The originals is a regular column where we look at material being remade, adapted or otherwise recycled, particularly if the source was unfamiliar to us before announcement of the new version. This week we caught up with the original 1985 “Fright Night” in anticipation of Craig Gillespie’s redo, out this Friday.
We hate when great movies and beloved classics are slated for a remake. It is far more logical for the bad movies and deserved box office flops to be redone, particularly if there are ways of correcting their mistakes. But how about the middle-road movies? Nobody lists Tom Holland’s “Fright Night” as a favorite, do they? Horror fans like it okay, and it was a late summer sleeper at the multiplex in 1985, enough of a hit to spawn a sequel, yet it left no strong and lasting impact on pop culture nor was it any kind of cinematic innovator. Somehow, in spite of being a child of the ’80s who saw nearly everything that came out on VHS, I not only missed this 26 years ago but I also knew little about it until the upcoming remake was announced. Maybe it’s that I had yet to discover William Ragsdale and Amanda Bearse through their respective Fox sitcoms (“Herman’s Head” and “Married…With Children”). Perhaps I was turned off by that ugly demon face on the poster.
Or, maybe Roddy McDowall (as Peter Vincent) is talking about me when he says the kids are more into “slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins.” It is true that I, for one, still preferred silly supernatural serial killers to vampires with goofy, goopy makeup effects. Ironically, though, “Fright Night” ended up grossing more money that year than the latest “Friday the 13th” sequel (part 5, “A New Beginning”), not to mention the subsequent installment (“Jason Lives”) a year later, or any of the many slasher flicks of ’86 for that matter. However, it was a fair point. Bloodsuckers were not nearly as hot then as they are now, and while a few other vampire movies were released around the same time, they were far more comedic and/or had monsters who were from outer space. Only “The Lost Boys” a couple years later would do better for the subgenre, financially, that decade.
I wonder if some of the appeal of “Fright Night” had to do with its suburban setting. Following in a tradition of the times made popular by Spielberg and Joe Dante, the movie goes back even further to the classic concept of nosy neighborhood voyeurism practiced by characters like Jeff Jeffries (“Rear Window”) and Gladys Kravitz (“Bewitched”). Poltergeists and Gremlins had recently infiltrated the otherwise perfect worlds of housing developments and small towns, and next it made perfect sense for a Dracula-type to move onto a quiet street in Anytown, USA. It’s the sort of thing Chunk from “The Goonies,” which hit cinemas two months earlier, would have told tall tales about to the Astoria police. Dante would make a very similar movie to “Fright Night” a few years later, only “The ‘burbs” would end up being far more adventurous and less to do with mythological creatures than (possible) straight serial killers.
There is something nice, especially in retrospect, about this movie not going all the way to the third act with its boy-who-cried-wolf scenario. The boy, Charley (Ragsdale), does take a while to convince his girlfriend, Amy (Bearse), his spastic best friend, ‘Evil’ Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and the local TV channel’s C-level celebrity/horror expert (McDowall) that his new next-door neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon, following his ex-wife’s dip into the subgenre with “The Hunger”), is a vampire. But not much more than halfway through the film. Ignoring certain cliches, the doubting police detective (Art Evans) never turns back up only to be instantly killed, and the boy’s mother (Dorothy Fielding) disappears from the plot altogether following her role of single mom infatuated with the attractive prince of darkness (two years before Diane Wiest does it). It’s the kind of simple little B-movie in which lack of clarity (such as in the exact relationship between Charley and Ed) is excused as elusiveness and ambiguity, because it’s just a simple little B-movie, and who cares?
Still, with the remake I’d like to see a little more development in some areas. That’s the whole reason for a remake, isn’t it, for improvement? One part of the original I have trouble with, for instance, is Dandrige’s interest in Amy. Of course, it’s a tradition out of Bram Stoker’s novel of “Dracula” (as well as Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which I’ve always linked to the Stoker) to have the newcomer obsessed with a modern local girl who resembles his long lost love. We’re teased early on that Amy looks like a young woman in paintings around the vampire’s home, and when he first sees her we get the impression he’ll kidnap her as his own Mina Harker. That he does, and she falls for his seductive spell only to be bitten and then seemingly left for dead. It’s not that far off from Stoker’s original plot, actually, but in “Fright Night” the idea of Amy being a reincarnation of the former flame, or Dandrige’s soul mate at all, is as quickly abandoned as she is.
Nothing in the redo could possibly be better than the club scene, however. Not only does it feature the greatest cliche chef ever (not seen in the video below, unfortunately), and not only does it pretty much tackle and predate the shtick of both “Jason Takes Manhattan” and “Vampire in Brooklyn” (never mind that I thought this was a suburban vampire movie), and not only does it perfectly parody Adrian Lyne before Lyne was even really worth parodying (while also foreshadowing Lyne’s own version of “Lolita,” to a degree), but it’s just one of those awesomely ’80s moments that can never be matched in cheesiness in decades since. Bring on the CGI to revamp the makeup and creature effects, but there’s no topping this sole classic bit seen below: