CULT CORNER: Fright Night (1985)

No, not the Colin Farrell one. John revisits Tom Holland’s original classic. 

Who made it?: Tom Holland (Director/Writer), Herb Jaffe (Producer), Columbia Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys.

Tagline: “If you love being scared, it’ll be the night of your life.”

IMDb rating: 7.1/10.

Not many vampire movies standout in the horror crowd when it comes to re-inventing the sub-genre for modern audiences. The Lost Boys (1987) portrayed vampires as young, sexy teenagers with long hair and motorcycles, making them very much the vampires for the MTV generation. Fright Night was equally as impressive and creative in terms of bringing the garlic-hating monsters right up-to-date. With a brilliant execution of such a simple story, Fright Night is one of the most enthralling vampire movies ever made.

Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a typical geeky teenager who lives a quiet life in the suburbs with his mother. But when he discovers that his new next-door neighbour, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire, his whole world is turned upside down. With nobody willing to believe him, Charley enlists the help of Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a British thespian famous for portraying a vampire hunter on the silver screen, and now resigned to being a TV host for a late-night horror show called “Fright Night.” The unlikely pairing must work together in order to vanquish the creature of the night that is terrorising their hometown.

Produced on a budget of just over $9 million, Fright Night was written and directed by Tom Holland, who would have further genre success with Child’s Play (1988). After becoming a successful screenwriter in Hollywood with films such as the underrated Psycho II and cult favourite Class of 1984, Holland decided to make his directorial debut with Fright Night, mainly because he was bitterly disappointed with the result of the film Scream for Help, which was made from his original script. The resulting film features some amazing make-up and visual effects, with Richard Edlund (Star Wars, Ghostbusters) being responsible for leading a team of talented artists to create an array of mind-blowing sights on such a small budget. The transformation of a wolf into a teenage boy and a swooping vampire bat are among the many great effects showcased in this movie.

Fright Night has a very interesting cast, too, with young and old complementing each other very effectively. The actors who really standout and carry the film are McDowall, Sarandon and Ragsdale. Sarandon (Dog Day Afternoon) is perfect as the vamp next-door, Dandrige. He breezes through his performance, interchanging between charming, suave, evil and sinister. He manages to pull-off the alluring nature of the creature and the psychotic tendencies of a killer effortlessly.

McDowall (Planet of the Apes) is a treat to watch as this movie’s Van Helsing. It is clear from his performances in both Fright Night and the eventual sequel that McDowall relished his role. So much so, that he was very keen to once again reprise the role of Peter Vincent in a third outing. He was so eager for Holland to return to the franchise that he set-up a meeting with him and Carolco Pictures chairman Jose Menendez. But Fright Night: Part 3 wasn’t meant to be, as a cruel twist of fate intervened, with Menendez and his wife being murdered by their two sons. This untimely tragedy would also have a big effect on Fright Night: Part 2, with limited theatrical distribution followed by a swift home video release.

Ragsdale is believable as a hapless teen and his intense performance makes you really invested in the character. He had lost out to Eric Stolz for the role of deformed teenager Rocky Dennis in Mask (1985), but luckily for him, the casting director was impressed with his audition and recommended him to Holland for the role of Brewster. After several auditions, Ragsdale fittingly got the news of landing the role on Halloween night 1984, fending off stiff competition from a host of young actors including Charlie Sheen.

When watching Fright Night, it’s hard to believe that, at the time of production, the film had the lowest-budget for Columbia Pictures’ offerings. The studio never had high expectations for it, as they were focusing their attention on the hopeful blockbuster Perfect starring John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis. Holland said, “They never even came to the set. I was left alone. It was totally my film without studio interference.”

I first became aware of Fright Night back in the 80s when I was a shy little kid browsing for scary video covers in a local shop. One cover in particular always stuck out for me: an illustration of a lonely house at night with a terrifying vampire face forming out of the clouds above. I grew up always wondering what this mysterious film called Fright Night was all about, but it wasn’t until my 20s that I finally got to see it. And as soon as I pressed play on my DVD, I was immediately captivated by this amazing vampire movie, falling head over heels in love with it, quickly making it one of my favourite horror films of all time. Growing up in the quiet English suburbs, I instantly connected with the story and character of Charley Brewster.

As a kid, I was always scared of strange noises in the night and terrified of the thought of monsters lurking in the shadows of my bedroom, which is probably why Fright Night sucked me in like it did and refused to let go until the film ended. I believe what makes the movie so effective and scary in parts is that its set in peaceful suburbia, where life is pretty boring and nothing really exciting ever happens. You feel safe in this pleasant environment and never expect any form of danger to arrive on your doorstep, as opposed to living in a bustling city where crime tends to rear its ugly head more often.

Fright Night was released on August 2, 1985, and was a surprise hit at the box office, grossing $6,118,543 on its opening weekend, going on to to make $24,922,237 domestically. The film became the second highest-grossing horror film of 1985, with the terrible sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge stealing the top spot.

With a perfect blend of horror and comedy, Fright Night is a film which, in terms of story and characters, never dates (even if the fashions do). And the fact there was a remake in 2011  just shows you how effective the original was.

Best Scene

Even vampires need a little help sometimes. And what better than a hound from hell to do your bidding?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • According to Chris Sarandon, he wanted Jerry to whistle “Whistle While You Work” rather than “Strangers in the Night” when first confronting Charley, but Disney would not give their permission to use the song.
  • When Stephen Geoffreys is buried under the werewolf mask, the FX team poured a solution into his mouth to add a thick saliva-like texture and then realized they’d used dental adhesive, which was gluing the actor’s mouth shut.
  • Director Tom Holland sought out Brad Fiedel to score the movie because he had been impressed by the music in The Terminator.
  • Frustrated that they’d never been asked to do DVD extras, all of the principal cast members except Amanda Bearse (who was unavailable at the time but has participated in other reunions) recorded two “pirate commentaries” which were made available as mp3s on the Icons of Fright website.

John Cowdell

I have been writing and producing short films for over ten years and are now branching out into film reviews.

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