The 1980s seemed to be a rebirth for horror in a lot of ways. Not only were there more horror films — helped in part by the advent of home video — but the theatrical films seemed to get more attention, and are well remembered and loved — and relentlessly duplicated. Fright Night was remade in 2011, but until this year I had not seen any version of the film. I opted to go with the original 1985 film, written and directed by Tom Holland (his directorial debut.)
Fright Night stars William Ragsdale as Charley Brewster, a teenager with a single mother (Dorothy Fielding). He struggles in school, and spends his evenings watching the “Fright Night” movie marathons on local television. One night, he stumbles into a fright night of his own, as he witnesses his new neighbors loading a coffin into the basement. He later sees one of them apparently grow fangs and sink them into the teeth of a woman. The next morning, the woman is reported as a homicide victim. Charley realizes he has a vampire living next door.
This is a flagrant violation of the homeowners’ association agreement.
For a kid who spends his evenings watching vampire movies, Charley shows an astonishing lack of genre savvy. At first I thought this might be the supernatural equivalent of Rear Window, with suspense growing slowly as Charley pieces together what’s happening. Instead, Charley essentially charges in like a bull in a china shop. He raves to anybody who will listen (and most who won’t) that there’s a vampire next door. He brings the police there, to investigate the murder, but when balked by the caretaker Billy (Jonathan Stark), he lets loose about the vampire — is it any wonder that the officer (Art Evans) doesn’t believe him? He’s also fairly unknowledgeable about vampire lore himself, relying on his friend “Evil” Ed Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys) to tell him how to protect himself, and goes to the host of “Fright Night” for help, even though he’s just an actor. His direct confrontations with the vampire also bring himself and his friends into danger.
And yet, for all of that, he doesn’t quite come across as an idiot hero, just a scared (if naive) teenager. Ragsdale, as is common for Hollywood “teenagers”, was in his early 20s at the time, but comes across as a convincing young man who knows he has to do something but is in over his head. He appears genuinely frightened in several scenes. Stephen Geoffreys is a cheerful little maniac on screen, the kind of kid everybody knows is going to get into trouble — irritating to be around, but entertaining for this sort of picture, and thoroughly believable. Amanda Bearse plays Charley’s girlfriend, Amy; she starts off seeming very young (despite being older than Ragsdale), and as the movie goes on makes the progression from youth to maturity in a way that leaves little doubt about the subtext of the film.
Crowded dance floor and nobody notices the forty-year-old with a high schooler.
Rodddy McDowall is terrific as “Fright Night” host Peter Vincent (named, no doubt, after Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), star of many b-grade vampire movies. His performance, deliberately hammy due to the character’s career, is one of the highlights of the film. Also of note are the villains of the piece. Jonathan Stark plays Billy the caretaker as cheerful but just slightly off, a Renfield hidden underneath a glass smile. And Chris Sarandon — who would become better known a year later as Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride — is fantastic as the master vampire Jerry Dandrige. He’s calm, collected, and friendly in an oily sort of way, and a master at dropping menacing hints without lapsing into shouts and overt threats.
Special effects are used only as needed, when Jerry and other vampires reveal themselves. While there are a few effects that are just a bit obvious nowadays, all of them hold up fairly well, especially the vampire make-up which is definitely freaky looking — it’s easy to see how the human characters would be frightened by their appearance.
Fright Night is a romp of a vampire movie. It’s not big on suspense — it launches into Charley vs. Jerry very early on — but it’s a fun game of cat-and-mouse (or bat-and-mouse) with just enough potentially-frightening elements to make it interesting. Horror movies from the 1980s tend to get sequels and remakes whether they deserve them or not, but in this case it’s clear where the appeal in doing so was.