Here is a terrifying thought: we can’t outgrow monsters. Once they have been breathed into existence, there is no willing them away. They are eternal, the necessary evil that allows us to define better what goodness might look like. Their most frightening feature? The ability to adapt and survive and always find a way to feed off what scares us the most in our present moment.
Consider the cinematic monster as a physical embodiment of all the things we consider taboo. They are a dark reflection of societal mores, the very things we would deem immoral, unclean, or abominable. One of the horror genre’s greatest strengths is that its monsters are capable of resurrection and metamorphosis. Like animals, they can adapt to stay relevant, and the best horror stories know how to use their respective monster’s history and literary foundations as both a base and a jumping-off point. A perennially popular monster, the vampire, recently went through a romantic resurgence in the past decade, but has lately fallen out of vogue. But a revival is on the horizon, and if it’s one as smart as Tom Holland’s cult classic Fright Night was in the mid-1980s, then it will be a frightfully fantastic resurgence indeed.
To set the stage a little, Fright Night arrived during a time when psycho killers with sharp objects dominated the horror genre, and the vampire itself had not been prominent since the time of British Hammer Horror. Director-writer Tom Holland intended the film to be a love letter to the genre itself. Capably combining enthusiastic camp and sinister thrills, the film was not only a critical success at the time, but more importantly, a financial one. It set the stage for a brief vampiric revival, with other cult classics like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys. All these years later, it has not only stood the test of time as one of the best films ever made involving fanged bloodsuckers but as a fantastic example of how to update hallowed horror history for a more modern audience without ever hacking off the roots.
First, the plot. Holland’s film is a gleeful pastiche of influences, but nimbly so, and he always knows when it is time to pay homage and when it is best to let the story evolve in its own way. The story centers around horror-obsessed teen Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), who discovers something rather unfortunate about his new next-door neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon): he’s a vampire. The giveaways? He witnesses a coffin being transported into the house at night, people in the neighborhood have been turning up without their heads, and the biggest kicker, Charley accidentally gets caught spying on Jerry through his bedroom window as he’s about to make a meal out of a beautiful young woman. Of course, nobody believes Charley – not his put-upon girlfriend (Amanda Bearse), or even his geeky childhood friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys).
But Charley knows all the tell-tale signs of a vampire. How? Because he frequently watches the weekly horror B-movie presentation “Fright Night,” starring host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), star of many a great vampire flick. So who better to help Charley dispatch Jerry than the vampire killer himself, Peter Vincent? The film is quick on the jump, and it doesn’t take long for Jerry to not only realize Charley knows his secret, but he quickly plots to take out Charley and everyone else who gets in the way, including Amy, Ed, and Peter Vincent. Hopefully, everyone will believe him before Jerry can sink his fangs into their neck…
One of the most important modernizations Fright Night deploys is that it represents one of the first mainstream horror films where the protagonists acknowledge the existence of horror films and use them as informative texts that might help them understand and thereby survive the monstrous threat. Holland’s own love for the genre bubbles barely under the surface. Like the best horror comedies, it walks the line between horrifying and hilarious with surprising dexterity. The film manages to reward longtime, enthusiastic horror fans for their cultivated knowledge while also presenting a great opportunity to indoctrinate newbies into the fold with its easy-to-understand mythology and playful tone.
Speaking of mythology, Holland does what the best horror films do: he quickly establishes the “rules” of the monster, in this case, the vampire, and then gleefully subverts those rules later. As mentioned before, Holland uses the monster’s long, storied history as a sandbox of sorts, allowing him to indulge in all the expected tropes while getting to play with how they would stack up in a modern setting. Most horror films dispense mystery and visual breadcrumbs when they’re communicating how their monsters work. That device is both for the audience and for the characters themselves. In Fright Night, the characters already know how vampires work because it is part of their pop culture vernacular. They’ve seen the Peter Vincent movies, after all! Their explicit listing of the tell-tale signs of vampirism and the countermeasures one can take is an acknowledgment that the film’s characters are in-step with the audience. It represents the kind of meta-narrative storytelling popularized in the early phases of the postmodern film era without ever tipping over into satire.
What are vampires like in Fright Night? In a word, seductive. Part of the vampire’s perennial appeal is how they are perhaps the most “human” of the monster canon. Their hypnotic ability is often easily mistaken as charismatic charm, and Holland’s film is one of the first vampire stories to explicitly turn this power of hypnosis into sexual appeal. Perhaps that is also what makes this monster all the more dangerous. It draws us in under the guise of something sexual and human in appearance, but just under the surface are all the horrible, transgressive elements that make the beast truly monstrous. The film goes a step further, showing Jerry Dandridge as suave and debonair in his human facade, but his appearance when he goes into his primal vampire state is almost demonic. It is telling that one of the key ways to keep a vampire at bay is through religious rites, particularly by bearing a cross. And as Fright Night reminds us, you must have faith for the cross to work.
Why sexualize the vampire? In our more recent modern context, this sexualization feels entirely codified, thanks in part to stories like Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Those stories often acknowledge how taboo the relationship between the living human and the undead vampire is without ever exploring the transgressive nature of those implications in full detail. Not so with Holland’s vampires. In fact, the sexualization is very much a part of his attempt to modernize the creature. His, too, is a story primed for young adults, with plucky teenaged heroes facing off against dangerous and duplicitous supernatural forces masquerading as human adults. The key here is the setting, as Holland has the typically gothic creature, who resides in foreign settings and dreary castles, make its new home in suburban America of the 1980s.
