Starting off as a bit actor and making the transition to writer in 1978 with the supernatural TV thriller The Initiation of Sarah (story credit only), Tom Holland followed up with The Beast Within (1982), Mark Lester’s violent Class of 1984 (1982), Michael Winner’s Scream for Help (1984) and two scripts for Richard Franklin – the plum sequel Psycho II (1983), and the juvenile espionage thriller Cloak and Dagger (1984) – before finally getting his break to write and direct his own work, and what followed in 1985 quickly evolved into a horror classic on home video, and established a different type of nostalgic filmmaking from practitioners such as Joe Dante (The Howling, Matinee), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London),or Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad).
Holland’s approach to nostalgia is more intuitive, leaving it up to audiences to subjectively absorb the visual and thematic tone of classic films instead of awaiting tongue-in-cheek names (although he does reference Nosferatu twice) or assorted geek references folded deeply into the script. Vampire fans will be amused by the mini-homages to Hammer shockers through old film clips of fading genre star Peter Vincent (perfectly cast and perfectly sympathetic Roddy McDowall), a self-described vampire killer, but the nostalgia in Fright Night is much more bittersweet.
Vincent is a has-been genre star, now hosting a late night monster show on a local station, showcasing almost exclusively his massive vampire film catalogue (a program that could easily exist if the host were Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing). He’s unceremoniously dumped by series producers because apparently no one cares for his brand of antique horror, his self-ingratiating persona, and overall hokiness. Vincent still has the admiration of teens, but they’re a dwindling cognoscenti as hormones re-direct their attention towards the breasts of hot classmates, as is the case with Charley (William Ragsdale) and Amy (Amanda Bearse), until the couple’s first night in bed is put on pause when Charley notices the new neighbour carrying a coffin into the ramshackle house next door with his male associate.
A series of local murders puts Charley on edge, and his suspicions of corporeal malfeasance are confirmed when the latest victim is the same busty blonde he saw entering the home of stylish new neighbour Jerry (Chris Sarandon) and roommate (lover?) Billy (Jonathan Stark). A call to the police ends in embarrassment, and Charley’s only hope of stopping Jerry from endangering further lives (including his own) is putting a stake through the vampire’s heart, aided by the only learned vampire killer in the immediate vicinity, Peter Vincent, because high school buddy Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) was recently ‘embraced’ by Jerry.
Holland’s gimmick cleverly forces a series of believable confrontations that challenge ordinary characters to deal with extraordinary situations: a creepy neighbour who’s in fact a real-life vampire; a phony vampire hunter being hounded by a paranoid fan; Vincent being bought off by Charley’s girlfriend to prove Jerry’s human so the order that used exist among the teen lovers can return to its intended course; and Vincent realizing Jerry is a real immortal version of the nonsense he fought in movies.
Dekker would similarly explore the amusing circumstances where adults are rather daft non-believers in monsters, and social stability is determined by the heroic actions of kids in Monster Squad, but Holland focused on teens, perhaps because it safely allowed him to add sex, graphic violence, and the eroticism mandatory to the vampire genre.
Dante’s spin, at least in Howling, was rooted in his involvement with the grindhouse scene, hence his gory, sleazy nostalgia pitched to the R-rated crowd, and bereft of the eighties suburban environs found in Monster Squad and Fright Night (albeit within the older homes of slightly shopworn suburban tracts. Dante, however, would change is slant for producer Steven Spielberg in 1984’s Gremlins, where high school seniors in a Capra-corn town steeped with dark secret, and the sudden germination of cartoonish monsters).
Among the four directors, Landis had his actors play their characters fairly straight. He also staged some pretty gripping horror scenes: a subway stalking sequence recalls Val Lewton’s classic RKO shockers where light, shadow and sounds foreshadowed horrible off-screen carnage; and the elaborate first transformation sequence harkened back to the original The Wolf Man (1941) where man devolves into hair beast.
Landis however imbues the transformation process with the modernistic detail and sadistic glee also found in Dante’s Howling: both directors stop their movies cold for the effects extravaganzas to unfold without interruption, whereas Holland regards the process – vampire or werewolf - as a part of a wider, over-reaching dramatically propulsive sequence, which is why Evil Ed’s return to human form and the variable vampire states of Jerry (and later Amy) are staged through quick cuts instead of prolonged transformations.
While still occurring in the eighties Neverland of teens – early scenes include dodging homework, peer pressure, teasing, and boy / girl troubles - Holland’s story is simpler and more elegant because the threat remains highly local – it’s literally a battle between a few friends and one neighbour – and while that decision could be attributed to a tighter budget, it’s more than likely to keep the drama free from gimmicky clutter and cartoonish gags as in the aforementioned classics.
Fright Night isn’t deep, and its kinetic set-piece doesn’t happen until the final reel when Vincent accomplishes his first kill, and re-enters Jerry’s house, armed with a stake and renewed faith in a high power (if not his own convictions), but he does keep a balance among the shifting relationships between Jerry, Charley, Amy, and Vincent.
Secondly, the jokes aren’t too satirical or self-referential to shatter the characters: in Howling, every character is essentially a disposable, jokey pawn, and part of Dante’s master plan to give audiences shocks, titillation, and gags like a rich hamburger; in American Werewolf, it’s essentially one man’s agonizing efforts to cope with the grievousness of lycanthropy, which he quickly discovers is neither cool, sexy, or as painless as dramatized in classic movies. Holland shares a bit of Dante’s jokiness and sense of absurdism, but Landis is perhaps the darkest of the three directors, because while there is comedy in his film, the funniest moments are when the hero is in agonizing pain.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray uses a HD transfer from Sony. The film’s fine details are augmented without reducing the inherent film grain, the colours are razor sharp and steady, and Richard Edlund’s visual effects still look striking, largely due to the careful editing of key shots, and variable frame rates which ensure transformation moments seem hyper-real rather than gimmicky.
The BR also comes with an isolated stereo track of Brad Fiedel’s surprisingly sparse score, which itself is carefully integrated between select songs. Two trailers round out the extras, and while a great package, it means any special edition BR goosed with featurettes and audio commentaries at this stage is highly unlikely to happen, given the movie is now almost 26 years old. Fans, however, can glean interview and ephemeral details from Rue Morgue’s issue #114, which made the film’s 25th anniversary its cover story.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan