Fright Night (1985)
In 2011, they remade this movie. I have not seen it, and I don’t need to. The original Fright Night from director Tom Holland needed no improvement or reinvention. It’s an excellent and immensely entertaining vampire film that mixes enough horror with humor. It has a wonderfully seductive vampire in Chris Sarandon and a wonderful lead in William Ragsdale. As many of the best 1980s vampire films did, it delivers on both solid horror and fun humor in a well balanced blend.
For young Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), nothing could be better than an old horror movie late at night. However, when he sees the new neighbors bringing a coffin into the house next door, Charley starts to believe his handsome and charming neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire. Unfortunately, Dandridge knows that Charley is aware of his secret, and attempts to kill him. Charley then becomes deadest to destroy the monster, Of course, nobody believes his wild claims – not the police, not his weird friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and not his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse). Ultimately, Charley turns to his beloved horror television show host and cinematic vampire killer Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) who is also skeptical, but as the terrifying events unfold, he and Charley must stand side-by-side to battle the fanged undead for their own survival.
Fright Night is such a strong movie. Every artistic element really forges together solidly. Most importantly, the cast is brilliantly put together. Writer / director Tom Holland really grabbed up some amazing talents. Firstly, William Ragsdale has so much enthusiasm for the role of Charley Brewster. He really sells every passionate, manic, and heartfelt aspect of the character. Right from the start, he’s purely relatable as this loveable, scared teenager. While playing Charley as an entirely straight, panicked character, Ragsdale is able to illicit so much humor amongst his co-stars. His intensely fearful behavior purely feeds into Ed & Amy’s perspective that he’s gone right out of his mind, and makes for a wonderfully funny juxtaposition. Anyone going to see this movie could easily put themselves in Charley’s place, and that’s really the perfection of this movie. Anyone else in Charley’s position would likely be frightened out of their mind, and look for desperate solutions to this lethal supernatural threat. Still, it’s Ragsdale’s sweetness, heart, and innocent charm that really drive home the likeability of Charley.
The late and very great Roddy McDowall clearly was having major amounts of fun on this movie. His performance as Peter Vincent is greatly charismatic and smart. He brings such jovial, witty quality that required a charming sweetness. The moments where he plays up the corny aspects of the character are very entertaining and brilliant. McDowall also adds subtle touches of depth to this lowly washed up horror legend of Peter Vincent, respectfully named after horror greats Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. As Peter Vincent becomes aware of the horrifying reality at hand, McDowall richly portrays the character’s shaken, fearful state of mind. One of the film’s most intense scenes is after Peter Vincent violently slays a creature of the night, and he witnesses the tragic, nightmarish reversion he takes from wolf back to human form. McDowall gives the scenes such emotional substance with an amazingly deep expression of humanity and sympathy. Most other horror films wouldn’t think to incorporate such a powerful moment, but it deeply motivates Peter Vincent to confront Dandridge once again into the film’s climax. It gives him the strength of will and faith to combat this powerful enemy. It’s a great piece of acting by Roddy, and a brilliant piece of screenwriting and directing by Tom Holland.
I absolutely love Chris Sarandon’s work. I think he is a remarkable actor able to bring a unique and entertaining quality to everything he does. He can do great, straight dramatic acting, or as in The Princess Bride, can play a truly despicable villain while still making him deeply comedic. As Jerry Dandridge, Sarandon oozes seductive sexuality which saturates the screen. He has a hypnotic allure that leaves no doubt in his ability to sway Amy’s desires. Sarandon always brings an elegant sophistication to his performances that really penetrates and creates a very theatrical quality. That is vibrantly on display with Jerry Dandridge. He can be nicely charming as the friendly neighbor, but then, turn on the imposing, frightening qualities which electrifies the screen. In the dance club scene, he completely captivates and enthralls with sensual, erotic physicality in conjunction with Amanda Bearse. It’s a great dynamic that Dandridge is both deeply seductive and romantic as well as fiercely violent. Dandridge is very full of life and compelling charisma that would be a chore for most any other actor, but for Sarandon, it seems to come very naturally.
