“Fright Night”: When Men Suck

Boo! Yes, Halloween has come and passed; but a good scare is always in season, so here’s my treat to you: a second Halloween blog post.

This one is a special double feature for “What the Kids Were Watching.” You’ll hear from Raf, my fellow podcast host (I swear, we are going to release the podcast soon), who’s chock-full of historical information and data; then you’ll hear from me about what the movies mean to me. And the topic at hand: the 1985 cheesy boys-will-be-boys (or boys-will-be-vampires) teen sex scream-com and the 2011 remake that — spoilers! — I have no negative words for. Both have the same name, but both sneak up on the subject matter in very different ways.

So, without further ado: WELCOME TO “FRIGHT NIGHT.”

Boys Will Be Boys: “Fright Night” 1985

Raf, take it away:

The original film was written and directed by Todd Holland (“Child’s Play”). It establishes the deceptively simple premise of an average teenager named Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale, “Justified”) who discovers his new next door neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon, “Dog Day Afternoon”) is actually a vampire killing women nightly. Nobody will believe Charlie: not his mom, his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse, “Married With Children”), his eccentric best friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), or the police. This novel variation of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” / “Rear Window” applied to a horror movie is a Cracker Jack concept that’s been repeated many times since. 

A moderate box office hit in the summer of 1985, the movie proved to be a cornerstone film for vampire movies, transitioning them from England and gothic Victorian settings to modern suburban America. Before this movie, vampires were in the Dracula mold: a foreign aristocrat made a cliché by decades of Bela Legosi and Christopher Lee performances. Here, the generically named Jerry is a metrosexual yuppie predator. With his permed hair and collection of ’80s-tastic blazers and sweaters, he charms with a low-key appeal you could see in any upscale bar.

This film is also one of the earliest examples of a horror movie expressing a meta commentary through main characters that have actually seen horror movies. The movie constantly comments on the cliches of the genre — and over nine years before the first “Scream” (1996). “Fright Night” doubles down on this idea with the mid-movie twist. With no one to turn to, Charlie desperately reaches out to the one person who might know how to defeat Jerry: TV horror host Peter Vincent (in a career reviving performance by Roddy McDowall, “Planet of the Apes”). Instead of a fearless vampire killer “ready to do battle with the undead,” Vincent turns out to be a vainglorious failed actor completely not up to the task. He’s a comical take on classic horror film stars. Even his name is an in-joke combination of two such leads: Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. McDowall gives one of his career best performances a cowardly lion who slowly discovers his self confidence and faith in the face of ultimate evil.

McDowall and Sarandon center the proceedings, and much of the movie’s staying power lies on their shoulders. Sarandon strikes an incredibly sexualized presence. Only Frank Langella’s brooding anti-hero performance in the 1970’s Broadway production of “Dracula” and its 1979 film adaption have any similarities to this approach. Sarandon has a new-wave dance number of seduction with Amy that is more something out of “Flashdance” than a horror movie. Unlike 1979’s “Love at First Bite,” the dance isn’t played as comedy. Jerry’s dangerous, a sexual hunger weaponized. He resents this life to some degree, which he implies was forced upon him when attacking Charlie: “You deserve to die, boy. Of course, I could give you something I don’t have. A choice.”

This comes across in the movie’s LGBTQ subtext. “Fright Night” was one of first American movies (along with the “Hunger” in 1983) to address the themes in vampire cinema head on. Jerry is a pansexual character, alluring to both of Charlie’s friends (Amy and Evil Ed); and while it’s never outright stated, Jerry’s relationship with his assistant Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) seems romantic by nature. This is doubly obvious in the scene where Billy dresses Jerry’s hand injury while on his knees. Evil Ed’s sexual orientation is clearly hidden in a time when “in the closet” was standard operating procedure. One could even wonder where Peter Vincent’s sexual preferences lie. Evil Ed and Peter’s final wordless scene together speaks touching volumes when you realize that Geoffreys had a career of gay porn afterwards and McDowall spent a lifetime as a beloved character actor who never clarified his sexual orientation. By the time “Interview With The Vampire” came out in 1994, the subtext had become text; and while “Fright Night” may comes off as dated now, for mainstream Hollywood of the 80s, this was daring.

