Movies & TV / Columns

A Bloody Good Time: Fright Night Retrospective

February 17, 2017 | Posted by Joseph Lee

Opening Logo courtesy of Benjamin J. Colón (Soul Exodus)

So I was browsing Shudder recently (wonderful service) and I noticed they had Fright Night on there. They have a lot of other stuff but I was in the mood for something I’ve seen multiple times and I decided to give it yet another spin. Fright Night is one of those films that’s easy to watch. It’s the perfect definition of popcorn entertainment. There’s nothing deep about it, but there doesn’t have to be. It’s a completely unpretentious horror film that’s just a lot of fun.

Which makes you wonder why it never really took off as a franchise.

It certainly has all the tools. A likable cast, a fun premise and creative, if not totally original takes on the vampire mythos. Everything else in the 80s got milked for all it was worth, yet this is the series that wasn’t. To put this in perspective, the Children of the Corn series is getting its tenth entry this year and none of those have been any good.

So I thought this week we’d look at all both attempts at making Fright Night a thing and why they might have failed.

The first film, and by all accounts the best, was 1985’s Fright Night. The movie was directed by Tom Holland, who went on to direct Child’s Play and um…Thinner. Well I mean, they can’t all be winners. It relied heavily on a mostly-new cast with a couple of veteran actors to anchor things down. This was a format that other successful films of the era used. You get the name to bring in the studio money and credibility.

In the case of Fright Night, they had Roddy McDowall. McDowall was known for his work in films like Cleopatra, The Poseidon Adventure and Planet of the Apes. The role was apparently written with Vincent Price in mind, similar to how Dr. Loomis was initially offered to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee before it went to Donald Pleasance. Like Pleasance did with Loomis (although I’d argue on a lesser scale), McDowall ended up making the most of the role and seemed to relish every moment he was on screen. My favorite moment is when he is once again told he has to have faith for the crucifix to work…then gains confidence and faith in that very moment.

The film followed Charley Brewster, a teenager with an apparently poor attention span. One night while trying to multitask between making out with his girlfriend and watching horror movies, he notices some strange people moving coffins into the house next door. Yes, that’s weird, but instead of simply brushing it off, Charley becomes obsessed and eventually, with little prodding, becomes convinced that Jerry Dandridge is a vampire. What follows is his attempts to prove this fact to his friends and family while stopping Jerry from killing anyone else.

The movie is great but I’ve noticed that Charley Brewster is kind of a terrible person. If I were Bryan Kristopowitz and doing a “Douchebag of the Week: Fright Night edition”, he’d be on there. He has a terrible attention-span, ignores his loved ones, terrorizes neighbors on flimsy evidence (he didn’t have a lot to go on at first) and makes very poor decisions based on emotion alone. In other words, he’s a teenager. So I guess in that sense he’s written well, because a lot of teenagers are pretty crappy people before they mature a bit.

The movie is fun because it plays with conventions while also playing those conventions out. It knows what the vampire tropes are and mentions them, but stays 100% faithful to those tropes at the same time. Everything they mention that happens in the movies works in their world too, which means the movies got a lot right. Did someone working in production know vampires existed? Was Bram Stoker really aware of the undead? This is a trend that continued in the film’s sequel.

Fright Night‘s special effects are also great, and you have to admire the dedication of Chris Sarandon for not only wearing all the makeup he does, but acting and delivering lines in it. Sarandon in general was the perfect choice to play the villain. He’s charming and affable, but there’s definitely a menace there. He’s nice because he thinks it’s funny and it’ll help him get what he wants.

In addition to the main monster effects on Sarandon, you also have Evil Ed’s wolf transformation and the body melt from whatever his companion is. His friend isn’t a vampire and isn’t human. I’m thinking he’s some weird zombie that doesn’t obey Romero rules. The movie never says and I think that’s for the best. Sometimes you don’t have to explain anything. All you need to know is that he’s a threatening presence and he’s trying to murder our heroes.

There’s a lot that can be discussed with this movie. How about the fact it’s really weird to watch after seeing Married with Children? We could also talk about how annoying Evil Ed is. Fright Night is a fun film that I love dissecting, as I do any horror film I enjoy. As horror classics go, this one is right up there.

It was a success too. It pulled in $24.9 million on a budget between $7 million and $9.25 million. Even at the higher end of that it still almost tripled what it cost to make. It also opened in a crowded year that included a new Friday the 13th, a new Nightmare on Elm Street, two Stephen King movies and Day of the Dead, among others. Fright Night was the second-highest grossing horror film of that year, behind the Freddy juggernaut. So why wasn’t this thing a massive franchise?

Fright Night Part 2 seems forgotten about these days. Some people may say that’s for good reason, as there are several who don’t like this movie. I’ll say that I can understand their viewpoint but I disagree. It could be because I had a copy of this when I was in my teenage years, so I ended up watching it a lot. As a result, I’ve actually seen this more than I’ve seen the original. Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer the original. I’m not insane. But I think this one is a bit underrated in terms of how it’s viewed today.

First of all, Fright Night Part 2 is an actual Part 2. While not every character returns (Stephen Geoffreys turned it down for 976-Evil, Amanda Bearse was working on Married with Children), it moves the story forward while retaining enough of the original’s identity to serve as a sequel. We still get William Ragsdale and Roddy McDowall returning to reprise their roles and they’re in new situations.

For example, Charley Brewster has been convinced that he hallucinated the first movie and Jerry Dandridge was just a serial killer. He’s in college now and living a relatively normal live outside of that. Peter Vincent has earned a bit more success with “Fright Night,” although his ego is a little out of control since he actually killed a vampire in real life. Of course, I don’t blame him. If I killed an actual vampire, I would talk about that until the day I died. My final words would be: “I’m a vampire killer.” While it annoys his director and the “recovering” Charley, it makes sense for us.

So in addition to seeing where our beloved characters are now, we also get a new threat. It’s not the same thing happening all over again, because that would be contrived. That hasn’t stopped other sequels from doing it, but Fright Night Part 2 is smarter than that. The vampire this time is actually related to Jerry Dandridge, and she wants to turn Charley into one of them so she can torture him for eternity. In that regard she may be more evil than her brother. At least he just wanted to kill him.

This movie appears to have a lower budget than the first and yet some of the effects are still good. The deaths of the monsters look different than they did previously, but still cool. Brian Thompson exploding in a mound of bugs like an R-rated Oogie Boogie is definitely a highlight. It’s also nice that the Fright Night movies keep their trend of other monsters hanging around the vampire. Brian Thompson eats bugs and chants weird phrases, so he doesn’t appear to be a vampire. I’m almost positive Jon Gries’ character is a werewolf although he dies like a vampire does. They play fast and loose with the rules but I don’t care.

If you think too hard about the plot against Charley, you might start to see some holes in it. The fact that his doctor of three years is revealed to be a vampire never sat well with me. Was he always a vampire? Was he recently turned? The movie never confirms it one way or the other. If he was always in league with Regine, then why convince Charley that vampires didn’t exist if they plan on turning him anyway? A movie like this shouldn’t make me think this much.

The movie wasn’t much of a hit because it was shuffled out in limited release without a lot of promotion by New Century/Vista and TriStar Pictures. It managed to make just under $3 million at the box office, which put a nail in the coffin of any more films. So is that the answer? Part 2 just didn’t gross as much, and that’s why they didn’t move forward?

Yes and no.

The movie was sort of dumped into theaters because it had a somewhat tragic history, according to Julie Carmen. In 2008, she said that the distribution company (which was New Century/Vista) was affected by the 1989 murder of Carolco executive Jose Menendez, who was killed by his sons Erik and Lyle. If you grew up in the 90s you heard the story. I’m not sure how much of a hand Carolco had in New Century, but they did own Live Entertainment, which distributed the film on home video.

Maybe there’s some weight to that being the reason the film was pulled and dumped, maybe there isn’t. While I’m not sure on that, there are more concrete reports that Tom Holland and Roddy McDowall were set to meet with Menendez for Carolco for a Fright Night 3 prior to the murders, and so it definitely killed that project. Maybe Carolco was the only interested party at the time and the upheaval of the tragedy meant the film got pushed aside. I don’t think we’ll ever know the full story.