The supporting cast is just as solid and enjoyable. Jonathan Stark does a very intriguing job as Billy Cole. When things get weird, the character just gets weirder. What sort of creature he is, I’m still uncertain about, but that’s good. It shows that there are things that not even all of the horror movie knowledge in the world can explain in this film. Most would know Amanda Bearse from her years on Married With Children, but she shows a whole different side of her talent here. She demonstrates an impressive range starting out as the wholesome, sweet girlfriend Amy who gradually succumbs to Dandridge’s seduction to become an alluring vixen. It’s quite amazing how sexy and attractive she is late in the film. She plays off of Ragsdale very well with both comedic and heartfelt moments, and later, is very in sync with Chris Sarandon’s sensual vibe. It’s solid work. Stephen Geoffreys is great as the quirky, nutty “Evil” Ed. He’s so much the comic life of the film, and it’s not one of those instances where he’s the lone character off-setting the tone. He entirely fits into the tone and style Tom Holland sets with this film, and Ed just pushes the crazy, hyperactive aspect of it all. He’s the clown of the group, and Geoffreys just goes full boar in the latter half of the film. It’s immensely entertaining and well-rounded, as are all of the performances.
Fright Night is amazingly well shot and edited. Pacing is very tight and consistent. There never feels to be a lull as the momentum constantly builds as the plot progresses and the horror intensifies. Mood and atmosphere are smartly maintained through very good, realistic lighting and strategically used haze. The aforementioned club scene is very 80s with vibrant colors and a lively visual style. There’s nothing low grade in this film. The production values are consistently very high. Sets are perfectly realized, and the effects are flat out excellent. Instead of straining the budget with another series of optical composites or wire work, the filmmakers chose some great camera work to avoid showing Jerry Dandridge flying around early on. This adds to the film, oddly. Fright Night is subtle in what it does early on only giving you a taste of who and what Jerry Dandridge is. It’s not gratuitous or flaunting his abilities. It’s saving that for much later when it has more impact. Of course, the special make-up effects are absolutely phenomenal, and on fully ghastly display. The vampire make-up has multiple phases that all work to striking effect, and there is no shortage of genuine, strong scares or vampire gore. We get a couple of chilling, unsettling sights in this film which proves that Fright Night truly lives up to its title by giving the audience a gruesome, frightening thrill ride. In that final act, Charley and Peter aren’t just dealing with Jerry Dandridge, they have multiple fearsome adversaries to battle through in order to survive.
Tom Holland wrote a very smart, clever, and sharp screenplay. It’s a great premise in which one moment Charley’s watching corny old vampire movies on late night television, and the next he finds a vampire living next door to him. Every element of plot and character is interwoven very tightly to allow for that consistent pace and flow I mentioned before. The comedy in the film dynamically fits in very well with the startling horror aspects. When the horror kicks in, it’s high gear all the way, and done with immense talent and skill. He brings out amazing performances and chemistry amongst his actors to create a richly cohesive piece of cinema. Holland really knew how to build suspense and tension to give the terror a strong pay-off. Even the seductive, sexual aspects are given their due build-up to pay them off for the characters and audience. I can’t comment much on Tom Holland’s filmography, but between Fright Night and Child’s Play, he has more than sold me on his talent for horror.
Overall, the original Fright Night is extremely hard to beat. I’m not opposed to ever watching the remake, but I also have no desire to go out of my way to do so. Tom Holland made a purely fun and excellent horror film here that is rich with character, style, terror, and a smart story. Even the 1989 sequel Fright Night, Part II could not rival this film’s innovation and intelligence. You surely cannot go wrong with this delightfully scary film. The performances are amazing all around giving you several wonderfully conceived and executed characters to invest yourself in, and a marvelously realized vampire villain that will surely satisfy on multiple levels. Fright Night is a bonafide classic of the genre in my eyes, and I am surely not alone in that sentiment. If you’ve never seen the original, you will be doing yourself a great favor by doing so. I’ll also clue you in on the two pirate audio commentaries that were recorded by Icons of Fright featuring, among others, Tom Holland, William Ragsdale, Stephen Geoffreys, Chris Sarandon, and Jonathan Stark. They are great insightful listens, and they’re FREE to download!