The Test Of Time: Fright Night (1985)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must-see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY TOM HOLLAND

STARRING WILLIAM RAGSDALE, RODDY MCDOWALL, CHRIS SARANDON, STEPHEN GEOFFREYS, AMANDA BEARSE

Here’s a legitimate ask. What’s your all-time favorite 1980s vampire flick? Is it THE LOST BOYS? NEAR DARK? LIFEFORCE? THE HUNGER?

If your answer doesn’t include one of the above, chances are it’s because Tom Holland’s feature debut FRIGHT NIGHT ranks as your all-time favorite. No shame if that’s the case, as FRIGHT NIGHT (WATCH IT HERE / OWN IT HERE) proved to be both a critical and commercial smash hit when released on August 2, 1985. In fact, with a domestic take of roughly $25 million, the film was not only the highest-grossing horror joint of the summer of 1985, but it was also the second-highest grosser of the entire year behind only A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE. Moreover, FRIGHT NIGHT earned far better reviews from critics and general moviegoers alike, with the flick currently boasting a 91% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. For comparison, FREDDY’S REVENGE holds a paltry 43% rotten rating. FRIGHT NIGHT also spawned a far inferior but still underrated sequel in 1988, and a fun but ultimately ersatz remake in 2011. With the film set to celebrate its 35th anniversary in two weeks, it’s only right we put Charley, Jerry, Amy, Evil Ed, Peter Vincent, and the rest of FRIGHT NIGHT up against the Test of Time!

THE STORY: According to Tom Holland, he conceived of the idea for FRIGHT NIGHT after thinking of a way to fuse a vampire tale with that of The Boy who Cried Wolf. Holland also claimed that at the time, Columbia Pictures was heavily invested in making financial hits out of their expensive titles PERFECT and THE SLUGGER’S WIFE, and largely left the first-time filmmaker alone to make the movie he wanted without interference on a $9.5 million budget. As a result, Holland set out to make a terrifying FX-driven marvel that also remained rooted in a suburban reality anchored by good acting performances. Holland forwent casting Charlie Sheen (who auditioned) in the role of Charley Brewster, claiming a hero would ruin that drama and that a relatable everyman, a boy next door, was needed instead.

As such, William Ragsdale was cast as Charley, a prototypical teenager in high-school who is neither too cool nor too geeky. Charlie has a girlfriend named Amy (Amanda Bearse), an obnoxiously campy best-friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and a hipper-than-normal single mother Judy Brewster (Dorothy Fielding). Charley is also a dedicated horror movie fan who tunes in to the kitschy TV show Fright Night, hosted by hammy B-movie actor Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall, named after famed horror icons Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), an effete horror veteran who is known for playing the same Vampire Killer character in a slew of cheap movies. When Charley falls asleep to one of Vincent’s shows and awakes to find a fanged, long-nailed ghoul staring at him from the window next door, the kid immediately assumes his new next-door neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) is, in fact, a vampire. With the reluctant help of Peter Vincent, a pusillanimous poltroon, Charley sets out to prove his theory and rid his idyllic suburb of vampiric evil for good.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: The overarching entertainment value of FRIGHT NIGHT has lost nary a step over the past 35 years, but one of the major aspects that sets this movie apart from any horror contemporary is simply how much fun it is. Seriously, horror movies rarely have this much fun scaring its viewers. Charley’s bedroom alone – adorned with badass horror iconography, neon beer signs, posters, games, stolen street signs, and the like – always felt like such a cool place to hang out and spend your time. It still does. And while the film isn’t a horror-comedy per se, the campy characterizations of Peter Vincent and Evil Ed in particular and their memorable lines of dialogue remain wildly amusing to this day. But aside from the underlying amusement the movie consistently delivers, what holds-up most is the excellent premise, the memorable performances, and the eye-exploding special/visual effect.

Riffing on Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, the basic plot of FRIGHT NIGHT remains extremely effective. What makes the drama of the conflict work so well is how long Charlie remains alone in his discovery of Dandridge. Even Charlie’s closest friends and family members dismiss his claim that his new neighbor is a flesh-famished bloodsucking ghoul. The brilliant thing Holland does is clue the audience very early on that Charlie is not bullshitting, which not only allows us to sympathize with his imperiled plight but also makes the disbelief of those around so maddening. But where the premise elevates to another level is in the use of campy TV horror host, Peter Vincent, as the hesitant help Charlie solicits to defeat the vampiric scourge plaguing his suburban existence. The stark difference between Vincent’s faux persona and his yellow-bellied off-screen personality is where the film brilliantly blends characterization and plot, with the evolution of the former directing leading to the finale of the latter. Of course, without such inspired performances, the result would likely cease to remain this consistently entertaining.

