Fright Night

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November 4, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

Just to get it out of the way, there’s no way I could ever write-up anything about Fright Night without betraying the childish glee it inspires in me. Compared to some, I don’t think I watched that many movies as a kid. Certainly not in my very formative years. After all, my family didn’t even own a VCR until I was around eight or nine years old. So my childhood favourites came along a little later than most. Granted it was a few years after that when I first saw Fright Night, but it sure did hit the mark. Scary and funny with just a dash of gore to keep me enthralled. If that weren’t enough, the film also provides me with one of my earliest memories of mammaries on screen, just at a time when I was beginning to realise just how awesome they were. Yes, that’s the sort of stuff that sticks in your mind alright. Still, watching the film for the I-don’t-know-how-many-th time it’s still a load of fun. And it’s not just because boobs are timeless.

In a quick nod to director/writer Tom Holland’s love of old-school horror the film opens with the protagonist, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), making out with his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), whilst a late-night horror show plays on the TV. The host is none other than Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), an obvious twinning of legendary horror icons Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. We can tell from the get-go that Charley is a major horror fanatic and someone who’s known for his wild imagination. With his girlfriend willing to have sex with him he gets distracted by events next door as two men seem to be moving into the old, abandoned house there. That might not be so strange except that it’s nighttime and the first piece of furniture they bring with them is a coffin. As events transpire Charley comes to realise that his next door neighbour, the suave Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is one of the undead and, even worse, the vampire knows that he knows. With Amy and his best friend, ‘Evil’ Ed Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys), quite sure that he’s nuts Charley reaches out to Peter Vincent for help. Though skeptical at first soon everyone comes to see that Charley is right but, at that point, it might be too late.

The real success of the film is the way in which it blends genuine thrills with warm comedy. Combining the two has always been a good tactic, provided you find the correct balancing point between them. After all it only heightens the defeat when, realising that vampires can only enter your home if they’re invited, you find him sipping tea with your mother after she fulfilled her neighbourly duty and asked him over. Sure, if she’d known he was a vampire she probably wouldn’t have but he really seemed like a nice man. Actually Charley spends a lot of the film stumbling over the problem that Mr. Dandrige just seems like a swell guy. Elsewhere, as the vampire makes a move on Charley’s life, he’s interrupted by Charley’s mom. It seems that mixing social visits and monstrous horror can be such a chore. By and large the film keeps its pace and tension pitched just about right. Initially we wonder if Dandrige is a vampire. When it’s revealed that he is, the problem is that only Charley knows it and no one else. Once everyone becomes privy to that piece of knowledge we’re into the final third and a race against time to stop Dandrige before he destroys everything Charley values. Of course by that point the vampire has assembled a few allies.

There’s little room for interpretation here. The film follows a basic format and inserts all the tropes of its time. For better or for worse it very much is what it is. The synthesised ’80s soundtrack fits in well with proceedings and various other touches of the decade, particularly the garish colours of the clothes as they catch the nightclub lights during one scene, can’t help but make me smile. Elsewhere, twinning with grander pop culture knowledge, Amanda Bearse’s presence is all the more bizarre. She made her name as the prim, uptight neighbour in TV’s Married With Children but here she’s supposedly a high-schooler (a 27 year old one?) and the love interest. It’s a weird clash of cultural information and it really just makes the role all the more endearing. Importantly for the film’s tone the special effects really do deliver. Granted they’re heavily indebted to John Landis’ landmark An American Werewolf in London but they still impress in their own right. The comedy may take centre-stage but when characters face off against each other blood, viscera and various other forms of goop flow freely.

Using all the old school effects of the day—puppets, stop-motion, super-imposition and various other forms of trick photography—the monsters here have an immediacy and physicality that unfortunately has been largely lost in today’s world of computer generated imagery. I know it sounds somewhat curmudgeonly but, as film looks best as a physical celluloid strip flickering past a light source, special effects look best with a genuine physical presence of their own. It just seems to fit more appropriately with the artisan quality of assembling motion pictures. I’m not against CGI as a tool but it’s certainly become a crutch for many directors and a financial short-cut for producers. Here things are as they should be with flames, gore, transformations and prosthetics all being put to full use. The result is a pleasure with Evil’s werewolf transformation, picking clean the imaginative bones of Landis’ film, being a real standout as fear lapses into violence and finally resolves in a plausible stroke of drama.

So that’s Fright Night. Although it can’t be the same as it was when I was younger it still provides an awful lot of enjoyment. Sure things seem a little different now. How could they not when you realise ‘Evil’ Ed Thompson went into gay porn? Nonetheless the comedy and the heart of the film still stands up as do the special effects. There’s little else you could ask for; while plenty of other films from that era seem cheesy now Fright Night remains impressively unscathed because it’s quite clear it’s aware of its place on the ever-growing continuum of horror films. It’s made for fans and casual viewers alike and it hits the mark just right. And it has boobs.

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