Friday, September 17, 2010

Fright Night, 25 years later.

This was originally published on the Wildclaw Blood Radio Blog.

Fright Night turned 25 last week. I didn't see anyone mark the anniversary, so I thought I'd raise my own glass. You don't look a day over 20.

Well, that's a lie, actually. Fright Night hasn't aged particularly well. The combination of eighties fashions, Spielbergian idiom (horror comes to suburbia), comedy relief, and gooey special effects is very much of its time. More than that, it's a kind of nostalgia piece in itself, one that pines for the late-night horror show and the classical horror movie (in reaction, I suspect, to the shasher films that were dominating the genre at the time of its release). All of that is receding in time.

Still, it has its pleasures. Prime among them is a barnstorming performance by Chris Sarandon as our urbane vampire, Jerry Dandridge. Is Dandridge the first movie vampire who's smart enough to lock his coffin from the inside? He might be. But he's still dumb enough to play the talking killer with poor hapless Charley Brewster. The rest of the cast isn't up to his screen presence, not even Roddy McDowell, playing a gentle homage to the old school Gothics of the 50s and 60s.

What Fright Night does well is update the vampire archetype into the idiom of the special effects film. Oh, vampires have always had some interesting effects--the resurrection of Dracula in Dracula: Prince of Darkness is particularly creative--but not to the extent of this film. The story is almost incidental, given that the last forty minutes or so are a carnival of prosthetic monsters. The actual action sometimes grinds to a stop in order to watch the effects play out. It's almost as if writer/director Tom Holland looked at a list of the legendary abilities of vampires and picked them a la carte for their effects potentials, then, having paid for the gags, made damn sure he got them on camera, whether it made logical sense or not. The most obvious instance of this is the disintegration of Dandridge's familiar, at which our heroes stand and gawp while Dandridge makes good his escape:

The end result of all this is that we get some pretty good monsters, including one of the movies' first really convincing vampires in monstrous bat form (which the movie emphasizes in its parody footage from one of Peter Vincent's movies depicting a toy rubber bat on a string), a terrific werewolf transformation, and the first real attempt to reconcile the various divergent cinematic images of vampires: the sexy, Byronic anti-hero and the foul ratlike creature of the night; between Dracula and Count Orlock, if you will. As an aside, a friend of mine really resents the fact that the werewolf effects in Fright Night are better than the werewolf effects in just about any actual werewolf movie made since Fright Night was in theaters.

This is also a strangely gay horror movie, not that it's overt about it. I mean, Dandridge and his familiar seem like a gay couple moving into an old home to gentrify it. Amanda Bearse was one of the first prominently "out" lesbians in Hollywood. And Stephen Geoffrey went on to a long career in gay porn. I suppose you can't really blame the film for the later careers of its actors, but the plot asks us to believe that our teen-aged hero is more interested in the two guys across the way than he is in his willing girlfriend. Mind you, I'm perfectly aware of the fact that this last element is cribbed from Hitchcock's Rear Window (which asks us to believe that James Stewart is more interested in his neighbors than he is in Grace Kelly, but I digress). None of it may be intentional, but it still trips the ol' gaydar.

In any event, my experience of Fright Night back in the day was that it was a nice change of pace--the other prominent vampire movies of the 1980s, The Lost Boys and Near Dark, were still two years in the future when Fright Night was released--and that it was a pretty good summer popcorn movie. It works best with an audience, I think, and as a first-time viewing experience, too. I just wish I didn't feel so old knowing that I saw this when it was first released. 25 years went by fast.


The Vicar of VHS said...

>>Is Dandridge the first movie vampire who's smart enough to lock his coffin from the inside?

You know, that's one of those things that never really occurs to you until you see it done in a film, and then you have to slap yourself on the head and say, "Duh, what a no-brainer! Why didn't Dracula think of that?" After all, we're asked to believe that these creatures of the night have survived for hundreds of years in some cases, and we presume that a significant portion of those years occurred at a time and place where vampires and getting rid of them were taken very seriously. They're meant to have a lot of experience NOT getting staked by a roving mob or crusading vampire killer, to say nothing of the intelligence that comes with age (as in my favorite folk saying, "The Devil knows more because he is old, than because he is the Devil").

And it never occurred to these guys to lock the lid? :P

(Note: I get upset for the same reason when a 400 year old vampire somehow "forgets" that the sun's about to come up. I can buy a lot, but that's just unrealistic. ;)

As for FRIGHT NIGHT, I too saw it upon its original release, and loved it. I didn't catch the gay subtext until years later, but you're right, it's there, intentionally or not. And I admit I still get a little choked up by Evil Ed's death scene--he goes from being an annoying, malevolent monster to a believably scared kid who got in over his head, and it's moving. A very effective performance by Geoffreys, whose later work I haven't managed to see.

Great post!

flash slideshow said...

It bothers me for the same reason, when a vampire 400 years somehow "forgot" that the sun is about to rise. "I can buy a lot, but it's just unrealistic.