Vampires and werewolves, Werewolves and vampires. Somehow they keep on coming back to haunt me and my reader-base this Halloween season. The MCU’s Werewolf by Night only added to the coincidence as I didn’t even realize some of my selections for this year’s Horrorthon would feature these two Gothic monsters.
While’s it’s neat I have a consistent theme to what I’m covering for the most part, it can at times feel like overload having Vampires and Lycans constantly re-emerging in my work. Well, for this showdown of two vampire titles of the same name, there is at least the vampire and in the original movie’s case, a vampire who has a very werewolf transformation.
Fright Night (1985)
Image from YouTube (No wuv, true wuv here….)
Part of what made the original Fright Night so effective in a way that may not hold up as well to an audience of my generation is that it plays itself up as a celebration of an older generation’s consumption of horror media. The movie’s name comes from a TV show that showcases old horror movies. It’s host is Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) and I don’t think I have to tell you who Vincent Price was as that is something you a younger reader could have a vague recollection of. Know who the narrator is in Michael Jackson’s Thriller? Well then you know of Vincent Price.
There was also Elvira and Vampirella as hosts to TV-approved versions of old horror or relatively recent horror flicks. The most contemporary example would be Joe Bob Briggs and it’s worth it to check out his host segments for MonsterVision’s Friday the 13th marathon back in the 90s. Because of how viciously edited Jason’s movies were for public consumption, Brigg’s commentary during the breaks are all that’s worthwhile.
In spite of Briggs keeping the tradition alive with The Last Drive-In on Shudder, the kind of TV program Fright Night is known for is basically gone, unless you count TCM doing a horror marathon. The remake would address this by totally changing what Fright Night is.
Fright Night is also a 80s teen comedy that seeks to give an update to the vampire movie formula. Taking the trends of how vampires worked and were fought and killed in earlier movies and placing it in an 80s environment. I for one, am all for that concept on the face of it. Nevertheless, not every promising 80s teen comedy with a twist works as well as even I thought it would for me.
Teen Wolf with Michael J. Fox is a perfect example. Save for one perfect scene, where Fox’s character transforms into a werewolf in his bathroom then opens the door to see his also transformed father, that’s just great, let alone a subversion of how you were expecting that scene to play out. But it begins and ends as what you don’t want the film to be, a sports movie. And even then, all the other moments with or without Teen Wolfing involved are either boring or not nearly reaching the highs of that one scene.
Fright Night thankfully is much better than Teen Wolf, both at executing its own premise, being a comedy involving teens and even being a horror film, not that Teen Wolf was ever trying to be scary. It also reminded me of another 1985 film released the same year as Teen Wolf and also starring Michael J. Fox. Do I even have to say what it is?
Image from IMDB (The original, not toxic Rick and Morty.)
I mean, Fright Night is a movie starring a teen who in this case makes acquaintances with what is at best a middle-aged man getting involved in something bigger than either one of them can solve alone. Only Back to the Future would became a monstrous box office success its year with a generation crossing recognition and acclaim. Like a vampire, Fright Night kept to the shadows.
William Ragsdale plays Charley Brewster, a teen who just wants his relationship with Amy (Amanda Bearse) to go all the way as an 80s teen was especially want to do at least in popular culture. But discovering that his new neighbor is a creature of the night just ruins the mood. Chris Sarandon plays the original Jerry Dandridge, the charismatic as hell vampire in secret and at first I thought he looked like a fusion of Hugh Grant and Billy Zane. I had to be prodded by a family member to remember that I had seen Sarandon before, as Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride. How could I forget him from a kissing movie no one would dare forget?
He’s also the voice of Jack Skellington from Nightmare before Christmas so his acumen is clearly something I should’ve picked up fast. He has his non-vampire yet not entirely human companion Billy who is meant to remind you of Renfield, the man Dracula enslaves and makes into a whimpering, desperate for affection fool. However, the relationship between Jerry and Billy seems to be mutually friendly without one dominating the other, the latter even pointing out how not miserable his setup is as a vampire servant.
