Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fright Night (1985)

The 1985 Fright Night is the kind of movie that was perfect for repeat cable viewing and multiple VHS rentals in the mid-Eighties. It appears to have been aimed squarely and expertly at the kids of the day (speaking from experience, it hit the target pretty much dead on). It’s scary, it’s funny, it’s gross, it’s titillating but not too titillating--I think there’s maybe one topless shot--and there’s exactly one f-bomb. It wants to scare you and make you laugh. Largely, this vamped-up riff on Rear Window succeeds at doing both.

Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) is an average suburban kid who suspects that his new neighbour, the inoffensively named Jerry Dandridge, might be a vampire. Charlie is so average, in fact, that he appears to have almost no personality whatsoever--his only motivations in life appear to be a) finally getting to home base with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse, best known from Married With Children), and b) exposing Jerry for the bloodsucker he is. Shortly after Jerry and his “live-in carpenter” Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) move in to the neighbourhood, reports of dead prostitutes start popping up in the nightly news—dead prostitutes last seen alive making out with a fanged Jerry across the way. An increasingly desperate Charlie recruits his weirdo pal Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) and faded horror movie star and late night shriek-show host Peter Vincent (Roddy MacDowall) to help him slay the vamp. Vincent is obviously skeptical at first, but when he realizes Jerry doesn’t cast a reflection in the mirror, he has to put his Hollywood vampire-killing skills to the test for real.

Fright Night was written and directed by Tom Holland, screenwriter of Psycho II and writer/director of Child’s Play, and it’s the best showcase for his particular mix of humour and horror. Holland layers in a bit of suburban homosexual dread—Billy is obviously Renfield to Jerry’s Dracula, but it’s strongly hinted that they might also be lovers. Certainly in the buttoned-down, Reagan-era suburbia of the film, the possibility that the new neighbours might be gay could be just as terrifying to Charlie as the possibility that they might be vampires. The effects by Richard Edlund (Raiders Of The Lost Ark) are delightfully gooey—the high points are Billy’s green-slime meltdown on the stairs, Vampire Amy’s freakishly toothsome maw, and Evil Ed’s transformation back from wolf to man. The latter is a surprisingly startling and unnerving sequence, in no small part due to the inspired sound design that mixes human and animal noises to squirmy effect. Chris Sarandon plays Jerry as a sinister, immortal dandy, and he appears to be having a blast with the role. Roddy MacDowall shines as Peter Vincent, alternately embittered and terrified (his movie-within-a-movie scenes are a treat too—watch as his onscreen alter ego brazenly wields a wooden stake with the pointy end facing the wrong way). However, it’s Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed who steals the show. He’s like a jittery, screechy-voiced, baby Jack Nicholson, all nervous laughter and twitchy tics. Fright Night is by no means a classic—the pacing near the conclusion is especially creaky, consisting of a lot of Charlie and Peter having to first run up, then down, then back up the stairs of Jerry’s house—but it’s a fun snapshot of the crest of the horror boom in the 1980s, right before endless slasher sequels starting sucking the fun out of the genre.

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