Crucible

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Salem Witch Trials 34567By Scott Ross

Note: I realize this is only tangentially related to movies, but it’s pertinent nonetheless. 
Plus, it’s my blog, and I’ll post what I like on it.


Fear doesn’t travel well; just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory’s truth. What terrifies one generation is likely to bring only a puzzled smile to the next.” — Arthur Miller, Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible’: An Artist’s Answer to Politics (The New Yorker, October 21, 1996)

I suspect by now the world and its brother take as a given that Arthur Miller’s 1953 Salem witch-trial drama The Crucible was his very personal response to a similar ordeal, enacted on a much larger stage than that of four centuries earlier, and one to which the playwright was by a no means disinterested observer. Fewer perhaps will understand that in the character of the Salem farmer John Proctor — in life a good deal older than Miller’s protagonist — lay a means for the author to expiate his own private sins. But an increasing, and increasingly nervous, number of citizens can now see in this essential post-war tragedy a troubling reflection of the ironic tragicomedy currently on view, not merely in his or her own national theatre, but in the smaller studio across the pond. A farce, moreover, with potentially the gravest possible outcome if the curtain is not forcefully rung down on it, and soon.

Yet there is an additional parallel reading just now which not even Arthur Miller could have foreseen when he first researched and then wrote his play, one brought home to me in the starkest terms on sitting down recently with the 1996 movie of The Crucible.

You know the story, surely, or should, if you studied the play in high school or ever attended a little theatre production or encountered the script in college: How Abigail Williams, besotted with love for the married man who’d bedded her, was driven nearly mad with that hopeless love burning in an adolescent brain and the attendant repression of her Puritan community; how, discovered performing in a shamanistic midnight revel, she gave forth the lie that she had seen this and that good wife of Salem disporting with Satan; that her “confession” had within its contours a darker, more hidden, purpose, that of ridding herself of her hated rival, the wife of her erstwhile lover; how the lie, catching fire, prompted other terrified girls to join in her willful delusion; and how, an entire town turning on itself, the final victim must perforce be that same man so beloved of the originator of the lie.

Try as I might to ignore the sensation, I could not hold at bay an unpleasant frisson of instant, and queasy, identification each time Winona Ryder’s Abigail Williams took the screen. The shock of recognition which precipitated this was so profound that I had often while viewing the movie to force my mind away from the uncanny and disturbing parallel I saw in it to what used, in our school days, to be called “current events,” merely in order to savor the beautiful means by which the picture’s director, Nicholas Hytner (before and since the great stage and screen interpreter of Alan Bennett) captured Miller’s magnum opus; the often exquisite playing of the cast (and which, aside from Ryder included Daniel Day Lewis, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Charlayne Woodard, George Gaynes, Mary Pat Gleason, the splendid Ron Campbell and the magisterial Paul Scofield); the economy and grace with which Miller adapted, condensed (and in some ways improved upon) his masterwork; the sumptuous cinematography by Andrew Dunn; and the equally fulsome production design of Lilly Kilvert; all of which, taken together, rendered the production far more effective and moving than any mere reading or previous production of the play I’ve so far encountered.

It’s a heady thing, after all, to be gob-smocked so completely by such a perfect, unbidden historical analog to the present. I knew this girl, I thought — this selfish, foolish, unheeding, unthinking monster of a girl, whose lies, born of defeat and panic, unleashed a holocaust she lacked both the wit to foresee and the emotional health to be anything but indifferent to.

We all know her, for she is, like Abigail, so anxious to be known… and discussed, and debated about, and defied.

Abigail Williams is Hillary Clinton.

 

“…I was motivated in some great part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitors’ violations of civil rights, were fearful, and with good reason, of being identified as covert Communists if they should protest too strongly.” — Arthur Miller

November, 2016: Hillary Clinton’s campaign team, desperate to create for themselves, and for her, a self-justifying narrative to explain why “the most qualified candidate in American history” had lost the late (and seemingly endless) Presidential election to a buffoonish television game-show host, holds a meeting at which it is decided that, henceforth and forever, something called variously “Russian meddling,” “Russian hacking” and “Russian collusion” was to be the bogey of choice. Never mind that the losing candidate herself will go off script and, at every possible opportunity — and practically every other week — find someone new to blame for her deserved defeat by Donald J. Trump. Russia it was to be, and Russia it was to remain.

We need not rehearse here the actual reasons for that well-predicted loss, save to note that she was, with her rival, one of the two most hated candidates in American Presidential campaign history; a single vote against him was canceled out by another — if not many others — against her.

No, I take that promise back. Let’s rehearse those reasons. They have bearing.

 

  • The loathing of many for the Clinton Foundation — correctly seen as a revolving-door scam dependent for its survival on one or the other of the Clintons being in office; its horrific betrayal of cash-strapped Haiti; and the shady uranium deal with Russia which (among other things) netted Bill a half-million dollars, allegedly for a single speech.
  • Hillary Clinton’s penchant, seemingly pathological, for lying, usually without necessity, the lies themselves nearly always easily disproved.
  • Her transparent hypocrisy: “I went down to Wall Street and told them, ‘Cut it out!’… which the transcripts of her speeches — not released by her — directly contradicts.
  • Her reactionary social beliefs: Against marriage equality… until the percentages of those for it reached that crucial 51%… Against abortion, which she deems a matter for “a woman, her family and her pastor” [emphasis mine] and which she asserts “should be rare, and I mean rare” [emphasis hers].
  • Her warmongering, both as Senator and as Secretary of State and including the disasters of Honduras and Haiti, and the mutation by the president she nominally served of three inherited wars into seven, presumably with her avid assistance.
  • The WikiLeaks revelation of the damning Podesta emails, instantly (and repeatedly) labeled “Russian meddling” when it is well-known, and well-documented, that Julian Assange received them from an un-named source inside the DNC.
  • Donna Brazile, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the clear rigging of the 2016 primaries by the DNC… which we now know was entirely controlled by the Hillary Clinton campaign… and which means, of course, by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
  • Bill: His deeply conservative tenets and acts, including NAFTA; turning much of America into a for-profit prison; his gutting of Welfare; and his utterly disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996 which sacrificed a free press — without which a true democracy cannot function — on the altar of corporate commerce; his womanizing and accused rapes; and his ex parte meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on that now infamous tarmac.
  • Her own deep psychopathology, revealed in her laughing uproariously at the horrendous torture-murder of a foreign leader (Gaddafi) and her serious (and repeated) questioning of why Assange could not simply be murdered by drone-strike.
  • Her willful ignoring of the prevailing economic woes experienced by half the nation.
  • Her braying declaration that single-payer, Medicare-style healthcare for all was a pipe-dream that was “never going to happen.”
  • Her willingness to means-test Social Security and to hand it over to her Wall Street pals who have, it is well known, been salivating for years over the prospect of getting their hands on our
  • Her sneering, dismissive stereotyping of voters whose ballots she desperately needed — both Trump supporters and
  • President Obama’s eight-year corporatist screwing of labor, the middle-class and working Americans, and his assertion that Clinton was his natural heir, implying her complicity in these matters, and that her election would mean more of the same.
  • Her staggeringly inept and egotistical campaigning style (And here, note that her official slogan was not “She’s with US” but “I’m with HER”); the equally arrogant manner with which her most vocal supporters demonized the progressive left with as much, on the one hand, indifference and, on the other, viciousness, as their goddess herself; their endless attacks on leftists on social media, much of it paid for; the incessant screaming of “Sexist!” at anyone who held reservations about her, even those who are themselves women or who campaigned for, or planned to vote for, Jill Stein (indeed, according to them, Stein herself was sexist for having the temerity, like Sanders, of thinking she had the right to run as a candidate); her supreme arrogance in not campaigning in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states whose support she very much needed; and indeed, the overall conceit by which she presumed we owed her our votes, and that she therefore need not come to us for
  • The sense among many in the electorate — conservative, liberal and progressive — that a vote for Clinton was a vote for more war, more fiscal inequity, more lies and more corporatist/neoliberal/neocon policies. (And, as has often been noted, when Democrats run as Republicans, the actual Republican always wins.)
  • And, yes, those emails of hers, on that un-secured, un-encrypted, personal server; her refusal to turn said server over to the FBI; and James Comey’s corrupt and cynical refusal to prosecute her for something which, had anyone else committed it, would have resulted in that individual’s receiving a nearly automatic jail term.

That Clinton’s only serious primary rival was speaking to tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters when she couldn’t fill a high-school gymnasium we will leave aside, for the moment, as we will the seemingly motiveless murder of the DNC staffer Seth Rich, the likeliest source of the WikiLeaks revelations. Because, of all the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s embarrassing defeat which bear on this essay, none is as important as that delineated in the third clause of the first bulleted paragraph above: Doing deals with Russia.

If the first rule of political expedience is not deflection, surely it must rank snugly within the top five. The Clinton team was cognizant of and, even after the election, still nervous about, Hillary and Bill’s reciprocal dealings with Vladimir Putin’s government for personal gain, and the corrupt manner in which the Clinton-controlled DNC shoved her down America’s collective throat. Solution: Deflect. It is Trump who is dealing with Russia! They “hacked” our elections! Trump is being blackmailed by Russia!

He’s a Putin-Puppet!

And so, if you doubt one word of what we’re saying, are you.

 

“…the politics of alien conspiracy soon dominated political discourse and bid fair to wipe out any other issue.” — Arthur Miller

However successful the Clinton team hoped its flagrant, Abigail Williams-like deflection might be, the immediate (and enduring) positive response to it must surely have dazed even them. Or perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps these cynics depended upon, and anticipated, the fervor of the equally cynical hacks in the corporate media — and, indeed, on the minds of Trump-haters and Clinton fanatics (often one and the same) which, as a predictable result of the 19-month election cycle, had become entirely un-hinged and utterly incapable of independent thought. Indeed, the scheme could only work with a figure as hated as Trump in the White House: Someone who inspires such fevered loathing that the mere fact of his presidency is enough to blow the mental fuses of Clinton idolaters.

Not that these types — known, in honor of their idol’s campaign slogan, by the rather perfect epithet “Withers” — have ever betrayed much acquaintance with rationality. But Trump-as-President creates such widespread cognitive dissonance among them that they cannot think, much less speak, coherently. Their obscenely well-compensated, High Priestess in Derangement is a quondam Rhodes Scholar whose nightly billet has of late become the pulpit from which to extol such neoliberal shibboleths as hero-worship of the FBI and the CIA, the embrace of anyone seemingly opposed to Trump — no matter who, or how dubious or indeed anti-democratic — and war with a nuclear-armed nation as the best (really, only) means by which Trump can prove to her he is not Vladimir Putin’s personal kukla. More on this anon.

Had we anything like a free press, it would still plump for war, because that is its norm. (Gulf of Tonkin, anyone? Weapons of mass destruction?) Still, one would like to believe it might also, as once was its brief, perform at least a minimal amount of due diligence by way of investigatory journalism. That it would, instead of anointing a family as corrupt and venal as the Clintons, expose their duplicity.

I am speaking here not of the specious accusations and spurious, even libelous, claims by the right which have been so loonily over the top they have forced even those deeply skeptical of Hill-n-Bill into the bitter position of having to defend them, although I would argue that the more ludicrous of these attacks have redounded to the Clintons’ benefit so perfectly they might have been planned by that pair; Fox News has done more, in its way, to deify these two than even their usual lap-dogs in the press. I refer to the easily provable: Her pathological lying, his serial abuse of women, their pay-to-play machinations. But the corporate press, as with this former First Couple’s cynical donors, is invested in them, as it is with never portraying labor or the left in anything but a negative light, if illuminating either at all: The total Anglo-American blackout by the usual suspects in the news biz of Occupy Wall Street until the Asian and European press coverage shamed it into nominal (usually sneering) coverage is a good example, as is the subsequent repeat performance when Bernie Sanders was speaking to packed houses all over the nation yet, somehow, doing so into an electronic void. One listened in vain for any airing of either set of events on, for example, the once great, now wholly corporatized, NPR or its equally compromised British coeval the BBC.

