Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fright Night (1985)

Directed by Tom Holland.
1985. Rated R, 106 minutes. 
Chris Sarandon 
William Ragsdale 
Amanda Bearse 
Stephen Geoffreys 
Roddy McDowall 
Jonathan Stark 
Dorothy Fielding 
Art J. Evans

Charlie (Ragsdale) is a fairly average high school kid. He’s been dating Amy (Bearse) for about a year, but hasn’t quite managed to get in her pants despite his near constant efforts. His best pal is Eddie, aka Evil (Geoffreys), is more awkward. We’re never told why he’s called Evil, but it probably has something to do with the fact that after most sentences he cackles maniacally like an old school Disney villain. The three of them share a love for a weekly TV horror series called “Fright Night.” It is hosted by Peter Vincent (McDowall) who claims to be the world’s foremost vampire killer. Jerry Dandridge (Sarandon) is Charlie’s new neighbor. Pretty quickly, Charlie surmises that Jerry is a real live vampire and is responsible for the string of murders that have been taking place around town.

Back in 1985, Fright Night became a surprise hit at a time when vampire flicks had gone out of vogue. As Peter Vincent so eloquently put it, all we wanted was “demented men in ski masks hacking up young virgins.” Still, there were good reasons FN was able to succeed. They start with Jerry Dandridge. With a sweater and pleated khakis in place of a tuxedo and a trench coat substituting for a cape, he’s a much more contemporary vampire than we were used to seeing. He helped reestablish this particular monster as a seductive villain. His murderous side is usually smooth. We’re drawn to him. For this reason, Fright Night isn’t really frightening. I remember going to the theater to see this on its opening weekend. Even then it wasn’t scary. However, the coolness of it all still sucked us in.

The cool factor has diminished a bit with the passing of time. Other aspects hold up better. By being pretty self-aware, it serves a precursor to all those films to follow in which the characters know all about the movies and suspect they are actually involved in one. Evil plays the role of the guy who informs everyone else of genre protocol.

We’re also treated to a wonderful performance by Roddy McDowall. His Peter Vincent is a man who totally defines himself by his public persona. That persona is fading in both popularity and profitability. In fact, he only agrees to meet Jerry because will pay him fifty bucks to do so and convince Charlie that Jerry couldn’t possibly be a vampire. Purely by accident, Peter realizes he’s in the midst of the real thing and is immediately petrified. He doesn’t seem able or willing to save the day. As such, McDowall strikes the perfect balance to give us both reluctant participant and comic relief.

Fright Night is not without flaws. Predictably, some of the special fx and makeup jobs haven’t aged so well. The same goes for the score, too synthesized to be menacing. It sounds more like the prelude to an 80s R & B ballad than what should be playing when The Prince of Darkness is lurking about. More troubling is the inconsistency in Peter Vincent’s faith. Since it is mentioned quite a bit and is integral to the plot, it should be handled more cleanly.

Despite it being a little long in the fangs, FN is still an entertaining romp. It’s also more important than given credit for being. Along with The Lost Boys, which came out two years later, it helped bring the vampire out of the Victorian era with the fresh out of Transylvania accent and drop him into modern times. It understands that the idea of such a creature terrorizing suburbia is silly without making a mockery of the genre, remaining faithful to much of the monster’s traditional lore. For this, FN is one of my favorite vampire flicks of all time.

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