By the time Fright Night hit theaters in early August 1985, HIV/AIDS was becoming more known in the heartland. It may have been still referred to as the “gay cancer” in some circles but more people were taking it seriously. A week before Fright Night hit theaters, Rock Hudson had announced to the world that he had AIDS and he was almost toward the end. If Hudson hadn’t been good friends with former actor and current President Ronald Reagan, who knows when we might have heard anything out of the White House about it?
Fright Night, written and directed by Tom Holland (not to be confused with the actor who plays Peter Parker/Spider-Man), is intended to be a love letter to horror fans. But what I like about it is the innocence of how you’re always suspecting the neighbors are up to something if they don’t seem normal. When I was growing up, my house was technically outside the city limits for a while. Most of the houses were built in the late 1960s/early 1970s, but they had constructed a couple of houses at the end of road closer to town in the early 1980s. One of those houses was home to a family for a long time and probably still.
The other house, on the other hand, had many tenants over the years. I was in it shortly after it was built. I would occasionally hang out with the boy who lived there even though he was a year or two older. Anyway, it seemed like every couple of years, people would move out and others would move in. Why did they choose to leave when everyone around them stayed? I don’t know if some family found a more permanent home there since I moved away more than 20 years ago.
Fright Night focuses on a young high school teen, Charley Brewster (Williams Ragsdale) who lives with his single mother, Judy (Dorothy Fielding) in one of those neighborshoods that seems common in Hollywood. It was actually filmed on a Disney backlot that was used for The Absented Minded Professor, Something Wicked This Way Comes and even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Charley is a fan of horror movies and especially a late-night horror show “Fright Night” hosted by Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a former actor who at one time had some success but those days are long gone. The character’s name is an ode to Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.
One night while Charley is supposed to be studying with his girlfriend, Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse), but they are making out while watching “Fright Night,” Charley notices something odd next door as it looks like two men are carrying a casket into the Victorian home’s basement. He’s more concerned over this then getting to second or third base with Amy that she leaves.
At the school and the popular burger joint hangout, Charley can’t keep his mind off the people next door when the news reports the murder of a youngh woman. Charley had spoken with a young blonde woman getting the directions to the neighbor’s house. Later, while he is working on his homework, he hears a woman’s scream next door. What are his neighbors up to?
One of them, Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) catches Charley trying to peek into the basement door. Then, later, he observes Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) with another beautiful woman getting naked and looking like they’re about to have sex. But as Jerry notices him, he closes the blinds and notices Jerry has rather longer than usual fingernails. Later he notices Billy and Jerry loading what appears to be a body into a car.
Ignoring Amy and being taunted by friend, Edward “Evil Ed” Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys), Charley can’t get anyone to believe him. The police laugh him off. And when Judy invites Jerry over, he seems like a pleasant man who enjoys eating apples. Later, Jerry shows his true colors and that he is in fact a vampire and threatens Charley.
Amy and Ed track down Vincent and try to get him to test Jerry to prove he isn’t a vampire. It’s funny how they get Vincent to do it since his show has been canceled because no one likes the classic films anymore, such slashers. And Amy offers Vincent a $500 savings bond. (This is a joke about how McDowall was criticized for often taking roles in schlock because of money.) However, this isn’t schlock. The naivete of a 17-year-old thinking he can prove his neighbor is a vampire to people who don’t and won’t believe him is at the core of the movie.
There’s a little bit of Hitchcock in this movie. The voyuerism is obviously a reference to Rear Window and there’s a little bit ot Shadow of Doubt of someone younger accusing an adult of violent crimes. It also reminds me of Cloak & Dagger released in 1984 that Holland also wrote when a young boy played by Henry Thomas believes spies are out to get him off confidential infomation in a video game catridge. He gets advice from a imaginary friend who he sees as Jack Flack, a government agent. Charley is 17 and still too young to be taken seriously until it’s too late.
The movie is loaded with homoetrotic overtones. Jerry and Billy seem to have a dominant and submissive relationship. When Billy stitches up a wound Jerry gets on his hand, from the angle that Charley is watching, it looks like Billy is going down on Jerry. Earlier, Charlie uses a phallic symbol, a pencil to stab Jerry in the hand when he is threatened. And the stake through a heart is obviously a phallic symbol that is used throughout the movie. It’s never determined what Billy is. He can appear during daytime but bullets can’t stop him. My suspicion is that Jerry was somehow able to to make Billy the undead without turning him into a vampire.
Later, Jerry targets Amy who seems to look like a lost love of his. He is able to hypnotize her when he chases her and Charley into a nightclub. Jerry also goes after Evil Ed who has more than a simple friendship with Charley. I would argue that Ed is in love with Charley but views Amy as competition and goes along with contacting Vincent thinking it can cause further problems between Amy and Charley. When Jerry approaches Ed to turn him into a vampire, there’s almost a daddy-twink relationship as Jerry will be Ed’s master.
I mention this because Geoffreys in a WTF career move went on to appear in gay-male pornos in the 1990s under the name Sam Ritter. Bearse, herself, publicly came out as gay in 1993. But since it was the 1980s, Holland had to keep the homoeroticism more subtle that people didn’t really notice it. Regardless, he does produce a terrifying horror movie with some great special effects and make-up thanks to Richard Edlund who was in charge of it. Edlund did the work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars in 1977.
Holland said making the movie in L.A. came very easy with little interference from Columbia Pictures. That’s because at the time, Columbia was owned by Coca-Cola who was more focused on The Slugger’s Wife, which was filmed in the Atlanta area at the same time. That movie written by Neil Simon and directed by Hal Ashby was a critical and box office disaster. Made on a budget of $7-9 million depending on varius reports, Fright Night was a modest success with about $25 million at the box office. And it also got some good reviews and proving that younger audiences did actually like vampires, paving the way for The Lost Boys and it’s own sequel, Fright Night Part 2, which unfortunately wasn’t a success.
A remake with Colin Farrell as Jerry, Anton Yelchin as Charley, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Ed, David Tenant as Vincent and Imogen Poots as Amy was released in August of 2011 a modest success itself especially for people tired of the Twilight movies. But the original, like a lot of movies from the 1980s, seems to remain confide to the strange time that was the decade.
It’s been reported that Sarandon, who just turned 80, was a delight to work with. He even helped the make-up techs as he was used to doing his own make-up from working in theater. Ragsdale said on one day that Sarandon had gotten into make-up, sitting for hours, only to find out his scene wouldn’t be shot that day for an unspecified reason and just shrugged his shoulders, saying, “Ok.” Sometimes those who play villains on screen are the most pleasant to be around off-screen.
What do you think? Please comment.