Welcome to Back to the ’80s. This recurring feature aims to take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from horror’s most beloved decade. Regardless of which category a particular film falls under, this segment will spotlight films that horror fans can appreciate for one reason or another. We will look at how some of these flicks have stood the test of time and others have not aged quite so well. Regardless of what they look like today, these efforts from the 1980s laid the groundwork for the horror genre as we know it today. In this installment, we take a look at ’80s horror comedy classic Fright Night.
Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is an average teenager living with his single mother (Dorothy Fielding). He has a girlfriend named Amy (Amanda Bearse), and he is a fan of horror movies. In particular, Charley enjoys watching a late-night horror show called “Fright Night” starring aging actor, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall). Charley’s run-of-the-mill existence is turned upside down when the dashing Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) moves in next door. Before long, Charley comes to believe that Jerry is a vampire.
With 1985’s Fright Night, Tom Holland has written a tongue-in-cheek love letter to horror audiences. And after his experience with Michael Winner on Scream for Help (1984), Holland insisted on being the person to direct the feature. According to various interviews, the penned script for Scream for Help was intended to have a very different style. Holland safeguarded his vision of Fright Night and, in doing so, provided horror audiences with one of the most enjoyable flicks from the 1980’s.
In the 1980’s, the slasher film was the prominent selection for horror fans. Obviously, there were other horror sub-genres prevalent throughout that time period; however, slashers dominated the foreground. Fright Night was a way for Holland to bring back Gothic horror and have it creep into a contemporary setting. Long before the suave, postmodern kids from Scream (1996), Charley and his friends were hip to the conventions of Gothic horror. Peter Vincent brings the formidable (if not fake) Holy Water. Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) reminds Charley of the power that comes from crucifixes and garlic. A dropped prop mirror reveals the truth to the disbelievers.
In addition to the fun and self-aware elements, Fright Night is a genuinely scary movie. The level of suspense is raised because the audience is able to relate to Charley and his companions. There is a small network of people in Charley’s life that he can trust. Of course, they all believe he is completely losing his mind. Nevertheless, Amy and Evil Ed band together to convince late-night horror host, Peter Vincent, to help sort out their friend’s problem. The audience feels the risk for these characters as the truth is slowly unveiled.
William Ragsdale’s authentic portrayal of Charley helps the audience to suspend their disbelief throughout the events in Fright Night. The viewer is happy to follow alongside Ragsdale as he struggles in school and poorly navigates his relationship with Amy. As Charley’s off-again/on-again girlfriend, Amanda Bearse allows Amy to grow from rash immaturity into a poised woman fully in control of her destiny. She falls under Sarandon’s spell; however, the choice becomes ultimately up to her to make. Stephen Geoffreys is memorable as the outcast horror fan, Evil Ed. His one-liners and echoing laughter have become iconic in their association with 1980’s horror.
On the flip side of the cast, Chris Sarandon’s performance as Jerry Dandrige infused sexuality and charm back into vampire lore. Jerry’s charisma is what makes him dangerous as he lures in an insecure Ed and a confused Amy. Sarandon paints Jerry as a multifaceted vampire. Within seconds he switches from a malevolent force into a lonely creature in pain. Sarandon exudes confidence that soon melts away into vulnerability. His companion is played by Jonathan Stark. As Billy Cole, Stark is both playful and menacing. He manages to convey Billy with a twisted sense of humor laced with just the right threatening touch.
Combining the names of two horror heavyweights, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, Roddy McDowall’s performance as Peter Vincent anchors the rest of the cast in Fright Night. His deft comedy skills are in fine form and are only outshined by the sincere terror on his face. McDowall easily demonstrates to the viewer the kind of film they are watching. The cast of Fright Night is strong and each personality compliments the next. Even still, one can tell that McDowall’s expertise helped keep everyone tethered to Tom Holland’s stylistic choices.
Each sequence in this ‘80’s horror flick is as well-crafted as it is fun or scary. The clichés are observed and played with in order to put a contemporary spin on the genre. The production of Fright Night collided with the Brat Pack era, and a staple of the decade was to add a dance sequence to any teenage-centered films. The moment that Gothic horror emerges completely into the modern age is when Dandrige seduces Amy at a club with all the right moves. Like the rest of the movie, this scene fights off any overt cheesiness and is completely effective. Amy transforms into a sexually mature woman enamored with the idea of a vampire lover. This scene foreshadows the allure of attractive vampires to come afterwards in popular culture.
Also worth mentioning is the soundtrack to Fright Night. The score was completed by Terminator (1984) and True Lies (1994) composer, Brad Fiedel. His main composition is titled “Come to Me” and nicely compliments the synthesizer approach of horror films from the decade. In the retrospective documentary, You’re So Cool, Brewster! The Story of Fright Night, Holland and Fiedel discuss how every selection from the soundtrack was created for the film by various artists. Each song could be worked as an independent piece while at the same time lyrically narrating the corresponding scene. The outcome is a memorable soundtrack that denotes a sense of maturity above the standard scores of the time period.
In addition to a solid soundtrack and entertaining sequences, the special effects from Fright Night were state-of-the art at the time. That does not translate to the effects holding up well today; however, they do retain a certain 1980’s charm. There is a sense of detail and production quality that only adds to the personality of Fright Night. In particular, the make-up for the actors combined with an oozing liquid can have a fake and still frightening result. Sarandon’s make-up, in particular, enhances his performance and works to create a magic trick in conjunction with any given practical effect.
To be fair, there is one unfortunate mistake in the film having to do with special effects. During the club scene, Dandrige’s reflection is caught in a mirror. As the vampire struts closer and closer to Amy, he is slowly coming up behind a man in the foreground. The man is leaning up against a large mirror. Dandrige’s reflection only catches for a quick moment; however, it is certainly there. The plot in Fright Night is dependent upon a vampire’s lack of reflection. The filmmakers successfully achieve this effect early on in Mrs. Brewster’s bedroom. Yet, somehow this has been overlooked at the club.
Fright Night has a wicked personality that sinks its teeth into horror audiences. Viewers will laugh and scream as they join Charley Brewster on a roller-coaster ride of perfect timing. Fright Night stands apart from a genre that was becoming heavily saturated with slasher films. At the time, similar to Peter Vincent, Dracula and Frankenstein creatures were relics of Hollywood’s past. The vampire myth was revitalized and, before long, would lead to substantial franchises for Tinsel Town. Fans of 1980’s horror will enjoy this sincere effort from Tom Holland. For Holland is a fan of the genre and his extensive resume (Psycho II, Child’s Play) backs up his insight into what audiences enjoy. Like an aging vampire, he helped Gothic horror rise from the dead.