I was reminded in 2016 of the 2004 Democratic primaries, during which Carol Moseley Braun and Dennis Kucinich constituted, separately and together, the ideal choice: A pair of candidates who speak passionately and articulately to the real needs and concerns of a nation — not for endless war but for economic reform and pay equity. Howard Dean too, in those salad days before he saw the corporate light and became an unconscionable shill, had some good ideas there, as did the once shining and now disgraced John Edwards. There were, altogether, ten potentials among the Democrats, yet the media informed us, sorrowfully, that it simply could not devote the necessary resources, either of employment or of money, to covering them all. Flash-forward twelve years, to 2016, with its 17 Republican primary candidates, every one of whose campaigns, regardless of personal loopiness, received from this same quarter a sufficiency (not to say a surfeit) of coverage. This is not to mention the plastering of Trump’s visage on the airwaves, to the tune of some two billion dollars’ worth of free advertising, including the sight of his empty podium… and a telephone number for making donations. Yet fewer than a half-dozen Democrats in 2004 somehow defeated the media’s resources. Who, having heard it, can ever forget the sound of Les Moonves giggling over how much money Trump was generating for CBS?

Their real money, of course, was on the establishment neocon candidate. How else explain why so little has been made by the corporate press of Clintons’ appalling arrogance in employing un-secured routers and devices for top-secret government communications, and in destroying her emails and the machines she used to send and receive them? How else justify the collective shrug given by the corporate media when the director of the Obama FBI and his minions altered an actionable charge of “gross negligence” against her to the wrist-slap of “extreme carelessness”? How else codify why the transparent rigging of the primaries — the crooked electronic votes (the actual, as opposed to fabricated, “hacking of our elections”) and the purging of voters from the rolls all over the country — by the DNC, an organization we have since learned was entirely under the control of Clinton herself? Woodward and Bernstein were working, initially and for some time, with a hell of lot less information in 1972.

But George Carlin said it best: It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.

“The Soviet plot was the hub of a great wheel of causation; the plot justified the crushing of all nuance, all the shadings that a realistic judgment of reality requires.” — Arthur Miller

Those who have been deranged by the twin horrors of a campaign that lasted nearly half as long as an American President’s term in the White House and the specter in the Oval Office of the loathed and derided Donald J. Trump are now, in their pique, addicted to fresh promises that this new development, or that new indictment, or the other new “revelation,” will surely spell the end for his cynosure. And the corporate media feeds that addiction, daily raising their expectations by promising the last nail in Trump’s presidential coffin. It is an addiction that pounces on the merest scrap: The appropriately tawdry and meretricious “Steele Dossier”; the firing by Trump of this or that odious aide or National Security apparatchik; the indictment by the Special Prosecutor of a baker’s dozen of Russian trolls purchasing seeming political ads on social media (after the election, please recall.)

The Democratic Party has, of course, seized on this Wither-directed pique, declaring — after, one presumes one too many viewings of The Force Awakens — the emergence of something it calls “The Resistance” but which more impartial observers correctly deem “The McResistance.” For, as with the equally spurious “Tea Party” movement which came into existence only after a mixed-race Democrat took office, the adherents of this new “Resistance” were notably silent during eight years of corporatist Obama atrocities, not least including his more than doubling the existing wars and his stripping from the land of habeas corpus. But, unlike the Tea Partiers, who, whatever their true origin in the darkened boardrooms of Koch and ALEC, mobilized to effect a change, however dolorous, in their party, the McResistance does as it is told, donning pink caps here, massing against guns there, unable to see just how cannily (and pathetically easily) they are manipulated by the still-Clintonian DNC which robbed them of the best chance they had to defeat Trump — whose victory over their queen was predicted early and whose rival was just as convincingly proved to be able to beat The Donald, had he been given the chance. (And had he possessed the backbone to fight back against the vote-rigging and not caved so early, and so often.)

