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"What's the matter, Charley? Scared?!"
—Chris Sarandon as vampire Jerry Dandridge
Hello, and velcome.
So, I'm one of those people who isn't very squeamish when it comes to certain acts I see in horror films, least of all bloodsucking. I've never found vampires or even vampire folklore to be that scary to begin with. And yet, there's a certain frightening allure to them. Somehow, the idea of being undead for all eternity with bulging yellow eyes and sharp fangs with the ability to bite and then suck blood out of a jugular vein seems rather sad and pathetic. But, the allure comes from what vampires can also do. They can shapeshift (turn into bats, wolves, maybe even a cat; perhaps, a raccoon?), and they can also gently coax and persuade their victims in order to feed their bloodlust. They either become vampires themselves, or are disposed of after the act.
In 1985, there was at least one movie that added some umph to the vampire mystique, and that was Tom Holland's sleeper comedy/horror hit, Fright Night. It managed to be a reverent story with a vampire being the main antagonist, but all the while gave us a fun 1980s MTV-new-wave, sex-and-blood-and-guts fare that was typical of the decade. It also (another plus) decried the state of horror movies of that decade as forgoing all the true necessary horror elements in place of just crazed-serial-killers-slashing-their-way-through-no-plot-or-characters-we-care-about genre. I personally couldn't agree more. But...Fright Night wasn't just content to preach. Its aim was indeed to make vampires scary again. It did, briefly!
The 1985 One-Sheet Poster
Let me make something clear. The 1931 film adaptation of Dracula, with the iconic Bela Lugosi, is still the quintessential vampire movie classic. Nosferatu, with Max Schreck, would be a close second. Even 30 years ago, The Lost Boys also gave the vampire mystique a nice shot in the arm, retaining the same 1980s elements as this gem. What makes these films effective is the willingness to tell these stories with a straight face. Vampires are nocturnal creatures who sleep in coffins, survive on human blood (mostly) and are generally very persuasive when they want, of all things, your neck!
What makes this film work is the casting of Chris Sarandon as the antagonist/villain. He was mostly known as Al Pacino's male, transgender lover in the crime-thriller Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. He earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (a rare feat considering how LGBTQ people were openly reviled back then). Sarandon just oozed sexuality and even sweetness in his iconic role and would land him more work, including reuniting with director Tom Holland for 1988's Child's Play, which introduced us to the killer doll, Chucky, and is poised for an upcoming entry in my 'Thon.
Now, onto the plot. First, a quick sidebar: I'm not quite sure how much inspiration writer/director Holland derived from Alfred Hitchcock's classic voyeur-psycho-thriller, Rear Window, from 1954; that one featured James Stewart as an injured man who uses binoculars, spying on his neighbor (Raymond Burr), who may be a killer. In interviews, Holland and company readily agree that it's inspired by the Aesopic tale: "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." While there's no argument from me on that, I do feel that the Hitchcock stamp is all over this. Intentionally, or by accident, it speaks of the level of intelligence and reverence that went into the making of this film.
An Alternative Poster from 1985!
Okay, now the plot (promise). Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a normal teenager doing what normal teenagers do; necking in his bedroom with his mother just yards away. His girlfriend (Amanda Bearse, of Married...With Children, fame) is NOT up for going to third base, despite annoying protestations that he's really horny; like, right now! She finally caves in, but Charley is briefly distracted by the sight of two men carrying a coffin into the basement next door (the binoculars are the obvious Rear Window connection). Writing it off as an overactive imagination at first, but women entering his new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge's (Sarandon) house and not coming out (alive) lead to suspicion. Seeing his neighbor bloodsucking—in the actual act itself—is all the proof he needs. The only problem? No one believes him. Not his mother (just a nightmare), his girlfriend (convinced beyond all reason that he's nuts), his geeky best friend, who taunts him regularly (Stephen Geoffreys in a wonderfully manic performance), and, of course, the police.
Well, in their defense, anyone who believes their neighbor is a vampire really needs the services of a great psychiatrist or some seriously head-effing meds. But, that's the movie's hook. Convincing us of the unconvincible. So, who can he convince? He's a fan of an actor named Peter Vincent (a wonderful casting stroke-of-genius in the late famed character actor Roddy McDowell). His name alludes to two icons in the world of movie horror: actors Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. He too, thinks the boy needs to take it easy on watching his movies all day and night. But, a scheduled visit with a mirror movie prop gives Vincent the shock of his life! The boy wasn't lying at all!
Okay, let's stop now. Fright Night has earned a permanent place in my Horrorthon for life. It's a slick, scary piece of entertainment that never gets tired and NEVER feels dated, despite lots of dancey new-wave and blood-and-guts typical of the Reagan decade. It made vampires scary again for me (all too briefly, though). And despite a hardly-seen sequel in 1989 and a 2011 remake which starred Colin Farrell as Jerry Dandridge (even Chris Sarandon pops up in a key, all-too-brief scene) and the late Anton Yelchin in the Charley Brewster role; this is the one that will always make me afraid of Creatures of the Night—very briefly, I will reiterate!
Next Up: A horror...sequel?