Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Movie Review: "Fright Night" (1985) by David Pretty

Good Day, Fearless Vampire Hunters!

I can tell you right now: I liked the original Fright Night better then the remake.  And its got nothing to do with nostalgia.  Simply put, it took me about a week to do my review of the remake but, here I am, the day after seeing the original and I'm practically chomping at the neck to talk about it.

Before I pop my fangs prematurely, feel free to take a bite out of the film's original trailer:

Oh, those humble 80's trailers...

William Ragsdale plays Charley Brewster, a typical teenager who's main hobbies include dry-humping his white-bread girlfriend and watching crappy horror flicks on late night television.  His fright film diet comes courtesy of the titular "Fright Night", a late night "creature feature" show hosted by washed-up cinematic vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell).

In a nice little nod to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, Charley notices that odd things start to happen after the suave and mysterious Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) moves in next door.  Elaborate coffins are smuggled inside.  Girls who enter the house at night turn up dead the next day.  And then, worst of all, he witnesses Jerry getting his nibble-on and then flapping around the backyard in bat-form.

Naturally, when he tries to convince others that Jerry is an Undead American, he's officially deemed delusional.  No-one believes him, not his mother, not his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and not even social misfit and resident spaz "Evil Ed" Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys).  After Charley sics the cops on his sun-allergic neighbor, the vampire pays him a visit the following night.  During this harrowing encounter Jerry threatens to murder the boy if he keeps crying wolf.  Unable to ignore the threat posed to innocent lives, Charley fights back, knowing that it will likely result in his own perforated neck.

One thing the original film does better is quickly generate tension and atmosphere.  Within the first fifteen minutes Charley starts witnessing things that would make anyone's spider-sense go off the chart.  I also love how Ed tries to placate him by telling him that he has nothing to worry unless the owner of the house actually invites Jerry inside.  Of course, in the very next scene, Charley's mom has the fiend over for tea, partly to quell her son's fears but mainly (we suspect) because that's just what lonely cougars do.

The original also does a superior job isolating Charley from his support system, thus making him desperate enough to seek Peter's help.  In the remake, when Jerry openly attacks the Brewster household, his girlfriend and mom witness the vampire's powers.  In the original, only Charley is privy to this and when he tries to get help, everyone just thinks he's Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs.     

A big beef I had with the remake was how the character of Peter Vincent was updated for modern audiences.  Since no self-respecting television channel shows late-nite monster movies anymore, they had to re-imagine Peter Vincent as theatrical Criss Angel-style Las Vegas stage magician.  Frankly, the connection Charley has with Vincent in the remake is tenuous at best but in the original, their relationship is actually makes sense and becomes a tremendous boon to the story.

Writer-director Tom Holland (who also gave us the killer-doll classic Child's Play) also manages justify Peter Vincent's involvement much better.  Concerned about how delusional and paranoid Charley has become, Amy retains the services of the cash-strapped Vincent to perform a test on Jerry to prove that he's human.  Unfortunately the test backfires and Peter is forced to come to grips with the fact that the teenager isn't making things up after all.  This sets the character up nicely for a redemptive story arc whereby the fallen thespian goes from craven loser to a semblance of his once-heroic on-screen persona.

One department in which the remake is clearly superior is realism.  Now, I know it's downright risible to discuss "realism" in terms of vampire movies, but this difference is worth noting between both films.  In many ways, the first half of the remake often comes across like a low-fi, gritty kind of thriller.  But the original is pure 80's kitch with a nice side-order of gruyere.

Although it's strangely hypnotic to catalog all the godforsaken, antiquated clothes, props and hair "styles" on display, it's also terribly distracting.  Every time actress Amanda Bearse is on-screen I kept getting flashes of Annette Funicello circa the Mickey Mouse Club.   As if that isn't bad enough, Brad Fiedel's completely synthesized score is particularly noxious.  Awful even for its time, I'm tempted to believe the music was actually composed by Herbie Hancock after a cocaine and adrenochrome bender. 

There is compensation, though, in the form of vintage practical sets and special effects.  In the remake, Jerry's house is identical to everyone else's, since the film is set in one of those godawful housing development areas.  Although that's unnerving in it's own right, you just can't beat Jerry's crib in the 1985 flick.  It's appropriately Gothic, and replete with cool, decorative art, massive stained glass windows and a prerequisite creepy basement.  It also seems to ooze copious amounts of bilious back-lit fog from time to time, which I'm surprised some neighbor doesn't mistake for a four-alarm fire.         

