Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fright Night

Vampire lore has had many types of themes over the last century of filmmaking.  The very story of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" had within it a love story of sorts, making it less of a horror story and more of a tragedy.  Sometimes, the vampire films we see are mostly monster movies featuring the bloodsucking character as a villainous monster.  Other times, the character is seen as a protagonist, siding with humans and even caring for them.  One theme that I hope the history of vampires in film will stay away from is the Twilight saga motif, where it's mainly a love story involving glittery vampires as a secondary theme—ugh!

As long as all the recognized rules are featured, I'm okay with it.  To be clear, vampires can be destroyed by sunlight and a wooden stake through the heart, they can't come in to one's home without being invited in by the owner, they can be harmed—if not destroyed—by garlic or blessed holy water or even touched by a crucifix.  Those are the main elements as to protect oneself from a vampire.  Other fundamentals about vampires in film are that they cannot cast a reflection and—depending upon the movie or story—they may be killed by silver.  I don't know when the silver mytho was established into the legend, perhaps within the Blade film franchise or comic book run, but it's understood now that that could be a defense against them in horror movies.

Between the decades of the late 20s into the early 60s, horror movies were pretty tame when it came to bloodletting or seeing someone—or something—getting killed.  It wasn't until the 60s and 70s—especially with Hammer Studios—that moviegoers were able to see some gore associated with vampire film mythology.  However—and maybe I'm a little biased in my opinion—I think the 80s was the best decade for horror films.  Whether it was creature features, vampire, zombies, werewolf, slasher or what have you, the 80s were the best.  Even with today's perfection of special effects and better cinematography, it can't hold a candle to 80s horror.

One of my favorite vampire films of the 80s was a little gem in 1985 called Fright Night, written and directed by Tom Holland.  Now Holland has had an interesting career as a writer and director of some of my favorite films.  He wrote the screenplay for Psycho II, which I thought was a worthy, and above average, sequel to Hitchcock's masterpiece.  Not only did he write and direct Fright Night, he also did so for Child's Play and Thinner.  If you get a chance, you should check out The Psycho Legacy; he really seems like a nice guy and enjoys recounting anecdotes about being involved in the sequel he had written.  I really wish he'd been involved in more movies back then because he really knew how to capture the feel of that decade and what moviegoers wanted to see back then.  If you grew up in my generation, then you know what I mean, especially when you watch this movie.

The film begins with high school sweethearts, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) and his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), making out in his upstairs room as the late night show, "Fright Night," hosted by the famed 'vampire killer,' Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), is playing on TV in the background.  In the middle of the session, Charley hears new neighbors moving in and looks out the window to see two men appear to be
carrying a coffin into the house.  Charley, from then on, becomes obsessed with the mysterious men, especially after seeing women show up to the house and then hearing reports on the news of the same women missing or turning up dead.  As Charley keeps on eye on the new neighbors, and after seeing one of the men, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), upstairs with a woman, noticing the characteristics he displays, it leads him to suspect Jerry is a vampire.

There's no denying this film is from the decade of the 80s when you view it.  The sets, attire, music, and style of filmmaking give it away for sure.  But that's a good thing, because I really miss the cinematography and style of movie sets you see in films like these.  For years I had thought that this movie was filmed at Universal Studios, thinking that Charley's street was the "Mockingbird Heights" portion of the back lot—I'm not sure what studio it was filmed, but it has that same quality feel to it.  Unfortunately, that's what today's movies steer clear from, for some reason...the filmmakers, I guess, don't want to feature the surrealism of a nice neighborhood or small town to be caught on camera.  I think they believe audiences won't buy into it, but, in fact, we want to go somewhere unlike the place we currently live.  I don't know...maybe they just don't want to make their pictures look the way 80s films did back in the day.

Speaking of the 1980s, one part of the film that really sends it home to let you know you're watching something from that decade, is the night club scene.  It seems that films from that era always had to make sure they featured some pop music to establish credibility of the filmmakers that they know what's hip.  On the contrary, however, the scene in the night club when Jerry is able to hypnotically keep Amy within his reach and have her dance with him is a pivotal scene.  Added to that passage of the story, you see Amy's point of view when her and Jerry are dancing in front of the club's mirrored walls and she sees that Jerry doesn't cast a shadow.

