Fright Night is good old-fashioned ’80s cheese – there’s no better or more accurate way to describe this classic horror-comedy hybrid. Written and directed by Tom Holland (who carried out the same double duty for Child’s Play), this is a true B-movie in every sense of the word that brings a bunch of traditional B-movie clichés out to play: high school students, hammy performances, campy special effects, nudity, cheesy music and so on. The product is awesome; a true gem mixing witty, self-referential humour with old-school vampire rules within an interesting narrative, and it’s all wrapped up in a delicious ’80s wrapping. They just don’t make movies like this anymore (they just remake ’em).
17 years old and fatherless, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) begins witnessing suspicious behaviour after the vacant house next to him becomes occupied by the charming Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon). After a series of local murders, Charley becomes convinced that Jerry is a bloodsucking vampire. His suspicions are confirmed, but everyone around him refuses to believe such nonsense – the local authorities believe that he’s crazy, his mother (Dorothy Fielding) dismisses his ramblings, his friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) merely laughs at him, and he starts to fall out with sweet girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse). He also stirs up a lot of trouble with Jerry and his roommate Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark). Desperate and fearful for his life, Charley turns to aging, washed-up veteran horror movie star Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) who’s renowned for playing vampire hunters.
Tom Holland’s screenplay doesn’t bore us with excessive detective episodes spotlighting Charley sneaking around looking for evidence to support his claim. Holland instead plunges us straight into the plot’s meat and potatoes, with Charley’s suspicions beginning in the very first scene before being confirmed not long afterwards. While this may imply that the script skips character development to simply toss a few bland faces into the fray, the characters are actually developed as the story progresses. However, the script does have a rather large hole in it. Charlie is a horror fan who watches horror marathons on a constant basis, but he feels the need to consult Evil Ed for vampire advice? Evidently the resultant scene was a device to allow for old-school vampire rules to be stated out loud for viewers, but it seems like lazy writing. And there’s an air of predictability which mars a few ineffective scenes, for instance when a character announces that they don’t believe in vampires right before randomly strolling into a dark alley.
If you’re seeking old-fashioned vampire action, Fright Night will scratch that itch. In the era of the insipid Twilight phenomenon, it’s indeed refreshing to look back on the 1980s when vampires actually killed people in gory ways and were allowed to look horrific when going in for the kill. This gives way to genuinely chilling set-pieces benefitting from impressive special effects and terrific make-up. Holland’s direction is generally strong, though the first half is not quite as well-paced or as interesting as the second half. But once the film does hit the home stretch, things pick up big time with an extended climax that’s funny, scary, exciting and effective. Added to this, Fright Night is imbued with tongue-in-cheek humour that separates it from more run-of-the-mill vampire outings. Charley and Evil are horror buffs, while Peter Vincent is a star of vampire movies himself. It’s amusing to watch them discuss cinematic vampires rules and point out which rules prove to be true.
Front and centre in the cast is William Ragsdale, who effortlessly convinces as Charley. He always seems completely in the moment, which is a rarity when it comes to B-grade horror flicks. Chris Sarandon, meanwhile, is fantastic as Jerry Dandridge; he manages to be deviously affable and debonair with a hint of menace, and he suits the role to the ground. The film’s best performance, though, was delivered by the late great Roddy McDowall as “vampire hunter” Peter Vincent. McDowall is endearing and fun to watch, yet he also manages to sell fear and intensity as well. His work is simply excellent. On the other hand, Amanda Bearse is admittedly not as good in the role of Amy. Bearse was able to sell her character well enough, but she’s at times too grating. Stephen Geoffreys fares better as Evil Ed, however – it’s clear that Geoffreys had a lot of fun playing such a goofball.
On top of everything else, Fright Night also serves as a nice time capsule that provides a snapshot of ’80s life. Concerns about virginity are introduced, and the film encapsulates the atmosphere and essence of the decade. And then there’s the awesome ’80s music derived from two sources: Brad Fiedel’s deliciously cheesy score, and the hilarious techno music which plays during a memorable scene in a nightclub.
Fright Night is an awesome, offbeat little gem. It has hip, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, humour, scary moments, memorable set-pieces, lots of energy, a handful of great performances, and even gay undertones (just what exactly is Jerry’s relationship with his day watcher?). It may be dated, cheesy and some scenes may be hilariously bad, but that’s precisely why it’s so awesome and deviously enjoyable. While you can’t label Fright Night as great art, you can definitely call it great fun.