Adamantium Bullet

Cult Blender #16: FRIGHT NIGHT

CULT BLENDER spotlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of the cult film world. Direct-to-video, b-movies, drive-in classics, Hollywood flops, and misunderstood gems are all here, awaiting rediscovery or to be seen for the first time.

The following is reprint of a review originally posted on 10/19/10:


PLOT: Teenager Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) becomes convinced that his new neighbor (Chris Sarandon) is actually a vampire. He enlists the help of a local horror movie show host (Roddy McDowall) to deal with the menace. Anyone who says this sounds like DISTURBIA gets a punch to the face. I’m not kidding.

THE RUNDOWN: Long story short, FRIGHT NIGHT is a classic. I’m not going to bore you with an analysis of the film or my thoughts on why it is a classic. I’m simply going to say that if you haven’t seen it, you need to (especially if you’re a horror movie fan). And I’m going to say that if you think DISTURBIA is better, you need to get your head checked.

The last time I discussed this movie with anyone, little punk kept referencing to the fact that he thought that DISTURBIA was the better movie and that NIGHT ripped it off. Yes, I quickly informed him that NIGHT pre-dates the Shia LaBeouf home invasion flick by about…oh, fifteen years, but he still insisted that it was the better film and that it was the best “hero spying on neighbors” flick ever made.

I disagree. If we’re getting technical, REAR WINDOW is the best film in this sub-genre and it is the film that both NIGHT and DISTURBIA are riffing on. Outside of age differences and circumstances, the plots are identical. Hero discovers that one of his neighbors is actually a killer and no one believes him. Things go down, a few failed attempts to stop the killer occur and then there’s a big action finale. It’s all very set in stone and all three of these movies follow the rules of the genre to a tee.

And while I love REAR WINDOW and I acknowledge that is the best this genre has to offer (DISTRUBIA is pretty good too, for what it’s worth), my heart belongs to FRIGHT NIGHT. Maybe it’s the addition of vampires, maybe it’s the inclusion of Roddy McDowall, but something about this flick speaks to my soul. I love horror flicks, I love vampire flicks and I love this genre, so to combine all three of them together is to make the filmic equivalent of peanut butter and chocolate. In other words, it’s all good.

My first experience with this FRIGHT NIGHT was when I was about eleven years old and I was constantly renting VHS tapes from my local video store. Don’t remember the name of that place now, but they had dollar movie rentals and they didn’t care what age you were. This was the kind of place that allowed an 11-year old kid like me to rent everything from DIE HARD 2 to FRIDAY THE 13th and everything in-between.

This was back in the day when you just rented a movie because it had cool box art. I can vividly remember picking up movies like KING KONG LIVES, DEATHSTALKER 2 and ELIMINATORS based solely on their badass cover art. And while those movies all pretty much sucked, FRIGHT NIGHT was one of the rare movies that was just as great as the box art that concealed it. I mean, seriously, just take a look at that poster above. That’s a sweet, sweet bit of 80s art there and I’d kill (well, maybe not kill) to have it framed in my house.

Plus, that poster clearly states who is involved with the flick. No small credits here, but big bold ones. And while my 11-year old self didn’t know as much movie knowledge as my 31-year old self does, I did recognize some of the people listed. I knew the name Richard Edlund from his involvement with GHOSTBUSTERS which was my favorite movie at the time (still a personal fav, but my 11-year old self watched the hell out of that movie). Turns out, FRIGHT NIGHT was Edlund's follow-up to GHOSTBUSTERS and he brings the same magic here that he did there.

Though, to be honest, his FX work is the only real gripe I have with the movie. For NIGHT to be so hellbent on paying homage to the old-school horror flicks of yesteryear, it certainly does take a left turn into 80s genre-land in the last act. It’s all very cool stuff, but it kinda betrayed the movie that came before it. Subtlety is tossed out the window in favor of FX and the suspense is downplayed to make way for crazy creature effects. Not a deal killer, but I wish director Tom Holland had stayed true the entire film.

The other name I recognized was Roddy McDowall and his name alone made sure I rented FRIGHT NIGHT (well, his name and the badass cover art). McDowall is one of those actors who was a permanent fixture of my youth, whether it be in person (THE CAT FROM OUTER SPACE, SCAVENGER HUNT, BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS), behind heavy make-up (the PLANET OF THE APES films and tv show) or just his voice (THE BLACK HOLE, GOBOTS: WAR OF THE ROCK LORDS). And outside of a dud here or there, McDowall making an appearance almost always meant you were in for some good b-grade fun.