Now, Jerry Dandrige is more than your typical vampire—he's definitely a monster when called for and Chris Sarandon plays the part well.  He does the charming mystery man who has that slight edge of evilness in his smile quite well and at times he can be pretty terrifying—of course, it helps when you have some pretty terrifying prosthetics added to your body to make you look like a monster.  But there are times when he gives Charley that look that says he's going to kill him...soon...and it makes you feel the dread Charley feels.

One of my favorite characters from the film, Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), really made this film as he was featured in some of the most memorable scenes.  Who can think of this film without remembering his high-pitched laugh and the line, "Oh, you're so cool, Brewster!"  More than the humorous sidekick to the main character, the character of Evil Ed does have a few imperative scenes that give a lift to the film.  When he's first turned by the vampire, it's such a sad dramatic scene and unsettling to see it since this movie, overall, is such a fun flick to watch.

Of course, the title of the film, Fright Night, refers to a very popular type of show throughout the country, and usually a locally produced show, at that time.  Back when I was growing up, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the late night horror show was called "Creature Features" and was hosted by Bob Wilkins on Saturday evenings.  Of course, I was banned from watching it even though I begged and pleaded to my parents to let me stay up and see it.  But, on rare occasions-usually when my cousins came over to visit and
my parents played cards with my uncle and aunt, not paying attention to us rambunctious kids—my cousins and I would flip the channel to local Channel 2, KTVU, to see what horror movie would be on that night.  As karma would have it, the movie was usually something that scared the shit out of me and would give me night terrors for weeks, but I still have great memories and a longing fondness for those times.

So, understanding that concept—especially if you didn't grow up during that era—you can appreciate Roddy McDowall's character, Peter Vincent, and what he does for a living.  Essentially, he's just a character in a position that's becoming obsolete.  That, in turn, was happening in the real world-late night horror hosts were becoming a thing of the past in the mid-80s.  He even explains in the film, which rang true at the time: "I have just been fired because nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore...or vampires either.  Apparently, all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins."  And he was right...at the time.  But besides all that, McDowall did a wonderful job at playing Peter Vincent.

Finally, William Ragsdale as Charley Brewster was a good choice.  The film needed to an actor with a nerdy presence, making it plausible that he would easily believe his next door neighbor is a vampire.  Yet, he has that everyday boy-next-door look to him to make you believe he isn't some outsider either.  Giving him a good-looking girlfriend (who knew that she would end up as...uh...Marcy?) and a friend goofier than him unquestionably substantiated him as the stable character in the story as well.  All in all, you see his point of view and find yourself wondering: What would you do if you found yourself in his situation?

Well, my final "bit" on Fright Night?

Now, many of you may have seen the remake a few years ago and probably enjoyed it (I can admit that I had as well), but it couldn't compete with its predecessor from the 80s.  I really can't understand why Colin Farrell would involve himself in a remake of an 80s horror film, but he made a decent choice in doing so (the Total Recall remake, however...not so much).  With that said, 1985's Fright Night is a great nostalgic piece of 80s horror—and vampire horror to boot—that's fun to watch and purely an awesome popcorn movie.  It's not pretentious or overly complicated—it's just a simple vampire movie for the modern day (if the modern day is 1985).  I highly recommend it and think any fan of 80s horror should look this one up and rent or buy it.

One caveat about trying to purchase this classic, however: You'll probably be able to find it on DVD, but if you want the Blu-Ray, you might be in for a shock.  Back in 2011, Screen Archives Entertainment released a limited edition Blu-Ray of the film.  When I say "limited edition," I mean they only released 3,000 copies.  I was lucky enough to be on a notification email list and was alerted when the discs were available for
purchase, but I could kick myself for not buying more than one.  The reason being?  Go on eBay and you'll see that there are astronomical prices for the Fright Night Blu-Ray.  In fact, a while back, I'd conducted a search and only saw one...for $349!  Oh well...at least I was able to get one to enjoy...I just hope it never breaks or becomes unplayable.  But you can still buy DVD copies or rent them, so please do so.

Well, that's it for today's post...thanks for reading...and I welcome any comments!

You can also tweet to me on Twitter, @CinemaBits, or check out my Facebook page here.

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