But Irrational Trump Hatred is so high that it has overwhelmed the ability for critical thought. “Vote Blue, No Matter Who” means electing a Republican in all but name merely because he is not Roy Moore. It means further marginalizing all progressive comers. It means additional rigging of votes, such as during the recent Congressional election in Florida, where erstwhile DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz retained her seat by performing on a local level what her corrupt committee enacted on a national one mere months before: Robbing Tim Canova of votes and then destroying the contested ballots. Or take the March Illinois campaign, during which the progressive candidate Marie Newman not only saw her early lead over Republican-Lite Dan Lipinksi fall, but her ballot numbers actually go down, in real-time. 20 years ago, we were warned that the electronic voting systems being ramped up all over the land and administered by the right-wing Diebold Company, would surely benefit Republicans. Now, we understand, all too late, that they are also benefitting rightist neocon Democrats. Where is the outrage over this? Where the pussy-hat marchers? Too busy, one presumes, labeling any-and-everyone who disagrees with them “Putin Puppets” on Social media or over the “liberal” airways of MSNBC.

I mentioned Woodward and Bernstein in passing, above, but “Woodstein,” and Watergate, also have bearing on this essay, and on the general derangement Trump’s victory has unleashed. In Watergate, there was no Congressional investigation until evidence of a crime had come to light. This is a crucial element of a criminal inquiry: Investigators, knowing of a specific crime having been committed, then examine the evidence of that crime to determine guilt. They do not go looking for a crime first. Since, as far as we can divine from the lack of evidence so far presented (and, trust me, if the various American entities gathered under that pretty little catch-all “security” had any evidence of “collusion,” they would release it) the basis on which the president is being investigated, in contradistinction of all previously understood and agreed upon understanding of jurisprudence, is that very lie cobbled up by Clinton’s campaign team. And the single most dismaying, and dispiriting, upshot of all this has been the avidity with which “liberals” have supported this judicial abuse, out of irrational hatred and plain pique.

The loss of such critical thinking skills (always presuming they existed to begin with) condemns the reactive and newly self-appointed legal experts to Pavlovian salivating over Trump’s “Russian collusion,” or his violation of a clause none of them had ever heard of before 2016 and most cannot properly pronounce, “emoluments” usually being spoken of as “emollients” — presumably relating to the illegal use of hand lotions. A progressive friend recently opined of Trump’s chicanery that he felt certain there was “a there there.” Well, yes — if you dig long enough, and deep enough, you’re bound to find something nefarious. That The Donald has gotten away with decades’ worth of shady business dealings and, on a lesser level, perpetual flummery, aided and abetted by the New York media’s slavering adulation of him, is well-known. Where were these would-be prosecutors then? Avidly devouring the latest New York Post story written by Trump about himself and copied more or less verbatim as “news” by hacks masquerading as journalists? Watching his long-running NBC game-show? Why do they only care now?

Further: That the immediate result of a Trump impeachment would be the installation as Commander-in-Chief of Vice President Pence seems not to have occurred to them. “Oh, we can control him” is the smug response, when one gets a response at all. Oh? As you have “controlled” Trump, by voting for nearly everyone he nominates and everything he wants? And, if he is so easily controlled, then why the tsouris?

How well these types would have sung in the Salem Town congregation.

The elevation by the McResistance of such oleaginous types as Comey, James Clapper and Robert Mueller, its unthinking embrace of the deep-state and the shadow government (and yes, even former CIA officials admit both exist), its indifference to the news that a record number of former military intelligence and ex-CIA operatives are running in the 2018 Democratic campaigns, its reactionary and chilling echoing of 1950s Red-baiting, and its refusal to accept that the much-discussed release by WikiLeaks of the Podesta emails was, as William Binney and Ray McGovern of VIPS (Veterans Intelligence Professionals for Sanity) have assured us, the work of someone inside the DNC using a USB data-stick, have led to the appalling if unsurprising intelligence that fully 85 per-cent of Americans now believe something called “Russian hacking” was responsible for Trump’s election rather than, as was the case, the bulk of American voters rejecting a candidate they deemed even worse. (Another old friend, who lived through the McCarthy scare, opined recently that even Henry Kissinger would be better as president than Trump. Henry Kissinger!)

