The classic 1980s horror comedy Fright Night, recently released in the UK on an extras-stuffed 4K digital restoration Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment, was actor-turned-screenwriter (and future Child’s Play director) Tom Holland’s striking debut behind the camera. Appearing mid-decade, at a time when the traditional monster-centred horror movies of the 1930s Universal cycle and their full-colour British Hammer reformulations of the late ‘50s and 1960s, had been fully integrated into cultural life as quaint cliques from the past, with modern audiences now acclimatised to the era of Slasher movies, Holland came up with a concept that minted a cult classic for those of us of a slightly younger generation, who had come of age discovering these older films on TV in the 1970s. For Fright Night gave vent to a nostalgic reverence for tropes and themes derived from the classic Hammer Horror Pictures and their AIP cousins, at the very moment when these movies were being marginalised by a dismissive popular culture which had already relegated them to airtime-filling, end-of-the-week TV horror marathons, where they were a source of cheap programming for independent local channels. However, in the States, these Friday night horror jamborees also furnished a lot of old movies with a second home, where they could be discovered afresh by a whole new audience of insomniac children and partied out adolescents. Similar late-night screenings were also available to those of us who resided in the UK -- where such films were a staple, for instance, of the BBC’s fondly remembered Saturday night Horror double-bill seasons.
Part of the reason Fright Night has remained such a beloved icon of ‘80s cinema ever since lies in the appeal this film has for those of us who now realise that it actually provides us with a double-dose of nostalgia: for if you were just entering into the adolescent stage of life during the ‘80s, having loved the classics Holland was paying tribute to from seeing them on TV at a formative age of your childhood back in the 1970s, then you will doubtless also now be looking back on the 1980s and associating the styles, the music, the imagery, the aesthetics and the physical effects-orientated horror cinema of the decade with the same moment of adolescent awakening that inspired Holland to create this charming, funny (and often still scary) tribute to the Vincent Price and Peter Cushing films of his own early experience. Realising those older movies must have assumed a similar totemic status in Holland’s adolescent development as Fright Night came to have in many of ours, then, lends the film a whole extra level of resonance, and galvanises an even acuter awareness of its thematic cleverness.
Some other major reasons why the film still commands such adoration and respect have to do with its intelligent choice of casting, and with Holland’s utilisation of the talent he employed in helping to re-contextualise some of the generic ideas predominating in past adoptions of the figure of the vampire, along with all its particular usages and meanings in classic horror cinema. The traditional cultural motifs that relate to the Vampire mythos are successfully packaged within an utterly commercial, contemporary Hollywood coming-of-age comedy drama with maximum mainstream appeal, where they now function as an updated 1980s spin on those same socio-political and sexual subtexts which had always previously historically provided the vampire with its latent purpose in literature and film -- by extension also becoming a self-reflexive meta commentary on these motifs at the same time. The story has a deceptively simple construction that initially riffs off an idea inspired by Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but which is threaded through with reflexive attitudes that recognise the tension existing in the horror genre’s ability to, on the one hand celebrate the Outsider, and provide succour for those who do not relate so easily to mainstream culture; whilst, at the same time, it ruthlessly exploits a heteronormative society’s inherent fear of the Other so as to create the mainstream appeal for itself that is always necessary to allow any film to become a major hit.
In its basic plot outline Fright Night employs an initial approach to narrative that is not so very different from the template which informed many of the Hitchcockian thrillers Jimmy Sangster scripted for Hammer Studios in the early-sixties and beyond, and which Holland was himself perhaps unconsciously evoking in an earlier screenplay he had written, called Scream for Help. This had previously been made into a 1984 film directed by Michael Winner, which Holland had been so dissatisfied with at the time that it made him determined to seek out the freedom to direct his own work, which he finally was able to acquire after the box office success Psycho II, for which Holland had written the screenplay. In the kinds of scenarios encountered within this sub-type of thriller, the protagonist invariably finds his- or herself being tormented by someone whom they either believe to be a murderer, or whose existence is doubted by almost everybody else in the film apart from them. In Fright Night the adolescent hero, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), becomes convinced that the handsome, immaculately groomed and apparently respectable yuppie property developer neighbour who looks like a model for GQ magazine and has just moved in to the house next door, is in fact a real-life vampire. His best friend, his girlfriend and his mother don’t believe him, and neither do the police; so Charley must turn to the only person he presumes still has the skills necessary for helping him deal with this unacknowledged threat to the community: a washed up ham actor who once appeared under the name Peter Vincent - “Vampire Killer” (Roddy McDowell), when he had been the star of a series of horror movies made in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but who now hosts the Friday night horror marathons playing endless reruns late at night of what are now considered old-fashioned, semi-forgotten pictures. Fine casting, noteworthy performances and brilliant but economical writing and story construction that furnish the movie with a sympathetic group of characters are the elements behind Fright Night’s ultimate success, both as an artistic venture and commercially. These are virtues that also create in the movie enough ambiguity to accommodate the many possible readings and interpretations the above outline is capable of generating, nimbly avoiding any danger that the screenplay might trip itself up in the tangle of excessive archness that could’ve been one unintended result of such a finely wrought line it constantly has to negotiate, between homage to the old and satire of the new. The film demonstrates an airy efficiency in leaving the impression of there being nothing to its unaffected insouciance but the glossy façade of outlandish ‘80s FX spectacle and broadly sketched character-based comedy; but a closer look reveals layers of possible metaphoric meaning and subtext, and attendant commentary on that metaphoric meaning and subtext.
