Written and directed by Tom Holland and starring William Ragsdale, Roddy McDowall, Chris Sarandon, and Amanda Bearse, the original Fright Night follows a young man and horror fan named Charley Brewster (Ragsdale) who discovers that his next door neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Sarandon) is a vampire. Frustrated by his disbelieving girlfriend Amy (Bearse) and best friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys in a one-of-a-kind performance), Charley tries to enlist his favorite TV horror host, Peter Vincent (McDowall) to help him stop Jerry before it’s too late for all of them.
The movie was a hit when it came out, earning just under $25 million at the box office (in 1985 dollars) and becoming the second highest grossing horror film of that year after A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. It spawned a sequel, Fright Night 2, a 27-issue comic book series, a video game, and of course the inevitable remake, released in 2011 (which itself led to a loosely-connected direct-to-video sequel in 2013). The original movie was released as a limited edition Blu-ray in 2015, with all 3,000 copies selling out quickly and some fetching three-digit prices via resale. You can probably still find the far inferior DVD around.
Now that all those basic facts and figures are out of the way, let’s get to the heart (so to speak) of the matter: why was Fright Night so popular in its day, and what makes it an enduring classic three decades later?
For one, Fright Night came along at a perfect time. The horror genre had been inundated with slasher films for the first half of the ‘80s, thanks to the impact of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) and even though there were still movies released that dealt with supernatural horrors, the classic archetypes of the genre had been replaced by psychopathic masked killers and horror itself almost solely associated with that particular subset of films. Monsters like vampires and werewolves were not out of the picture entirely (thanks to films like An American Werewolf in London) but the slasher was the dominant figure of that period.
So here came this film that not only was about a vampire, but a traditional, very Dracula-like vampire making his way in the modern world. The TV version of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, broadcast six years earlier, was set in the present but in rural Maine, where you could believably imagine a vampire infestation taking root. Fright Night put the bloodsucker right in the suburbs, right in the heart of Reagan’s America, and made him into the homeowner next door (a convincing case could be made that Jerry Dandridge was a stand-in for sexual predators, but that’s another article).
But Fright Night represented another far more interesting crossover: the fusion of the old-school horror film with the contemporary teen thriller — and with an added layer of self-awareness to boot. Predating the post-modern Scream by more than a decade, Fright Night takes place in a world where our protagonists — Charley and Evil Ed — are fully aware of the conventions and clichés of vampire movies and lore. That gives the movie an opportunity to indulge in some genuinely clever humor, making it also one of the first and best of the modern horror/comedy hybrids.
“I wrote it in about three weeks,” Holland told Icons Of Fright in 2008. “And I was laughing the entire time, literally on the floor, kicking my feet in the air in hysterics. Because there’s something so intrinsically humorous in the basic concept. So it was always, along with the thrills and chills, something there that tickled your funny bone. It wasn’t broad comedy, but it’s a grin all the way through.”
Fright Night also had something that a lot of the slice ‘em and dice ‘em horror output of the era lacked: heart, due to Holland’s well-rounded writing of the main characters — usually the last thing anyone cares about in a horror picture — and an especially strong cast. Ragsdale is terrific as the awkward, sexually frustrated horror movie geek turned reluctant hero, while Sarandon (who said, “There’s no way I can do a horror movie” when he first got the script) brings an oily, vaguely sleazy vibe to Jerry that’s perfect for a centuries-old monster passing himself off as a friendly neighbor. Little character touches like always having Jerry eating fruit (because Sarandon did some research and reasoned that Jerry had fruit bat DNA in him) make this vampire one of the screen’s more memorable and multi-dimensional bloodsuckers.
But the emotional core of the film is personified by Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed and Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent. Ed’s caustic surface is stripped away, leaving a vulnerable and terrified child, when he is turned into a vampire, while McDowall — the beloved Hollywood icon known to genre fans as the face of the Planet of the Apes series — gives one of his finest performances as the failed actor turned late night horror host who suddenly finds purpose and meaning in his life again. Holland told Dread Central in 2011, “The minute I had Peter Vincent, I had the story. Charley Brewster was the engine, but Peter Vincent was the heart.”
McDowall told Monster Land magazine in 1985 (via IMDB), “My part is that of an old ham actor…Basically, he played one character for eight or 10 films, for which he probably got paid next to nothing. Unlike stars of horror films who are very good actors and played lots of different roles, such as Peter Lorre and Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, this poor sonofabitch just played the same character all the time, which was awful.” (The role — named after horror legends Peter Cushing and Vincent Price — was written for Price, who passed due to declining health.)
Holland, for his first directorial outing, had a decent $9.5 million budget for his film, with a reported one million spent on special effects (the highest effects budget to date at the time for a vampire movie). Filming took just over two and a half months and went off mostly with no problems, with the studio (Columbia Pictures) leaving Holland alone to make his little horror picture.
We mentioned its financial earnings earlier, and should add it was the most successful horror film released that summer. The 2011 remake, despite a strong performance from Colin Farrell as Jerry — and perhaps due to a wretched one by David Tennant as a reimagined Peter Vincent — lost a lot of the warmth and chemistry of the original and failed to leave an impression.
And yet 30 years later, the original Fright Night is still loved and acclaimed. The film has aged well and its combination of horror and humor stays fresh because everything springs out of the flesh-and-blood people that Tom Holland (who went on to direct another ‘80s classic, Child’s Play) created and cared for. Coming along at a time when horror movies were just starting to become cynical exercises in body counts, Fright Night is a loving tribute to the genre as well as a skillfully crafted and character-driven narrative.
Three decades later, that’s what continues to make Charley Brewster, Evil Ed, Jerry Dandridge, and Peter Vincent so damn cool.
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