It is utterly shocking to me, amazing even, how few people have actually seen ‘Fright Night’ (1985), the original film. Even when it came out, its success was only modest, despite viewers and critics both finding it fun and thrilling. I find it so fascinating because, re-watching it today, it feels like a classic that should have been.
The film delivers a seemingly effort-less satire of the horror genre, specifically exploitation horror, from someone who clearly loves the genre. He manages to deliver style, attitude, a surprising amount of precision and intuitive control over the camera despite being a first-time director, and scrounges up enough grade-A acting from everyone to make the setting all-the-more immersive with its quaint, stereotypical, suburban middle American pastiche, complete with the main character being somewhat of an outcast. A main character who himself is an exploitation horror buff, a connoisseur of the late night horror tv-host hours of the likes of Svengoolie or Elvira; someone who is obviously meant to represent the audience, both of that particular genre, and the audience of this film specifically.
The satire delivered in ‘Fright Night’ is enjoyable because it isn’t coming from a place of irreverent cynicism, like in ‘Cabin in the Woods’, which tries so hard to deliver a gut-punch to such a wide variety of genres that it deflates its own ambitions of trying to say something, causing it to flail like a fish and end up becoming nothing more than a cheap parody, instead of a movie unto its own. Here we have a more cunning delivery of loving jabs to the genre, while still managing to maintain its own identity, which is a tricky fit for satire since the direction satire usually goes is either; A) Failing at satire and just being another typical entry in the genre, or B) Failing to live up to its genre expectations and existing as a self-abasing parody. ‘Fright Night’ avoids these pitfalls by treating its characters with intelligence, while also treating them in a fashion that is realistic given the setting, not arbitrarily forcing characters into roles to appeal to the broader satirical nature of the film. The geeky best friend pokes fun at the main character for acting like a dork. The late night horror host, whose name is a cheeky combination of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, is a shallow liar and charlatan who hosts “Fright Night”, a late night horror television station, whose movie props end up saving his life. On top of it all, there is the big man himself, Jerry Dandridge…What an intimidating name for a vampire.
The satire is a big part of the film, where the expectation of horror is delivered, but never subverted at the cost of the comedy. Horror, ironically enough, lends itself naturally to comedy, all one needs is the proper timing to set it off. For example, when Charley’s girlfriend and best friend step into his room, it is adorned with garlic and candles from top to bottom, with his best friend, Evil Ed, making mocking remarks about how ridiculous he is for taking this so seriously. When Charley is knocked out by the ghoulish assistant, what does his vampire slaying partner, Peter Vincent, do? Runs away screaming. These could easily be found within any other ordinary horror film, but here, the direction of it portrays Charley as deranged, despite him being completely correct. It portrays Peter Vincent as a falsely heroic, retreating when things get serious. But, and this is key here, not everything is played for laughs. The horror is actually portrayed as horror. The seduction is actually portrayed seductively. It knows when to insert the expectations of the viewer in for a laugh, while still surprising the viewer with genuine horror when they least expect it. Of course, there are some really spectacular effects to support the horror which helps a lot, with the truly over-the-top vampire transformations that go from giving him fangs to giving him a big border-line cartoonish vampiric face, ala ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’, but is pulled off successfully and appears as being sinister and shocking. One of the deaths of the characters ends up being a prolonged scene that is almost entirely special effects, but which aims to humanize the “ghoulish creature” Peter Vincent has just slain, instead of treating him as just another villain to dispatch. And the ending, oh the ending, with its gigantic explosions and fully rigged skeletal bat monster burning in the sun.
The movie strings you along gradually, giving you grander and grander special effects to witness throughout, increasing the tension as the stakes increase, turning the viewer from someone who is in on the gag at first, to enjoying the film on its own grounds as a horror film much akin to how Charley was in the beginning. Now we are the ones watching the traditionally cliche horror exploitation unfold before our eyes, watching Peter Vincent chasing a grisly vampire throughout an old decrepit manor, trying to rescue the girl and kill the creature all before sunrise. This is of course referenced directly by Jerry, who taunts them, saying, “Welcome to Fright Night!….For real.”
Perhaps the most appealing aspect about ‘Fright Night’ is that it enjoys itself just as much as it enjoys pleasing the viewer, giving them nudity, a seductive vampire who wears an off-the-shoulder 80’s style sweater at a night club, a plethora of top-quality practical effects, and even hints at a deeper sub-plot involving the desire for the vampire to steal his girlfriend to rekindle a lost love he had. Truly a variety; of both pulp and personality. This is a movie I regard as a classic not because of how amazingly acted, lavishly produced, ground-breaking of directing it has, or magnificent of a story it tells, but instead because of how well it typifies the horror genre and the sub-genre of exploitation films associated with it, as icons of popular culture. It offers a light commentary of how ridiculous its premise is, while simultaneously engaging the viewer in spite of it to show them through example why it is so entertaining. In many ways, it acts as a precursor to Wes Craven’s ‘SCREAM’, although again, ‘SCREAM’ straddles the line between overt cynicism and joyful satire, as it engages in the very tropes it mocks instead of trying to subvert them.
Overall, ‘Fright Night’ holds up extremely well and I would recommend ‘Fright Night’ as a perfect addition to anyone’s yearly Halloween viewings, or even as a summer night-time movie to enjoy with a significant other or friends. Its comedy never gets in the way of its horror, and it may even open up people otherwise reluctant to enjoying the the horror genre, or the exploitation genre.