VHS Revival sinks its teeth into a traditional vampire homage with 80s sensibilities
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 would explain while discussing 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.
It’s amazing to think that Fright Night was Holland’s debut film. It’s all so clever and assured, educated in the practices and traditions of the horror genre and alive with subtle comedic flourishes. Holland was a screenwriter best known for 1982’s ridiculous, effects-heavy transformation horror The Beast Within and future Commando director Mark L. Lester’s well constructed action thriller Class of 1984, but it was his work on Psycho II, a movie that subverted expectation and silenced naysayers appalled at the prospect of a Hitchcock sequel, that convinced Columbia Pictures to hire him as director. In 1988, Holland would co-pen and direct another devilishly humourous horror movie in Child’s Play, a franchise-spinning smash with a concept and character that are still going strong today, a testament to Holland’s skill and intelligence as both a writer and a filmmaker.
Fright Night is all about its inspired concept and the characters who fulfil it. It may not have the comic book appeal of something like The Lost Boys, a somewhat similar take on the vampire genre that horror fans often compare it to, but as a genre movie it is much more skilfully defined, beginning with one of, if not THE most memorable poster of the entire decade (isn’t it just beautiful?). Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Joel Schumacher’s brightly coloured cultural phenomenon, a film so universally loved it’s obviously doing something right, but it treads a unique line between horror and comedy without ever really excelling at either. It works as a pop culture experience that evokes the kind of big-haired, neon nostalgia that defined the era for a generation, and when it scares it scares, particularly when Kiefer Sutherland is onscreen, its woozy, new wave fantasy an intoxicating delight.
Fright Night is a very different animal. Both movies introduce antiquated monsters to modern suburban areas, but asides from the vaguely Gothic fashion ― a slight variation on the popular new romantic stylings of the day ― The Lost Boys mostly distances itself from the aesthetic traditions of yore, going directly for the MTV jugular. It has fun identifying which of the fabled vampire repellents work and which don’t, but it’s very much of its time, which is presumably why it fared better at the box office, managing $32,200,000 to Fright Night‘s $24,900,000. Fright Night is something of a dichotomy. This is still 80s America, an era of serial killers and masked villains, but the film pays a direct homage to the traditions of yore, lovingly sending up classic vampire tropes and the stake-wielding pursuers synonymous with the genre’s golden age. It embraces convention in order to subvert it, and does so with dazzling aplomb.
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.Peter Vincent
Fright Night also provides a razor-sharp commentary on horror movie censorship. Protagonist Charley Brewster, a horror obsessive with an overactive imagination, is representative of the hysterical fears of parents’ groups, critics and the mainstream media, who in the early 1980s damned a new wave of suburban horror that was much more relatable than supernatural tales of monsters and faraway castles, and as a result deemed more dangerous and corruptive. When Charley first suspects that a vampire has moved into the house next door (seeing the owners carrying a coffin while moving in the dead of night will do that to you), his mom, his girlfriend, his best friend, even we the audience think that he’s crazy, his brain rotten from watching too many horror films. It’s the perfect scenario for a centuries-old predator who is nothing if not adaptable.
As memorable as Kiefer Sutherland is in The Lost Boys, he can’t hold a Gothic candle to Chris Sarandon’s toothy suburbanite, Jerry Dandrige, 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. He hadn’t starred in one since 1977’s The Sentinel, his only previous flirtation with the genre, and the sheer quantity of second-rate productions bleeding out during the home video boom was enough for any self-respecting actor to err on the side of caution, the genre carrying something of a stigma in an era of slasher hegemony and video nasty hysteria. Sarandon, a respected stage and screen actor and Academy Award Nominee (Dog Day Afternoon), began to warm to the project after reluctantly reading Holland’s “amazing” screenplay, but was still concerned about the rookie filmmaker’s ability to effectively translate the material, even demanding a shot-by-shot rundown of his vision. Sarandon, impressed with Holland’s understanding of the concept, eventually had a change of heart. We should count ourselves lucky that he did.
