Last night I watched a film I hadn’t seen in quite some
time. Tom Holland’s Fright Night from
1985. Needless to say, it really
brought me back to a simpler time.
Horror films in the 80s were special, for lack of a better
word. There’s no other way to describe
the way they unfolded before your eyes.
The majority of them still had the grit and realism left over from the
70s, but hinted at a more comedic tone that would become more evident in the
90s, with Scream leading the pack.
Like 1980s society itself, 80s horror films were stuck in a transitional
period. Some films survived, while
others bit the dust. Only a select few
of filmmakers were successful in marrying the humor and horror without coming
off heavy-handed or idiotically juvenile.
Tom Holland was one of them.
The man responsible for introducing Chucky the killer “Good
Guy” doll to moviegoers in Child’s Play, Holland was the type of filmmaker
who had a keen sense of dread that matched his sense of humor in equal
measure. In Fright Night, he
assembled a cast that included Chris Sarandon (also in Child’s Play), Amanda
Bearse (Marcy from Married… with Children) and the great Roddy McDowall (I
don’t think I have to tell you his credentials). It tells the tale of a young man who discovers his new next door
neighbor is a vampire. He comes to the
realization that his only hope is a washed-up horror actor known for his
vampire killer roles.
Fright Night is a unique film, unlike all of the other
vampire films that have come down the pipeline before or since. It’s as if the actors are all in on the
joke, but the threat in the story is serious enough for it not to move into
slapstick territory. There are odd
character quirks (sometimes just for the sake of being quirky), but they mostly
work. Take “Evil” Ed for example. I’m still not completely sure if he is the
protagonist’s best friend but he does inform him on how to ward off an
impending vampire attack. As soon as he
is introduced, “Evil” Ed’s annoying laugher takes center stage. Almost immediately we get the impression
that Ed is the loser of the school and our assumptions quickly prove
correct. He’s just one of those weirdos
who loved horror movies back in high school and wanted, deep down, to be the
cool guy. Regardless of his role in the
grand scheme of things, Ed injects the film with an interesting mix of geek and
cool. And it’s because of Ed that Fright Night is known for its classic moments of humor. Not “hearty laughter” comedy, mind you, but
rather the type that makes the audience chuckle to themselves because, chances
are, they knew someone like that when they were pimple poppers. It’s an interesting approach to comedy and
one that prevents the film from aging like so many films from past decades.
Having Roddy McDowell portray Peter Vincent, the washed-up
actor/vampire killer was a stroke of genius.
He’s clearly having a ball with the role, but not to the point that it
becomes aggravating. While he plays the
character with absolute sincerity, it’s the twinkle in his eye that proves
otherwise. And it’s just fun watching
an actor have a grand old time in a genre picture. In fact, that rarely happens nowadays.
Maybe it’s just me, but I adore these horror films because
they situate themselves within the world of suburbia. It’s probably because I’ve lived in a suburban city all my life
and wished for something like this to happen.
Vampires, ghosts, haunted houses- I’ll take anything. There’s something about watching a place
that you think you know and having it become something otherworldly. Well, that and also because I’m a fan of
classic horror cinema. Lon Chaney,
Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price are actors that I hold in high
regard, just as I do Brando, Pacino and DeNiro. They were actors of a different time, when the genre was still in
its infancy. In other words, as genre
fans we will never see the likes of their talent again. And the thing about 80s horror was that the
filmmakers were fans first and storytellers second. Fright Night is a big, gooey homage through and through;
however, you’d be hard-pressed to realize that on the first viewing.
At its core, the film is a creature feature, one of the best
that the genre has to offer. Clearly,
Joss Whedon took notes while piecing together his epic Buffy story and
needless to say Fright Night was a film he paid special attention to. It’s a film that is scary, funny, mysterious
and fun. It plays with established
conventions of the genre, like the best vampire stories do (just look at Near
Dark) and makes it look like something fresh and exciting. Which, make no mistake about it, it is.
Like so many of the Masters of Horror from the 70s and
80s, Holland has disappeared from the fantastical world. But every now and then, Fright Night pops
up on late-night television and reminds us that horror was once a force to be
reckoned with back in the 80s. And they
didn’t need excessive gore to prove their worth. All they needed was atmosphere and a great, involving story.