by Steve Habrat
If you are someone who is familiar with the evolution of the horror genre on film, you understand that horror underwent a massive metamorphosis in the 1960s. The more traditional approach to horror films, which means the use of monsters and mutated freaks, was beginning to diminish and the interest in the human monster was growing at a rapid rate. There had been serial killers (Whitman and Gein) and the true embodiment of evil (Nazi Germany) which had shown their ugly mugs to the citizens of America. Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster simply no longer freaked us out and we were instead cowering at the average Joe that lived down the street. One of the first films to openly address the death of one movie monster and the birth of another was Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, which features Boris Karloff playing a version of himself and a Charles Whitman-esque serial killer. Prosthetic movie monsters just weren’t relevant and as times became more and more violent, so did the horror movies. They were unpolished and tattered, grainy and off-putting, economical but effective.
Star Wars and Jaws kicked off the special effects boom in the mid 1970s but it truly gained momentum in the 1980s. This movement did not just mold the blockbuster genre, but it touched horror too. The horror films of the 1980s were loaded with gruesome special effects and new advances in make-up that left audience member’s stomachs churning. We had everything from Freddy Kruger to Evil Dead. We also had 1985’s Fright Night. Fright Night took the old fashioned concept of vampires and smashed it together with the monster in suburbia. The results are a half campy, half eerie merger that stands as a minor classic in the eyes of horror buffs everywhere.
Fright Night kicks off with a collage of shots of quiet suburban streets that look like they could have been plagiarized from John Carpenter’s Halloween. We climb into the bedroom of Charlie Brewster (Played by William Ragsdale) who’s necking with his gal-pal Amy (Played by Amanda Bearse). While they are preoccupied, we see Charlie’s television playing Fright Night, a horror show that presents old fright flicks that feature Peter Vincent (Played by Roddy McDowell), the self proclaimed vampire slayer. Charlie soon realizes that his debonair new neighbor Jerry (Played by Chris Sarandon) isn’t just a smooth ladies man, but a ferocious killer with something to hide. He happens to be a vampire. Jerry realizes that Charlie has discovered his dirty little secret and begins threatening Charlie (One scene involves a petrifying transformation that will knock your socks off), his mother, and his girlfriend. But when Jerry encounters Charlie’s girlfriend, who resembles a woman from his past, the terror around Charlie escalates even further.
What makes the original Fright Night work is its sleepover appeal. It’s a movie you could pop on with a bunch of your friends and watch with beers in hand. It packs a handful of memorable creep outs and some remarkable monster make-up effects. One lady vamp in particular will be etched into your brain for the rest of your days. The effects have aged well since 1985 and will satisfy the skeptics. Remember, they weren’t making movies like Transformers during this era. Yet the effects, which sometimes consist of claymation techniques, are often scarier than the rubbery CGI that’s slapped onto movies these days. They are at least guaranteed to gross the viewer out.
Another reason to seek out the original Fright Night is the panting, wild-eyed performance from Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed, Charlie’s smartass chum who at first provides sarcastic advice on how to dispatch a bloodsucker and then turns into one himself. Ed comes equipped with an icky transformation scene and the neatest make-up of all the demons lurking in the film. Geoffreys disappears into the performance and becomes one of the more memorable bloodsuckers in the history of vampire cinema. The film also benefits from the anxiety-drenched performance from Ragsdale, who is all twitchy desperation. Sarandon is magnetic at the beginning but he seems to run out of steam and he lets his make-up do the work in the climax. It’s a shame because he is uncannily imperturbable at the start.
Director Tom Holland effortlessly mixes gothic horror with suburban normalcy. Jerry’s home is shrouded in mist and moss. I admit I half expected to see toppled graves and headstones littering the backyard. It’s delightfully old fashioned. The film is however derailed by it’s shameless 80s flair, making the film a complete relic of it’s own era. The score is all thumping synths and blaring saxophones, which cause the film to seem painfully dated. It’s also loaded with the expected pastel color palette, especially in a wobbly club sequence. Yet Fright Night is still a relic worth digging up. It has truly classic moments that I’m sure fans that saw the film at the lap up with glee again and again. The film can also be seen as a minor little commentary of belief in good and evil, which suits the conservative Reagan era quite nicely. Furthermore, its use of a more traditional menace makes the film all the more stirring against its political backdrop. It has moments of pure cheese and it will cause you to giggle, but that isn’t a particularly bad thing. It’s a spooky, kooky good time you won’t mind reliving. Grade: B