Because the movie influenced so much vampire literature, its weaker elements now stand out more. Since prosthetic make-up effects breakthrough in “An American Werewolf in London” just four years earlier, “Fright Night” luxuriates in every transformation and disintegration, and the results are frustrating. In the final act, the movie stops dead for one make-up effects sequence after another, dulling their effectiveness. Also compared to the movie’s more colorful elements, Charlie is a soft lead. He fits in the mid-80s cliche of black-haired 20-somethings playing teens in beige jackets. He’s a perpetually whining reactive lead, something that comes off glaringly apparent when compared to the remake’s interpretation of the character.

But looking back, “Fright Night” is still one of the best vampire movies of the 80s. Writer/director Holland maintains an elegant balance between the contrasting comedy/horror tones. His unique “modern gothic” take on the vampire mythos would pave the way for everybody that followed: “Vamp” (1986), “The Lost Boys” (1987), “Near Dark” (1987), and, of course, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” (1992). Marti Noxon was an executive producer of the subsequent “Buffy” TV series (1997-2003) and wrote 23 episodes over the show’s seven seasons. So it was no surprise when she was enlisted to come up with a new take on this premise and direct the 2011 remake of “Fright Night.”

–Rafael Ruiz

Okay, enough facts. Time for Big Opinionz With Sarah.

As I mentioned in the It blog post, I stayed away from the 1985 “Fright Night” for decades because the VHS cover scared the crap out of me as a kid. I mean, just LOOK AT IT. Tell me that wouldn’t give you nightmares.

STOP IT YOU’RE KILLING ME

When Raf finally convinced me to watch this movie, I wanted to like it, mostly because I thought Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent was rather charming. But I do not like this movie. If I have even a passing interest in a film or show, I can rewatch it at least once; but the second time I saw “Fright Night,” I was so bored that I don’t remember a thing.

People love this movie. I admit the closeted gay subtext is intriguing, and Chris Sarandon’s Jerry is foxy AF in that creepy 80s douchebag way, where he seems into you but you know his interest has a real short shelf life. (I actually find his player attitude more off-putting than his vampirism; don’t make me undead forever and then drop me after one night, jerk.) But it’s hard to focus on Sarandon’s permed, off-the-shoulder-sweatered glory, because…

Charlie.

Charlie.

Charlie Charlie CHARLIEEEE.

If “Fright Night” had a drinking game, you would take a drink every time someone said “Charlie.” Downside: You’d be dead before the third act. Upside: You wouldn’t hear anyone say “Charlie!” anymore.

I could look past this verbal tic if Charlie himself wasn’t so undeserving of everyone’s attention. In the first scene, he yells at Amy and shames her for not wanting to have sex. He then spends the rest of the movie screeching at anyone who doesn’t believe his neighbor is a vampire. He’s all sound and fury, signifying dickishness.

You’re the worst.

Look, I get what Raf meant when he said “Fright Night” was very much of its time, and its time included 80s teen sex comedies like “Porky’s” and its ilk — movies where boys were horny, girls were objects, and sex was everyone’s reason for living. So it’s no surprise that Amy fawns over Charlie when he snaps at her, that his mom’s an airhead who exists only for comic relief, and that his best friend puts up with his abuse almost as much as Amy does. Amy deserves better. Evil Ed deserves better. Even Peter Vincent deserves better, and so do we.

But all’s well that ends well, or so the movie tries to tell us as it high-fives the guys and ogles the girls’ chests. Jerry’s dead and gone. Peter Vincent gets his beloved show back. Charlie and Amy presumably have sex (despite me yelling at the screen “AMY, GIRL, YOU’RE TOO GOOD FOR HIM”). And Evil Ed…well, he’s damned to wander the earth forever as the damned, Nosferatu; but it’s okay because he wasn’t a main character…?

TL;DR: This movie wasn’t meant for me, and the feeling is mutual. Now, I love a lot of things that weren’t meant for me; but I don’t like spending time with “Fright Night,” even when viewing it as a metaphor for toxic masculinity. How can I, when the most toxic character is the hero?

So when Raf said they remade it a few years ago, he really had to encourage me to watch it.

Then he had to sit through repeat viewings, because I loved the new version so much.