In specific, the performances of Roddy McDowall, Chris Sarandon and Stephen Geoffreys are among the chief reasons FRIGHT NIGHT has been preserved in a kind of classic cryogenic freeze over the past three and a half decades. McDowall plays Peter Vincent with such pitch-perfect comportment. He’s falsely confident and histrionically over-the-top when portraying his TV persona onscreen, but is such a whimpering coward in reality that you can’t help but feel for the guy. When he gets fired from his TV show and agrees to help Charley for $500, we think he’ll actually be of knowledgeable service. But when he confronts Dandridge for the first time, he proves to be more yellow than the brick f*cking road. Building up the strength and courage to properly reflect in reality the persona he portrayed on TV, and the way McDowall plays it continues to bolster the movie’s durability. The way Vincent evolves from a pathetic actor to a bona fide vampire slayer and heroic sidekick still feels earned and honest.

Same goes for Chris Sarandon’s turn as Jerry, the rakishly sexy seducer who can kill you with a look and suck your blood dry before you notice. Sarandon came up with many of his character’s charmingly memorable affectations, including his recurring diet of apples. Sarandon once claimed that Jerry had a lot of “fruit bat DNA,” which is why he’s seen imbibing fruit throughout the film. Sarandon is both alluring and repulsive at once, giving a mistrusted feeling to the character that remains utterly compelling. The iconic scene of Jerry stalking Amy in the nightclub remains a tour-de-force in dialogue-free acting, with Sarandon preying on his potential victim with the stark virility of a wild animal.

Of course, Geoffreys’ turn as Evil Ed has become a lasting pop-culture phenomenon for how silly, goofy, cheesy, and over-the-top corny it is. But damn was it original back in 1985 and still an extremely droll sight to behold in 2020. We all know of Geoffrey’s post-FRIGHT NIGHT exploits, but nothing will erase the memorable performance he gives in the film. Evil Ed is unique in that even as a villain, he continues to emit cackling good-natured energy up until the final line of the film: “Oh, you’re so cool, Brewster!”

Aside from the premise and performances, the jaw-flooring special and visual effects are what really help retain FRIGHT NIGHT’S lasting legacy. The film was the first vampire flick to allocate $1 million to special effects alone. This allowed Holland to hire some of the best department heads in the industry, including mechanical FX supervisor Thaine Morris (GREMLINS, GHOSTBUSTERS, THE MONSTER SQUAD, etc.) and creature designer Randall William Cook (THE THING, THE GATE, POLTERGEIST II, etc.). In fact, one of the major puppet props that did not get used for the Librarian Ghost in GHOSTBUSTERS was reallocated for FRIGHT NIGHT.

Even 35 years later, the visual effects in the film are beyond reproach. When Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) melts into a viscid puddle of bilious green glop while his skull is crushed to a bloody pulp remains first-rate. Evil Ed’s wicked transfiguration, which took up to 18 hours of makeup to apply, featured a full werewolf puppet that Geoffreys actually climbed into and remained buried under locks of hair. Jerry’s malefic metamorphosis at the end, which took 8 hours to apply, also convinces with bloodcurdling terror today. Even Amy mortifying maw as an undead ghoul at the end, shown on the notorious poster for the film, remains balefully believable. This prop came about when Holland asked Cook to create a “shark mouth” for one of the vampires. With no money left in the budget to create such a prop, Cook agreed to make a rig over the weekend at his home provided the prop only be used onscreen for a few seconds. The quickly fashioned prop ended up being one of the most lasting images of the film. Throw in the gnarly werewolf Ed morphs into and that f*cked up bat-creature Jerry turns into at the end and FRIGHT NIGHT remains one of the best and scariest FX-driven horror yarns.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: The only thing I can really think to grouse about is the original ending Holland nixed for a happier conclusion. As originally scripted, the finale scene of FRIGHT NIGHT would have entailed Peter Vincent slowly revealing himself to be a vampire on the set of his renewed show, Fright Night. As Charlie and Amy make out on his bed, Fright Night comes on TV and Vincent says "Tonight's creepy crawler is 'Dracula Strikes Again.' Obviously about vampires. You know what vampires look like, don't you? They look like this!" Vincent would then morph into a vampire and as he completes his transformation, looks into the camera and says “Hello, Charley!” before the camera freeze-frames on his face. To me, that would have been a much cooler and more frightening ending and would have naturally led into a much more germane sequel than what was ultimately made in 1988.

THE VERDICT: FRIGHT NIGHT happens to be the rare horror movie trifecta. It only made a ton of money, it not only satisfied critics and casual horror fans alike, but it also remains a fun, scary, and wildly entertaining 35 years later. Thanks to the compelling premise, excellent performances, and top-tier FX work, Tom Holland’s feature debut is still arguably his finest to date.

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.