Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Happy 25th Birthday, Fright Night

Fright Night turned 25 last week. I didn't see anyone mark the anniversary, so I thought I'd raise my own glass. You don't look a day over 20.

Well, that's a lie, actually. Fright Night hasn't aged particularly well. The combination of eighties fashions, Spielbergian idiom (horror comes to suburbia), comedy relief, and gooey special effects is very much of its time. More than that, it's a kind of nostalgia piece in itself, one that pines for the late-night horror show and the classical horror movie (in reaction, I suspect, to the shasher films that were dominating the genre at the time of its release). All of that is receding in time.

Still, it has its pleasures. Prime among them is a barnstorming performance by Chris Sarandon as our urbane vampire, Jerry Dandridge. Is Dandridge the first movie vampire who's smart enough to lock his coffin from the inside? He might be. But he's still dumb enough to play the talking killer with poor hapless Charley Brewster. The rest of the cast isn't up to his screen presence, not even Roddy McDowell, playing a gentle homage to the old school Gothics of the 50s and 60s.

What Fright Night does well is update the vampire archetype into the idiom of the special effects film. Oh, vampires have always had some interesting effects--the resurrection of Dracula in Dracula: Prince of Darkness is particularly creative--but not to the extent of this film. The story is almost incidental, given that the last forty minutes or so are a carnival of prosthetic monsters. The actual action sometimes grinds to a stop in order to watch the effects play out. It's almost as if writer/director Tom Holland looked at a list of the legendary abilities of vampires and picked them a la carte for their effects potentials, then, having paid for the gags, made damn sure he got them on camera, whether it made logical sense or not. The most obvious instance of this is the disintegration of Dandridge's familiar, at which our heroes stand and gawp while Dandridge makes good his escape:

The end result of all this is that we get some pretty good monsters, including one of the movies' first really convincing vampires in monstrous bat form (which the movie emphasizes in its parody footage from one of Peter Vincent's movies depicting a toy rubber bat on a string), a terrific werewolf transformation, and the first real attempt to reconcile the various divergent cinematic images of vampires: the sexy, Byronic anti-hero and the foul ratlike creature of the night; between Dracula and Count Orlock, if you will. As an aside, a friend of mine really resents the fact that the werewolf effects in Fright Night are better than the werewolf effects in just about any actual werewolf movie made since Fright Night was in theaters.

This is also a strangely gay horror movie, not that it's overt about it. I mean, Dandridge and his familiar seem like a gay couple moving into an old home to gentrify it. Amanda Bearse was one of the first prominently "out" lesbians in Hollywood. And Stephen Geoffrey went on to a long career in gay porn. I suppose you can't really blame the film for the later careers of its actors, but the plot asks us to believe that our teen-aged hero is more interested in the two guys across the way than he is in his willing girlfriend. Mind you, I'm perfectly aware of the fact that this last element is cribbed from Hitchcock's Rear Window (which asks us to believe that James Stewart is more interested in his neighbors than he is in Grace Kelly, but I digress). None of it may be intentional, but it still trips the ol' gaydar.

In any event, my experience of Fright Night back in the day was that it was a nice change of pace--the other prominent vampire movies of the 1980s, The Lost Boys and Near Dark, were still two years in the future when Fright Night was released--and that it was a pretty good summer popcorn movie. It works best with an audience, I think, and as a first-time viewing experience, too. I just wish I didn't feel so old knowing that I saw this when it was first released. 25 years went by fast.

1 comment:

Renee said...

Hey, I'm that resentful friend! Woot, I made the review!

But seriously, the Evil Ed wolf thing is awesome for all of the five minutes it's on-screen. Since then, the only transformation I can think of that comes close is Romasanta, maybe. And maybe the transformations in Being Human, which to be fair, are heavily cribbed from The Howling and American Werewolf in London (not that that's a bad thing). We've had 25 years to think about this, we should have more cool werewolf transformations!

Anyway, Fright Night is one of my favorites, dated or not. Perhaps that's why the powers that be have decided to remake it (which I'm against, but there is a little of piece of me that's curious about Colin Farrell in the Jerry Dandridge role).