Looking Back: Fright Night (1985)

The premise of “Fright Night” still holds a faint resonance in pop culture, but just barely. I don’t mean the film overall but the TV program within the film of the same name. In the 1985 horror classic, “Fright Night,” a genre leading man, Peter Vincent (played by Roddy McDowell) is the host of a horror movie TV series that showcases many of his old movies, boasts cheap productions values and is bookended by the cheesy host talking directly into the camera. I grew up with shows like this. I used to watch “Creature Feature,” which showcased movies like “Godzilla 1985,” and I was (and remain) a huge fan of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. These inexpensive shows, which relied heavilyy on cheesy effects (particularly a busy fog machine), cornball one-liners and (most importantly) a lively “undead” host, still exist but barely. Like drive-in movie theaters, they’re out there but in sadly limited quantities. On occasion, I still watch “Svengoolie” in Me TV and old episodes of “Movie Macabre With Elvira.” There’s something delicious about the airing of a B-movie, hosted by someone who is either a “monster” or a “monster hunter” (Sybil Danning’s “Adventure Video” intros fit into the latter). The concept of Tom Holland’s “Fright Night” suggests that the horror host hamming it up on TV is the most astute protection you’d need from the vampire living next door to your home.

William Ragsdale stars as Charley Brester, a high school kid who is too shy to initiate third base with his girlfriend (Amanda Bearse) and especially on edge when he discovers that his new neighbor is a bloodsucker. The man next door, Jerry Dandridge, played with humor and presence by Chris Sarandon, warns Charlie to keep quiet about his discovery but toys with him, threatening to kill him and his mother if he can’t keep his mouth shut. Charlie’s last resort, after the police and his friends don’t believe him, is hiring movie star Peter Vincent to get rid of the bloodsucker.

Ragsdale and Bearse are too old to pull off high schoolers, though the film’s comic relief, Stephen Geoffreys (as “Evil Ed”), is believably youthful and appropriately annoying. Far better are Sarandon and McDowell, both terrific. Holland does a fine job of building the tension by allowing the stillness of the atmosphere to creep in. The quiet suburbia where Brewster lives, as well as the small town around it, seem more sinister than All American.

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While not the full-bodied mix of horror and humor that “The Lost Boys” would prove to be two years later, “Fright Night” is a sly throwback to classic horror films (making it an anomaly in the age of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger) and as scary and funny as it needs to be.

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One sequence, set in an improbable night club (seemingly out of place in a small town), showcases the MTV-ready soundtrack and feels like teen audience bait. However, since the scene in question allows Sarandon to be so sexy and play up the seductive nature of the vampire, the movie gets away with it.

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Richard Edlund’s visual effects, created a year after his milestone work for “Ghostbusters,” is no less impressive. Holland’s “Child’s Play” and “Psycho II” (which he scripted) are much scarier but he should be proud of “Fright Night.” It pays loving homage to the creaky spookfests that came before it, provides genuine jolts and, unlike most horror films released in 1985, it’s a such a treasure chest (or spooky, cob-webbed coffin) of fun.

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