Now, this came as a surprise to Sarandon and Jonathan Stark who plays Billy but there was intentional gay undertones to the nature of Jerry and Billy’s partnership. There’s one moment where anyone can see what the filmmakers are playing at with those two and you will know it when you see it.
Considering this is a film made and set in the mid-80s amidst the horrific AIDS crisis, it’s not as mean or outwardly homophobic as it could’ve been. Sure, Jerry is a remorseless vampire and Billy is his helper but if it wasn’t for that predilection of theirs, they would otherwise come across pretty well.
Hell, when Jerry and Billy are first seen publicly as living together, no one seems to make a fuss out of it, even though based on what was happening in America and much of the world at the time, you think someone would at least speak up in a way.
In fact, this movie seems to have a tragic yet sympathetic attitude towards homosexuals. Charley’s jerkass friend “Evil Ed” (Stephen Geoffreys), who is known for among other things saying one of the movie’s best known lines, “You’re so COOL, Brewster!”, is a guy who has been interpreted for being in the closest and the text of the film eventually gives way to making it not even ambiguous.
For starters, he’s shown to be annoyed and abrasive whenever Amy gets in the way of an activity that he clearly wanted to do just with Charley. Eventually, after getting shunned from his perspective by Charley and Amy, he encounters Jerry in an alleyway. He tells him to no longer be afraid for being different from his friends and to just embrace what he’s offering, which is, what else, vampirism.
Now, it’s also possible to take Fright Night’s attitude about homosexuality in a manner that is less accommodating and for that reason, less surprising considering the time it was made. Again, the scene of Ed being bitten by Jerry is occurring between a teen boy and a grown man. You know, that could be reinforcing one of the ugliest assumptions about someone being gay, especially for gay men. On the other hand, Ed not being “accepted” has him being drawn in and ensnared by a predatory person, one who uses him for his own ends.
Of course, the gay metaphor might become blurry to some considering that Jerry definitely preys on women as a vampire. But if Fright Night feels just a little bit allegorical for some stuff here and there, it was meant to be that way and it’s takeaways could’ve been much more disheartening.
So, basically, the premise is that Charley comes to learn that without a bat-shadow of a doubt that he has a vampire in his midst and sooner rather than later, he will come for his mother, his girlfriend and hell, maybe even him at some point. He soon realizes he can’t do it alone, especially since Amy and Ed are initially disbelieving and even then, not expert vampire hunters. The closest option is Fright Night’s Peter Vincent and he is a washed up, failing actor who can only be convinced to go along with Charley’s plans at first because money is on the table.
Roddy McDowall is the most recognizable actor and does a great job as the veteran actor getting on in years to help connect old cinema-goers with the new ones. Even though I implied he’s like Doc Brown earlier, he’s really more like if an actor who once portrayed Doctor Who was called upon by a fan to help him fight one of the Doctor’s enemies like Daleks or Cybermen. This may or may not be preparing you for David Tennant to be Vincent in the next movie.
As a horror experience, it can be effective yet the tone is always on mixing with comedy and other emotions. Some of the scarier moments of this movie can often be followed with something actually sad. Namely, when vampirized Evil Ed is preying upon McDowall’s Vincent during the third act, it at first baffles you by him transforming into a wolf (which I think is an actual ability for a vampire, one of many that are often underused in fiction).
Vincent accidentally gets Ed as a wolf staked with a broken table leg which leads to his slow, drawn out transformation back into human form. Yep, werewolf transformations were so much the rage in the 80s, even non-werewolf movies had them. That being said, there’s no humor, no real horror, just sympathy from an old man for a young man’s outcome.
There is an appropriate mixing of tones to Fright Night, neither zany silliness or fearful terrors all the time. If there’s one thing the original Fright Night struggles with, it’s the pacing of it’s climax which while there’s not necessarily an unneeded scene, it can go on too long. That header image showing Jerry realizing dawn has come, that’s a moment where you expect him to be exposed to sunlight and die there and then. Nope, and sure what happens after is certainly good, even great. But it can feel a bit too extensive. That being said, the final fates of both Jerry and Billy are near gold-standard examples of practical effects horror.