The opening scene sets in motion a meticulously crafted interplay of elements that can be seen to be the key to understanding much of what the rest of the film is up to, setting up all the references and thematic pointers that are to be challenged, transformed or re-imagined throughout the rest of the picture, as Holland sets about adapting the vampire figure to his new but familiar modern surroundings ... as part of the culture of Ronald Regan’s America in the 1980s. The opening image is a matte shot depicting a full moon, with a thin animated ribbon of dark cloud passing across it while a piercing, baleful wolf’s howl can be heard on the audio track. This image and sound combination establishes, in the most efficient manner possible, the milieu of the traditional classic Horror movie, putting one immediately in mind of the period monsters of the ‘30s Universal Horror cycle. Yet the camera immediately pans down to what we can instantly discern to be a very modern, crowded cityscape visible in the distance, displaying its panoramic vista of neon-lit buildings. As the opening credits are shown on screen the camera moves slowly in a 180 degree arc, past an old, ruined, rather decrepit-looking house in the immediate foreground, and coming to settle on a more homely looking modern residence sited just across the road from this traditional creepy ‘haunted’ mansion -- a house encircled by a white picket fence and that has an apple tree in its garden. During this sequence, the wolf’s howl, which had been the very first sound we heard as the film commenced, is immediately followed by hushed voices that form the impression that a seduction scene is playing out somewhere close by between a man and a woman, who we assume to be outside somewhere in the dark, although neither is visible to us in shot at this point. The male voice seems hesitant -- perhaps unnerved by the inhuman wail that has just reverberated through the depths of the inky darkness; but the sultry female voice now declares aloud how it loves the night, which prompts her male companion to make a declaration of his own, equally heartfelt, appreciation of her physical beauty, particularly the qualities of her ‘pale skin and red lips’. The musical accompaniment at this point sounds like (and probably is) a typical James Bernard cue taken from any number of old Hammer Horror flicks -- although one short, solitary staccato bass synth stab interrupts it for a few seconds when the film’s title, Fright Night, finally announces itself on screen, demonstrating through audio cues alone how the old and the ‘new’ are to be employed in such a way as to form a dialogue between them -- one that takes place throughout the rest of the picture -- and that comments on and enhances our appreciation of both.
As the unseen lovers kiss noisily at the female seductress’s invitation, the camera moves forward slowly, towards the house, with a slight unsteadiness about it that subtly suggests we are witnessing a point-of-view shot which perhaps allows us to see things from a potential killer’s perspective. This has the effect of switching our understanding of exactly what it is we are watching for the second time in just a few short moments -- almost without our being aware of the fact -- and the scene now feels more like the generic opening to one of the countless numbers of slasher movies which had taken a hold on the horror genre sometime in the early 1980s. The blue lighting in particular, indicating moonlight falling on the white slats across the exterior of the house we are de facto stalking, brings to mind the opening shots of John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween.
But then the camera starts rising above ground level, and gliding towards an open upstairs window at the side of the house – and we finally realise that the conversation we have been listening to is in fact emanating from a TV that is screening an old horror film being watched in someone’s bedroom. This glide towards an open window, followed by a dissolve into the room beyond it, echoes the opening shot construction of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – arguably the bridge between the classic and the modern era in Horror, as it could be considered the film that laid out the guidelines for the early slasher movies. It therefore acts as an appropriate reference in Fright Night’s armoury of sources, given the then-recent and unexpected success of Richard Franklin’s Psycho sequel, which had brought Anthony Perkins back to the career-making role of Norman Bates twenty-three years after he had first played it in the Hitchcock classic. This was the vehicle that had given Tom Holland the industry leverage to be able to insist on directing Fright Night rather than settling for the role of being its screenwriter. It had been his script for Psycho II that had successfully managed to negotiate the minefield of problems involved in bringing back the character of Norman Bates after so long, and attempting to continue a story that had by now passed into screen legend.
The images from the old film that we can now see on the TV screen in the upstairs bedroom, however, are clearly not from a modern slasher picture or any of its forbears: they belong to the same ilk as those early-sixties Hammer films; and the moon-lit seduction we thought we were listening to beforehand turns out to belong in a scene set in a Victorian period drawing room, that dramatizes a female vampire engaged in the act of sexually hypnotising her hapless male victim into willingly offering her his neck! Luckily a dynamic young “vampire killer” happens to be on hand, dressed in cloak and tweed suit that lend him the air of a character modelled on a combination Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing from Hammer’s films Dracula (aka The Horror of Dracula) and The Brides of Dracula, and the same British actor’s version of Sherlock Holmes, who he portrayed both in the Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and in a BBC series of TV adaptations, broadcast in the late-sixties.