Sarandon is a revelation as Dandrige, 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. What makes Jerry such a distinctive character is the era in which he finds himself and the smug casualty he exudes while embracing it. Dandrige is as cocksure as they come, safe in the knowledge that vampires have long-since become passé. Not only do people not believe in vampires, they’re no longer a part of society’s consciousness, which allows his 80s incarnation to brazenly claim as many victims as he desires, confident that knife-wielding psychos are the suspects of the day.
For someone who almost turned down the genre outright, Sarandon embraces the film’s delicious sense of humour absolutely. Like co-star and fictional nemesis Roddy McDowall, the movie’s other standout performer, the character he forges is absolutely key to the film’s effectiveness, playing with vampire traditions, juxtaposing them with modern attitudes, aloof to a species who are little more than cattle with evolved sensibilities, the kind that play right into his malformed hands. Dandrige is incredibly cautious, well-schooled in the art of modern-day seduction and murder, but after Brewster spots him preparing to take a bite out of an unsuspecting victim, confirming all his worst fears, he takes great delight in flaunting his real identity, a hyper-suave sadism that Sarandon absolutely relishes in.
Once his secret is out, Dandrige is always one step ahead of the game. As a centuries-old creature, he’s no doubt faced like-for-like situations countless times before, and he knows exactly what moves to make, so confident in his infallibility that he clearly savours the chase, a fact punctuated when, having breached the Brewster homestead, he casually whistles ‘Strangers in the Night’ while flippantly seeking out his teenage victim, one of many inspired comic touches that set Holland’s exquisitely droll vamp tribute apart. Dandrige is so arrogant it’s impossible not to like him, delivering cute double entendres while the oblivious smile and fawn unknowingly. Anyone who’s even slightly familiar with vampire folklore will know that vampires are unable to enter a premises without being invited first, but that doesn’t stop Dandrige. “What’s the matter, Charley? Afraid I’d never come over without being invited first?” He asks Brewster after his mother, a singleton smitten with her new neighbour’s dashing good looks, inevitably invites him over for a drink. “You’re right. You’re quite right,” he goads. “Of course, now that I’ve been made welcome, I’ll probably drop by quite a bit. In fact, anytime I feel like it.” After that, it’s open season.
What makes affairs even more amusing, and the film more effective as a whole, is that Dandrige is so obviously a vampire. People just don’t want to see it. Despite his modern appearance, he has all the classic accessories and mannerisms, exhibits the same habits and behaviour. Instead of a cloak, he wears a stylish overcoat in a way that’s distinctly vamp. After creeping into the Brewster homestead in the early hours, he exits Charley’s wardrobe as if emerging from a coffin. Dandrige’s house may appear like your typical 80s home from the outside, but inside it’s a different story: the giant stained glass windows drip with iconography, grandfather clocks cover the walls as a deterrent to avoid sunlight, there are elaborate candleholders everywhere, and, of course, there isn’t a mirror in sight. It’s deliciously subtle, but plain as day if you’re looking for it. It speaks to the sense of denial intrinsic to the human condition, as well as the commercial obsolescence of vampires in an 80s climate, that the town detective, paying Dandrige a visit at the insistence of a seemingly delusional Brewster, fails to pick up on any of it.
Lieutenant, please, please listen to me. Jerry Dandrige is a vampire.Charley Brewster
Despite such a strong element of comedy ― and Fright Night is one of the smartest, most effective horror comedies out there ― the movie scares where it counts, mostly thanks to some rather monstrous practical effects from some of the industry’s most respected artists. Having just wrapped on another supernatural comedy, Ivan Reitman’s effects-heavy cultural phenomenon, Ghostbusters, visual effects producer Richard Edlund and creature designers Steve Johnson and Randall William Cook worked closely with Holland, even precipitating rewrites and tweaks in direction in order to attain maximum effect from a visual perspective, something the director was not only open to, but encouraged.
