MTV Geek LOVES Halloween — so we’ve decided to share our fave frightful movies, TV shows, comics, and books with you all month long!
Writer-director Tom Holland’s Rear Window-meets suburban vampires movie was a surprise hit for studio Columbia pictures back in 1985. But really, the formula of sexually frustrated teen (William Ragsdale) + charismatic, handsome vampire (Chris Sarandon) + a shock of gore and some terrific practical effects should be an easy sell anytime.
But let’s look at this 1985 horror film which did postmodernism earlier than Scream (and better, in my opinion), with one of Roddy McDowell’s finest roles as the neighborhood goes to hell when vampire Jerry Dandridge moves in next door.
Fright Night was the first directing gig for Child’s Play and Thinner writer (and sometime actor) Tom Holland. Before that, he’d worked for several years to get his foot in the door in Hollywood, landing a TV movie assignment before bringing The Beast Within to the screen under director Philippe Mora. That 1982 film featured a troubled teen starting to resemble his real, monstrous rapist father while visiting a small Southern town. A failure theatrically, Mora was still able to get some unsettling effect from his southern-fried nightmare of woman-monster miscegenation (I bet if The Beast Within had been released even five years earlier, it might have been a success with the drive-in set).
With Fright Night, Holland traded on secrets and lies down in the Dixie for fear, suspicion, and bloodsuckers in the suburbs with Fright Night, an ode to his beloved vampire movies. But instead of a vampire stalking the streets of London, preying on the hoop skirt set, Holland made his Jerry Dandridge an urban transplant, using the city as his stalking place and his suburban house as a feeding ground (remove the supernatural bits and Fright Night would still be a fascinating serial killer story).
As Dandridge, Sarandon (Child’s Play, The Princess Bride) brings an easy charm to the role: Jerry’s always flirting, always trying to make an impression, even as a vampire it’s probably a good idea to remain a little more under the radar. Unfortunately, Jerry’s moved in next door to high school student Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale), and unfortunately for Jerry, Charlie’s a sexually frustrated teen with a horror obsession and too much time and curiosity on his hands.
One great things about Fright Night is the contrast between Charlie and Jerry–minus the fangs, Jerry is who Charlie wants to be, while early on, Jerry’s happy to let bygones be bygones with the nosy neighbor. The increasingly dangerous interplay between the two works so well because underneath everything, Jerry sees Charlie and understands what makes him tick–his smartest move in the final act is kidnapping and turning Charlie’s girlfriend, Amy (a young Amanda Bearse) along with Charlie’s best friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys).
But the real treat here is Roddy McDowell as TV horror movie host Peter Vincent (named for Vincent Price and Peter Cushing). A faded, pompous former actor an inflated sense of self-worth, Peter is unwillingly dragged into Charlie’s nightmare, and maybe one of the greatest scenes of the entire entire movie is Peter’s accidental discovery–thanks to a tiny, broken mirror–that vampires are real. McDowell sells the character’s later bravery by keeping a thread of pragmatism and outright cowardice throughout–he’s not in it to be a hero, but at the same time he might be able to save himself and this kid who’s being menaced by a real-life monster. This is a career best for McDowell, who was, like his character, not at the height of his profession, but was able to turn that into a fantastic comic performance inside the thriller.
Fright Night was followed up by a sequel in 1988 under Halloween II writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace, bringing back Ragsdale and McDowell and switching the setting to a college. That movie dealt with illusion and trickery as another vampire targets Charlie while Peter becomes the one attempting to convince everyone that a real vampire is stalking the city. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but if I recall, it’s a little looser than its predecessor and lacked a compelling relationship between Charlie and the vampire out to get him. Still, it was more of a misfire than outright failure and is worth it at least for the visual of an asexual vampire stalking a co-ed on roller skates.
Seeing Fright Night is pretty easy with the 1999 DVD readily in print along with the 2008 double-pack that paired the movie with Urban Legends. Columbia/Sony don’t seem interested in giving the movie a digital polish or a full-fledged release with special features (which was kind of a surprise in the wake of the remake). Indie label Twilight Time put out a limited edition Blu-ray earlier this year with a 3,000 copy run, but good luck getting one of those–the originally $30 disc will run you anywhere from $150-$250 on eBay.
Sadly, Fright Night 2 appears to be in limbo in terms of either a disc-based or digital release, which is a shame: while the follow-up is fairly flawed and absent the creepy chemistry of the original, it’s still a fascinating inversion of the first movie’s formula with some genuinely interesting visual hooks.