In his critical study of the British Horror film, Hammer and Beyond, Peter Hutchings made a strong case for interpreting Hammer’s output during its prime-period, between 1957 and 1965, as an unconscious reflection of the social and cultural upheavals then afoot in post-war Britain. In adapting the classic literary narratives of Dracula and Frankenstein (and others from the Universal cannon, such as The Mummy), it transformed them through sub-textual linkage to a number of apparently unconnected contemporary issues in 1950s Britain, such as the post-war rise of the professional classes and changing notions of gender identity. Its on-screen representations of masculine authority are enacted against a backdrop in which the dissolution of Empire challenges traditional notions of patriarchal power. Hammer films of the period are consequently full of ‘weak men’ who find themselves threatened by powerful authority figures associated with the forces of the abject.
Dracula is the classic example of this motif in action: instead of the alien ‘threat’ that comes skulking in the night from foreign lands to ‘steal’ our women away in their sleep, a template that Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula represented in Universal’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s novel, many Hammer films play out as metaphorical oedipal dramas, with Christopher Lee’s Dracula donning the mantle of dynamic, urbane, impeccably well-spoken ‘English’ gent, overpowering the listless, weak-spirited Victorian class of gentleman otherwise found populating the Hammer universe. This element of Dracula’s forceful dominating character positions him in relation to his male adversaries as a tyrannical rival father figure and, from the perspective of their wives, as an inviting sexual proposition who possesses irresistible sexual magnetism which threatens their participation in the system of Victorian patriarchy that has previously accommodated them comfortably in the role of ‘angel of the house’, where maternal aspects of their femininity are emphasised and any overt expressions of feminine sexuality are marginalised. Naturally, this threat to gender roles and traditional masculine constructions of identity has to be countered and neutralised in order to preserve the status quo; but to do this, the weaker males have to call upon another dynamic ‘father figure’ – a member of the newly emerged professional middle-classes, who has assumed his position through expertise rather than by way of traditional class-based systems of inheritance that have shown themselves prone to decay in the guise of Dracula.
In Hutchings’s formulation, a wooden stake, dropped during a botched attempt to kill Dracula, or the bloody neck of one of his vampirised male victims, are both symbolic Freudian images representing male castration anxiety. Hutchings claims that in Hammer’s Dracula “masculinity is (always) seen [ ] as arrested, in a permanently weakened state”; and it needs a powerful father figure who will continue to act as a “guarantor of the patriarchal system”. In the Hammer universe, this father figure is, of course, best represented by the equally sophisticated personage of Peter Cushing -- or rather the character he often plays: the vampire hunter Van Helsing.
In light of this reading, it’s interesting to look at Holland’s satirical version of the Hammer formula, depicted throughout Fright Night in the frequent cutaways to TV screens that feature mostly mocked up versions of Hammer-like films, before we move on to look at how the style of Hammer movies in general inform other important aspects of Fright Night’s narrative and content. The mini-drama we see at the start of the picture, featuring the female vampire and her hapless male victim being fatally interrupted by a Van Helsing figure played by Roddy McDowell, has not been constructed merely to faithfully mimic the appearance and tone of a classic Hammer Gothic picture out of reverence: rather, Holland’s little faux Hammer play-let works inside the film’s particular reference system of signifiers by exploiting for a purpose the then-common assumption that these films were cheap, dated, somewhat shoddy and poorly acted melodramas, with Holland at first seemingly deliberately playing to that very prejudice, which is likely to be shared by a large percentage of the audience, in having his mock Hammer scenes look ridiculous and somewhat stilted and laboured -- when it is his ultimate intention to unveil them later as an interpretive texts that retain much of value and relevance when it comes to decoding and understanding modernity.
Since the late-sixties, when the New Hollywood film directors became the heirs to a moribund studio system, classic Horror films of the Gothic persuasion were viewed as nothing but creaky, old-fashioned, and certainly not very scary, exemplars of a bygone era; Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets articulated this notion when it actually cast its contracted aging horror star Boris Karloff as exactly that: an aging horror star -- clearly intended to be perceived as though Boris Karloff were playing himself for the role. This was a means of disparaging his style of Horror movie as irrelevant and pointless when it was set alongside the true-life horrors then assailing the modern world, such as the random sniper shootings that are portrayed in the film. The representation of horror movies from the sixties and seventies has several functions in Fright Night: in the first (and arguably most important) instance, it provides a chance to inject some straight-forward physical comedy into the movie at the start, of a kind that many viewers unfamiliar with the horror genre might find easy to relate to: the exaggerated wooden acting that we see in these faux movie scenes on TV might be unrepresentative of the best that the genre had to offer, but it fairly accurately sums up the feeling that many people had about such pictures at the time, which was informed by the perception that the actors who regularly starred in them, such as Vincent Price (who appeared in many Hammer-like AIP pictures of the day, most notably the Roger Corman Poe series, some of which were made in the UK), were ‘ham actors.’