So yeah, Fright Night is an 80s cult horror comedy classic that does manage to hold up well enough though it doesn’t reach the heights of other similar movies of its era. But, it’s hard to be too down on a movie that shows up Teen Wolf and good.
Fright Night (2011)
Image from Plugged In (Offscreen: Colin Farrell’s Jerry circumventing a vampire rule in the coolest yet most alarming way possible.)
‘Oh look, it’s a 2010s remake of a horror movie or just a movie from the 1980s. Yawn, I’m not falling for that cash grab, see ya later.‘
I am guessing that is the abridged reason why audiences more or less skipped the 2011 Fright Night movie, having it even adjusted for inflation making less money then the original. All the more funny considering some consider it to be better than the original film. That’s not a universal opinion, and I go back and forth on which is better, but that this mental process is even happening is kind of shocking.
It’s still a story of a teen boy and his teen girlfriend getting wrapped up in the perils of having a vampire living next door, albeit without the “Renfield” character of Billy. There is still an actor of sorts in Peter Vincent, now a Las Vegas stage performer, with an understanding of vampires and their weaknesses. There is still the wayward friend, Ed, who will become a vampire himself all over a breakdown of friendship with our hero teen. It even ends with Charley and Peter Vincent bravely going into Jerry Dandridge’s home to find and kill him, ending the curse. It can be familiar, like a remake must risk being, but it never felt as distractedly similar as say the American Ring could.
It feels like an honest to God update on the original movie, not just placing it in a time much closer to our own, but also with building on the concept, even using the new Las Vegas setting to actually better justify the concept. You might think a vampire living in Nevada is a terrible idea, but the conceit that Jerry’s potential prey are often in transit, rarely ever staying in Vegas is actually kind of genius.
Anton Yelchin, who tragically passed away shortly before the release of the third and most recent “Kelvin” Star Trek film from an auto accident, is the new Charley Brewster. He comes across as a slightly more mature and less fast-talking Tom Holland in both appearance and personality, which really works in this movie’s favor. Amusingly as I make this sentiment, the director of the original movie was named Tom Holland.
The boyish nature in comparison to Ragsdale’s take actually makes him seem more vulnerable a protagonist to Jerry and anything he might throw his way. His girlfriend, still called Amy, is played by Imogen Poots, and of course she is a bombshell-looking girlfriend though having been through College I can tell you they’re normal people in real life that do come close to approaching that level of look, so to speak, so it’s not purely Hollywood idealism.
Toni Collette plays Charley’s mother and like the original she is an open-minded, liberal-leaning woman who really has no problem with her son’s relationship with Amy going all the way. Collette is just the right person for that kind of mother character and she thankfully has a larger role to play than the original mom played by Dorothy Fielding. This won’t be the last time Toni Collette gets involved in a horror story, though due to Fright Night having a foot in comedy, it makes her role in 2018’s Hereditary far more stark in comparison.
Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the new Evil Ed and is for one less grating than the original, thus making his outcome even more pitiable. Because of Mintz-Plasse having already made a name for himself in pop culture unlike Stephan Geoffreys through Superbad and Kickass, it was a bit harder to just see him as Evil Ed where I know Geoffreys from just Fright Night at this point in my viewing experience.
On the other hand, the characterization is possibly the most different between versions of the whole cast. For one, he believes Jerry is a vampire before Charley and actually has to goad him into following along in breaking into a friend’s house which has curiously gone quiet. He still does the “You’re so cool, Brewster!” line but it feels even more sarcastic here than before, but that could just be Mintz-Plasse’s way of saying it.
This Evil Ed is the sole character for whom any gay undertones or subtext exist in this version. Jerry not having Billy here makes him come across as less of a potentially uncomfortable allegory, fitting more into just the sociopathic scumbag predator that was the first layer of takeaway to be had originally. They don’t even try to hide Ed’s closeted nature in this movie, as one moment between vampire Ed and Charley makes abundantly clear.
Now let’s talk about the two actors responsible for giving the new Fright Night the praise it did: Colin Farrell’s Jerry and David Tennant’s Peter Vincent.
Farrell’s take on Jerry is different than Sarandon due to him having less a suave sex appeal in favor of a rugged, bad-boy aesthetic which he of course uses to great effect on potential targets like Amy and Charley’s mom. That he lives by himself actually sells this better because me and likely you have known neighbors like this. But as we often are ones to wonder, rightly or not, about what our neighbors are hiding, so Farrell gives off a tone that might be dangerous but probably isn’t, assuming you don’t know the truth.
Once Charley infiltrates Jerry’s house, which on the outside looks like a conventional suburban home unlike the totally standout haunted-looking house from before, this is where the new take plays some of its more diabolical tricks to great effect. Charley’s search through the house reveals a hidden hallway meant explicitly for his still-living targets, all female. Unlike the original, where Jerry’s targets for feasting were killed then and there, this Jerry doesn’t immediately kill his food. Even worse, when Charley attempts to rescue one of Jerry’s food sources, he in turn plays a horrifically cruel trick on Charley.
Initially the scene is like hiding from the aliens from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. It seems as if Charley and the woman are mere moments away from being spotted by an unaware Jerry. Considering Charley has no skills in stealth and he has a quietly whimpering lady beside him, it appears inevitable they will be caught. But no, Charley manages to get out of the house with the woman. That’s when the other shoe drops and it leads to a shocking, inspired moment that helps sell this take as building on the original rather than merely copying it.
You might be wondering if any of the original cast appears in the 2011 version and you’d be right. Chris Sarandon appears in a wonderfully black comic encounter with Farrell’s Jerry in a moment that can act as visual metaphor for those who think this film supplants the original.
The last notable actor is David Tennant as Peter Vincent, coming right after his time as the Tenth Doctor. Well, his full time. Tennant’s incarnation has reappeared in special appearances down the road, very recently in fact as he helped with Jodie Whittaker’s bowing out as the Thirteenth Doctor to make way for the Fourteenth.
This Peter Vincent is very different from McDowall’s, save for being British and initially appearing as an actor with no actual belief or ability regarding facing off with vampires. For one, he’s meant to be like a Criss Angel/ David Blaine like stage performer, but with a supernatural twist. Seeing as how I was recently in Vegas for the first time, this version of Fright Night seems plausible. Performing and living in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Tennant’s Vincent makes no attempt to hide the actor’s unique Scottish accent to the point where it sounded and eventually looked as if the Tenth Doctor is actually in this movie facing off against vampires.
This is all the more funny considering that the next Doctor, Matt Smith’s 11th, would get to actually fight vampires in a place that Las Vegas has recreated: Venice. This Vincent is also a little bit better for me than McDowall’s due to giving him an actual connection with vampires in his past. I won’t reveal how, but unlike the original Peter Vincent who was just as shocked to learn vampires are real as Charley and everyone else, this one is hiding his history in plain sight, making up for his painful life with alcoholism, a frivolous stage life and being a really unsocial recluse.
All of these elements described add up to a new take that mostly follows the trajectory of the original, without feeling hollow. It doesn’t hurt that the third act occurring in Jerry’s basement is not as long as the original while losing none of the desperation or horror. Hell, it might be an even more desperate final struggle for Charley and Vincent as Jerry, unlike what I said earlier, isn’t actually as alone as I said before and there is a good number of times where it appears that all hope is lost.
It obviously isn’t, as Fright Night doesn’t lose sight of being both a horror and a comedy. It remains surprisingly reverent of even some assumptions or traits of an 80s teen comedy, feeling like a movie that both works as a product of modern day and as a love letter to a bygone era that doesn’t go for the easy bait of nostalgia and fan service.
That could be that Fright Night is not held as deeply nostalgic as other 80s properties of its time. Despite the clear references to the original movie, like the quote Evil Ed says and Jerry does indeed once again state “It’s Fright Night. For Real.”, it feels more like a project that had actual passion and interest from its creators than just studio obligation to resurrect an old property. That it was a box office failure helps secure it as becoming like it’s forebear, a cult classic.
It has become itself a creature of the night that is very much worth being brought into the light for your perusal.