Director: Tom Holland
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You might have noticed that I haven’t posted in a few days. There’s a reason for that—it’s been a bad week. I had a minor car accident on Monday that has the potential to get a bit sticky, though I’m still hoping for the best. I spent much of Tuesday evening helping a doctoral student prepare for her oral defense; her reward to me was a Korean-style massage, which involved getting twisted, flung about, and pounded on (actually, it was great, but a lot more active than I’m used to). On Wednesday, I had meetings up the yin yang and then found a ticket for an expired license plate on the hubby’s car, which I had borrowed for the day so the insurance investigator could photograph my car. Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I have no report from Champaign, I missed Ebertfest on the weekend because of work I had to do for the aforementioned doctoral candidate. All in all, not the best atmosphere for creative writing, BUT a very good opportunity to watch something extremely silly to get my mind off my admittedly minor, but still nagging, problems. What better way to do that than to dip into an ’80s horror spoof? Fright Night was just what the doctor ordered.
I have to admit that the 1980s represent one of my favorite movie eras. I’m not necessarily talking about the great films of that decade, such as My Dinner with Andre, Ragtime, Blade Runner, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and others. I’m talking about a certain look, sound, and sensibility of many of the decade’s films that are so much fun to revisit—the big hair, the fashion disasters that we thought were so hip and funky, and the technopop music with a driving backbeat that turns you into a bobblehead whether you like it or not. All of these wonderfully awful ’80s artifacts are on splendid display in Fright Night.
The story is pretty simple. Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a typical horny teenage boy. The film opens with him making out with his perky girlfriend Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse) on his bedroom floor while his favorite TV show, “Peter Vincent: Vampire Killer,” plays in the background. When she refuses to go all the way, Charley gets mad. They’ve been going together for a year, after all. Charley looks out his window to avoid Amy’s hurt gaze. He doesn’t notice that she has moved to his bed and is willing to give him what he wants. He’s too busy watching an elaborate coffin being moved into the house next door. Naturally, Amy is insulted and leaves.
The next day, Charley passes a very attractive woman on the street who is looking for the address of his new next-door neighbor. I had to be told by the hubby that she was a hooker, because a lot of women dressed like her back then—tight, short skirt in an impossibly bright blue; big, blonde hair; shocking nail polish. Naturally, Charley sees her again, stripping in his neighbor’s window. Leering lasciviously at her through binoculars—also a very ’80s accoutrement in movies—he gets a big shock when he sees the man of the house bite her. A very cool shot of three rivulets of blood trickling down her bare back caps the scene.
Charley is sure his new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire. When he tries to confront Dandridge, he is stopped by smarmy Renfield-like houseboy Billy (Jonathan Stark). To stop Charley from snooping, Dandridge trashes Charley’s already trashy-looking car; don’t ask me how that’s an effective deterrent.
Now Charley is in full vampire hunter mode. He insults Amy yet again by his obsession with the vampire instead of her and brings a cop over to the home of the vampire to see the coffin and realize that the murders being reported in town—in a very blasé way, I might add—is Dandridge’s doing. The cop laughs and leaves. Like any self-respecting teen-centered movie, after introducing Charley’s clueless single mother (Dorothy Fielding), she is brought in one more time to perform a plot twist—inviting the vampire into her home—and then is never seen again.
Charley, now in grave danger because the vampire can enter his home at will, tracks Peter Vincent down at the TV studio. Vincent’s show has just been cancelled, and he waves Charley off with the whole “it was just an act” routine. However, Amy and Charley’s nerdy friend Evil (Stephen Geoffreys) somehow finally decide to take up Charley’s cause. Amy appeals to Vincent to help, offering a $500 savings bond as payment. He takes the job, of course, and eventually must help rescue Amy, a lookalike of Dandridge’s lost love, from being turned into a vampire herself.
Like just about every woman alive, I’ve got a thing for vampires. Not like every woman (or man, for that matter), I find Chris Sarandon’s face disturbingly out of proportion—kind of a massive head with a tiny, straight-down nose. Oddly, however, Sarandon as a vampire was kind of attractive. A Keanu Reeves lookalike, William Ragsdale showed about the same acting chops as Reeves—earnest, but not very convincing. At least he couldn’t convince anyone that Sarandon’s character was a vampire. Roddy McDowall had to notice Sarandon didn’t appear in McDowall’s hand mirror to finally believe it.
The film has its obligatory smoky disco scene, with Dandridge in ’80s dressed-to-kill garb hypnotizing Amy and bringing her onto the dance floor. Suddenly, Amy is transformed into an ’80s-style vamp, her perky, barrette-clad hair poofed into serious big hair and her unadorned face painted and seductive. We get a lot of disco-beat close-ups of Dandridge manhandling Amy, putting his hand up her skirt (that even shocked me and the hubby a bit), and then whisking her off to his lair, with Charley in hot pursuit. The corny vampire-hunting scenes in Dandridge’s home reveal some of the silliest-looking vampires I’ve ever seen. Roddy, with his clown-whited hair, is perfection in a seriocomic role, performing with conviction to give the kids in the audience a thrill while maintaining a certain ironic distance.
This isn’t great art, and it’s not even a major comic addition to the vampire canon. But, all the “don’t worry, be happy” vibes of the 1980s found in the abundant tongue-in-cheek horror movies of the era—in its own way, much smarter than the humor of today—still make for a great evening of popcorn movie-watching.