Fright Night (1985)
Director: Tom Holland
Overall, while definitely dated and featuring one of the most ineffectual and whiny protagonists in vampire movie-dom, Fright Night remains a fun and campy twist on the vampire narrative with a hint of Rear Window suburban horror.
Plus, for those looking for it, it's punctuated with some clearly gay subtext. Hence, I have awarded Fright Night the coveted FRUIT BAT AWARD for excellence in gay horror subtext.
No one believes whiny Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) that his new next door neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire! Dandrige comes and goes at all hours of the night. The beautiful women he brings home end up reported dead on the evening news. He has an uncommon aversion to garlic. Yet no one, not even his chaste girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) or Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), the washed up schlock horror show host, are willing to believe Charley's frantic assertion that JERRY DANDRIGE DRINKS BLOOD! Charley would have more luck convincing people that Dandridge is gay. After all, Dandridge is clearly a man whose appetites and nature are at odds with the norms of society. I mean, Dandrdige is a man of fashion with a wicked manicure who lives alone with another man (his "live-in carpenter"). He reaches out to young boys in alleys by sympathizing with their feelings of otherness and social alienation. Seems pretty obvious. But, no, poor Charley Brewster has to go alienating his friends and family by crying, "Vampire!" Yet, when Dandrige finally comes calling after Brewster gets too nosy, Dandrige reveals just how much of a vamp he really is.
Rating: 4/ 5 "Confirmed Bachelors"
IS IT SILLY?
"You suck, Charley Brewster."
That was the common refrain when I sat down to watch Fright Night with a vampire-loving colleague who had never before seen the film. Intrigued by the rumored casting of former Doctor Who star David Tennant in Roddy McDowell's role, we delved into Fright Night. The experience was a first for her, but a nostalgic trip for me. Fright Night conjures up memories of my first unsupervised boy/girl parties, it was one of my first exposures to gross-out special effects, and it may have been my first introduction to the fantastic Roddy McDowall. I had forgotten, however, how silly the film could be (intentionally and unintentionally).
Take Brewster, for example. His whiny and ineffectual attempts to persuade people to believe Dandridge is a vampire are acted upon in some baffling ways. When Brewster goes to the police to finger Dandrige as the culprit in a series of murders, a lone detective brings Brewster to Dandridge's house to confront him. Does it make a lot of sense for one lone officer to bring the only sole witness of a murder to the house of the accused murderer?
Detective Lennox: "Hey, I've brought over this spastic kid who thinks you're a muderer. Here's the kid's name, and make sure you get a good look at him. Oh, and don't forget he lives across the street pretty much unsupervised at night. Gee, I sure hope you dont' resist arrest because I'm the only cop here and you look really in-shape. Damn, where did I leave my gun?Now that's some fine police work.
Also, is Brewster's brain so addled that he really thinks Peter Vincent, an actor in Hammer-esque vampire films, actually believes in real vampires? By that same logic, should the United States hire Kiefer Sutherland to interrogate terrorist suspects just because he does that on 24? Oh, you're so COOL, Brewster!
Before Professor X forced his mutants to wear
X-themed spandex suits, he used to simply brad them.
But all this silliness tends to roll off the back of the film because it's coated in a fine sheen of camp and a vibe of inexplicable weirdness. Primarily, the character of Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) is the locus of this vibe. His performance -- a nervous, spastic and hard-to-pin-down oddity -- is certainly one of the most beloved performances in this film. His speech pattern, which puts a slightly wrong emphasis on syllables, creates a very subconscious feeling that his boy is just not in sync with the world around him. When Dandridge later turns him, Evil Ed is cranked up to 11.
And he's brilliant playing off of Roddy McDowell as Peter Vincent, who manages to infuse his character with the affectations of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price -- his namesakes -- to be both charming and just campy enough to sell each moment.
The famous club sequence in which Dandridge seduces Amy is also way too 80s to be taken seriously. That music. Those clothes! Too much! (I love it)
SPECIAL AWARD: FRUIT BAT
Despite the above clip in which the film forces a romantic plot between Dandridge and Amy, do not be fooled. This movie is full of gay subtext. Before I give some examples, know that I point these out not to make fun of them. As with all things in life, queerness can be source of humour, but it's not something to be laughed at. In fact, I think this film is BETTER for its gay subtext, intended or not. Click here for a great reading of Fright Night from Postmodern Barney that fully explains the implications of its gay themes without making the film into a joke.
- Dandrige is very close with his live-in minion and doesn't keep women in his life for very long. Every vampire needs a beard.
- Danridge is quite a dandy in his outfits, mannerisms, and penchant for constantly putting fruit in his mouth. (Every second scene has him eating an apple.)
- Evil Ed on Dandridge: "Yeahh...then he'd be able to suck his way through the entire town!"
- Dandridge throws Brewster into a closet.
- Evil Ed expresses his latent sexual feelings toward Brewster: "Kill me. Kill me, Charley... before I turn into a vampire, and... GIVE YOU A HICKEY!"
- Dandridge makes a very physical connection with Evil Ed on the basis of their shared feeling of otherness: "Hello, Edward. You don't have to be afraid of me. I know what it's like being different. Only they won't pick on you anymore... or beat you up. I'll see to that. All you have to do is take my hand."
For infusing the film with interesting gay subtext without turning the movie into a joke, Fright Night truly deserves the Fruit Bat.
IS IT SHOCKING?
It's 1985 and every horror film is obsessed with practical gross-out effects. The art of latex was coming to its peak, and the entire third act of this film is devoted to enough disgusting monster effects (transformations, melting bodies, and vampire creatures) to justify its R rating. While there's little on-screen or graphic violence against humans, a memorable scene involving Evil Ed's death, in which he transforms from a wolf back to his humanoid vampire form, is quite shocking.
Rejected from the BIG BOOK OF BRITISH SMILES
The sequence is placed in the film, which until now had been fairly light in tone and violence (all things considered), to make it clear what Brewster will have to do to Amy if he and Peter cannot reverse her transformation. In no small part due to Roddy McDowell's uncanny ability to make the most odd situation heartfelt with only a change in his expression, the scene is shockingly sad and painful to watch.
Mildly shocking (mostly with gross-out effects) and fully silly, with a strong under-current of gay subtext, Fright Night may not be as scary as I remember it, but it is definitely still a fun popcorn movie regardless of whether the laughs go along with the film or at its expense.