(1985) Written and directed by Tom Holland; Starring: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall and Stephen Geoffreys; Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
“I have just been fired because nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore or vampires either. Apparently, all they want are demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins.” – Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall)
“It was intent on my part to give Chris Sarandon’s character, Jerry Dandrige, depth and to make him sympathetic at the same time. To make the vampire more interesting as a character…” – Tom Holland (from A.V. Club interview by Mike Vanderbilt)
I’m honored to return for this year’s Great VillainBlogathon, hosted by the incomparable Kristina of Speakeasy, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Karen of Shadows & Satin. Most folks would agree that a great villain is more than one note. They’re multi-dimensional and, at least on some level, likeable. Submitted for your approval is Fright Night’s chief baddie, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), sophisticate, lover and vampire. To paraphrase a certain ubiquitous ad campaign, he’s the most interesting undead man in the world.
With Fright Night, writer/director Tom Holland has managed that rarest of feats, a successful blend of horror and humor. The film works because Holland understands the genre’s conventions, embracing the familiar tropes and bending them ever so slightly. He wisely assumes we already know about vampires, and doesn’t need to re-hash the rules that govern them.
Ordinary teen Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) suspects his new neighbor is a vampire, and the cause of recent serial murders in his town. Unfortunately, he can’t get anyone else to believe him. His frantic attempts to convince others about his murderous neighbor are met with skepticism and derision, as the product of an overactive imagination or mental illness. Influenced by his favorite late night TV horror show, and its enthusiastic host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), he’s resolved to rid the world of the deadly nocturnal denizen.
Okay, let’s face it, Charley is a bit of a dweeb. He’s gawky, excitable, and has the finesse of a wildebeest when dealing with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse). He becomes increasingly oblivious to her, while his obsession with the neighbor continues to grow. But what he lacks in self-awareness, he makes up in pluck. It’s easy to fault Charley for his neglectful attitude toward Amy, yet we still root for him because of his determination to combat the forces of darkness. We want him to prevail, not just because he’s the hero, but because there’s something genuinely honest and decent about his character. He believes in what he’s doing, even if everyone else thinks he’s a nutcase.
It’s no accident that Jerry Dandrige is the most complex character in Fright Night. Holland doesn’t bog us down in extraneous details, but we have enough information to infer Dandrige’s back story. Our minds supply the rest of the details. One nice touch, thanks to Sarandon, was his character’s fondness for apples. As a vampire, we know he doesn’t gain sustenance from them, but it’s a tangible link to his past human self. We also get a hint of his tragic origins from a portrait of a past love, with a striking resemblance to Amy. Even when Charley is attempting to destroy Dandrige, he subconsciously wants to be him. Dandrige is everything that Charley isn’t: suave, cultured and comfortable in his own skin. Although he’s been dating Amy for almost a year, Charley can’t manage to get to second base with her. Meanwhile, Dandrige seduces her on the dance floor, taunting Charley with his prodigious charms.* He takes pleasure from pitting his formidable intellect against Charley’s accusations, cognizant of the fact that everyone knows about vampires, but are unwilling to accept the possibility that they really exist. Sarandon plays Dandrige somewhere between Lugosi and Lee, traipsing the line between entrancing and animalistic. He’s the life of any party he attends, the sort of guy you’d want to hang out with, provided he didn’t drain your body of blood.
* He even manages to charm her into a different hairstyle. Try that, Vidal Sassoon!
McDowall is also terrific, in a suitably hammy role, as Peter Vincent (the name is an obvious amalgamation of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), the “Great Vampire Killer.” After fighting the ranks of the undead on the silver screen, he enjoys a second life as the host of a late night horror show Fright Night. The milk from the cash cow has run dry, however, after his show is cancelled and he faces eviction from his apartment. When Charley seeks his help in defeating a real vampire, Peter concludes that Charley is insane. To Peter, it’s just an acting gig, but to Charley, he’s the real deal. We soon learn the character he plays in the movies and TV belies his timid nature, and confronting his inner demons, as well as one outer demon, will put his skills and fortitude to the test.
Stephen Geoffreys somehow manages to skirt the thin line between obnoxious and amusing, as Charley’s capricious friend Evil Ed. His caustic personality provides a welcome contrast to Charley’s plain vanilla character. Much like Dandrige, there’s an underlying sadness. He’s willing to humor Charley for the entertainment value (not to mention a few extra bucks), but his jokes at Charley’s expense reflect insecurities about being an outsider. Dandrige appeals to his sense of feeling different, recruiting him to join the ranks of the undead.
So much works well in Fright Night that it’s easy to overlook a few of its minor trespasses. After going to great lengths to conceal his identity, Dandrige chooses to make a very public spectacle at the aforementioned dance club, killing two bouncers. It’s also hard to sympathize with Charley’s neglectful treatment of his girlfriend. It’s not surprising when Amy leaves in a huff after he ignores her, but it’s strange that she doesn’t choose greener pastures. But then again, I suppose love is blind.
Fright Night is one of the landmark horror films of the ‘80s, succeeding as a modern horror film and an affectionate nod to the movies that influenced Holland’s formative years. It’s at once familiar and fresh, paying homage to the horror films (especially Hammer) of yesteryear, but taking a more progressive stance with its villain. Fright Night spawned an inferior sequel, and was remade a few years back, which in turn resulted in its own sequel. My suggestion: forget any of those offshoots existed, and go straight to the original.