Boys Will Be Heroes: “Fright Night” 2011

The 2011 remake of “Fright Night” may have basically the same plot as the 1985 movie, but the tone is completely different. It’s faster paced and a lot more fun, even when it’s not winking at the camera with jokes about how it’s a remake. Take the opening scene, which showcases a TV commercial for a Criss Angel rip-off magic show called “Fright Night,” starring Peter Vincent and playing in Las Vegas. You’re barely through giggling at David Tennant (swoon) in a goth wig (ha ha) and leather pants (swoooon) when you see a dog on a table eating pizza (ha ha ha), then BOOM the first jump scare happens and you realize you’re watching a terrified teenager try to escape the creature that’s devoured his family, and then — 

AAAAHHHHHH TITLE CREDITS

Not the title credits, but you get the idea.

“Bad Bad Love” blasts as the camera swoops over an isolated Las Vegas suburb, and all I can think of is “The Goldfinch” (the book, not the movie), and I instantly feel the alienation of being a young person in a nearly-empty suburb, consumed and cleared out by the recession and being literally eaten away by the desert closing in. Which is what happens in “The Goldfinch” but also to a lesser extent in “Fright Night.” UGH. I LOVE THIS MOVIE SO MUCH.

Anyway, this is where we meet…

❤ ❤ ❤ Charlie ❤ ❤ ❤

Raf found a whole bunch of these promo posters online and I want all of them.

Played by Anton Yelchin (RIP; may I find you in the afterlife and tell you how wonderful and hot you were), this Charlie is one of my favorite movie characters of all time. He starts the film with a quiet mischievousness, staring at the “Lucky” on his dancer neighbor Doris’ sweatpants and getting irritated but not frazzled when his motorcycle doesn’t work. He never yells at his mom Jane, a real estate agent played by Toni Collette. He never, ever, EVER says anything mean to Amy (Imogen Poots); the closest he comes is when he’s distant and hollow-eyed when trying to lie to her about the undead threat in their neighborhood. And later in the film, when he has to be the hero we need, his stalwart determination to do what must be done, even if he has to do it alone with a 0.0001% possibility of success — it’s truly the story of a good kid becoming a good man.

Speaking of good, everyone in this cast frickin’ BRINGS IT. Jane drops all-too-believable words of irritation at the neighbor who won’t move his trash dumpster, then fawns over said neighbor when she sees how hot he is. What I love about her is how once the threat is revealed, she quickly believes Charlie and moves to escape as soon as possible. The film doesn’t waste time with simpering parents who just don’t get it and put the kids in harm’s way.

And Amy. Good Lord, I could write a whole post about how much I love Imogen Poots in this movie. She is everything I wish I saw in more female film characters, especially teenagers. First of all, whether she’s a virgin is not even in the plot. It’s like the movie takes place in a world where girls aren’t shamed for having sex! (Except for Doris, who gets a lot of judgmental comments thrown her way.) Second, Amy’s delightful, moving through every scene with effortless charm. She’s like a ray of sunshine that smiles, laughs, and drinks Starbucks. Her and Charlie’s relationship is sweet without being saccharine; and when the shit hits the fan, they’re there for each other without drama or panic. We should all be so lucky to find and fall in love with an Amy.

But unlike in the 1985 film, Evil Ed isn’t Amy’s friend — if anything, he’s her enemy, fighting for Charlie’s attention. Christopher Mintz-Plasse (yes, McLovin) plays the 2011 version of Evil Ed, who’s now a bitter supernerd caught in the caste warfare of high school. His best friend is now too cool for him, so he retaliates, threatening to release dorky videos of them cosplaying unless Charlie helps him investigate his theories about vampires in the neighborhood. In a way, he’s hunting Charlie even before he becomes a vampire; but it’s because Charlie moved into the cool kids’ clique, abandoning Ed for his new life. It’s painfully realistic, and it reminds the audience that Charlie — as sweet as he seems — is still willing to destroy things to get what he wants.

However, Ed isn’t exactly innocent. He could be seen as a representation of the toxic masculinity in nerd culture, throwing out vitriolic comments about women and blaming them for the problems in his world.

But Ed’s not nearly as toxic as some of the other male characters.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Jerry.

When Raf first told me to watch this movie, he described Colin Farrell’s Jerry the vampire as “a coke addict. He’s constantly twitching and looking for a fix rather than coming off as seductive.” It’s totally true. This Jerry has all the hotness of, well, Colin Farrell; but he rarely focuses on the women who are going totally swooneypants in front of him. Instead, he’s glancing around as if looking for a hit. Even when he’s about to bite Doris, she sobs and screams as he looks away, trying to focus on getting his teeth erect, if you catch my drift. (It’s not subtle.) This one moment that’s supposed to turn him on more than anything still isn’t enough, because his insatiability is a gross addiction, not a turn-on. (Though bonus remake points for the scene where he attacks a motorist played by Chris Sarandon, the previous Jerry!)

