Writer: Tom Holland
Cast: William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon, Roddy McDowall, Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys, Jonathan Stark
Running time: 106 mins
What’s the story: High school student Charley Brewster is convinced his new, debonair next door neighbor Jerry Dandridge is a vampire. Can he make anyone believe him before it’s too late?
What’s the verdict: Ah, the 1980s. When vampires were monsters and vampire films had sexual subtext without a glaze of wan-faced mopiness.
Released in 1985, a now-unthinkable time when vampires were passé and slasher movie villains sat astride the horror throne, little was expected of Tom Holland’s Fright Night. Columbia Pictures snuck it out during the decidedly un-spooky summer period to battle such films as Back to the Future, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and National Lampoon’s European Vacation.
This seemed to be a general studio tactic that year, with Day of the Dead and The Return of the Living Dead also shoved out over the summer months.
With Fright Night, this is part way understandable. Tom Holland had enjoyed success as writer of 1983’s good-against-the-odds Psycho II, but was untested as a director. Recent big-budget vampire films The Hunger and Lifeforce had flopped critically and failed to seduce the box office.
Yet, Fright Night unexpectedly hit, making $24m in the US off a $7m budget and drawing good reviews. Reviews which have evolved over the years into the film now being regarded as a horror classic (it currently enjoys a 91% Fresh status on Rotten Tomatoes).
Recipe for success here was the same as every film that stands the test of time: a good cast, a good director, a good script.
The pitch “high school student knows a vampire is living next door but no-one believes him” brims with potential and Holland mines it for humour, warmth and scares. Rather than relying on wisecracks and showboating, Chris Sarandon’s urbane bloodsucker Jerry Dandridge is genuinely witty and suave, delighting in menacing Charley with veiled threats in front of his friends.
In a nice flourish, Dandridge has a habit of biting into fruit which then rots immediately.
Effectively making his debut here, Williams Ragsdale may have been 24 at the time, but is an appealing, fresh-faced lead as Charley, bumbling from one disaster to the next trying to make anyone believe him.
Particularly dubious are the police, girlfriend Amy (Bearse) and pal ‘Evil’ Ed (Geoffreys). The teens enlist Peter Vincent (McDowall), a washed-up actor turned host of regional channel horror show Fright Night, to do a sham vampire test when Charley vows to stake Dandridge himself.
But, even a make-believe vampire killer can’t help but accidentally stumble across the truth…
Eschewing the gross-out comedy of Porky’s or Meatballs, the well-heeled whining of John Hughes’ yoof movies and the production line body count of then-booming slasher franchises, Fright Night finds the sweet spot between funny and frightening, with a laugh interrupting a jump and vice versa.
Much of this heavy lifting is performed by McDowall, beautifully playing Peter Vincent as a ham actor whose glory days are far behind him, finding comfort only in his ego. “What could be more important than my autograph?” he indignantly wonders when Charley tries to explain his undead problem…
And that sexual subtext we mentioned earlier? Fright Night can be read as a story of youthful sexual anxiety, Charley cowed by the more experienced Dandridge.
In an amusing shot, when Charley spots Dandridge and his familiar Billy (Stark) moving in his coffin, the wooden box is framed to look like a monstrous phallus. Later, when Charley spies Dandridge seducing, then killing, an escort, lads’ mags are strewn on the younger man’s floor. Charley can only fantasise, Jerry gets the real thing.
Small wonder the climax revolves around a battle for Amy’s soul, the girl reminding Dandridge of a past paramour.
Giving the audience a full vampire experience, Holland’s direction gushes with technical flourishes. A POV shot along a second-floor ledge swoops into the air as Dandridge takes flight, and his super-human strength is cleverly shown when he yanks a door into its jamb to prevent escape and casually flings open a window nailed shut.
Realising all this is Richard Edlund and his team. Luckily for Fright Night, FX guru Edlund (whose early credits included Star Wars movies and Raiders of the Lost Ark) had just finished Ghostbusters, so could employ concepts whose expensive development had been completed on Ivan Reitman’s movie.
While the likes of An American Werewolf in London, The Thing and Day of the Dead regularly receive plaudits for their visual effects, Fright Night has always been strangely overlooked. Particularly as the knockout climax, when the good guys take the battle to Dandridge, boasts werewolf and bat transformations, that shark-mouth vampire used on the poster and more than one slimy full body disintegration.
And the film tells its story with charm, verve, humour and horror in 106 swift minutes (a feat also achieved in the underrated remake). A now surprisingly difficult to see sequel followed three years later and is long overdue a UK re-release.
If you’re thirsting for a full-blooded vampire experience, this is Fright Night… for real.
EXTRAS: A standard box release of the Zavvi exclusive steel book Eureka put out in 2016, for fans old and new the extras here constitute perhaps the definitive telling of the Fright Night story.
Totaling around six hours of content to sink your teeth into, a treasure trove of material waits to be discovered. In fact, the only grumble is the two commentaries on the now near-impossible to get 2015 Twilight Time 30th anniversary edition are absent.
The centerpiece is the 150-minute making-of, You’re So Cool, Brewster! Featuring interviews, archive footage and production stills, this is one of those lengthy documentaries that is a joy to settle into for the evening. Want to know how John Boorman’s Excalibur influenced an FX moment in Fright Night? The answer’s here, and much more besides.
The 50-minute Fear Fest 2 panel discussion from 2008 also boasts decent information and anecdotal reminiscences on the production, with room made for the sequel and remake.
Shock Till You Drop Presents: Choice Cuts is a 28-minute interview between Tom Holland and Ryan Turek. Holland crops up again in the 10-minute What is Fright Night? featurette and the 9-minute Tom Holland: Writing Horror.
The legendary Roddy McDowall is the subject of wonderful tribute documentary, Roddy McDowall: From Apes to Bats. A 21-minute remembrance, it features archive footage and cast and crew accounts of working with a man who sounded the epitome of old-school charm.
For the hardcore Fright Night fan, Eureka have also included the full 90-minute electronic press kit, packed with production footage, raw interviews, trailers and tie-in music video for J. Geils Band’s title song “Fright Night”.
A look at stills and memorabilia from Tom Holland’s personal collection top off a wonderful presentation of a horror classic. You’re so cool, Eureka…
Like this review? Try out The Electric Shadows Podcast available now for subscription on iTunes or here.