Those still capable of rational thought, who have not allowed their disdain for The Donald to overwhelm their minds, understand that, after a year and a half of investigation, if there were anything to the many and varied charges of “collusion,” we would by now be awash in evidence. Sixteen months, and what are the results?

Thirteen Russians trolling for cyber-cash.

Nor does the new Red-Scare madness end at our borders. Across the pond, a Prime Minister beset on every side by the results of her own ineptness suddenly claims a pair of expatriated Russians living in Britain were “conclusively” poisoned by the Russians, on as little evidence as the Clinton team’s “Russia did it!” accusations — which is to say only their word on it. Other nations now are scrambling to deport Russian diplomats, on the word of Teresa May. International tensions, as they say in the news biz, are escalating, and there seems daily a greater chance that this spurious, un-proven (and, I daresay, unprovable) nonsense could eventuate in war with a nuclear-armed nation. Worse, the incessant Red-baiting and baseless charges against Trump make it nearly impossible for him to deal in any reasonable fashion with Putin; should he attempt to quell these ludicrous and easily avoidable tensions, the predictable cries of “See? He’s in Putin’s pocket!” will shortly deafen the airwaves.

And so the 21st century Abigail Williams, unlike her 17th century counterpart, has, in her avidity to deflect her own Uranium deal with Putin onto the new President, endangered not merely her small community or even her state, but the entire globe. This makes her both more and less than her historical coeval, who wanted merely a man she could not have, and when even that modest desire fell to ruin, departed the scene. Abigail-Hillary, by contrast, never shuts up. She and her disciples (the latter of whom, again unlike those in Salem, don’t even — because they cannot, or their entire sense of self will come crashing about their dangerously empty heads — recognize how well their leader has played them) seem to want the very end of their world, as long as they feel a little better about themselves for in the millisecond they, and we, have before the first bomb drops.

Copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

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Super 8 (2011)

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By Scott Ross

Super 8 Joel Courtney - 04

J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.


Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross

Valedictory: “Fright Night” (1985)

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Fright-Night-1985-wolf

Revised Version of a critique written for The Middlebury College in October 1985

By Scott Ross

The title conjured up a number of images, none of them especially promising: Not another slasher film, please God! But, being an unofficial lifetime member of any Roddy McDowall appreciation society that might be out there, I considered it my duty to give the movie at least a cursory glance. I’ve given it more than that, twice now, and even at a second viewing Fright Night remains one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the movies since Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper scared the bejeezus out of me with Poltergeist.

There’s some elemental quality in the horror genre that generations of movie­goers have tapped into, time and again. Without going into the complex psychology of the attraction, there is something about the horrific that touches some chord in people — a deeply rooted and seldom explored chamber of the darker parts of our souls that filmmakers learned how to exploit very early on. This is something that Tom Holland, the writer­director of Fright Night understands well, and he’s served up two terrific hours of it in this witty exercise in genre-bending.

The horror film has never been a particularly reputable genre, and its glories have been rare. The macabre sensibilities of James Whale gave rise to the two undisputed classics in the field, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but that was in the early 1930s. (Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula is a terrible movie, and a reminder that — inexplicably — except on television, no Dracula film has ever used Bram Stoker’s superb original novel as a basis.)* The work of his successors (mostly hacks) have served to make Whale’s contributions seem Tolstoyan in comparison. And in some strange fashion, the occasional stylistic successes (like The Haunting of Hill House and The Legend of Hell House) are as frustrating as they are satisfying; they merely whet our appetites for elegant trash, but they’re essentially self-contained. The hiatus between events worthy of notice becomes more protracted, the disappointments more discouraging. I imagine the same holds true for Fright Night.