So one way or another, that was it for the Fright Night series. It was never picked up again and no more sequels were made. Roddy McDowall unfortunately passed away in 1998, meaning that if Peter Vincent was ever brought back to life again, it’d have to be a remake. In 2011, Dreamworks did just that when they decided to mine the genre for another cash grab. In spite of some dismissing the original as just a cult film, it had a dedicated fan base and so there were a lot of people displeased with the idea of remaking it.

I was initially hesitant to give the remake a chance, because I thought there was no way it would match the original. It’d be watered down, right? They got Colin Farrell to play Jerry Dandridge for cryin’ out loud! As it turns out, I was wrong. I said as much when I reviewed it for this very website. Fright Night 2011 was a decent remake, although it did have a few issues that prevented it from being on the level of the original. At the least, it was on the level of Fright Night Part 2, which as I said, I enjoy.

As far as what works, Colin Farrell and David Tennant. Two completely new takes on Jerry Dandridge and Peter Vincent and they both absolutely nail it. Farrell in general is clearly having a great time playing the role, and according to Chris Sarandon, he’s a big fan of the original. If that’s true, then it shows in his performance. He loves playing the villainous vamp and a result he’s great to watch. It’s always fun to watch actors who enjoy what they’re doing and aren’t just playing a role. It makes even standard horror fare (which is what this remake is) a little better.

David Tennant’s asked to equal parts a sniveling coward and a snarky drunk and plays them both effectively. But we also get a teen cast that’s mostly good, including Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots, before they reunited five years later for the superior Green Room. I think the only cast member that doesn’t hold up is Christoper Mintz-Plasse, and I don’t even think it’s his fault. The movie seems to miss the point of Evil Ed and somehow makes him more unbearable than the Stephen Geoffreys version.

But the movie has a fun time playing with the concepts of the original, giving us a super fun Sarandon cameo and throwing in a lot of gore. I only gave it a 6.5 (average) rating at the time, but it holds up a little better than most remakes do and I could be convinced to go higher. My point is, this is a remake that needs to get a little more appreciation, because you can see the admiration for the original in it. That’s more than can be said for the last film to bear the title Fright Night.

First of all, I have no idea why a sequel to the Fright Night remake went direct-to-video to begin with. The remake wasn’t a huge hit, but it did make $41 million on a $30 million budget, which seems like just enough to be a success. It also had a decent word-of-mouth and people who enjoyed it. People who, if you wanted, might have turned up for a sequel with some effort in it.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, the title was given a straight-to-video release in 2013 and it’s very, very bad. It’s not even a sequel. It’s another remake. Only this time they moved the setting to Romania and had Charley, Amy and Ed be classmates on an exchange trip. Gerri Dandridge (har har) is their teacher and of course, Charley suspects her of being a vampire.

The whole thing makes no sense. It’s a remake but it’s called Fright Night 2: New Blood. It’s clearly a remake because it ignores everything that happened before (including the fact that Ed was a vampire and/or dead) and retells the same story with newer, dumber wrinkles. This is the kind of thing that I feared the actual remake would be. It was bad from the acting (except for Jaime Murray, who was expertly cast) to the overall story and bad special effects. It was so bad that I named it my choice for the worst horror film of the year.

So that’s it. There were two attempts to make Fright Night a thing and for whatever reason they both failed. It’s a shame because the potential is there. I wouldn’t say do another reboot, especially since we’re finally over the vampire phase, but maybe somewhere down the line we could see what an older Charley Brewster is up to. Sort of set it in the same world as the original.

If you’ve read through the end of this and somehow haven’t seen Fright Night, go check it out. It’s a damn classic, after all. See the sequel too.

Ending Notes:

That’s it for me. Leave some comments here, on my Twitter or my Facebook.

Closing Logo courtesy of Kyle Morton (get your own custom artwork and commissions at his Etsy account)

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