VHS Revival sinks its teeth into Tom Holland’s devilish antidote to the slasher sub-genre
The best stories are often the simplest. They just seem to flow and are usually character driven. “I started to kick around the idea about how hilarious it would be if a horror movie fan thought that a vampire was living next door to him,” director Tom Holland told TV Store Online when asked about his cult vampire comedy Fright Night. It took Holland just three weeks to write the screenplay and he admits to laughing the whole way through. “There’s something so intrinsically humorous in the basic concept,” he said, a declaration that is difficult to refute.
Fright Night may not have the comic book appeal of The Lost Boys, but as a genre movie it is much more skilfully defined, beginning with one of, if not THE most memorable posters of the entire decade (isn’t it just beautiful?). Don’t get me wrong, I too am a fan of Joel Schumacher’s brightly coloured cultural phenomenon, but for me it treads a unique line between horror and comedy without ever really excelling at either. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I enjoy The Lost Boys more as a pop culture experience that evokes the kind of big-haired, neon nostalgia that defined the era for a generation. When it scares it scares, particularly when Kiefer Sutherland is onscreen, and its woozy, new wave fantasy makes for quite the heady delight.
This was all new territory for a razor-toothed sub-genre that has been around for as long as cinema has existed, and it didn’t stop there. The vampire genre as a whole experienced its most significant makeover during the 1980s, dealing with addiction (The Hunger), romanticism (Near Dark) and even venturing into space for Tobe Hooper’s wildly enigmatic pulp novel adaptation Lifeforce, which delivered a thematic upgrade on the sub-genre in a manner that only the infamous Cannon Group could. Fright Night (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987) were similar in the sense that they both dealt with teenagers who stumble upon the existence of vampires. Both have a suburban setting and both feature wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing antagonists who do their hunting under the guise of 20th century life. These were all vampires for a postmodern world who revived an antiquated genre that clearly had much more to give.
Though Fright Night and The Lost Boys share certain similarities, they are ultimately very different movies. Asides from the vaguely Gothic fashion, The Lost Boys mostly distances itself from the genre traditions of yore (though, like Fright Night before it, it does have fun identifying which of the fabled vampire repellents work and which don’t). Fright Night pays more of a direct homage, lovingly sending up the classic conception of the vampire and the stake-wielding pursuers synonymous with the golden age. Key to its success is the performance of Roddy McDowell as a thespian ham who made his name slaying onscreen vamps, 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 Horror’s most famous actors in Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, he imitates their performances to an overstated tee, his particular style as dead to the mid-1980s as a dust-coated mummy in a desert-bound trailer.
Initially, the role was intended for Price himself, but McDowell was reluctant to simply parody the bygone legend, which is why he decided to portray Vincent as a terrible actor. This decision is key to the character’s appeal as a worn-out phoney forced into a moral transition at a time when an overabundance of nihilistic slashers have made him obsolete. When Vincent is first confronted by his future 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 hockey 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 brazenly accepting $500 from a pair 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, 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. Initially, Sarandon wasn’t keen on appearing in a horror movie, and who could blame him? The sheer quantity of second-rate sleaze sluicing its way into theatres and clogging the rental shelves during the mid-1980s was enough to dissuade any self-respecting actor; one false move in an industry that was far less regulated in the latter part of the 20th century and it’s bye-bye Hollywood. After reluctantly reading Holland’s “amazing” screenplay, the in-demand actor would have a change of heart, however, and we should count ourselves lucky that he did. Sarandon is a revelation as Dandridge, irresistibly dashing and sublimely sadistic, stalking his victims via cinematographer Jan Kiesser’s omnipotent, high-angle shots and appearing everywhere at once, as elusive as the smoke which haunts the town’s alleyways and just as convincing to the imagination.
