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Writer-director Tom Holland struck box office gold with his 1988 hit Child's Play, a cheesy yet effective shocker about a demonic toy named Chucky. Three years before, his first directing job was Fright Night, a less accomplished but frequently fun horror offering that grafts an awareness of Hammer Film Camp onto the '80s Horny Teen Coming of Age saga. The mega-hit Ghostbusters encouraged more independents to roll the dice with sexy, over-the-top horror pix for the teen market, movies too naughty for TV yet not as relentlessly sadistic as entries in the moribund slasher subgenre.
Fright Night's screenplay is no award winner, and its attempts at comedy are definitely hit & miss. But director Holland makes up for the dull stretches with some good sub-Hammer vampire encounters, aided by terrific visual and makeup effects. Gory Rob Bottin-style oozing demons and hideous fanged monsters transformations burst onto the screen, ready to rumble. The show's teen stars are barely adequate, but actors Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowall more than compensate. Fright Night is an overachiever in an often-unrewarding corner of the horror genre: it's plenty dumb, but it delivers the thrills.
Teens Charley and Amy (William Ragsdale & Amanda Bearse) consider "going all the way", but Charley is distracted by weird events he sees happening next door. He soon realizes that the suave Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) is actually a full-fledged supernatural vampire, busily murdering female victims. Nobody believes Charley, even after Jerry attempts to kill the panicked boy. Amy and Charley's friend "Evil" Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) enlist the reluctant TV horror host and ex-film actor Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) to help. After spending a career making schlocky vampire films, Peter is dumbfounded to discover that bloodsuckers really exist, and that Jerry is one of them. Peter and Charley have no choice but confront Jerry and his sneering roommate Billy (Jonathan Stark): Evil Ed has already been transformed into a vampiric ghoul, and Jerry is preparing to initiate Amy into the ranks of the undead as well.
For the first half of Fright Night we're way ahead of the picture, which can be a drag on one's patience. A pair of teen lovers worthy of a TV sitcom deals with vampires in the usual way: he cries wolf and she thinks he's avoiding a serious relationship. Evil Ed is a disaffected, mean-spirited kid who provides some lame comedy. Charley's mother hangs around long enough to enable the vampire Jerry to enter the house (vampires cannot do so until they're invited), contributes some more lame humor, and then conveniently exits the story when the fireworks start.
Chris Sarandon is an interesting appropriately irresistible vampire. The scene where Jerry seduces Amy on a dance floor works up a real erotic charge. It's clear that both Sarandon and Hollywood veteran Roddy McDowall are well acquainted with Hammer-style horror, as each relishes the opportunity to sell various Dracula vs. Van Helsing moments. Although the script could have done more with his character, McDowall does well as a ham actor reduced to performing as a TV host for horror movies. With his styled hair, "Peter Vincent" gives off a ripe image of screen vanity. Staring at his eviction notice, he also reminds us of the little boys he played in old Fox and MGM pictures.
When it comes time to whip out crosses and holy water, Roddy shows us that he knows the score. He's basically standing in for Peter Cushing .... make that a less self-confident Peter Cushing. McDowall had tried a horror outing ten years previous in a Golem picture called It! that seems to have pleased no one. And his sole directing effort is the ambitious, delirious and slightly incoherent horror film Tam Lin (The Devil's Widow) with his old MGM friend Ava Gardner.
Writer-director Holland evokes the right spirit, even if his pacing is uneven and too much of the show has a storyboarded feel. And it must be said that the characters can become tiresome, especially the dull hero, Charley. Literally saving the day in the film's final act is a barrage of quality special effects engineered by Richard Edlund and his Entertainment Effects Group, which would soon morph into Boss Film Corporation. Randall William Cook and Steve Johnson are credited with the film's creature effects and design, which are excellent. Chris Sarandon transforms physically into full vampire mode, with convincingly spindly fingers and a clammy ghoul-face sporting an enlarged set of ragged teeth. The scary teeth motif is also stressed in Stephen Geoffreys' return transformation from a wolf-demon, into human form. Roddy McDowall watches this very impressive episode of shape-shifting. Sarandon also becomes a scary devil bat for one scene, while the bullet-resistant vampire's aide Billy undergoes an oozing, melting demise that must have brought cheers of approval in theaters.
The vampire lore in Fright Night is fairly standard stuff, with the added perversity that the nasty Jerry victimizes Charley's friends along sexual lines. Jerry recognizes that the smart-mouthed Evil Ed is either gay or repressed-gay, and offers him the shelter and protection of "another misunderstood outsider." It's of course a one-way ticket to an eternity serving as a ghoulish sidekick to a vampire. With a nod to the idea that Amy is the reincarnation of a long-lost lover, the show goes sexy as Jerry transforms the high-school kid Amy into a bride-of-Dracula sexpot, complete with flowing white dress. Overt sexuality and vampirism are closely related, it seems, as Fright Night implies that Amy's experience getting her neck bitten now qualifies her for more adult amorous activities. But the payoff is pure horror: when Amy-the-wraith-from-hell turns on Charley, monster-makers Cook and Johnson perform some really nifty effects substitutions, turning her into a gross-out banshee with an exaggerated, fanged mouth. As was usual with '80s Teen Sex comedies, little kids turned out for matinees of these shows ... I can imagine sensitive tots could be very strongly affected by these disturbing images. I'll bet that Cook and Johnston drew their designs not from classic vampire films, but their own nightmares.
The film's high production gloss includes a number of atmospheric matte paintings, some of which are rather elaborate. After watching it a couple of times, I'm fairly convinced that the opening shot, a tilt down from a full moon and a pan to the right to focus on Charley's house, is a painting executed over some photographs. It looks very good, especially the way the animated camera move hesitates during the pan. Most of the special-prop makeup effects are so much fun, I'd rather just enjoy them than analyze them. Fright Night is a so-so horror thriller with very good "scary stuff".
Twilight Time's Blu-ray of Fright Night can boast a fine-quality Sony transfer, given a fine HD encoding. The attractively filmed show, transferred from a source very close to the original negative, probably looks better than did most release prints, which were several generations down the duping line. Effects people often rely on the buildup of contrast across this process to hide minor flaws in the effects. Even in this clean image, all the illusions hold.
Sony contributed an original teaser and trailer, which Twilight Time provides in addition to an Isolated Score Track of Brad Fiedel's amusing '80s suspense 'n' dance music cues. Julie Kirgo's liner notes emphasize the sexual subtext that complicates the characters of Amy and Evil Ed.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fright Night Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.