Before Buffy, there was Charley Brewster and Peter Vincent, the vampire-slaying duo in the brilliant 1985 horror-comedy Fright Night. I’ve said before that I’m not keen on the current vampire craze, but I’ll take a well-done, old-school vampire movie, particularly one made in the ’80s, any day.
The first time I saw Fright Night was on cable when I was about eight or nine. I’m pretty sure it was one of the first vampire movies I’d ever seen, and even though I don’t find it terribly frightening nowadays, it did scare the crap out of me back then.
Written and directed by Tom Holland, who also helmed the first Child’s Play (1988), Fright Night does a really great job of combining comedy and horror. It stays true to the conventions of vampire movies while also poking a little bit of fun at the genre, setting the stage for films like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996).
Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), a high school student who loves horror films, thinks his new next-door neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), might be a vampire. By the time he sees a report on the news about a woman who died mysteriously — a woman he saw going into Dandridge’s house — he’s certain of it.
A few nights later, from his bedroom window, Charley witnesses Dandridge getting ready to sink his fangs into a woman’s neck. Unfortunately, Dandridge sees him. When he confronts Charley in his room and tries to kill him, Charley decides he must take it upon himself to destroy his vampire neighbor.
He tries telling everyone about Dandridge — his mom (Dorothy Fielding); his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse); his best friend, “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys); the police — but no one believes him. He even tries to convince “vampire killer” Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), the host of “Fright Night,” the local late-night TV horror-movie showcase, but even he thinks Charley’s crazy.
Worried about their friend, Amy and Ed bribe Vincent into helping them prove that Dandridge isn’t really a vampire. But after visiting his house and noticing that Dandridge has no reflection, Vincent becomes convinced of his true nature.
He’s scared shitless, however, and runs away. But eventually he decides to help Charley defeat his neighbor, at which point the vampire slaying begins.
What makes Fright Night work so well is the performances. Chris Sarandon does a fantastic job as Dandridge; he’s the perfect blend of suave, sexy, creepy, and sinister. The scene in which Charley first spies his neighbor getting ready to sink his fangs into a girl’s neck is extremely effective — the look on Dandridge’s face and his deliberateness as he stares at Charley, pulling down the window shade slowly enough for the teenager to see the long fingernails on his vampire hand and the silver ring he wears, which becomes a running motif in the film. Sarandon could have easily overplayed the part and gone completely over the top, particularly in the scene where Dandridge seduces Amy, but he keeps it subtle. I honestly can’t imagine anyone else playing this role.
Ragsdale also does a wonderful job as Charley, with his wide-eyed consternation and complete conviction that Dandridge is a bloodsucker. He really makes you root for him as he makes valiant attempt after valiant attempt at convincing everyone that he’s telling the truth. Fright Night was Ragsdale’s “big break.” He went on to star in Herman’s Head, a Fox sitcom I really enjoyed, from 1991 to 1994, and the less enjoyable Mannequin 2: On the Move (1991).
Released in August of ’85, Fright Night was well received by audiences and became a surprise hit; in fact it was the second-highest-grossing horror movie of the year, right behind A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. I think it’s one of the best horror films of the ’80s, practically perfect as it stands, but of course there are plans for a remake. I mean, why not? Remaking Fright Night would satisfy two Hollywood trends at once: (1) vampires, and (2) remaking ’80s movies that really don’t need to be remade.
Let’s talk about the soundtrack. While the songs from the original soundtrack album (which is, sadly, out of print) don’t play as big a part in the film as Brad Fiedel’s excellent score, there are some really great tracks from some incredible artists, including Devo, the J. Geils Band, Ian Hunter, and one of my personal favorites, Sparks.
I’d never really paid attention to the Fright Night soundtrack before I decided to write about it for this column, but I wish I had, because I really love it, if for no other reason than it taught me that April Wine originally recorded “Rock Myself to Sleep,” not Starship.
J. Geils Band – Fright Night
White Sister – Save Me Tonight
April Wine – Every Night I Rock Myself to Sleep
Devo – Let’s Talk
Sparks – Armies of the Night
Ian Hunter – Good Man in a Bad Time
Evelyn “Champagne” King – Give It Up
Autograph – You Can’t Hide From the Beast Inside
Fabulous Fontaines – Boppin’ Tonight
Brad Fiedel – Come to Me