Beneath his suave exterior, Dandrige is devastatingly brutal, a fearsome figure thanks in large part to a series of gradually revealing transformations which, like the rest of the movie, are both distinctly 80s and grounded in tradition, with fountains of neon goo, demonic disfigurations, gruesome bats and an eye-watering scene in which Stephen Geoffreys’ recently enslaved Evil Ed is staked through the heart, a surprisingly emotional digression that required the actor to endure 18 hours of full-body makeup application. Having worked on both John Landis’ Oscar-winning An American Werewolf in London and Joe Dante’s The Howling, Edlund was determined to outdo both in a scene that sees Ed gradually revert from a fully formed werewolf to his original human form. It’s an excruciating experience, one made even more effective by the fact that Edlund accidentally glued Geoffreys’ eyes and mouth, mistaking the substance for a thickening agent known as methicil. It’s no wonder the young star was able to project such palpable physical pain.
The person responsible for taking out Evil Ed’s distinctly Gothic beast isn’t brave, noble or strong. Despite his onscreen reputation as a ‘fearless vampire killer’, Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent couldn’t be any different in reality. Something of a commercial relic, he presents his movies to an ever-dwindling audience on late night horror show ‘Fright Night’, struggling to communicate with modern fans with less than traditional tastes. 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. Like horror icon Bela Lugosi, a Golden Age Dracula portrayer who was famously laughed off stage prior to his death in 1956, Vincent’s particular style is as dead to the mid-1980s as a dust-coated mummy in a desert-bound trailer.
The role of Vincent was originally 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. The 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’s just received the boot, attributing his misfortunes to the cynical tastes of 80s kids, who’d 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’s 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. Vincent is the polar opposite of Dandrige: cynical, lacking faith and self-confidence, completely at odds with his environment and bereft of adaptive powers. In a spiritual sense, Vincent is the real walking dead.
Despite his supposed experience with all things Nosferatu, Vincent is so out of his element when faced with a genuine creature of the night, a fact not helped by his all-out dismissiveness and original intention to scam Brewster for the sake of a quick buck. When he calls Dandrige to set up a scenario to prove to Brewster that he isn’t a vampire, Dandrige slickly informs him that no crosses or holy water are permitted due to his status as a born-again Christian, a suspicious excuse that he swallows unblinkingly. When he first meets Dandrige, dressed to the hilt in his campy onscreen costume, the supercilious vamp not only claims to have seen all his movies, he sarcastically admits to finding them very amusing. When Vincent gives Dandrige some fake holy water to drink in a sham display of his supposed innocence, he downs the liquid with a gleeful relish, chortling sadistically after kissing Amy’s hand and performing his best Dracula impression. After all, that’s what vampires are supposed to do.
McDowall and Sarandon prove the movie’s key players, but there’s stellar work from top to bottom. William Ragsdale is pitch-perfect as the film’s pale-faced protagonist, a good-hearted kid faced with a dilemma to end all dilemmas. The fact that his dead-on detective work is made impotent by the stigma of modern horror movies is also key to the film’s sense of comedy. Amanda Bearse is just as endearing as the archetypal virgin struggling with the prospect of sexual maturity, Charley’s distracted libido giving way to Sarandon’s sensual modern-man-with-carnal-tastes, a quandary beautifully captured during the film’s iconic and highly sexualised night club scene. Amy’s transformation from high school frump to sultry vampiress is really quite staggering. Geoffreys also delivers a typically enigmatic performance as Evil, a teenage outcast who’s finally allowed the chance to live up to his unfortunate moniker by becoming Dandrige’s wicked minion. Ed is the perfect prey for Jerry’s powers of persuasion, a pawn in his multifaceted assault. In a 20th century climate, teenage alienation is a bloodsucker’s bread and butter.
Jonathan Stark stands tall with even less screen time, emitting a queerly aloof smattering of inhumanity as Dandrige’s trusted helper, Billy Cole. I’ve never quite figured out exactly what Cole is meant to be. At first I figured he was a human helper, a toady chained to the prospect of eternal life, but the movie’s supernatural finale, a barnstormer of a confrontation at the Dandrige abode, put an end to that theory. He’s not affected by sunlight, doesn’t seem to feed on humans, so he’s certainly not a vampire. The best I can tell is he’s some kind of ghoul. Whatever the case, his thinly veiled attempts at putting the willies up Charlie while publicly mocking his ‘overactive imagination’ are pricelessly and eerily delivered. I also get a kick out of Brewster’s mom in another minor role that exceeds all expectation. Dorothy Fielding is a hoot as the lovelorn fortysomething 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.
