Fright Night (1985)

16 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Fright Night” respects the vampire genre and recalls back to the old elements of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But it also modernizes them. The vampire lives in suburbia and can easily be seen as an eccentric suburbanite. But as a vampire, his strengths are the same—he can live forever, he can transform into either a bat or a wolf, and he can hypnotize people so he can drink their blood (the rest he just kills quickly). And his weaknesses are the same—particularly sunlight, crucifixes, and wooden stakes through the heart (though a stake through the heart will kill anybody). Yes, the traditional, old-school vampire elements are in check for “Fright Night.” And they’re quite welcome.

The film takes place in a suburb where something strange has moved in, and no one has noticed except for teenager Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), who one night is making out with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) until he notices while looking out the window that two guys are moving a coffin into the basement next door. The next night, he hears a woman’s scream coming from the house. And he notices that all the windows in the cellar are completely painted black by the new house owner’s live-in carpenter. Where’s the owner, who apparently sleeps during the day?

You starting to see a connection here?

Charley spies on the house one night to make the chilling revealing discovery that the new guy living next door to him is a vampire. But of course, no one will believe him—not his mother, not Amy, and not even the police. Worse yet, the vampire—known as Jerry Dandrige socially, or how social he can be anyway—knows that Charley knows about him. Desperately seeking help, he gets in touch with Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), the well-known B-movie actor known for killing monsters, particularly vampires. But Peter Vincent doesn’t truly believe in vampires until he has his own encounter with one. After some reluctance, Peter joins Charley in a race to kill Jerry before he kills them.

One of the strengths of the movie is Roddy McDowell as Peter Vincent. He delivers a terrifically comic performance as a washed-up actor who gets roped into the situation. He doesn’t believe in vampires, but for a good sum of money (he’s in danger of being evicted from his apartment), he’ll do anything until he realizes that these are real humanistic beasts. He may seem tough killing vampires in movies, but in reality when facing vampires, he’s a frightened, nervous wimp of a man who runs away when he gets a chance. This character is a comic masterstroke in “Fright Night.”

Chris Sarandon plays the vampire Jerry and it’s also a terrific performance. He plays Jerry with a casual, snooty sense that you’d think he’s just a reclusive, eccentric businessman. But once you get him started, he shows his true colors and becomes a convincing vampire. This is a real feel of split-personality, and Sarandon handles both parts really well.

A particular problem I have with “Fright Night,” and it is major, is that William Ragsdale as the hero and Amanda Bearse as his girlfriend are horribly miscast. Ragsdale is just a one-dimensional whiner that you just want to see get killed by the vampire, because that would mean you’d never have to hear his peevish, droning voice ever again. That would be just fine with me. Bearse is worse—neither appealing or convincing. And she becomes the one that the heroes have to save from becoming a full-fledged vampire, after Jerry has seduced her and changed her. Let Amy be a vampire—at least she’s more interesting that way.

Another problem I have with the film is the middle part of the film, particularly in which Amy and the crazed teen Evil Ed—getting to him later—hire Peter to convince Jerry that he is a vampire). I know that Amy is trying to snap Charley out of what she thinks is a delusion, but why is the movie acting like it’s a big shock when Peter realizes that Jerry’s a vampire? Did it hope we’d forget that Charley was already our hero?

And what about Jerry’s roommate/vampire’s-assistant Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark)? Apparently, he’s human, since he can walk in the daylight. So, simple bullets can kill him, right? Peter even states before he and Charley go into Jerry’s house to strike, “He walks out in the sunlight—then he’s human.” Then he goes ahead and shoots him, but…he just keeps coming. OK, it’s creepy enough, to be sure. But what’s the deal? Did Jerry turn him into a vampire that night? Is he a partial zombie? I don’t know; the movie never tells us.

But “Fright Night” has enough strengths for us to forgive its flaws. The performances by Roddy McDowell and Chris Sarandon are good, and so is the performance by Stephen Geoffreys in a comical supporting role as a crazy teenager nicknamed Evil Ed who becomes a vampire midway through the movie—his over-the-top delivery, along with his Jack Nicholson resemblance, is just hilarious. The creature effects are suitably gruesome, and the final half of the movie—the battle between the heroes and the monsters—is bloody entertaining. “Fright Night” is a fun horror movie.

NOTE: “Fright Night” was remade in 2011 as a more self-referential horror-comedy, starring Colin Farrell and David Tennant—that film is worth checking out as well.

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