Fright Night (1985)

19 Nov

And she seemed like such a nice girl too ...

I both wanted and expected to love “Fright Night.” A cheeky vampire movie with a ridiculous premise, ultra 80s styling and Roddy McDowall — what more could I want? Unfortunately, although the movie delivered on all those counts, I was left feeling like I’d just found out the boy I had a crush on didn’t believe in showering or brushing his teeth. The pieces were all right, but they came together all wrong.

Young Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is deep in a makeout session with girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) when something altogether unexpected catches his attention. Much to Amy’s chagrin, it’s not her willingness to go further that has Charley so enrapt. Rather, he’s noticing something strange happening in the long vacant house next door. Two men appear to be carrying a coffin inside. Horror movie fanatic Charley jumps to the only possible conclusion: A vampire is moving in next door. Amy, unconvinced and irritated, storms out of the house and refuses Charley’s phone calls, leaving him free to observe the goings-on of his new neighbors. When he sees Jerry (Chris Sarandon) attack a young woman, he tries to convince everyone from his mom to the police to his best friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) to the still-not-amused Amy that there’s something horrific dwelling in his neighborhood.

And when they won’t listen, he turns to the one person he knows can help: Vampire hunter extraordinaire (and washed-up B-movie actor) Peter Vincent (McDowall). Vincent rebuffs him at first, but acquiesces when Amy and Ed, fearing for their friend’s mental state, intercede on his behalf. What none of them realize, however, is that Charley is telling the truth, and their lives are all about to take a turn for the deadly.

This makes me giggle. He's fantastic and ridiculous all at the same time.

Segments of “Fright Night” are immensely enjoyable. When the film decides to just be campy, it’s great fun. The typical vampire stereotypes are sent up a bit, and McDowall is hilarious parading around as his Vincent Price/Peter Cushing mashup of a character. But this is a movie which can’t settle on a single genre. There’s an attempt at straight horror (which don’t really work as they’re not scary), some overtures at erotic horror (which definitely don’t work) and a little touch of gross-out horror which sort of works but which isn’t as fun as the campy stuff.

As a result, the 106-minute running time feels much longer. A tighter story could only have helped. Many sequences seem repetitive and unnecessary, such as the lengthy process of convincing Peter Vincent to help Charley. First Charley goes and makes an appeal, then Amy and Ed go and make an appeal which he accepts, then they all meet as a group, then they all meet as a group again (except this time in front of Jerry’s house), and then finally they get to go inside. And then later on, there’s even more convincing Peter Vincent to help. This is the most egregious example of the film’s tendency toward repetition, but it’s by no means the only example. Throw in a handful of go-nowhere subplots, stir in a long dance sequence and add a pinch of annoying best friend scenes, and you’ve got an overstuffed and overcooked vampire turkey.

Thankfully, the acting in “Fright Night” is well above average for this type of film. The strength of the cast pays dividends. I wouldn’t classify this as a film in which an actor could necessarily have an outstanding performance, but McDowall, Sarandon and Ragsdale all elevate the material beyond the typical B-movie fare. The characters as written are a bit one-dimensional, but McDowall and Ragsdale in particular are able to deliver nuanced performances which add depth to their roles. Bearse and Geoffreys turn in solid support work. (Although I’ll confess I found it mighty distracting to watch Marcy D’Arcy making out with Herman from “Herman’s Head,” but that’s the problem with seeing this movie now instead of in 1985.)

Poor Charley. If he'd gone counter to horror movie rules and slept with his girlfriend, none of this vampiry unpleasantness would have ever happened.

So I’m not sure it’s really possible to completely dislike this film. It has a comfortable inoffensiveness to it which is somewhat refreshing. Without being overly gory, it still manages to be a bit startling, and without having gratuitous nudity, it still manages to hit some of those teen horror movie notes. Every so often, a horror movie which doesn’t shock and surprise you is a good thing, and so I think it is with “Fright Night.” This is a film which plays completely into traditional vampire lore, doesn’t try to shake things up and offers a send-up of its own premise through the character of Peter Vincent. It’s a nice throwback for longtime horror fans and a fun diversion for newer ones.  Two stars out of four.

Fright Night“: Rated R. Starring Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys, Jonathan Stark, Dorothy Fielding and Art Evans. Written and directed by Tom Holland. Cinematography by Jan Kiesser. Original music by Brad Fiedel.

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