Notably, the scene we see playing out on the TV in Charley Brewster’s bedroom at the start of Fright Night turns out to be occurring at the same time he himself is ‘making out’ with his high-school girlfriend Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse). It culminates with a joke that on one level works as an indictment of the presumed amateurishness and camp corniness of the genre, in which McDowell’s vampire hunter, though apparently caught in his youthful prime in this sixties period movie, interrupts the female vampire’s intended seduction by bounding into shot clutching a wooden stake above his head that is being held, very conspicuously, the wrong way round for achieving its intended purpose -- with the sharpened point facing away from his quarry! If we remind ourselves of the Freudian interpretation of this aspect of the vampire mythology, discussed above in the critique of Peter Hutchings, then we can see how the same ideas are now being used again here, this time to suggest the impotent and ineffective nature of the films themselves when they are placed in a modern context and considered alongside their then-current rivals. Equally, whereas the original Hammer films positioned figures such as Van Helsing as representatives of a modern vision of masculinity that ‘50s audiences could identify with in a post-war context, depicting the professional middle-classes displacing old money and the idle aristocracy through hard-won expertise, now that vision comes to look itself equally old-fashioned and déclassé when set in opposition to the conspicuous wealth of the Wall Street mavens running the show in the Yuppie culture of ‘80s corporate America -- the backdrop for Fright Night.
As the ostensible hero and identification figure in Fright Night, Charley Brewster occupies an uncertain liminal zone situated between these two opposing worlds, which the movie equates with the equally potent struggle that takes place in many coming of age narratives between adolescence and adulthood, where innocence intersects with the turmoil of sexual awakening; this conflation allows the ‘hamminess’ of Peter Vincent’s horror flicks to also function within the film’s frame of reference as a symbol of Brewster’s sexual awkwardness and inexperience, so lending the film credence as a modern American coming-of-age parable. These old Peter Vincent movies are a beloved part of Brewster’s childhood, but they seemingly must be relinquished in order for him to be able to grow and advance into the next stage of adulthood. In other words, his continuing identification with and love for these old-style horror films is mooted, at least at first, as a sign of his arrested development, as indicated by the content of that first TV scene, screened during his and Amy’s tryst in Brewster’s bedroom: the hero vampire hunter, looking younger than we will later see him because this scene captures Vincent at the height of his fame, interrupting a female vampire’s attempted seduction of an unwitting and utterly hapless male.
As played by William Ragsdale, Brewster straddles the bridge between the typical good-looking youthful heroes encountered in many other ‘80s teen movies -- who were intended to be role models, espousing Regan-era core values that young adult male theatre-goers could aspire to emulate -- and being the slightly gawky misfit outsider rejected by the mainstream. The young Charlie Sheen originally tested for the role of Charley Brewster but was famously passed over by Holland for being just too handsome for the role. This is sometimes characterised as a missed opportunity on his part, but the director wanted someone who had a screen presence that projected surface likability as well as the sense of ordinariness, in the heightened sense, that saw contemporary teen comedy-drama ‘heroes’ such as Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller attain a cult status after the release of the following year’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But he also wanted a young actor who could fulfil a second function: portraying a character who was slightly misplaced and out of step with the world around him, and who was therefore still able to discern value in the cultural ephemera of another age; someone who could represent a youthful figure who was able to look beyond the limited horizons offered by the contemporary consumerist zeitgeist.
This places Fright Night in an interesting space with regard to the extent to which it adopts a form that celebrates many elements and characteristics of the wider cinema of its era, while at the same time harshly critiquing certain aspects during a decade that was largely defined by the social and economic politics of Reaganomics, which so often found expression in popular entertainment of the day by replicating the contradiction inherent in the foregrounding of a consumer-based hedonism that runs parallel to the promotion of socially conservative family values. While it sets up a dynamic that allows the film to appear on the surface to favourably compare its own genre sophistication and post-modern knowingness to the callow naiveté of the horror movies of the past, Fright Night is in fact re-deploying the symbolisms and metaphors of 1960s Horror in a manner calculated to vindicate them as potent weapons in the struggle to recognise and defeat the evils of its own age … and yet it cannot completely escape the implication that its attitudes to sexuality are still in many respects largely in accord with those of the past.
