An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Fright Night (1985)
PUBLISHED: 17:59 26 October 2018
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different
Fright Night; dir: Tom Holland; starring: Roddy McDowall, Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys Cert: 18 (1985)
Forget the pointless and rather unremarkable 2011 remake, the 1985 original version of Fright Night is the one you want and will keep you jumping and howling with laughter this Halloween.
Scream often gets the plaudits for introducing a sense of knowing humour into horror movies – making them entertaining while not sacrificing the scare factor – but Fright Night did the same thing ten years earlier.
Writer-director Tom Holland has a lot of fun with the rules of vampire lore and plays with the genre framework without ever debasing it. Fright Night works because these creatures of the night are still something to be feared.
Fright Night was made as a celebration of the classical horror genre. Set against a background of late night television re-runs of classic horror tales of vampires and were wolves, it was intended as a last hurrah for these Gothic staples as modern horror was being reinvented by films like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday The 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It’s also a clever re-telling of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Like all contemporary horror movies, Fright Night is set in the present and the suburbs. The atmospheric tales inspired by Victorian Gothic literature have failed to survive the demise of the Hammer Studios.
Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) loves these horror classics and avidly absorbs them on late-night TV shows hosted by fading horror star Peter Vincent, played with soft-spoken, knowing restraint by Roddy McDowell.
While trying to get intimate with long term girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) he sees something that sets his imagination racing. Can his new neighbour Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) be a vampire?
When Dandrige comes calling on his single mother (Dorothy Fielding), he’s more convinced that this man is not a man at all but one of the undead. He desperately tries to warn his friends and family but, of course, no-one will believe him – something which, of course, delights his tormentor.
Charley decides to go for broke and calls in the police. Dandrige is charming and has a perfectly plausible explanation for his activities. When Brewster starts raving about there has to be a coffin in the basement the cops have had enough and warn him to stop wasting their time.
At the end of his tether, with nowhere left to turn, and with Jerry Dandrige about to put the bite on him, he tracks down his hero, Peter Vincent for help.
Vincent is recently out of work. His series has been cancelled because no-one believes in vampires any more and teenagers want to watch slasher movies instead. Vincent, bitter at his rejection, initially wants nothing to do with what he assumes to be an over-excited fan but decides to humour him when Brewster offers him $50 for his expert knowledge in getting rid of vampires.
As you would expect Peter Vincent (named after horror legends Peter Cushing and Vincent Price) finds himself in the middle of a full-blooded real-life horror movie and is quickly out of his depth. But, his young fan’s faith in him is enough to tap into his knowledge of old scripts and recall old bits of vampire lore, enough to help end Jerry Dandrige’s reign of terror.
Fright Night is a tightly paced, lovingly made 1980s horror movie. It is beautifully acted, full of energy, with a witty script and sharp sense of humour. Ragsdale and his teenage co-stars (including Stephen Geoffreys as best friend ‘Evil’ Ed) come across as believable young people, but this film belongs to Roddy McDowell as the aging actor who, by turns, is both endearing and bitter at the passing of the years.
It’s a delicate and well observed performance which matches the comic tone of the movie without ever undermining the sense of danger which lurks in every scene. Fright Night loves to play with the suspense.
Chris Sarandon brings a perfect combination of sexual magnetism, ruthlessness and even camp to his role as the vampire. There is a real sense of chemistry between the actors. This movie works, not only because it is doing something different, but because it is so clearly been made with a lot of love by people who love the genre.
There are some genuinely scary moments, but more than anything, it’s just enormous fun and the clumsy remake shows just how much seemingly effortless skill went into this glorious original. For me it makes the perfect Halloween horror treat.