And then there's the gloriously rubbery (yet somehow "realer" then CGI) practical makeup, masks and animatronic effects.  I mean, c'mon, how can you not love these iconic and totally creepy critters?

It's also worth noting the state of vampire movies in the early-to-mid Eighties.  In the era of Twilight and True Blood it's hard to ponder this now but before Fright Night came down the pike, vampires were pretty passe.  In fact, this is actually eluded to in a speech that Peter makes to Charley after the boy comes to him for help:

"Apparently your generation doesn't want to see vampire killers anymore, nor vampires either. All they want to see are slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins."
Yep, that's right kiddies, back then vampires really took a back seat to the Jason's, the Freddy's, and the Micheal Myers's of the world.  In fact, Fright Night (along with Lost Boys in 1987 and Near Dark that same year) was integral to keeping the mythic bloodsucker on a pop culture slow boil.  We might call it cliche now, but back then Fright Night was one of the first popular examples of transplanting Bram Stoker's ghoul right into Spielberg-flavored suburbia. 

I just love the cast.  William Ragsdale as Charley comes off as a bit of a dickhead at first as he tries to pressure Amy into giving up her goodies.  But as he's willing to risk life and limb to expose Jerry and keep others from harm he starts to win us back.  His unabashed heroism in the final reel of the film is particularly admirable and by then we're totally in his corner.  Although you can't help but think that he was cast as the poor man's Zach Galligan from Gremlins, he actually delivers the anchor performance amongst the young principals.

Now, I dare you to watch this film and not get completely thrown off by the fact that Charley's girlfriend is actually Marcy D'Arcy from Married...With Children.  That's right, Amanda Bearse plays Amy, and if her horribly dated wardrobe doesn't have you complete distracted, then the fact that she's totally miscast will.

Although she plays cute and wholesome reasonably well, she was actually 25 years old when she made Fright Night.  Frankly, I've seen more realistic "teenagers" in 1950's hot rod movies.  Nevertheless, she really steps up her game when she falls under Jerry's thrall and starts scooting her vampy ass all over the mansion's floor.  This may sound like a bit of a slight, but she actually does a much better job during the scenes when she's supposed to be all evil n' slutty...  

Honorable mention also has to go to Stephen Geoffreys as "Evil" Ed Thompson.  Honestly, the jury is still out for me as to whether or not his line readings in the first half of the movie are inspired genius or the worst in horror film history.  Regardless, by the time Ed gets vamped, Stephen's unhinged performance suddenly starts to make sense and subsequently becomes the stuff of legend.  Witness the following scene, which never fails to crack me up:

Gold, Jerry, gold!  The really amazing thing is not five minutes later Stephen delivers a heart-rending performance which is genuinely upsetting and doesn't leave a dry eye in the house.  It even seems to have a powerful effect on co-star Roddy McDowell who shares the scene with him. 

And how can we not mention McDowell, one of the great unsung heroes of genre cinema?  Here he flawlessly inhabits the role of Peter Vincent.  When he first encounters Charley and begins to suspect that he isn't an adoring fan and is more likely just completely batshit insane, his facial expressions and use of body language makes for some truly inspired comedy.  Whether he's asked to be snotty, noble, dismissive, pompous, empathetic, grief-stricken, condescending, lily-livered or heroic, every turn is note-perfect.  Truly, the cinematic landscape was greatly diminished when McDowell left us.

And then last (but certainly not least) we have Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandridge.  In the immortal words of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Jerry is "one suave motherfucker".  Really, except for perhaps Frank Langella in the 1979 version of Dracula (or, to a lesser extent Christopher Lee in the Hammer films), this was the first time a vampire could move into the neighborhood and actually increase the property values.  He's confident, darkly charming and, back in 1985, his predisposition for eating apples actually made you think that Charley was being paranoid after all.

At every turn, Jerry proves to be consistently slick and cocky.  You always get the impression that he's really reveling in being a vampire.  This isn't a curse to him, he's really jazzed about all these terrific powers.  He also seems to delight in tormenting Charley whenever he can.  As such, it's particularly gratifying to watch his overconfidence evaporate after he underestimates his foes and the tables suddenly turn.         

I really have a soft spot for this flick.  If you can look past its woefully dated exterior you'll discover a film that really helped to drag the vampire myth kicking and screaming into the modern age.  The performances are solid, the kitschy effects are great and the script is more even and full-blooded then the recent remake.  Honestly, it's a lot of fun. 

Just don't buy the soundtrack.    

Tilt: up.

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