[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.
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.
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.
* 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. At least, I hope so.
Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross