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Non-Review Review: Fright Night (1985)

I have a soft spot for the original Fight Night. It feels like an affectionate slice of pulp nostalgia, harking back to a simpler time in cinematic horror. It rejects the growth and expansion of the slasher subgenre to focus on the original celluloid monster. As a result, Fright Night offers a conventional vampire story, told in a decidedly unconventional manner. While it is occasionally just a little bit too cheesy and too dated for its own good, it’s hard not to enjoy the conscious callbacks to an older time.

Don’t cross him…

Tom Holland’s original film is full of gloriously campy old-school touches, feeling almost like a classic Hammer or Universal horror dragged into the eighties. Our villain, Jerry the vampire, seems like a walking dry ice machine. When Charlie stabs him through the hand with a pen, he doesn’t just recoil – he literally spins away from the young boy. Characters are prone to make dramatic entrances and exits, with the set design looking like something from a vintage studio piece.

None of this, of course, is inherently bad. It just means that the film has to be looked in a particular way. This is, after all, cheesy and campy horror, but it’s lovingly crafted cheesy and campy horror. Those looking for a more serious or a grittier horror might be better served to look elsewhere. Those who can embrace, and even relish, those old studio-bound horrors will be in for a treat. The production design – including the make-up and special effects – are still impressive.

A Jerry modern vampire…

In particular, Fright Night’s vampires look brilliantly disturbing, with their freaky and messed-up dental work. There’s lots of pea soup and skeletons on display, but that’s very clearly the style that Holland is looking to emulate. In fact, Fright Night feels like a conscious rejection of the trends in horror at the time, trends arguably still in play. Peter Vincent, a washed-up classic movie star, laments that he has been discarded by a modern culture that doesn’t care for classic horror. He confesses to Charlie, “I have just been fired because nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore, or vampires either. Apparently all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins. “

As such, Fright Night feels like an affectionate throwback to an older style of horror film. Although Jerry might not be the most exotic name for a creature of the night, he is very much a classic vampire. He sleeps in a coffin filled with what I presume to be his home soil. He is afraid of crucifixes and holy water. He can’t enter a house uninvited. He’s injured by sunlight. Asked by Charlie how he knows the way to fight Jerry, Vincent explains, “So far, everything has been just like the movies.”

Vamping it up…

Indeed, as played by Roddie McDowell, Peter Vincent is the heart of Fright Night. Recalling the sad fate of Bela Legusi, the former icon who found himself a washed-up and broke junkie appearing in Ed Wood films, Vincent is the host of a trashy horror anthology show, so bored by his surroundings that he can’t even bother to point the stake the right way, and so desperate for cash he’d take five-hundred dollars from a kid. Living in a small apartment surrounded by movie memorabilia, posters and even portraits, it’s hard not feel sad for Vincent. The film almost feels like a tribute to those aging horror and pulp icons like the character, ones cast aside for cheap thrills and gratuitous violence.

That said, Vincent isn’t the only fascinating aspect of Fright Night. It’s also an interesting exploration of the classic vampire formula, rather cleverly updating it to the eighties. The movie dares to suggest that vampires might have slipped from the cultural consciousness because they arguably don’t seem so strange anymore. After all, the idea of a person only coming out at night doesn’t seem supernatural in the era of the night-shift. Stephen King rather cleverly argued in Danse Macabre that Bram Stoker’s Draculawas a subversion of Victorian sexual morality, and it’s quite easy to argue that such a portrayal was hardly subversive by the mid-eighties.

You gotta have faith-a, faith-a, faith-ah….

Jerry feeds on prostitutes, but he doesn’t need to prowl the streets to do it like some Victorian serial killer. Instead, he can order out for them, like take-away food. He lives with his man-servant Gary, the true nature of which is never really revealed. In Victorian times, two unrelated men living together might have raised eyebrows, but not during the eighties. Jerry is even able to use political correctness to fend off the usual threats to vampires. You can’t confront him with a crucifix because he claims to be a born-again Christian and to present him with that piece of iconography is just politically incorrect.

The vampire’s bite is arguably little more than a hicky which draws blood. The eighties are so liberated sexually that Jerry is practically able to feed on young Amy in the middle of a dance floor with any number of increasingly lewd dance moves, from the bump-and-grind to reaching under her skirt. As such, the film seems to suggest, perhaps the sort of activities we used to demonise as supernatural or otherworldly have now been normalised. The vampire wasn’t so much vanquished from the collection subconscious so much as its distinctly sexual core gradually became more socially acceptable.

The Fright stuff…

Chris Sarandon has a great time as Jerry, wonderfully chewing the scenery and presenting us with a type of suburban self-aware monster that we rarely see. Talking to the young Evil Ed, Jerry makes a convincing argument that vampires are very much an appealing counter-cultural figure, somewhat foreshadowing the whole goth movement and even the emergence of vampire protagonists. He seems to be tempting the young boy, convincing him that maybe this is the time to be a vampire. “I know what it’s like being different. They won’t pick on you any more. Or beat you up. I’ll see to that.” It’s a very thoughtful take on these creatures.

That said, the film does have its flaws. The three central kids are nowhere near as skilled as Roddy McDowell or Chris Sarandon, who seem to slide into their roles with ease. Some of the problems might be the awkward dialogue, which is brimming with eighties teen expressions and the opening even features some gratuitous teen angst. (Did she really need to slap that burger in his face?) As an interesting side-note, it is a little shocking that actor Stephen Geoffreys, who played Evil Ed here, apparently ended up appearing in a series of hardcore pornography movies.

My, what a nice smile you have…

Brad Fiedel’s score is occasionally a little overwhelming in the way that eighties soundtracks are, but Tom Holland’s direction is confident. I especially like an effective sequence where Jerry stalks an eighties discotheque, his form not casting a reflection in many of the mirrors around the place. It’s just one of several nice and small touches that work really well, demonstrating that Holland clearly had a passion for the film.

I think Fright Night is, deservingly, an eighties classic, and I think it’s a great film for fans of classic horror – those fonder of Universal or Hammer horror than of the endless parade of slasher films that followed. It’s smart and funny and silly, if occasionally a little too silly, or a little too awkward. It’s certainly well worth a look for any horror film aficionados out there.

2 Responses

  1. Always A Personal Favorite, Fo SHO, Sir.
    Nifty Review! 🙂

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