The Film: Fright Night (1985)

The Principals: Director: Tom Holland, William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys, Jonathan Stark, Dorothy Fielding and Roddy McDowell

The Premise: Charley Brewster (Ragsdale) is a slightly excitable – until the vamp is confirmed, then he’s extremely excitable – teenage kid who begins to get suspicious that his next door neighbor is a vampire when he sees a couple of beautiful women show up and disappear, one of them quite loudly.  The fact that he sees a crate being delivered to the basement that looks like it could hold a coffin, and then he outright spies said neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Sarandon), about to put the bite on one of the young women only solidifies his concerns.  Of course, he has more trouble trying to convince his girlfriend, Amy (Bearse) and best friend, Evil Ed (Geoffreys).  But it isn’t long before Dandridge reveals himself and threatens Charlie and his friends and family that Charlie has to enlist the help of famed TV vampire hunter, Peter Vincent (McDowall), in order to help him get rid of his neighbor from hell…literally.

Is It Good: It’s a modern horror classic, man.  It’s dripping with atmosphere, genuinely instills dread, produces legit scares, has fantastic make-up and practical effects.  It’s also got a scene chewing – and more importantly, complicated – villain in Chris Sarandon; and hands down one of the best sidekicks in recent film history in Stephen Geoffreys.  All that added to the fact that Fright Night managed to give a modern spin (at the time) to the old-style vampire chillers.  It also jacked up the vampire to be something to be feared again and definitely not to be fudged with.

At the heart of what’s great about the film is Sarandon as Jerry Dandridge.  This wasn’t your granddady’s vampire.  He didn’t eschew society and hole up in some stuffy castle.  Dandridge was a straight up player, picking up the hottest chicks in town, probably at clubs (he seemed pretty at home in that nightspot when he was tracking Charley and Amy didn’t he?).  He’s able to charm Mrs. Brewster with no effort at all, and he comes across as a very old vampire who’s successfully adapted to the modern age.  Yet while he’s very good at keeping himself fed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he enjoys what he’s doing; rather, just doing what he has to to survive.  That little exchange he has with Charley about giving him something that he doesn’t have – namely a choice – highlights that.  Still, be that as it may, Dandridge isn’t going to let some snotnosed insignificant little shit like Charley cause him grief.

Ragsdale is good as Charley, a normal kid who definitely watches too much TV.  Even back in the ’80s, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that he’d genuinely believe that Peter Vincent doesn’t just play a vampire hunter on TV, but has actually gotten his Van Helsing on.  It’s kind of like thinking Cassandra Peterson was really a chesty damsel of the evening who associated with ghouls and monsters and the like (actually, it is Hollywood, so she probably did…).  But Ragsdale sells it well, and it’s surprising since this this was his first major role.  Amanda Bearse is similarly good and undergoes quite the transformation from girl next door girlfriend to vampiress.

But of the three kids, it’s Geoffreys who steals the show as Evil Ed, for obvious reasons.  He gets the best lines of the piece and just nails the creepy sidekick and later vampire henchkid.  Geoffreys had that notable run in the mid-80s with this, At Close Range, 976-EVIL, Heaven Help Us and Fraternity Vacation.  I didn’t know before all that he was nominated for a Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award in 1984.  Where Geoffreys went from all this is pretty well known, and I’m sure every joke has already been done.  But for a while, and especially in this movie, he had a nice little streak going for himself.

Then there’s Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, who was simply superb, as he typically was.  You know, I’m firmly of the opinion that there has never been a more appealing gentleman, a more gentle soul ever captured on film than Roddy McDowall.  I think it’s genetically impossible to not like him, and not just for the many memorable roles he did in his career.  McDowall couldn’t ever quite shake the naturally pleasant feeling he instilled in others with his voice and his mannerisms.  I caught him a few years ago as an evil scientist with an earthquake making death ray on an episode of Wonder Woman and even then thinking McDowall was too nice to be a villain.  McDowall’s tremendous career speaks for itself and in this movie, he delivered another memorable performance.

Fright Night was the apex for writer / actor / director Tom Holland.  He’s had a mixed career since this movie, but here he nailed everything to make it a classic: giving that old school horror with a modern flavor.  His script is also great in its relative simplicity and the back and forth Charley and Dandridge give each other.  There are also genuine scares in this movie.  I remember about shitting myself when I saw Big Grin Amy show her mug near the end as a kid.  And Dandridge was a vampire badass.  He would have taken ole Vlad and a shoved a wooden pole up his ass.

The make-up and effects also still hold up very well.  You look at Ed’s transformation from a wolf back to human and it’s really one of the most overlooked effects transformations going.  It’s frightening and disturbing in the humanity it evokes.  I’d squarely put it in a trinity with those in American Werewolf and The Howling.  Dandridge’s dispatching is also spectacular, as is that of Billy Cole.  That shot of his walking through the gunsmoke with outstretched arms was one of the scarier moments I remember in the movie, and there really wasn’t that much to it.  I haven’t seen the remake yet, but the original Fright Night is simply horror excellence.

Random Anecdotes: Fright Night was only the second highest-grossing horror film of the year, behind A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

Cinematic Soulmates: The Lost Boys