was 1985’s Fright Night written and directed by Tom Holland that reintroduced the gothic romanticism of the undead films of old and placed it right next door.

This is a film that is riddled with flavors of the decade it was released in and still holds up well in 2020. It is the best parts of Dracula and ‘Salem’s Lot churned through a processor of 80s components like neon lights, synth music and terrible wardrobe choices (that sweater in the night club, anyone?).

OCTOBER. 21. 2020.

                       35 YEARS LATER

FRIGHT NIGHT

The story is simple but fun, the cast is terrific and it still has enough memorable moments to make it worth coming back to year after year.

Young Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is the typical male teenager. He is nervous, horny and hates math class. His girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse – Married with Children) longs for a true connection with him and his best friend Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) just wants some respect. He has a new neighbor next door, the handsome and charismatic Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon).

Fright Night (Columbia Pictures)

After seeing a few women go into Jerry’s house and never come out, Charley gets suspicious that Jerry might be a creature of the night. His suspicions are confirmed when Jerry pays Charley a frightening visit one evening – a brilliant scene, but more on that later. Charley enlists the help of a local tv personality, “vampire hunter” Peter Vincent (who also feels the strain of masked killers being the main scary draw, as he is recently fired from his monster movie day job). Roddy McDowall gives the role of Peter Vincent a flair of delightful cowardice to contrast with his ridiculous undead wisdom.

Fright Night (Columbia Pictures)

“I believe in vampires, I am deadly serious” Charley proclaims, begging Peter for help. Broke and annoyed, Peter declines his request. Seeing that Peter’s fight with vamps is over, Charley enlists help from his friends. They think he is crazy, but are devoted enough to help Charley find peace of mind.

Fright Night (Columbia Pictures)

The back half of this movie is part chase and part hunt. Jerry abducts Amy after stalking Charley, Ed and her throughout the streets. Amy looks like a long-lost love of Jerry’s. This coupled with his annoyance with Charley spurs his lust to possess her. The film eventually climaxes in a battle inside Jerry’s house which looks like its interior design was modeled after a castle instead of a soft suburban aesthetic.

Every character is unique and nuanced and all brought to life in wonderful fashion. There is a sting of 80’s cynicism; everyone has a little bit of a jerk streak to them. The highlight of course is Chris Sarandon’s Jerry. He postures as an aristocratic douche, but is still as charming as the script needs him to be. “I’ve watched all of your films Mr. Vincent, and I found them very… amusing.”

Jerry’s ‘caretaker’ Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) saunters smartly as the day man to Jerry’s nighttime vampire playboy. Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent is silly and squirmy, but rises to the occasion to mentor Charley on his quest to destroy Jerry. Amy and Ed both labor tirelessly to help their friend snap out of his delusion that Jerry is a vampire. They both suffer for their loyalty as the film progresses. Charley has little empathy most of the time, he just wants to be a hero and destroy the monster. In many ways, Charley is the sore on the vampire’s lips. He tries to sneak into Jerry’s basement, spies through Jerry’s window and brings police to Jerry’s door. Naturally, this really pisses Jerry off. Charley is cold to Amy, treats Ed like crap and is oblivious to Peter Vincent’s employment problem; he is blinded by his testament for needing professional assistance to survive his current vampire problem. 

Granted, Charley’s motivations are pure. Being directly threatened by a vampire isn’t something to rebuff. Collectively, the span of the cast is filled with fun talent that taps into distinguished horror archetypes while still having their own identity.

Why I keep coming back to Fright Night are the incredibly fun and memorable scenes that are constructed within. When Jerry first attacks Charley in his room, we see a true glimpse of the monster underneath all of the good looks. He repels a crucifix and nearly chucks Charley out the window until he is stabbed with a pencil of all things. That’s so 80s, right?

Fright Night (Columbia Pictures)

When Ed and Amy both succumb to vampirism and attack Peter and Charley respectively, we have wonderful moments of true horror and dread. These vampires are so fun to watch when their gloves come off. 

There is a fun dancing scene in a club featuring killer moves, wild hair and that awful, awful sweater that Jerry wears. Amy is seduced by him while she spins on the dance floor appearing solo in a mirror.

Fright Night (Columbia Pictures)
Fright Night (Columbia Pictures)

Speaking of seduction, Jerry’s cornering of Ed in an alley is a treat as well. His manipulation of Ed’s vulnerability is a tactic we’ve seen a hundred times before. Jerry’s voice is made for a vampire, it still works its magic on me today. 

But the absolute best scene in Fright Night comes at the halfway mark. Ed and Amy financially lure Peter out to “convince” Charley that Jerry isn’t a vampire. After setting up a meeting via phone call, (book your appointment with your local vampire today!) our squad of heroes visit Jerry’s house armed with holy water and hope. Hope that Jerry will pass Peter’s test and Charley will put all of his hysteria to rest. Charley is oblivious to the set-up, still thinking there is genuine effort to root out the evil. After a few humorous exchanges between Jerry and crew, it looks like Charley’s theory will be debunked. Our hero aggressively tries to get Jerry to reveal his coffin or grab a crucifix, only to be stopped mid-stride by Peter. The alarmed exchange of glances between Jerry and Billy is priceless. It isn’t until the grand reveal of Jerry not casting a reflection in Peter’s mirror that true panic sets in. After Charley and company leave, Jerry sees the shard of mirrored glass on the floor and knows he’s been made. This is the turning point of the film and sets up the thrilling second half.

Fright Night (Columbia Pictures)

There are plenty of throwback vampire motifs in Fright Night that acknowledge its roots. A few to mention are Jerry rising like a springboard out of his coffin, Billy’s watchdog devotion, and the hunter lore à la Van Helsing that frames out Peter Vincent. Oh, and of course, Evil Ed’s evil red glowing eyes. Now 35 years old, Fright Night still has the same bite it had upon its release. It is a strong blend of humor and horror, and that's what makes it a winner.

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