I have fond memories of this flick. I remember first discovering it with my father in the mid-80s. I’ve written about this before, but I got my love of shitty horror flicks from the old man. We thought we had discovered a real winner with Fright Night. We were expecting something cheesy and low budget. I mean, there was no way this could turn out to be a good movie, right? It stars Roddy MacDowall, for crying out loud. But, Fright Night exceeded both of our expectations. It’s a damn good horror flick, and since it’s now about thirty years old, I think it’s safe to call it a classic.
Written and directed by Tom Holland, Fright Night is both a vampire flick, and an homage to vampire flicks. It features William Ragsdale as Charlie, a high school student in suburban California who believes a vampire and his servant have moved into the vacant house next door. It seems like Charlie is just letting his imagination run wild. After all, Charlie is a lover of vampire films. He never misses a late night broadcast of vampire flicks on a local TV station, hosted by b-movie screen legend Peter Vincent (MacDowall). MacDowall’s character is great. His character is named after, and based loosely on, classic horror film performers Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. In his acting days, Peter Vincent was a Hammer Films-style vampire hunter, with all the Victorian trappings. It’s a shame his career has led to him hosting late-night movies, but once upon a time, it was showcases like these that introduced young viewers to the wonder that is horror cinema.
Because no one believes Charlie’s ravings about his neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (a wonderfully smarmy Chris Sarandon), Charlie convinces himself that only Peter Vincent can help him. Vincent isn’t buying any of Charlie’s stories, but agrees to help Charlie’s friends convince him that Dandridge is just a regular guy. Maybe a bit of a douche, actually, but still human.
The problem is, Charlie is not going crazy or playing an elaborate prank on his friends and family. Dandridge is a vampire (no spoilers here; whether or not Dandridge is a vampire is never a mystery). Most of the film, then, is a dance between Charlie and Dandridge, with Charlie desperately seeking help in his fight, while Dandridge is merely playing with Charlie, like a cat with a mouse. Once Dandridge sets his sights on Charlie’s girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), the battle is truly joined.
Perhaps the best aspect of Fright Night is that it never takes itself too seriously. The movie isn’t played for laughs, either, but there are enough moments of levity scattered throughout that it strikes a wonderful balance. There’s evil afoot, but never all that much darkness. It also helped that, unlike so many other cheap horror movies out there, the cast carried their weight.
The standouts were MacDowall and Sarandon. MacDowall because he was fully aware of where his career had been in the previous decades, which helped his portrayal of Vincent, and Sarandon because he had the most talent in the cast. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of scenes these two shared where they weren’t trying to kill each other. A little more witty banter between the vampire killer and his sly, suave nemesis would have been welcome. Charlie was the main protagonist in this one, however, so the story didn’t call for Peter Vincent being more than a supporting character. That’s not to say that Ragsdale put in a poor performance. He did not. I just found MacDowall’s washed-up movie star to be a more compelling character — one that could play better off of Dandridge — than Charlie.
Fright Night is a film that revels in vampire clichés. Luckily for us viewers, this is intentional, and not the result of bad writing. All Charlie and Vincent know of vampires, until Dandridge shows up in town, is what was in the movies. The fact that these methods work in real life…well, they don’t. This is a movie where vampires turn out to be real from the perspective of the characters, and methods that work in the movies work in this movie because it’s a movie. Get it? Out here on the other side of the screen there are no vampires.
It’s actually a little rare to come across horror films like this that are just so damned entertaining. There’s nothing all that complicated going on, and there doesn’t need to be. The pace of the film is spot on, the plot is good, and so is the cast. Tom Holland made this film look so easy I have to wonder why bad films get made at all.