Beneath his suave exterior, Dandridge is also devastatingly brutal, cutting a fearsome figure both before and after transformation, as Ghostbusters special effects maestro Richard Edlund delivers some of his best work, creating a series of transformations that are both genuinely gruesome and utterly self-knowing. Sarandon is also reserved for the most part, refusing to overwhelm proceedings the way a lesser hand may have. This is key to a movie in which the antagonist remains largely concealed, and Dandridge is not one for opulent displays of savagery. Instead, his evil is casual, his feasting effortless, and a seething synth score from The Terminator‘s Brad Fiedel encapsulates his sensual modern-man-with-carnal-tastes quite exquisitely. A nightclub dance with the film’s love interest shows Sarandon at his most ostentatiously debonair, his gentle, yet oppressive recruitment of the movie’s geeky loner Evil Ed allowing the youngster to step out of the shadows and into the darkness.
Much like Vincent, what makes Jerry such a distinctive character is the era in which he finds himself, 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 brazenly claims as many victims as he desires, confident that knife-wielding psychos are the suspects of the day. When Vincent gives Dandridge some fake holy water to drink, our supercilious vamp downs the liquid with a gleeful relish, chortling sadistically after kissing Amy’s hand and performing his best Vincent Price impression. After all, that’s what vampires are supposed to do.
McDowall and Sarandon prove the movie’s key players, but there is stellar work from top to bottom, from William Ragsdale’s pale-faced protagonist to his long-suffering sweetheart, Amy (Amanda Bearse), her transformation from high school frump to sultry vampiress really quite staggering. A young Stephen Geoffreys puts in a typically enigmatic performance as the aforementioned Evil, who is finally given the platform to live up to his unfortunate moniker by becoming Dandridge’s obsequious and devilishly wicked minion, while Jonathan Stark emits a queerly aloof smattering of inhumanity as Dandridge’s trusted helper, Billy Cole. Dorothy Fielding is also a hoot as Brewster’s lovelorn mother, receiving her dashing neighbour with one hand and waving away her son’s barely registered ravings with the other. For a teenage boy, there’s nothing worse than being publicly patronised by a parent, particularly when there’s a bloodsucking monster grinning through his teeth over her shoulder.
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 this 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 quickly 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 Jerry’s undead abode with his case of Dracula props, where he soon realises that true faith is required if he is to free Amy from Dandridge’s 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 our washed-up actor is the only one even half qualified to rectify that. A scary thought indeed.
Fright Night was an immediate critical and financial success and would fare just as well in the rental market a year later. It’s no surprise. Tom Holland has always been a writer/director of immense wit and intelligence, as movies such as the vastly underappreciated Psycho II and franchise monster Child’s Play will attest. He understands what makes an audience tick, with a particular talent for toying with expectation, and Fright Night taps into the consciousness of 80s suburban America with typical aplomb. Even the The Lost Boys, which essentially plays around with the same premise, substituting neighbour for brother, fails to relate to its audience on such a fundamental level, an over-reliance on style often substituting for characterisation. As a pop culture vehicle that evokes nostalgia, it does a much more effective job, and would fare significantly better at the box office as a result, but while its sense of rapport is in many ways superficial, with a larger focus on fashion and music and popular MTV aesthetics, Fright Night breaks tradition by relying on it. It appeals to our love of the genre and as a result the ironies come quite naturally, making our knowledge essential to the movie’s power.
This was a refreshing departure for a genre dominated by marquee killers and mindless frat house slaughter. Two decade’s of free love and self-discovery came crashing to an end when Reagan’s America rolled up its sleeves with a return to family values and the infamous War on Drugs, and a generation of skimpily-clad actors would pay the fictional price. Fright Night was an affront to such cynicism, returning to an era when horror was a fantastical nightmare, not a real-life atrocity waiting to happen, and it did so in a way that appealed to a generation who were unattuned to such flights of fancy. Ultimately, it made horror fun again.
Despite the dominance of the likes of Fred Krueger and Jason Voorhees, the 1980s produced some unique and much-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 future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow put her own inimitable spin on the genre with the devastatingly bleak neo-western Near Dark. Of those three, 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 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.