Brad Fiedel’s sumptuous score also deserves a special mention. Not only does it effectively juxtapose classic vampire cues with seething 80s guitar and surging synth splurges in a manner befitting of the whole post-modern concept, it immortalises the Dandrige character the way John Carpenter did Michael Myers, the way Charles Bernstein did Fred Krueger, the way Christopher Young did the cenobites. As stupendous as Sarandon is in the role of Dandrige ― and I genuinely believe that no other actor could have achieved that matrimony of eras quite so effectively ― Fiedel’s score galvanises him like a translucent glob of vampire drool, particularly the aptly titled “Come to Me”, an oppressively sensual explosion that seduces absolutely. Like the character it represents, it’s an absolutely hypnotic arrangement.
Much like Vangelis’ Blade Runner score, it was years before fans could get their hands on a copy of Fiedel’s audio contributions. An incomplete, low-quality bootleg was the first to appear in Japan in 2000, fifteen years after the film’s initial release, but it was another eleven years before it was officially released on CD by Intrada Records. Fiedel’s complete score was long feared lost forever, and though that’s no longer the case, a mix-up which saw the original master tapes vanish means that, asides from a 15-minute opening suite sourced from the cleaner 15 i.p.s. tapes, the complete score was instead sourced from slightly noisier 7.5 i.p.s. tapes, meaning we’ll never be able to purchase the entire score in its purest form. If you ask me that’s nothing short of a tragedy, though I suppose it makes the movie experience even more precious.
With an insouciance that’s hard to resist, the slick and socially adjusted Dandrige almost has everyone believing Charley’s insanity, but when Vincent drops his vanity mirror after finding no reflection, Dandrige turns up the heat, a move hastened by the fact that Amy bears a striking resemblance to a woman he knew many moons ago, and who he quickly sets about enslaving. Initially, Vincent’s not-so-fearless vampire killer shows his true colours by fleeing the scene. That’s until the newly turned Evil is sent to dispose of him, leaving him no choice but to call on the knowledge and instincts of the character he’s for so long portrayed, returning to Jerry’s undead abode with his case of Dracula props. Only then does he realise that true faith is required if he’s to free Amy from Dandrige’s hypnotic grip.
Mr. Vincent. I’ve seen all of your films. And I found them… very amusing.Jerry Dandrige
It’s this sense of 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 Van Helsing we’re dealing with. 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 doesn’t reside in a mythical land, he’s right on Vincent’s doorstep, and our washed-up actor is the only one even half qualified to rectify that.
Many feel that the rise of home video led to something of a creative regression by the mid-1980s, particularly in the horror genre, which slumped into the controversy-baiting realms of ‘video nasty’ exploitation, but that wasn’t the case in the vampire sub-genre, which after years of uninventive stagnation and Blaxploitation send-ups was completely revolutionised, finally fleeing its Gothic shadow for a plethora of cotemporary efforts that appealed to modern sensibilities.
George Romero’s 1977 indie film Martin, the story of a mentally unstable young man who believes he’s a vampire, arguably kicked things off, but the sub-genre experienced its most significant makeover during the 1980s, dealing with addiction (The Hunger), neo-western romanticism (Near Dark), and even venturing into space for Tobe Hooper’s wildly enigmatic pulp novel adaptation Lifeforce, a film 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 suburban settings and both feature wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing antagonists who do their hunting under the guise of 20th century life, postmodern vampires who revived an antiquated genre that clearly had much more to give.
This was all a refreshing departure for a genre dominated by marquee killers and mindless frat house slaughter. Two decades of free love and self-discovery came crashing to an end as Reagan’s America rolled up its sleeves with a return to family values, a generation of skimpily-clad actors paying the fictional price. Fright Night was an affront to such cynicism, embracing an era when horror was a fantastical nightmare, not a real-life atrocity waiting to happen, and did so in a way that appealed to a generation who were unattuned to such flights of fancy. It was hip, traditional, educated, self-aware, conceptually inspired and driven by a subtle humour that is rare in the notoriously tricky horror-comedy genre. Ultimately, it made horror fun again.