Tuesday, October 11, 2011

30 Days of Fright - 10: Fright Night (1985)

Before he tried acting and ended up ruining his career, Dane Cook was a stand-up comedian in the same vein as Denis Leary (that is, he stole his material from others and presented it slightly differently) and one of “his” routines was about everyone having a friend who’s a gobshite. The trick is to look at your friends and identify the one who’s the gobshite; if you can’t it’s because it’s you! This idea almost certainly extends to other character traits both positive and negative and works regardless of the size of your social circle. Consider the handful of people you know well. One of them should be the cool one – if you can’t figure out which it is then congratulations, it’s probably you. Now consider that one of your group is probably deranged...

Fright Night (1985) is set in middle America slap bang in the middle of the 1980’s and features all the delightful trappings of that most wonderful and awful of decades. Charlie (William Ragsdale) is a teenager living with his mother and is going out with girl-next-door type Amy (Amanda Bearse, who played one of the neighbours in Married With Children). Charlie’s favourite TV show is the late night horror movie theatre “Fright Night” presented by self-proclaimed vampire killer Peter Vincent (a nod to both Peter Cushing and Vincent Price played by Roddy McDowall). When Charlie notices one night that his new neighbours are prowling about in the garden moving what appears to be a coffin into the basement, Amy assumes that Charlie has been watching too much TV and isn’t paying her enough attention.

Charlie’s suspicions grow as a spate of murders take place in the area and one of the victims Charlie had seen going into the house next door the day before she turned up dead. Keeping a close eye on the neighbours Charlie spies one of them with a girl one night and notices the fangs, long fingers and nails, and general vampire-ish aspect of the dude before coming to the completely rational conclusion that the lad next door is a creature of the night. The vampire spots Charlie and it quickly becomes clear that Charlie’s life is now in real danger.

Charlie calls on his friend “Evil Ed” (who is properly deranged) for help and some guidance on how best to ward off the vampire next door. Armed with Crucifixes and garlic Charlie prepares to do battle but decides to call in his hero Peter Vincent for some professional help, without realising that just because you play a vampire killer on TV doesn’t really qualify you for doing battle with real nosferatu...

The teenage vampire - arch-enemy of the orthodontist

Fright Night is billed as a comedy-horror and it is to an extent  though the comedy in the film is at times subtle enough not to be noticeable so it rather feels like it’s just another silly vampire movie where a young lad fights a Dracula style baddie. While that analysis is certainly reasonable it doesn’t do the film justice. What Fright Night is at its heart is a fun homage to the Hammer Horror Dracula movies and all those monster-killer films and TV shows of the late seventies. This hits home when you see the effect of one of the vampires in the film rising straight up out of a coffin which is direct from Nosferatu but was perfected in loads of Dracula films. That’s when it occurred to me how Fright Night really saluted the films that inspired it.

The key strength of Fright Night and the thing that separates it so dramatically from more recent vampire films is that it’s so loyal to the vampire myth. All the best bits of vampire lore are present and feature as plot points in the film; you have no power over a vampire if you invite them in to your house and they won’t come in unless invited, vampires sleep in coffins, they can transform into creatures like bats and occasionally wolves and while in bat form they can fly, Crucifixes ward them off as long as the operator has faith themselves, Holy Water is bad news regardless of the religious orientation of the person doing the sprinkling, wooden stakes through the heart will kill them, they have fangs and must drink blood to survive, and most importantly in sunlight they don’t fucking sparkle – they die!

When you see this list of vampire necessities it’s easy to recognise a good list of vampire terms and conditions, but what you’re actually seeing is the interpretation of the vampire myth that was codified by all those Hammer Horror films and their ilk. The idea of a vampire with all the trappings, like the Holy water and the coffins is no more traditional than the notion of a daywalking vamp (though the spakling thing is plain old bullshit).

Fright Night makes its rediculous setup work well by leaning on younger actors who seemed to have a good time making the film and perhaps because of this the quality of the acting was raised to a standard slightly higher than necessary. Don't get me wrong, everyone in this picture is hamming it up as much as they can, but that's the point and it works well. McDowall as the vampire hunter and Chris Sarandan as Jerry the vampire knock the most craic out of  their roles as they have by far the most interesting characters, with the possible exception of Evil Ed played by Stephen Geoffreys. Evil Ed (or just Evil to his friends) is brilliant, a rare character in a film as he’s actually a bit of a character and one who is nicely mental. In an odd twist, Geoffreys went on to have a successful career in hardcore gay porn (I know this from IMDB.com, not from experience!) so he's either living the dream (his own personal dream that is) or he's living the cliche.

The special effects used in Fright Night are pretty good and along with the treatment of the source material are a highlight of the film as at the time the option of CGI wasn’t available and animation effects had backfired too often to be really usable leaving only physical models as the best option for creature effects, and they're used really well. The creatures like the bat-like monster near the end and the vampire skeleton are excellent but some of the make-up effects don't stand up to scrutiny (or High Definition) as well as they might.

Fright Night has all the silly elements of a film of its day but it also has all the best elements as well. The vampires are what you expect, the characters are likeable, and in the end it all boils down to a good old fashioned fight between good and evil, so you know who to cheer for. Fright Night is a great slice of 80’s Americana; it’s easy to see why there’s a remake.

Two Thumbs Up for Fright Night.

Links to a film about "Trad Vamps" (which would be a cool name for a Ceili band)

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