Adding to the hot vampire’s grossness is his own portrayal of toxic masculinity. It unfolds and escalates with alarming speed in the scene when he comes over to grab some beers before his date. First is the physical posturing, with Jerry leaning in Charlie’s doorway (without entering the house), his arms spread out as if expressing his dominance like an animal in a nature program. Then the trash talk starts. He speaks condescendingly about his date that night as his gaze shifts from side to side, saying that women “need to be managed.” It gets personal as he tells Charlie about the “scent” and “ripeness” he’s picking up from the boy’s lonely mother and beautiful girlfriend. Finally, he practically growls at the boy, warning him that he needs to protect the women in his life “because there are a lot of bad people out there, Charlie.”

And all the while, Charlie stares at him, his eyes focused but terrified, the pigeon on his shirt an emblem of his prey status to the predator in front of him. But pigeons are pretty smart. They can even learn basic math. And like the bird on his shirt, Charlie is a hell of a lot smarter and more resourceful than he looks.

Jerry’s still an apex predator, though, and one smooth enough to escape capture for centuries. Yet for all his posturing and violence, I can’t stop thinking about the moment when he bites Amy’s neck in the club. In the 1985 film, the scene plays out like a seduction on a dance floor. But in this movie, Amy silently cries, as if she’s fighting through his spell on her. As if she’s fighting that she has to play this role of victim at all.

Before I talk about my very favorite character in the movie, though, let’s take a quick break for the official film trailer:

Notice anything? Notice anything missing? That’s right — David Tennant’s Peter Vincent is NOT EVEN IN THE TRAILER. WTF.

While I dug McDowall’s Vincent in the original “Fright Night,” Tennant’s version is hysterical. It’s the comic relief the movie truly needed, the salt in its salted caramel flavor. Instead of mourning the loss of his youth and his film career like McDowall’s character, this Peter Vincent interrupts Charlie to grin lasciviously and point at a woman walking by, saying, “I f*cked her. Filthy!” He pulls off a fake goatee while grimacing and aggressively scratching his crotch through skintight leather pants. He’s disgusting, oozing debauchery and grossness in every scene. And I am full on INTO IT.

At least until the end, when he trades his seediness for seriousness. And I am just as into it.

INTO IT.

But before he becomes a hero, Peter is just another representation of toxic masculinity. As I mentioned, from the moment he meets Charlie, he’s bragging about his sexual escapades. During their interview, he keeps questioning Charlie’s masculinity. Like Evil Ed, he has no kindness in his heart for women, even though he has plenty of them in his life. At least his gorgeous and very funny assistant Ginger calls him on his bullshit.

Then Charlie — the Boy Who Gets Things Done — goes to save the world, and Vincent finds his courage at the bottom of a Midori bottle and helps him. And while Peter Vincent is a lot of gross fun as an antagonist, seeing him step up as the protagonist’s helper gives the character astonishing and believable edge. It makes him feel as believable as Charlie. They’re like Velveteen Rabbits, finally turning real.

So they fight back, and there’s a bad-ass fight sequence, yadda yadda yadda; and everyone ends up okay (mostly, except for Evil Ed…but honestly, I think he’d probably have this fate than continue with the bullshit of high school), and even the credits are a hell of a lot of fun.

Some Last Bites

This post has turned out a LOT longer than I thought it would, and the sun’s about to rise (kidding; it’s not even 7:30 at night, but I’m tired), so let’s wrap this up.

If “Fright Night” 1985 was “of its time,” then “Fright Night” 2011 should be for all time. It tells the audience that being a “man” isn’t about drinking beer or getting laid — it’s about standing up to a predator and saving the people you love, even if no one believes you and you have to do it yourself. It’s about being a hero far out of the spotlight, when no one’s watching and you might not even survive.

The 1985 Charlie needed to grow up. But I wish all of us could grow up to become the 2011 Charlie.

Copyright 2019 – 2020, Sarah A. Ruiz & What the Kids Were Watching/Quail School Media. All rights reserved.

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