Which makes all the more ironic that he’s playing a washed-up b-movie actor hosting a local cable horror show. To say this performance is one of McDowall’s best is an understatement. Peter Vincent IS Roddy McDowall and this is the best he’s ever been. Better than Caesar/Cornelius/Galen in APES, better than of any of his disaster movie appearances or TV guest starring roles and definitely better than FUNNY LADY (not his finest hour, let me tell you). The only role of his that even remotely comes close to his work here is his bit in CLASS OF 1984, but I’m side-tracking. This is the best McDowall had ever been, plain and simple.

So, I plunked down my four quarters for FRIGHT NIGHT, headed over to a buddy’s house (despite being given carte blanche to rent whatever I wanted, where to watch said movies was another matter altogether) and we kicked back to watch some horror, Dr Pepper and Twizzlers in hand. Two hours later, I was changed.

FRIGHT NIGHT isn’t some slasher pic or haunted house movie, but rather a classic monster movie re-envisioned for the 80s. Our lead vamp, Jerry Dandrige, is a straight up vampire in the mold of Dracula. No fancy new rules on how to kill him or crazy transformations. The classic rules are in play here. Stakes, sunlight, garlic, crucifixes and holy water will kill him, but be warned, Jerry can change into a bat, a wolf, mist and even a demonic version of himself. And if you’re gonna start waiving a crucifix at him, you better have faith because otherwise that cross ain’t nothing but a trinket.

Further backing up the Dracula connect is the fact that Jerry takes a liking to Charley’s girlfriend. Just like Drac’s obsession with Mina, Charley’s gal Amy reminds Jerry of a long-lost love. And just like with Mina and Drac, Amy quickly succumbs to the devilish vamp’s charms.

It’s a classic story that’s been done to death, but done with a new spin that makes it feel fresh. But I don’t really need to tell you this, do I? You’ve seen FRIGHT NIGHT, right? And you’ve, no doubt, got it in your Halloween queue this season and plan on re-visiting it like I did, right? So let’s cut with the analysis and take a tiny peek at some of the stuff that has altered over the years. You know, the things that play a little differently now than they did then.

For one thing, the entire subplot about Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) and Dandrige takes on a whole new meaning when you apply a little real world perspective to it. Back in the day, the idea here was simply that Ed became one of Dandrige’s flunkies. Ed was a lonely boy who wanted acceptance and he found it in the eyes of a vampire. Basically, he’s the Lucy character of FRIGHT NIGHT only a dude instead of a lady.

However, now when I see this flick, I can’t help but pick up on the homoerotic overtones that are all over the Dandrige/Ed scenes. Every aspect of these moments is really, really different now and it adds a deeper layer to the entire movie. Like, for instance, I never noticed all the little moments where Ed is gushing over Charley. As a child, these moments were simply interpreted as guys being guys. As an adult, I realize that Ed probably liked Charley in a way that Charley didn’t even know about. And getting back to the real world comment, if you take into the fact that actor Geoffreys ultimately ended up in gay porn, it really does hammer home the fact that Evil Ed was probably gay.

Another thing that I noticed as an adult is the fact that Dandrige’s main flunky Billy Cole (a name that immediately reminds me of THE LAST BOY SCOUT) doesn’t make any sense. In the finale, our heroes discover that Cole is capable of surviving multiple gunshots and only dies by having a stake rammed through his heart. Yet, earlier in the film, Cole is clearly seen walking around in daylight. What’s the deal here? Is this is a plot flaw or was Cole something else altogether? Some of the FRIGHT NIGHT boards seem to imply that he might have been a demon rather than a vamp, but the movie never clearly states this.

Finally, I think the reason that FRIGHT NIGHT might not respond with today’s audiences and why DISTURBIA does is the difference in technology. Back in 1985, horror show hosts existed and kids watched them. I can vividly remember watching USA every Friday and Saturday night to have cheap b-grade flicks fed to me by the lovely Rhonda Shear. Joe Bob Briggs and his Monstervision was a welcome favorite and I recall a guy dressed in red, white and blue showing movies every Saturday afternoon. Don’t remember him name, but I remember his face. That’s stuff that my era can relate to and that’s why FRIGHT NIGHT works with people over a certain age.

DISTURBIA, on the other hand, is about modern tech and ideas. Kids with Ipods uploading vids of the killer next door straight to YouTube while playing the XBOX 360. They don’t need fearless vampire killers like Peter Vincent to help them because they themselves are fearless due to a enhanced sense of anonymity. Instead of a vampire, the audience gets a serial killer which, in essence, loops the entire thing back around to REAR WINDOW. Should it be a surprise that the FRIGHT NIGHT remake is hitting theaters next year? Does this mean that a couple years after that we’ll be getting a DISTURBIA remake (there’s already been a REAR WINDOW remake, for those still with me)?

It should come as no surprise, however, to find out that the remake ditches the Peter Vincent character altogether. Well, not altogether, but the idea of him is gone. The remake’s Vincent is a Criss Angel-styled magician played by David Tennant. And while the idea of Tennant on the big screen is a damn fine one, I’m slightly annoyed. Couldn’t they have simply made him a washed up DTV star or something? The whole magician angle is…odd. Also odd is the location shift from small town America to Las Vegas. Yeah, you read that right, the new Charley now lives in Vegas, a town perpetually bathed in light. Oh and the whole thing is being filmed in 3D. Wow. Big shock.

But I guess that’s what is needed for today’s audience. Flashy visuals, 3D, bigger stars (Tennant might not ring any bells to those not aware of DOCTOR WHO, but NIGHT 2.0 also features Colin Farrell, the kid who played Chekov in the Abrams’s version of STAR TREK, McLovin’ and Toni Collette) and a bigger location, all the things needed to keep the teens of today interested in movies. Subtlety is a lost art.

The original FRIGHT NIGHT is a classy, old-school picture. It’s full of great moments, wonderful performances and some legitimate scares. It’s a callback to a time when horror movies were simpler and more pure. Chances are, you already know this and love the flick just like me, but if you’re not already hip to what NIGHT is offering, give it a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

BODY COUNT: 7. Two hot babes are killed early on, both off-screen. A bouncer gets his throat slashed and another has his neck snapped, Evil Ed gets staked (though he may not actually be dead), Cole is shot and staked and Dandrige gets a sunlight bath causing him to explode.

NAKEDNESS: There’s a topless brunette early on and a ton of shirtless Chris Sarandon. Amanda Bearse (known mostly for her role on MARRIED WITH CHILDREN) goes semi-topless in a tasteful sex scene late in the film and the ladies get a Evil Ed ass shot. Be warned though, Ed has a stake in his chest during the aforementioned nude scene, so it’s not really “good” nudity.

IDIOT MOMENT: After his very first confrontation with Dandrige, Charley (knowing full well at this point that Dandrige is a vampire, can fly and has super strength) sits down with his back turned to an open window. WTF?!? Nail that window shut and cover it with crucifixes and garlic, dumbass!

SIGNATURE MOMENT: Not really a signature moment here, but rather a signature character: Peter Vincent. This is Roddy McDowall’s finest hour and you almost wish there was an alternate universe where his character had an entire series of films where he hunted vampires. Man, that would be sweet.

VERDICT: Classy, timeless and one of the greats, FRIGHT NIGHT is almost the perfect Halloween movie. If you haven’t guessed already, I’m a fan and whole-heartedly recommend this one.

TRIVIA (courtesy of IMDB): The character Peter Vincent is named for two actors well-known for their appearances in horror movies: Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.

Chris Sarandon spent as many as eight (8) hours having vampire makeup applied. Stephen Geoffreys spent as many as twelve (12) hours having werewolf makeup applied, which was required twice.

Tom Holland had total control in the casting decisions. The only suggestion he got was from Guy McElwaine who asked Holland to meet his friend Roddy McDowall, who'd be cast. In an interview Holland said that "it was a terrific suggestion".

A puppet that was created for, but not used in, another Columbia Pictures production, Ghost Busters (1984), is visible in Fright Night (1985).

Chris Sarandon and director Tom Holland re-teamed three years later for CHILD'S PLAY (1988).

Posted by J. Bryant

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