The concept of Retro Rewind is revisiting films I saw as a teenager in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and viewing them again now through the eyes of a 40-something horror fan in the current era. A lot has changed since the 1980s and 1990s, and I’ll comment along the way on how society has changed and how our perception of these films and the monsters within may have changed over time. Tonight we welcome you to Fright Night (1985).
Let’s talk about how Fright Night made several contributions to horror and brought us horror comedy. It took the vampire out of the gothic castles, moldering tombs, and noble country estates and plopped him into an unremarkable modern suburban neighborhood. Salem’s Lot also brought the vampire to a small town, but he was placed on a hill overlooking the town and not next door. Fright Night gave us a new villain who lived right next door and who didn’t look like a monster most of the time. He could be next door to any of us! This film also brought the vampire out of the capes and dinner tuxedos and into…Cosby sweaters? Other than those sweaters and our current distaste for Cosby sweaters, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) was a sharp dresser and used his good looks to his advantage.
I Noticed Some Cringe-Worthy Moments
I noticed some cringe-worthy moments during the heavier scenes between Amanda Bierce’s Amy Peterson and Chris Sarandon’s Jerry Dandridge. Issues of consent came to mind as I viewed the dance club scene. I also noticed that there must have been a full-service salon on the dance floor somewhere as Amy’s hair and makeup transformed suddenly during the dance floor scene.
Even though Amanda Bierce was 27 years old when the film was made, her portrayal of the innocence of a teenager is convincing, and it made my adult self uncomfortable while watching the scenes between them. She was in high school, and I’m sure Jerry was well over 18 years old, so this was uncomfortable. The ‘lost love’ from the past was an interesting idea but not explored as fully as it could have been. I would have maybe included some flashback scene to depict them from a different time period. The first thing I imagine when thinking of vampires and lost love is Dark Shadows.
Lost love from the past had been done before, though. Let’s take a moment to fully appreciate the special effects of this film. All of the effects were practical effects as there was no CGI. From Amy’s toothy grin to the flying bat on fire, the effects team made something very special here. Evil Ed’s transformation into a wolf-like creature and then back again is a notable moment, as well.
“Demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins…”
We meet Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), host of Fright Night, a late night B movie TV show. He is one of my favorite characters of all time. The character’s name was derived from Vincent Price’s and Peter Cushing’s names, and I consider this nod and a love letter to classic horror. Peter Vincent is an aging G-level actor who has just been fired from hosting his own television show because audiences did not want classic horror films. He sums up the movie trends during the years prior to Fright Night: the early 1980s was the era of the slashers. Jason Voorhees came stalking out of the woods, Freddy Krueger came from your nightmares, and Michael Meyers was killing it on Halloween.
Peter bemoans this slasher craze when he explains that all audiences want are “demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins.” This film provided a welcome alternative to those demented madmen. Vampires had not been a popular box-office draw for quite a while before Fright Night. The villain in this film was eloquent, good-looking, and didn’t quietly stalk young people while wearing a mask and wielding a machete.
Peter Vincent is our reluctant hero and is reluctant to the point of denying the existence of vampires. In homage to Dracula (1931), he detects Jerry’s vampirism using a cigarette case with a mirror inside it. Once convinced, Peter is shaken at the reality that vampires exist. In contrast to Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing from 1931’s Dracula, Peter is visibly panicked and runs away. Van Sloan remained calm and collected in a stiff 1930s kind of way. Depicting the vampire killer being vulnerable and showing the very human emotion of fear was new here. Peter Cushing of the Hammer Horror universe never packed his suitcase to run away from Dracula. He likely packed his bags to hunt Dracula, like Chuck Norris would if he hunted vampires.
Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) is in a difficult situation. What would you do if you believed a vampire was living next door to you? Would you involve the police? Charlie tries to convince the police that Jerry is a vampire. It doesn’t work, and Charlie is made to look unstable or even mentally ill for telling these wild tales and believing them. The police are on the vampire’s side and frustrated with Charlie’s fantasies. Thankfully, Peter Vincent becomes convinced and helps Charlie.
Fright Night Broke Ground
Fright Night broke ground by hinting at potential gay relationships. Jerry’s relationship with Billy is the topic of some speculation within the film. Some subtle hints are made about Evil Ed’s sexual identity. This was progressive for the time, and depicting potential members of the LGBTQ+ community was rare. Jerry reaching out to Evil Ed to offer him the ability to not have to be afraid again was a powerful moment. Jerry appeared to have empathy and understanding for Ed’s situation, although I’m not sure if he was being teased for being gay or if he just didn’t fit in with his peers because of his unusual knowledge about horror. I would have totally been friends with him in high school, though. We could trade comic books and laugh hysterically at Brewster.
Speaking of laughter…The laughs in this film came exactly when we needed them. The combination of horror and comedy is a delicate balance. Too much or the wrong sort of humor and the film becomes a parody of itself. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein had already been made. This film had the perfect balance of scares and giggles. Evil Ed brought a lot of the humor and the last scene depicted him laughing at Brewster, hinting that he survived and will be present for a sequel…. someday.
Fright Night continued with some established rules for vampires in film. Vampires still needed an invitation to enter a dwelling. Daylight continued to be lethal for vampires. Crosses and crucifixes work to repel and injure the vampire, but only if the person wielding the item has faith. The film depicts Peter Vincent struggling with his faith but ultimately finding it. Wooden stakes were still useful in this film. The vampire creatures were new and innovative. What exactly was Billy anyway? Was he a half-vampire? A human? A zombie? Another new and interesting tidbit was how Jerry ate fruit during the film. Despite the cringe-y bits that didn’t age well, I welcomed revisiting Fright Night.