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Spookshow Halloween Spooktactular: Fright Night (1985)

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Fright Night 1985 Directed by Tom Holland

“Wellllllcome….. to…. Frrrrrrrright….. Niiiiiiiight…”

Once upon a time, vampires were scary.

Tom Holland’s Fright Night – note I’m talking about a film from 1985, not that thing where a wife-beater clad Colin Farrell tries to kill gothed up David Tennant – might well be one of the last truly great vampire films.

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Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a horror movie fan. He loooooves old horror flicks, particularly of a certain early sixties vintage starring an actor named Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell). In fact, Mr. Vincent is a local horror host in Charlie’s TV market. He hosts a show called… you guessed it… Fright Night. Charlie so loves Fright Night he stops in the middle of a makeout session with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) to watch. Yup, he’s that, um… well, yeah.

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Anyway, this really nice, aristocratic guy named Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) moves in next door. The guy’s very handsome. And very well-dressed. And never comes out during the day.

A few days and mysterious decapitation deaths later, Charlie’s watching Dandridge’s house through binoculars as his neighbor is having a makeout session of his own. But… well, let’s just say it has a far more ominous ending than Charlie’s did.

It doesn’t take long for Charlie to arrive at the conclusion that Dandridge is a vampire and, since neither his mother or the police will believe him, blind hope leads him to Peter Vincent.

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Vincent is, of course, nowhere nearly the brave vampire hunter he hammed up onscreen. He’s about to lose his job and is ekeing out a living as best he can with what fading glory he has left. Charlie offers to pay him to help, though, and he’s certainly not going to turn down a couple hundred bucks here and there.

Vincent himself accidentally learns the truth about Dandridge’s nature. With Charlie and Peter now trying to save their skins while Dandridge covets Amy, the unlikely duo team up, not just to pretend to be fearless vampire killers, but to actually try to do it.

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The film is at once a loving homage, partly to Stoker-style monstrous and tragic vampires, and partly to old-school vampire and monster flicks of the Hammer and Amicus era. Where Peter Cushing was Van Helsing through Hammer’s Dracula films, here we have Peter Vincent, whom, we have a feeling, wasn’t anywhere near Cushing’s talent level (or Vincent Price’s, where the “Vincent” part likely was borrowed from), but was an icon in his universe all the same.

While Ragsdale and Bearse are great in this film, and tragic sidekick Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) brings a lot of laughs and a surprising amount of melancholy, the real anchors here are McDowell and Sarandon.

Sarandon is a sinister joy in the role, able to go from charming and jokey to threatening at the drop of a hat – or, in this case, a hidden mirror – and retains that dark romantic allure that has been the calling card of vampires since Stoker rewrote their rules.

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Dandridge is a monster; not some forlorn, redeemable romantic figure with some supernatural powers and a rather unusual diet. As with vampires of old, he is a creature of death and destruction, a malevolent undead beast under a well-learned visage of culture that, when it finds what it wants, will destroy everything trying to obtain it – including, possibly, itself.

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Part of the reason I’ve never bothered to see the new Fright Night – other than the fact that Colin Farrell in a wifebeater is sure as hell no Chris Sarandon – is because the monster movie fan context so important to the original has been omitted. Tennant’s Vincent is some sort of Chris Angel-type magician with hedonistic tendencies.

To remake the film in this way, to me, shows a misunderstanding of what Fright Night was in the first place. It was a loving homage to Stoker, Universal, and Hammer that grabbed the awesome stuff, reminded us that the source was awesome through the Vincent character, and created something fresh and modern with those formulas.

Homage is a tricky game – a lot of what’s called “homage” now is either out and out ripping off – or “borrowing” – or winking pop culture references for the sake of trying to instill a feeling of cleverness.

Fright Night does none of this. It’s a sincere traditional vampire film that subtly points to its own origins and says, “This is what we loved, and this is what we’re bringing back.”

Scary, funny, and surprisingly poignant, Fright Night remains one of the best vampire films ever committed to film.

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