The picture concerns a high school student (the likeable William Ragsdale, one of the more believable, un-glamorous teenagers in American movies) who discovers he’s living next door to a vampire, played with a delicious mix of charm and menace by Chris Sarandon. That’s it really, but one of the wonders of the movie is that it plays fair by the conventions. Even if he occasionally goes for the obvious effect, Holland doesn’t tamper with the time-honored traditions of vampire lore. The film’s surprise ending may seem like both a cheap shot and a break with tradition, but it’s neither; it’s simply the logical conclusion to an action whose elements are presented to the initiated as a given, and a knowing wink that says … Maybe, maybe not. There is a remarkable respect for the rudiments of Gothic horror unities here: Even as it pokes sly fun at fustian nonsense, Fright Night pushes all the right buttons and pulls all the correct switches associated with our cherished ideas of how a good vampire tale is supposed to affect the viewer.

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Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys

But the film’s most important component lies in the casting of Roddy McDowall. As Peter Vincent, “the Great Vampire Killer” — host of a silly, third-rate TV chiller theatre called “Fright Night” — McDowall serves as a cunning reminder that what we’re watching is make-believe. Through the juxtapositions of the movie’s rising action with Vincent’s repeated appearances on the tube nonchalantly dispatching Hollywood vampires, Holland is winking at us even as he’s piling on the more horrific trappings of his own Fright Night; Peter Vincent is the joke within the joke. Nor is McDowall’s casting accidental; he’s shown up on enough horror-tinged Twilight Zone and Night Gallery episodes, TV movies and theatrical releases to have become a part of the genre himself. (About the only thing he didn’t guest-star on was Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And I’d be willing to bet, had it lasted longer than a single season, he would have.) His performance both validates the form and pokes mischievous fun at it.

Although it’s a joy to watch McDowall ham it up as Peter Vincent, glorying in his own essential hokiness, you become aware as the film rolls on of the actor’s mastery of craft. His performance seems deliciously camp at first, as he struts about in pompous fashion — until he realizes that, for the first time in his synthetic life and career, he’s dealing with a real vampire. At the same time, McDowall is artfully etching a portrait of abject failure — a pathetic shill who knows in his bones that his time is up, a time he never really had to begin with. When these disparate strands crystallize, Vincent’s veneer cracks; he becomes correspondingly more terrified, and we get the movie’s only complete injection of non-­surface acting. (Although the curiously sexy Stephen Geoffreys, as the movie’s requisite high-school pariah, a giggling oddball nicknamed “Evil,” has moments that go deeper than the others.†) He’s a charlatan, this Peter Vincent — broken-down and seedy, with his actorish posturings and calculated authoritative timbre, but as McDowall plays him, the character has a conscience; watch him as he wrestles with his own terror and you become cognizant of this shallow figure’s actual depth.

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Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, staving off a rapacious Chris Sarandon.

There is a long sequence late in the film, as Vincent stands mute witness to the (seeming) death throes of a demon that is positively moving because of the unspoken pity McDowall evinces. I’m not certain all of the emotions that play across his weathered, oddly beautiful features were written into the script per se, and I doubt they could be. But McDowall gives them to us, subtly and movingly, through his own unassailable artistry ­ the sheen of craft that resonates throughout his performance.

Despite the cleverness of the movie’s admittedly double-edged title, it has a point of view. When Vincent’s stint as a late­-show host comes to an end, he laments the taste of the horror viewing public: “Nobody wants to see vampires any more. What they want are demented madmen running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins.”†† This seems to me a key speech, for even as we’re being royally entertained, Holland tells us that his movie is something of a dead-end; he’s reminding us that it’s all a sham. Even as Richard Endlund’s often-brilliant special effects are conjuring up images straight from medieval concepts of Hell, the movie is itself almost funeral: A final specimen of a dying species.

Whichever way you care to view it, Fright Night is quite a valedictory.

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*When I wrote this review, the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola Bram Stoker’s Dracula was still seven years in the future.

†Geoffreys (who had an overbite that killed me) pinged my “Gaydar” back in ’85, and with reason; he eventually beefed up a bit and drifted into gay erotica, becoming, as I understand it, a “power-bottom” in pornos.

††Peter Vincent spoke too soon. Now everybody seems to want to see vampires, and zombies. The hack who figures out a way to make zombie-vampires work will launch the franchise to end them all.


Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross