We continue our journey through a month of frightening, bloody and violent films. For more, check out our 31 Days of Horror homepage.
Synopsis: Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) is just a normal nerdy high school kid whose inconceivably less-nerdy girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) wants to have sex with him. However, Charlie is more interested in what’s happening next door, where he believes a vampire has recently moved in. After a mysterious murder of a local prostitute sparks Charlie’s suspicions, he seeks the advice of local horror fan Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) on how to protect himself. But when it becomes clear that Jerry (Chris Sarandon), the vampire next door, is wise to Charlie’s ways, he begs local TV show host and vampire hunting legend Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) to put the bloodsucker back in the grave.
There are several iconic scenes in this movie, most of which play off the iconic vampire legends and pay homage to the many faces of Dracula. The final confrontation between Peter and Charlie versus Jerry the Vampire is exciting and powerful, but the one that sticks most in my mind is the fate of Evil Ed. After shape-shifting into a wolf and clashing with a terrified Peter Vincent, who manages to skewer poor Ed with a makeshift wooden stake, Ed undergoes a reverse transformation full of pain and pathos. Imagine the classic werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London in reverse, and you have an idea.
While some may consider it tame by today’s standards, Fright Night was quite a gore-fest for 1985. It’s not wall-to-wall violence, but when it happens, there’s plenty of bodily-fluid soup soaking the floor in this film. Along with the gruesome transformation that Evil Ed undergoes, there’s the nasty demise of Jerry’s familiar. Plus, it’s a vampire movie made in the age when vampires were still horrific creatures, so the make-up effects were overblown and cool while the vampire kills were still the work of monsters.
Here’s where I have to look at this film with a sober eye. As a 14 year old kid, watching an R-rated film in the theaters, I was thrilled to just see a shot of the prostitute’s nipples. But compared to the landscape of horror, this was about as titillating as the shower scene in Sixteen Candles. If you’re looking for a blood orgy of the undead, you won’t get it here. Oh, you’ll see Amanda Bearse in her training bra and later in a somewhat sexy gown, but I doubt its a draw for anyone. So, for naive 14-year-old kid in 1985, it’s awesome. For a full grown adult who’s got a copy of Return of the Living Dead, it’s pretty soft.
Even though Peter Vincent is a made-up character, he is an homage to Peter Cushing, who starred in a slate of the Hammer horror films of the 50s and 60s. So as much as this is just a fun teen vampire movie before teen vampires became the new black, it’s also a loving homage to the old-school monster movies. Even with a nice dose of gore and violence, Fright Night goes as much for the thrills and chills. The atmosphere is creepy, especially in Jerry’s gothic home, and if you can stand the pop 80s synth soundtrack, the stalking of Evil Ed is quite eerie. Still, the best part of this film is that no one is off camera throwing a cat into frame. When there’s a scary moment, it’s not a red herring. It’s genuinely something that can kill a character.
Fright Night is a forgotten legacy of horror movies. It’s sad how many times I’ve heard a younger person say they never realized that the pale 3D version that came out this past August was a remake. Just like Peter Vincent is a has-been movie star, Fright Night is the aging has-been horror film. But for anyone – like me – who spent many late nights watching the local creature feature and later questionable VHS rentals, Fright Night is a gem. It was made in a simpler, happier time, a time that no longer exists… when Amanda Bearse was in the closet and Stephen Geoffreys hadn’t started his “other” film career. But watching it today as an adult with an appreciation for 80s horror cinema, like both Bearse and Geoffreys in the film, Fright Night still has plenty of sharp teeth.