In the opening scene it is Amy, at this point still uncertain about just how far she wishes to pursue the couple’s tentative encounter in the bedroom, who attempts to distract Brewster by pointing out that ‘his hero’, Peter Vincent, has just appeared on the TV in the corner of the room. It’s as though she hopes this perennial symbol of her boyfriend’s childhood obsessions might act as a safety valve in this moment, diverting attention away from the adult urges that are threatening to take her beyond the level of sexual experience that she feels comfortable with at this point in the relationship. But the dynamic very quickly shifts into reverse when Brewster suddenly does become distracted, not by what’s on TV, but from the activity he glimpses going on outside his bedroom window – or, more specifically, in the garden of the old house opposite. This shift very noticeably happens as soon as Amy tries to take some element of control of the romantic situation, becoming more proactive in the proceedings, probably as a means of challenging her own sexual reticence but producing the secondary result of destabilising Brewster’s attempt to adopt the traditional masculine role of seducer. What Brewster is seeing outside at this point begins to echo the images that are at that very moment being broadcast on his TV, which belong to a funeral sequence taken from Roger Corman’s film Premature Burial. The more Amy attempts to refocus Brewster’s attention on her, the more engrossed he becomes in the strange tableaux taking place outside involving the Brewsters’ new neighbour Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), who is shifting a coffin into the basement of his house with the help of live-in assistant Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark). Amy is eventually pushed by Brewster’s inattention into taking the plunge and offering herself completely, removing her top as she waits for him in the bed, only to find that Brewster has by this point actually seized a pair of binoculars and is avidly staring, with comically voyeuristic intensity, outside -- utterly transfixed by the strange scene in his neighbour’s garden!
Here, the old ‘joke’ prejudice that disparagingly casts the average male horror fan as virginal and immature -- always looking but never doing -- is being seized upon once again, but this time in order to instigate a reversal of the expected norms: Brewster’s horror movie obsession actually makes him more attuned to what’s really going on in the surrounding neighbourhood, not less so. Precisely because he is unable to function unambiguously in an adult role, he’s enabled to see the significance of truths that no-one else can see. Later in the movie, having become intensely suspicious of Dandrige and Cole, Brewster will use the binoculars again to try to spy on current activity going on within the house; at first he watches with anticipatory excitement as Dandrige’s female guest disrobes in front of the upstairs bedroom window opposite his own, only for that excitement to turn to horror as Dandrige appears behind her displaying his vampire fangs, and bites her on the neck -- thus confirming his status as a true-life vampire, and making Brewster the only other person in existence who knows about it. On the one hand Brewster’s retarded social development is being confirmed to the viewer, for, as we had earlier seen, he was markedly uninterested in his own girlfriend undressing and presenting herself to him with no strings attached, despite this meaning the avoidance of the usual ‘struggle’ to achieve such a goal that constitutes a common sexual rites-of-passage motif in most ‘coming-of-age’ narratives; but this development also bestows upon Brewster a special knowledge of the nature of reality that, it turns out, only a classic horror movie fan like himself could truly ever be in a position to understand.
The trouble is, Jerry Dandrige also embodies everything that mainstream ‘80s society considers to be aesthetically, socially, culturally and financially laudable. Even though Dracula, as played by Christopher Lee in the Hammer films of the late ‘50s and 1960s, represented an exploitative, aristocratic, autocratic class of feudal power leeching off of the blood and wealth of his surroundings, Lee’s noble bearing made the character seem perfectly adapted to the task of fitting in socially with, and being fully accepted among, the respectable Victorian society on which he largely preys outside of his castle dwelling. It took a resolutely modern and socially adept representative of Victorian masculinity – Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing – to recognise the true threat Dracula posed to Victorian morality and to the maintenance of its values and social codes, through the vampire’s ability to insinuate himself undetected so easefully into 19th century society. The situation is slightly different in Fright Night. Like Lee’s Dracula, the astutely cast Chris Sarandon is able to represent someone who is easily accepted by all those around him as an exemplary representative of contemporary society, despite the character of Jerry Dandrige being at least several hundred years old. He has the requisite masculine charm and sophistication, of course -- as well as the looks, framed within perfectly coiffured hair; when they’re required, he also has the expensive designer clothes that fit the successful ‘80s yuppie mould to a tee (although he also does ‘casual’ woolly ‘Cosby’ jumpers when wishing to appear more domestic). No-one is going to believe, then, that this charismatic, money-making, go-getter property developer, who exemplifies an aspirational ethos and the desirability of all that money-orientated ‘80s culture so lionises, is also an evil vampire. Brewster’s dilemma throughout the first part of the film hinges on the fact that Dandrige is so perfect a symbol for the times that there is really no prospect of an equivalent authority figure emerging, Van Helsing-like from inside the culture, to oppose him and restore the ‘proper’ order of things, since there can be no truer representative of that order than Dandrige himself! The implication is that the yuppie culture that Dandrige so comprehensively represents is itself intrinsically hollow and false and vampire-like in its destructive effects, despite its seductiveness. Dandrige is, in effect, the perfect vain, venal emblem of this predatory age. Hiding in plain sight, he disguises himself completely by not having to hide at all. Who can oppose or even recognise such a threat … other than an opponent who is not entirely tuned in to the ethos of his own times to begin with?
That opponent will of course eventually turn out to be Roddy McDowell’s Peter Vincent.
Charlie Brewster, meanwhile, is the only child of a one parent household that conspicuously lacks any sort of patriarch. In having Brewster turn to Vincent for help, believing the aging star to be the only person possibly capable of understanding the situation he now faces, the pretend vampire hunter is being positioned within the narrative as a replacement father figure for Charlie. In his movies Vincent assumes the authoritative mantle Peter Cushing once donned for many a Hammer picture, but, as we have previously seen, Fright Night starts by apparently confirming the outmoded nature of that form of male cultural authority, which is reduced to joke status in a world that has left behind the mores of the society that spawned it. Dandrige’s ascent as the model man for ‘today’s’ new society means that he now becomes the most likely source of fatherly values offered in a culture that worships money and image above all else. One of the film’s early highlights occurs soon after Brewster realises that Dandrige now knows that he has been able to glean the details of his secret life as a vampire: terrified, Brewster asks his misfit best friend ‘Evil’ Ed Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys) what he can do to protect himself at home from his menacing undead neighbour. Ed confidently promises Brewster that he is completely safe because vampires have to be invited inside someone’s house before they’re able to cross the threshold. Relieved and reassured, Brewster returns home – only to find a grinning Dandrige already seated in the front room, having been recently invited in by Brewster’s welcoming neighbourly mom (Dorothy Fielding). She finds her single neighbour hugely attractive as he seems to be the perfect gentleman; earlier she even forlornly regrets the fact that Dandrige is ‘probably gay’ -- something she considers likely after hearing he has Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) living with him as a ‘handyman’. This comment suggests she wouldn’t have minded Dandrige becoming Brewster’s stepfather given half a chance!
The relationship between Brewster and Dandrige, then, has several aspects to it, that, taken together, characterise it as a perversely oedipal brew that echoes the subtext to traditional Hammer horror movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, in which Dracula and Van Helsing are pitted against each-other as competing forces in the battle for Victorian masculinity. Here, though, the oedipal motif has been transmogrified by the ‘coming of age’ aspects of the Fright Night narrative: on the one hand, as a respected pillar of the suburban neighbourhood, Dandrige is being offered as an exemplary role model for the younger generation; his wealth, his standing, the succession of model-gorgeous women Brewster sees entering Dandrige’s house, add up to a lifestyle that sets up the yuppie vampire to be everything adult mainstream society in the 1980s offers as a role model to young adolescents like Brewster, and which is normally celebrated elsewhere throughout popular ‘80s Hollywood cinema.
But when he spies on Dandrige, and witnesses an erotic encounter that turns into a vampire attack upon one of Dandrige’s many female ‘guests’, Brewster is instantly being reminded of his childhood hero Peter Vincent’s righteous battles against the destabilising sexual force the vampire most of all represents in those fables, and the threat he/she poses to the foundation of, not just societal norms, but to one’s own personal morality. Thus, the battle for influence over Brewster between his two competing father figures, and the internal conflict it promotes between Brewster’s tentative desire to enter the adult world and take on the challenges of a full sexual relationship, and the competing urge to retreat into a permanent state of adolescence and childish concerns -- can also be interpreted as a metaphorical struggle for the soul of mainstream conservative American society in the 1980s. Dandrige is a personification of the dream of the yuppie lifestyle made possible by the economic deregulation unleashed during the Regan era; but the ‘80s’ deification of greed as an animating principle and the consumerist incontinence it promotes, stand in sharp contrast to the modest, hard-working, disciplined nature of an older model of male conservatism represented by the moral probity of someone like Peter Vincent.
More pertinently, the new monetarist principles of the Right, ironically, consolidate the sexual freedoms of the ‘60s and ‘70s through a money-fuelled form of hedonism that runs contrary to everything Conservatism had always tried to represent throughout those former decades. Fright Night, then, is to a large extent a narrative about the crisis in mainstream Conservative culture of the 1980s, and how the flavour of its economic ‘successes’ had seemed to create a threat to its own survival in licensing a form of what was, even from its own perspective, a moral ‘degeneration’. This becomes even more apparent as a theme in relation to the film’s treatment of Brewster’s girlfriend Amy, and his best friend ‘Evil’ Ed, and how they are both ‘corrupted’ by the trio’s dealings with Dandrige.
Neither Amy nor Ed’s childhoods seem to have been as steeped in the motifs of the Horror genre as Brewster’s was, and, even more crucially, neither witnesses the suspicious activities that first alert the latter to Dandrige’s true identity. As played by former soap star Amanda Bearse (who went on to even more fame in the US when she was made a regular on the long-running sitcom Married with Children) Amy’s character constitutes a sympathetic portrait of burgeoning teenage female sexuality, mixing coyness and innocence with tentative curiosity about these aspects of the adult world; a sensibility beautifully summed up in the opening scene, discussed above.
A key moment of reckoning occurs midway into the film, when Brewster has managed to persuade Peter Vincent that his suspicions were right and that Jerry Dandrige is a bona fide vampire: at last Brewster and Vincent are as one, but it is at this point that Brewster’s relationship with Dandrige undergoes a transformation. Up until now, Dandrige has always threatened Brewster by presenting himself as a malevolent replacement father, who, once having received his invitation to do so, invades the Brewster home and taunts the youngster with the possibility of vampirising his mother and threatening to murder Brewster in his own bed. Now that Peter Vincent has won the father role, Jerry's focus shifts onto becoming a threat to Brewster's relationship with Amy, and, with Brewster having now vacated the field in terms of his duties as her boyfriend, so to speak, in order to concentrate his attentions on defeating the vampire menace with Peter Vincent, Jerry Dandrige offers himself as an object of sexual curiosity to Amy -- tempting her away from the innocent fumbling that once characterised her tentative teenage encounters with sex, with the promise of the chance to fully embrace an adult experience of sexuality that will catapult her into full womanhood.
Dandrige’s seduction of Amy takes place on the dancefloor of a trendy neon night club called Club Radio, as it pumps out a selection of ‘new wave’ synth band hits in a scene that couldn’t feel more ‘80s from today’s perspective if it had actually been trying to predict how the decade would be portrayed in future years. This gaudy, image-conscious, contemporary moneyed lifestyle-orientated environment replaces the traditional Gothic decay of once-grand castles and abbeys now-gone-to-seed as the natural home of the modern vampire; during the course of a dance scene cleverly choreographed to convey Amy’s awakening as a woman who is realising the potential of desires she’s finally willing to indulge without shame, Amanda Bearse’s makeup and hair are transformed in order to make her look older and therefore closer to the actresses true age, and her dress changes from cotton to a sexy silk. Most tellingly, Amy takes the lead in the dance with Dandrige; the entire sequence slanted to play very much as a model of positive female sexual empowerment. Dandrige does not bite Amy up to this point, so the entire flirtation appears to take place at her discretion, making it tempting to interpret it at face value as a feminist update of the vampire mythos in which female agency defeats the intent of a patriarchal form of vampirism.
When Brewster and Peter Vincent track Dandrige back to his house for the film’s climactic confrontation during the duo’s attempt to rescue Amy and put the vampire and his human helper out of commission permanently, Amy suddenly develops the attributes of a much older-looking ‘femme fatale’ seductress, much like the type Peter Vincent’s old movies warned Brewster to be wary of at the start of the film. Because she has been corrupted by a vampire curse taking the form of a bastion of 1980’s culture of consumption and greed, Amy’s femininity and her newfound sense of agency become to the male heroes of the film, quite literally monstrous: in one of the more memorable moments during the SFX-laden climax, Brewster attempts to comfort a sobbing Amy who appears to have fought off the influence of her vampire ‘maker’ during the finale in the cellar of Dandrige’s house, only to find that her entire face has become distorted by a huge, hideous gaping and grinning mouth that’s set to swallow and consume him whole. The image was so potent that it was used prominently on the theatrical poster, meaning a supporting character, Amy Peters, replaced the ostensible leads, Peter Vincent and Jerry Dandrige, as the primary focus of the marketing campaign for the film. Amy is restored to her former ‘virgin’ youthfulness by the end of the movie of course. When Dandrige is destroyed, his disappearance results in Amy’s pre-adult teenage self being miraculously re-established – a victory for the conservative establishment, which has in effect removed the liberating aspects of modern consumer culture it disliked and retained and re-entrenched the judgemental moral traditionalism.
Originally, Holland had intended to sound a note of caution here by having it revealed at the very last moment that Peter Vincent had himself become a vampire during the final confrontation with Dandrige, which would have set up the idea that the cure was as bad as the illness and that the ideology of conservatism was innately prone to creeping corruption. Instead, he was forced by producers to modify the script with a less ‘gloomy’ conclusion, using a ‘sting’ which sees Brewster’s crazy best friend Evil Ed somehow illogically once again returning in vampire form to taunt his best friend, even though he was earlier pretty conclusively seen in great detail being killed off after attacking Vincent in Brewster’s home.
Interestingly, this conclusion plays as an upbeat, positive end to the film, even though Evil Ed is still a vampire, who has now replaced Dandrige as the owner of the house across the street and is, presumably, still a potential threat to the health of his friends. Evil Ed is such an attractive, fun, lovable character (thanks mainly to the idiosyncratic performance choices of actor Stephen Geoffreys, who played him) that we cannot help being glad to see that he is still around after all in the final moments of the film, even if he is still a grotesque vampire creature!
