Some long overdue appreciation is due for the best American example of a cinematic tale of the undead from the 1980s. No, not Joel Schumacher’s bore The Lost Boys. Not even Kathryn Bigelow’s overpraised Near Dark. No, for my money the best vampire tale of the 1980s belongs to the Class of 1985: Tom Holland’s scary and funny Fright Night. Thanks in no small part to two great performances, Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandridge, the vampire next door, and an Oscar-worthy turn by Roddy McDowall as a ham B-movie actor reduced to hosting horror flicks on a local TV station who finds himself having to fight vampires. For real.
Fright Night is that era’s vampire film that’s worth inviting into your home. (I’m not joking about McDowall and Oscar either. Klaus Maria Brandauer in Out of Africa and William Hickey in Prizzi’s Honor earned their supporting actor nominations, but McDowall deserved recognition over Don Ameche in Cocoon, Robert Loggia in Jagged Edge and Eric Roberts in Runaway Train.)
As the notes in the Fright Night DVD indicate, the movie is a variation on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and the boy in this question is high school student Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale, before he vanished into the Fox sitcom world of Herman’s Head). He’s a huge fan of the horror movie TV show hosted by Peter Vincent (McDowall), has a girlfriend named Amy (Amanda Bearse, also in her pre-Fox sitcom days before Married ... With Children) and a goofy friend named Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys, whose post-1980s credits, according to IMDb, consist mainly of hardcore porn). Charley also has a new neighbor moving in next door.
One night while fooling around with Amy in his bedroom, Charley notices the new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge, and his Renfield-esque handyman Billy (Jonathan Stark) carrying what appears to be a coffin into the house. Amy, who finally was ready to surrender her virginity to Charley, leaves the house in a huff. What Charley saw convinces him to turn voyeur and he happens to catch Jerry in the window of his house about to have a sexual tete-a-tete with a hot naked woman—something that will grab the attention of most horny teenage boys. Only in this case, the penetration that Charley almost witnesses isn’t sexual—it’s Jerry’s fangs about to plunge into the young woman’s neck. Unfortunately, Jerry spots Charley as well and quickly closes the shade before finishing his kill.
Needless to say, Charley’s friends and his mom don’t buy Charley’s story—Amy even thinks that it may be a ploy to win her back into his good graces. Charley doesn’t have better luck with the police either, who can’t believe they fell for this kid’s story about a murder when he’s really claiming it’s the work of a vampire. Jerry, however, knows what Charley saw and that he’s a threat. Easily finagling an invitation into Charley’s house from his man-hungry single mom, Jerry pops in for a visit—laying the groundwork for his plan to take care of Charley. When he arrives later in the night, whistling “Strangers in the Night” no less, he insists to Charley that he doesn’t want to kill him and he’s going to give him something Jerry didn’t have—a choice. Charley doesn’t agree to stay mum and manages to escape Jerry’s murderous intentions and decides to turn to Peter Vincent for help.
Charley catches the actor on a particularly bad day—he’s just been fired from his TV job because his ratings have dropped. As he laments to Charley, kids don’t want to watch vampire killers anymore. They prefer “watching demented men in ski masks hacking up young virgins.” Vincent feels sorry for Charley, but he’s also convinced that the kid needs psychiatric help. When Ed and Amy discover Charley setting up his bedroom for defense and sharpening stakes for a planned assault on Jerry’s house, they decide to give Peter Vincent another try, hoping he can talk sense into their friend. Vincent agrees to help prove to Charley that Jerry isn’t a vampire—for a $500 savings bond. The actor and the three teens visit Jerry with the intention of faking a vampire test so that Charley will back off—only something happens that manages to convince Peter that perhaps Charley is telling the truth.
Peter—a coward at heart—hastily makes plans to leave town, but not before Jerry has abducted Amy, who bears a startling resemblance to a past love, and turned Evil Ed into a vampire, who stops by Vincent’s for a visit. Later, Charley shows up and convinces Peter that they are Amy’s only hope and it leads to the nearly 30-minute climax that takes place almost exclusively inside Dandridge’s house as Charley and the ham actor prepare to battle the undead.
What makes Fright Night such a hoot to this day, on top of the great performances, is the deft blending of humor and suspense that Holland manages to build in his story. Peter’s lament about what kind of horror movies kids want to watch in the 1980s seems a direct criticism of the endless Friday the 13th installments and similar films that seemed to be Hollywood’s main attempts at horror in the 1980s. Those dreadful wastes of celluloid about Jason helped to make Fright Night such a refreshing change of pace.
What also set Fright Night apart from other mid-1980s horror efforts is that it didn’t look cheap. I’m sure it didn’t have that big a budget, but it looks as if it could have with sharp visuals, effects and sets. It also has a great techno score by Brad Fiedel aided by some typical 1980s technopop-type songs that certainly date the film but don’t in any way diminish the film’s fun.
The film also manages to revitalize many clichés, from the redemption of a fallen hero (in the case of Peter Vincent) to brief asides to teen sex comedies and truly modernizing the role of the charismatic vampire through Sarandon’s witty and wicked performance. While Ragsdale, Bearse and Geoffreys are serviceable, Fright Night wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for Sarandon and McDowall, two old pros who could have phoned it in for a paycheck but who raise the film to the level of a true, if underappreciated, classic of the horror and vampire genres.
Edward Copeland is founder of the blog Edward Copeland on Film.