There’s really nothing that compares to the original Fright Night. This film is something of a vampire update on Rear Window. It marked the directorial debut of Tom Holland who had previously scripted the wholly underrated Psycho II and would go on to find even bigger success after Fright Night with 1988’s Child’s Play.
The story follows Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), a refreshing take on a geeky teen in the 1980’s. He is a fan, to be sure, but he maintains a social life and is not as obsessive as his best friend, “Evil” Ed Thompson (played perfectly over-the-top by Stephen Geoffreys, who steals the movie.) Charley has been desperately trying to find “the right moment” with his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse). And when it finally looks like it’s going to happen, when she finally tells him that she’s ready, he looks out his window and sees two men carrying a coffin into the house next door. When he points it out to Amy, she takes one look at the old vampire movie playing on the TV and says “Sure, and they’re on the moors, right?”And that right there is the essence of Fright Night. It is tongue-in-cheek and completely sincere in equal doses.
Fright Night is not just about a vampire moving in next door to a teenager, it’s about a vampire moving in next door to an avid vampire fan. It’s one of the first self-referential horror movies and one of the best. Movies like Scream owe everything to Fright Night. There weren’t a lot of vampire movies being released in the mid eighties, they were kind of over. Studios hadn’t effectively figured out how to modernize them. But the best thing about Fright Night is that while it references the hell out of the Hammer Dracula movies and their ilk, it doesn’t make fun of them. It is done completely out of respect.
When Charley cannot convince anyone to believe him about the vampire that has moved in next door, reaching the end of his rope, he contacts former horror movie star Peter Vincent (a name—and character—derived from Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.) Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) is the great vampire killer, he says so in all of his movies, so Charley knows that if there’s anyone that can deal with his problem, it’s this guy. But of course, there’s nobody more aware of how out of fashion vampire movies are than Peter Vincent. He’s gone from movie star to local horror host to unemployed. He’s not the great vampire killer, he’s a washed-up icon desperately clinging to his last shred of fame. He’s scared. When he becomes aware of the reality of Charley’s situation, his first instinct is to pack up and leave town. Everyone else believes he can be a hero but he lacks any real confidence in himself. Finding that strength of character that he brought to his old roles is a big part of Peter’s development as the movie reaches its end. And, really, I think it’s one of the best performances of McDowall’s entire career.
There are no characters in the film that are one-dimensional or left without something to do. Even the vampire himself, Jerry Dandridge, is played with charm and grace by Chris Sarandon. The entire point of his character is that he doesn’t look like a Transylvanian Count or a rat-faced Nosferatu type. He literally looks like the guy next door. And he uses that charm to win over Charley’s mother, Charley’s best friend, and even Charley’s girlfriend. He is in many ways more similar to a serial killer than what had typically been depicted as a vampire up until that point. But even for Jerry there is some pathos. Amy reminds him of a woman he knew a long time ago (we’re never sure how long, but we can be sure that Jerry’s been around a while) and his seduction of Amy is done both to torment Charley as well as to try to hold onto a long-lost love and a probable sense of someone he used to be. In this regard, his character is not entirely dissimilar to that of Peter Vincent.
And then there’s Evil Ed. It is Ed that steals the show. From what we know about Evil when we’re introduced to him, it’s clear that he doesn’t have many (if any) other friends than Charley and that friendship does not come naturally to him. He has no control of his life, he has no sense of power and that’s precisely what Jerry offers him. In his brief few scenes as a vampire, Evil Ed cements his place as one of the most entertaining vampires in movie history. Evil is a spastic and flamboyant character to begin with and when he becomes a vampire, those notches get turned up to 11. He is just completely unhinged. He’s the only vampire (fully) turned by Jerry in the movie, as Lucy was the only vampire turned in Dracula. And there is actually a throwback scene to Horror of Dracula in which Evil is marked by a cross touching his forehead, just as Lucy was in that film.
On top of everything else the film does right, it also has excellent makeup effects. The creature FX and design for this film are stunning. When the vampires get monstrous, they get monstrous. They may start out looking perfectly normal, but in the blink of an eye they’re boasting a mouthful of fangs. Evil Ed’s death scene might feel like the longest in movie history but the transformation that takes place during it is jaw-dropping. And there are so many effects in play because the picture adheres to all the classics, but updates them to modern 1985. Mists, wolves, bats… all present and accounted for because the entire movie is about modernizing classic themes.