By introducing the possibility of a sympathetic vampire character whose positive human attributes are still discernible, Tom Holland is able to undercut some of the more reactionary tendencies suggested by the material. Evil Ed is the comedy focal point of the film for much of its run-time; he really is such a bizarre, way out creation -- with his eccentric mannerisms, odd vocal inflections and shrieking laugh – he comes across like an impish, hyperactive hyena. Geoffreys’ performance makes him the movie’s sympathetic outsider, and, interestingly, as the film progresses, and despite the recurring ‘joke’ about Dandrige’s Renfield-like live-in human follower having a homosexual relationship with his master, it is Ed who comes to be seen as a sort of surrogate for queerness, walking about hand-in-hand with Amy throughout the picture without there being the slightest inkling of a sexual frisson existing between them (Brewster certainly doesn’t see any rivalry there; and never seems remotely bothered by Ed’s close relationship with Amy, as they come across when they’re together like two mischevious girlfriends); in fact, at one point Evil Ed pretends to have been bitten by Dandrige just so that he can make a joke about giving Brewster a ‘hickey’ on the neck! When Dandrige finally does catch up with Ed, though, he sooths him into accepting his fate, reassuring him by saying if he accepts Dandrige’s vampire lifestyle he will never be picked on for being ‘different’, or feel left out, again.
Later, as Peter Vincent encounters the vampirised Evil Ed for a second time after earlier having been attacked in his apartment, he finds Vampire Ed hiding in Brewster’s mother’s bed -- now wearing a garish red wig and behaving as though in drag! The merry-go-round of reconfigured relationships that sees Dandrige, during the course of the picture, being both father figure and trendy love rival to Brewster, receives a further twist when Brewster’s best friend now attempts to replace his mother: Ed even gets into the role play by shrieking at Vincent how he should remember to tell Brewster that, “his tea is in the oven!”
Having the vampire Ed return at the end becomes a positive though, when we remember the protracted death scene that this character, associated strongly with the attribute of queerness, endures when he is staked by Peter Vincent, while in wolf form, using the leg of a chair in Brewster’s house -- and what that inevitably represents in a mid-‘80s film during a period when the gay community was still being ravaged by the AIDS virus: Evil Ed disintegrates slowly, and in great pain, before our eyes, in what is a uniquely distressing scene; it’s a reversal of a sequence from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London which portrays the process of transforming from a man to a wolf as an agonising bout of body horror that involves the experience of one’s limbs and muscles stretching and contorting, and one’s bones bending and cracking. Ed’s death is even more horrific, as his body attempts, imperfectly, to take back its original human form as a consequence of being staked, but is only partially able to do so before his death -- resulting in a drawn-out process of decay that leaves a stricken, pleading, misshapen figure writhing on the floor of the Brewster house.
The film concludes on a note that seems to carry two meanings: on the one hand, as part of a traditional vampire narrative, it sounds a note of discord and menace that says that the vampire threat has not been eradicated after all, and that we must be ever vigilant against its re-emergence; but on the other hand a likable character is suddenly, magically, without any logical explanation, imagined back into existence just for the fun of it, in a manner that feels like a defiant rallying call of optimism against the odds during a cultural moment when prospects looked utterly bleak. This is just another instance of this film’s cunning mercurial ability to embody and reflect the competing urges of the epoch that gave it life.
Previously released as a limited edition dual format Steelbook at the end of 2016, this UK 2-disc set from Eureka features a truly faultless transfer and retains the staggering mountain of extras that came with it, providing about five hours-worth of detailed commentary on the film. Only the booklet essay by Craig Ian Mann, which provided a convincing overview of the film’s social and political context and its subtext, is missing from the jewel case edition.
The original stereo PCM soundtrack and a 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track are the available audio options, and subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing are also available.
Heading up the extras pile is a comprehensive, two-hour making of documentary, You’re So Cool Brewster! Originally produced by Dead Mouse Productions after a Kickstarter campaign, this is actually an edited down version of the original documentary (which also covered the making of the sequel) and features extensive participation from the director and all of the surviving cast and crew members. There’s also a nearly one hour-long video piece featuring the Fright Night panel, filmed at the 2008 Fear Fest Reunion, and a collection of video interviews featuring Tom Holland on writing Horror, and Roddy McDowell and his amazingly varied Hollywood career. Choice Cuts is a three part interview with Holland, covering his entire career as a screenwriter and filmmaker; and there are several trailers and stills and memorabilia galleries.
Also included is the original and unedited electronic press kit – which is a 90 minute collection of materials in VHS form (tracking issues are rife) produced at the time of the film’s release, for media outlets to use in the construction of their promotional features. Much of its best archival material (interviews and behind-the-scenes footage) has also been reused in the other documentaries and featurettes to be found on this disc, but there are other nuggets here, such the original music video for the theme song, performed by the J. Geils Band; and a sardonic interview with the band’s lead singer and keyboard player Seth Justman -- his ‘80s big hair teased and sprayed to the max. It also includes an interview with special effects coordinator Richard Edlund, the Oscar winning effects technician behind films such as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This home release isn’t likely to be bettered any time soon as it provides everything anyone new to the film might need to comprehensively get to grips with the thinking behind its creation, while collecting together in one place most of the extras that have ever been produced about it previously for the benefit of the collector and fan, setting them alongside an outstanding digital transfer that makes this thirty-year-old film feel fresh and brand spanking new. This is therefore an essential purchase.