As we know, the best monsters are the ones reflective of societal anxieties of the current context. What frightened people during the 1980s? The cold war is an obvious example, partially applicable here; your neighbor could be an enemy in disguise, and Jerry’s arrival threatens the American values associated with the suburbs. More to the point, much of the 1980s was consumed by a war on pop culture as it became predominant and more easily consumable in every way. The issue was censorship. Horror films, in particular, were often singled out for their graphic and violent content. The fear was that these were corruptive forces that might damage teenagers. We see this mirrored in the film, as Charley watches the macabre Fright Night in his own room – and then watches sees Jerry seduce a woman while sitting in this same space.
Then there was stranger danger, partially wrapped up in a resurgence of Satanic Panic. Like pop culture, there was a fear that our homes and suburbs would not properly protect children from outside influences. Jerry’s arrival in the neighborhood first brings sex workers, which would have been seen as scandalous during these times. Next, he directly goes after Charley, Amy, and Ed intending to either kill or transform them. And this is after he has tricked the police and Charley’s own mother into trusting him – remember, one of the traits of a vampire is they cannot enter a home unless invited in, but why should Charley’s mom, a single woman, think twice about letting in this attractive, handsome, and very polite man?
Another thing to remember about vampires: their desire to drink blood is often treated as a sharing of fluids, which by nature is seen as something perversely sexual. Even more frightening is the way this exchange affects the victim, often transforming them into a vampire themselves and sometimes putting them directly under the inescapable control of the one who turned them. It recalls the prevalent AIDS scare that tore through the 1980s, largely vilifying a marginalized group of people while the government itself stirred panic without ever taking genuine action. Continuing its motif of sexuality, Fright Night depicts Jerry as something of a pansexual being. He lives with a male roommate named Billy Cole, an update of Bram Stoker’s Renfield character, in a relationship that could be seen as a mutual partnership; later, he offers Evil Ed protection from those who bully and belittle him for what he is, literally taking him under his “wing” and turning him into a vampire.
Then, there is Jerry’s seduction of Amy. He is drawn to Amy because she reminds him of an old love he has long since lost. Complicating things, Amy is depicted as sexually chaste, seen when she is afraid to go all the way with Charley in the film’s very beginning. The film’s most prominent and masterful sequence occurs in a nightclub, where Jerry hunts after Charley and Amy. With Charley distracted, Jerry draws Amy out onto the dancefloor. Through their dance, Amy finds herself falling under Jerry’s seductive spell. But the film posits a question: is this the work of hypnotism, or a sexual awakening on Amy’s part? There is a moment where Amy takes charge of their dance, wordlessly taunting and teasing the vampire with her own dance. The drive at the end of the film is for Charley to rescue Amy before her transformation into a vampire becomes permanent at dawn. Immature at first, Charley becomes worthy of Amy’s love when he risks his life to save her. Only then can they consummate their relationship in the film’s conclusion.
Fright Night is, of course, more than just a modern sexual parable. There are other phenomenal callbacks to vampire mythology that are intertwined with the film’s modernization. A great many films depict the vampire’s ability to transform, but usually only exclusively into a bat. Ancient vampire mythology, not only dictated by literary sources by historical ones, often associate the monster as capable of becoming a wolven beast, seen in the film when Evil Ed attacks Peter Vincent. Some even believe a vampire can become mist, explaining the foggy alleyway scene where Ed tries to escape from Jerry, only for the latter to appear seemingly out of nowhere! Then there is the intertwining of gothic iconography with explicit modern technologies. The exterior of Jerry’s house looks like any suburban space, but the interior is theatrically gothic. And yet, when Jerry goes to bite Amy, he first hits play on a stereo system. Charley only knows of Peter Vincent through the TV; the latter is, of course, not a real vampire hunter, only a TV personality. But the visage becomes the truth when Peter gets entangled in Charley’s plight. Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula was constructed as a series of correspondences. While Fright Night does not necessarily sync up with that style of storytelling, there is something about Charley’s familiarity with Peter Vincent through the TV that feels like a modernization of a kind of communication prevalent in our pop culture era. We have never been “closer” to celebrities than we are nowadays, with a constant connection through media.
Fright Night‘s stature as a cult classic has only grown in the many years since its release, and its initial success most likely came from the way Holland created a modernization of Aesop’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. His approach favored horror’s rich history, never seeking to supplant it, but take it forward into the future, and in the process, created an excellent blueprint for how discerning horror storytellers could do the same for other monsters in the great pantheon. And all this is without even mentioning how the film was Holland’s directorial debut, and an impressively confident one at that, filmed with evocative widescreen photography and complimented by gee-whiz special effects and incredible performances from its veteran and newcomer cast members. It is a film with a sly sense of humor, and, unusually for the genre, plenty of heart, compliments of Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent and Amanda Bearse’s great turn as Amy.
Although it can be difficult to track the film down, it is currently streaming on Amazon Prime in fantastic quality. Given the way our traditional Halloween plans have been put on hold due to the current pandemic, why not give Fright Night a spin? It is the perfect Halloween treat: rich, with well-explored themes, but still viscerally thrilling, satisfying for those who already love the genre and exceedingly welcoming for newcomers.