I’d always heard about Fright Night as this strange horror-comedy hybrid from the mid-1980s that was worth a watch for its wit and genuine scares. The truth is the film isn’t very witty or scary, but it is certainly strange. About a teenager who finds out his new neighbour is a vampire, Fright Night is somewhat exhilarating for how different its structure is from what you might expect from that premise, or from mainstream films of the mid-2010s more generally. It jettisons any mystery about the nature of the new neighbour and skips over character development, rushing through the first acts at blistering speeds and into a prolonged final showdown. But then you realize there’s not much to Fright Night aside from its odd structure and fun performances from Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowall. The film remains an interesting curiosity, but it’s no classic.
Fright Night follows Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), a nondescript teenager living with his single mom who spends his nights with his girlfriend (Amanda Bearse) watching the low-budget horror series “Fright Night,” hosted by the washed-up horror star, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall of Planet of the Apes fame). Charley’s name is the most interesting thing about him, as the film pushes the character to the side once the action heats up. Charley’s merely a catalyst for the action. At the top of the film he notices that his new neighbour, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire, and he sets out to stop him.
Or more accurately, he sets out to dump the job of dispatching the vampire onto his hero, Peter Vincent, because he figures Vincent is the only man who’ll believe his story that Dandrige is a vampire. Charley is passive beyond reason, doing nothing in the film’s many action scenes and essentially waiting around for Dandrige to kill him for discovering his secret. The other teenage characters fare no better. Charley’s girlfriend Amy is wildly inconsistent, and his friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), with his annoying laugh, is one of the most irritating characters in 80s cinema.
Luckily writer and director Tom Holland compensates for Charley’s utter blandness by creating two memorable characters and casting good actors in those parts. Chris Sarandon isn’t the first person you’d think of to play a bloodsucking monster, but his sardonic voice and permanent expression of amusement go a long way to making Jerry Dandrige an intriguing villain. Dandrige is more 80s yuppie playboy than eternal bloodsucker—more slyly charming than scary.
Even better than Sarandon is Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, the classic horror star. The part was initially intended for Vincent Price, but Price had abandoned playing horror roles at this point in his career, so Roddy McDowall ended up in the role. McDowall clearly relishes the part, giving a wide-eyed performance of constant bafflement and horror. McDowall is completely on Holland’s intended wavelength of incredulous horror. In fact, he is so clearly Holland’s favourite character that he essentially hijacks the film, becoming the hero in the final act and making up for all the deficiencies of Ragsdale’s Charley Brewster.
McDowall’s wide-eyed look of horror is key in the film’s many action sequences, where gruesome practical effects are used to depict the vampire transformations and deaths. The practical effects are not the only impressive technical aspect of Fright Night. Tom Holland’s writing may not appear the work of a professional Hollywood filmmaker, but he’s confident in his filmmaking technique. He loves fluid dolly movements and uses intercutting action with confidence. His film’s structure may not entirely work, but he races through the proceedings with such gusto that the structure reads as boldly chaotic, not sloppy.
Fright Night struggles with the lack of an interesting hero at its centre, but its brazen structure and two memorable performances do a lot to distract from that crucial weakness. It doesn’t work as a horror film, but as a 1980s oddity it could be a fair deal worse.
5 out of 10
Fright Night (1985, USA)
Written and directed by Tom Holland; starring Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys, and Roddy McDowall.