VHS Revival Revisits Tom Holland’s hilarious antidote to the slasher sub-genre.
Fright Night may not have the cult appeal of The Lost Boys, but as a genre movie it is more skillfully defined.
Not only are its scares scarier, its laughs are louder, buoyed by a dose of wry social commentary which pays homage to the outmoded genre staples it so lovingly sends up.
Key to its success is the performance of Roddy McDowell as a thespian ham who made his name slaying onscreen vampires, and who now presents his movies to an ever dwindling audience on late night horror show Fright Night. Not only does Peter Vincent share the names of two of Hammer Horror’s most famous actors in Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, he imitates their performances to an overstated tee, his particular style as dead to the mid-1980’s as a dust-coated mummy in a desert-bound trailer. Vincent basks in the illusion of his onscreen heroism, but when troubled teenager Charlie Brewster turns up at his workplace claiming the existence of a real life vampire, we are introduced to a very different character than the one he portrays.
What Fright Night does is reinvent a genre lost in the overabundance of nihilistic slashers populating the period. When Peter Vincent is first confronted by his soon-to-be partner in vampire slaying he has just received the boot, attributing his misfortunes to the cynical tastes of ’80s kids, who would rather see madmen in masks stalking drunken teens than anything he brings to the table. The irony is, he fails to practice what he preaches. Not only does Vincent not believe in vampires, he is a self-aggrandising coward devoid of ethics, sighing at the prospect of autographs he was never asked for and accepting $500 from a couple of broke teenagers looking to trick Brewster into accepting that vampires do not exist.
Peter Vincent – 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.
The problem is, they do exist. Not only do they exist, but one is living next door to Charlie in the form of Chris Sarandon‘s toothy suburbanite, Jerry Dandridge, a mysterious, night-bound individual who appears just as mutilated bodies begin popping up all over town. After seeing Dandridge and his helper seemingly disposing of a female corpse, the youngster is convinced of his new neighbour’s guilt, but his claims prove uninteresting to everyone but the vamp himself, who immediately charms an invitation out of Charlie’s single mother, sidestepping the rule that vampires have to be invited into the home before they can become a threat to those who reside there. Mrs Dandridge is the kind of woman who feels all of her son’s problems can be solved with cocoa and marshmallows, while a desperate desire for a man makes her putty in Jerry’s elongated palm.
Sarandon is a revelation as Dandridge, irresistibly dashing and sublimely sadistic, stalking his victims via Holland’s omnipotent, high-angle shots and appearing everywhere at once, as elusive as the smoke which haunts the town’s alleyways and in some cases taking the exact same form. Beneath his suave exterior, he is also blunt and devastatingly brutal, cutting a fearsome figure both before and after transformation as special effects maestro Richard Edlund delivers some of his best work, creating practical effects that are gruesome enough to appeal to the movie’s modern audience, while maintaining enough of the schlocky appeal synonymous with the bygone era it pays homage to. The Terminator’s Brad Fiedel also adds his inimitable touch to the movie’s towering antagonist with a smouldering, guitar-heavy theme.
What makes Jerry such a truly unique character is the era he finds himself in, and the smug casualty he exudes while embracing it. Dandridge is as cocksure as they come, safe in the knowledge that vampires have long since become passé. Not only do people not believe in them, they are no longer a part of society’s consciousness, and his ’80s incarnation can brazenly strut around claiming as many victims as he desires, confident that knife-wielding psychos are the suspects of the day. When Peter Vincent gives Dandridge some fake holy water to drink, our supercilious vamp downs the liquid with a gleeful relish, chortling sadistically after kissing Brewster’s girlfriend’s hand and performing his best Christopher Lee impression. After all, that’s what vampires are supposed to do.
Fright Night is one of those unexpected movies where everything meshes so well that it exceeds all expectations, outshining its high-profile competition with a prodigious balance of wit and horror, approaching its subject with the kind of effortless panache one rarely sees. McDowall and Sarandon prove the movie’s key players, but this is stellar work from top to bottom, from William Ragsdale’s pale-faced protagonist to his long-suffering sweetheart, Amy, whose transformation from high school frump to sultry vampiress is really quite staggering. There is also a fine performance from an exceedingly young Stephen Geoffreys, whose personality is allowed to flourish when he is turned into a freakish minion, suddenly mad with power after years of schoolyard bullying.
Jerry Dandridge [after kissing Amy’s hand and saying ‘charmed’] Isn’t that what vampires are supposed to do, Charlie?
With an insouciance that is hard to resist, the slick and socially adjusted Dandridge almost has everyone believing Charlie’s insanity, but when Vincent drops his vanity mirror after finding no reflection for the supposed creature of the night, Dandridge turns up the heat, a move hastened by the fact that Amy bears a striking resemblance to a woman he knew many years ago and who he sets about enslaving. Initially, the not-so-fearless vampire killer shows his true colours by fleeing the scene, but when the newly turned Evil is sent to dispose of him, Vincent has no choice but to call on the knowledge and instincts of the character he has for so long portrayed, returning to the Dandridge abode with his case of Dracula repellents, where he soon realises that true faith is required if he is to overcome the head vampire and free Amy from his hypnotic grip.
It is this irony that makes us get so firmly behind the Vincent character. We can laugh at his flamboyant pretence. We can marvel at his physical cowardice and sham persona, but beneath it all we know this is a good man facing unprecedented odds, and as an audience we love nothing more than an underdog, especially those who begin without a heroic bone in their body. This isn’t Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. This is a washed-up fraud facing an altogether real threat, a bona fide Nosferatu who prefers the comfort and convenience of suburbia to the faraway castle. This monster does not reside in a mythical land, he is right on Vincent’s doorstep, and he is the only one even half qualified to rectify that.
In spite of the dominance of the likes of Krueger and Voorhees, the 1980’s produced some unique and well-loved vampire flicks, movies that will go down as some of the most memorable in the entire genre. The Lost Boys will invariably prove the cult favourite, while a young Kathryn Bigelow gave us the darkly distinctive and devastatingly bleak Near Dark that very same year. Of those three movies, Fright Night is perhaps the least lauded, and for the life of me I can’t imagine why. It may not have the star power of Joel Schumacher‘s brat pack-laden extravaganza, or the seminal qualities of the stylish and emotionally barren Near Dark, but as a genre piece it is a near perfect production, and one of the most satisfying low-key treats of the decade.