Thursday, November 17, 2011

Film Review: FRIGHT NIGHT (1985, Tom Holland)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 106 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Chris Sarandon (CHILD'S PLAY, THE RESURRECTED, DOG DAY AFTERNOON), William Ragsdale (HERMAN'S HEAD, FRIGHT NIGHT 2), Amanda Bearse (MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, THE DOOM GENERATION), Roddy McDowall (PLANET OF THE APES, CLEOPATRA, "The Bookworm" on 60s TV BATMAN), Stephen Geoffreys (976-EVIL, AT CLOSE RANGE), Jonathan Stark (HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY, PROJECT X). Music by Brad Fiedel (THE TERMINATOR, TERMINATOR 2). Cinematography by Jan Kiesser (SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, V.I. WARSHAWSKI). Casting by Jackie Burch (DIE HARD, PREDATOR, THE BREAKFAST CLUB).
Tag-line: "If you love being scared, it'll be the night of your life."
Best one-liner: "Welcome to Fright Night! For real."

Good 'ole FRIGHT NIGHT. One of the seminal 80s classicks, it marked the directorial debut of fun-luvin' horror master Todd Holland (CHILD'S PLAY, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, THINNER). Sort of a wonderful cross between 'SALEM'S LOT and REAR WINDOW, FRIGHT NIGHT is a loving paean to Late-Nite-TV monster movie programming and the kids who loved watching it, a proto-'BURBS which unmasks your local neighborhood as a hotbed of bloodshed and other terrifying happenings. Without further adieu, my favorite things about FRIGHT NIGHT:

#1. The Bradbury-esque, small-town-in-Autumn atmosphere.

I'm a sucker for this specific aesthetic every time it crops up, from HALLOWEEN (yes, I know it was actually filmed in the springtime) to SLEEPY HOLLOW to PHANTASM to THE STEPFATHER to THE MONSTER SQUAD to IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. Hell, even ERNEST SCARED STUPID benefits from its presence. Autumn's always been my favorite time of year, and something about the stiff suburban breezes blowing fall leaves, the bedroom curtains billowing in the crisp, night air... a comforting, small-town milieu with just a whisper of menace. Basically, if a film can make me feel one tenth as immersed as I am while reading SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES then it's pretty damn successful.

#2. Jonathan Stark. We've seen him in HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY. We've seen him as a bartender who nearly steals Sam's job in the sixth season of CHEERS. But here, as a totally assholish Renfield-type, we have the finest performance of his career.

His dickery knows no bounds ("Well, what do we have here? Vampire-killers?"), and he plays the whole thing like a totally committed 80s high school villain, a perpetual, open-mouthed 'Oh yeaaaaaah?' snarfy grin etched across his face. He's the perfect sidekick for Chris Sarandon, whose legendary performance shall be discussed just a little bit later.

#3. The FX people had a helluva lot of fun.

It's pehaps only rivaled by EVIL DEAD in terms of the love, dedication, and sheer enjoyment that the FX guys clearly poured into every ladle of blood, outpouring of slime, and various creatures and makeup effects.

#4. The music. From the Tangerine Dream-RISKY BUSINESS-style seduction scene rhythms to the guitar and reverb-heavy drum riffs, Brad Fiedel's work firmly entrenches us in the here and now, those glorious, glorious 80s.

#5. Evil Ed.

Played by Stephen Geoffreys, Evil Ed is simultaneously hilarious, tragic, and covered occasionally in varying degrees of latex, fur, and fangs. He brings a great deal to a role which could have easily been a phoned-in "zany friend." Geoffreys has been nominated for a Tony award, starred in Robert Englund's directorial debut (976-EVIL), and inspired the title of a Swedish 90's horror comedy. Also, he apparently retired from traditional acting for nearly twenty-odd-years to star in gay porn, including such evocatively titled fare as LATIN CROTCH ROCKETS and LEATHER BUDDIES. I'll let that all sink in for a minute.

#6. The surprising, nuanced, incredible pathos of Roddy McDowell.

I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise, per se, but in a horror flick with darkly comedic underpinnings, I guess you're not expecting Roddy to be swinging for the heart-wrenchin' fences. As a washed-up late-nite TV host and former horror legend, he plumbs the depths of being fired from his job (lamenting the new era of hockey-masked killers) and being desperate enough to humor and then take the money of teenagers. But it all somehow culminates in the scene pictured above, whereupon Roddy sees the humanity in a death throes of what ostensibly is a monster. Somehow an entire career of pretending to slay creatures of the night on screens both big and small tumbles down in the welling of tears, in the the harsh, visceral, cruel actuality of it all. Later, Chris Sarandon's vampire dickishly quips, "Welcome to Fright Night! For real," and it's hilarious, but here, we're subjected to the exact same sentiment but sprinkled with this unexpected air of despondency. It's great.


The little girl (pictured nearly all the way to the left) cutting a mean rug at the late-nite club. Were they not checking ID that night? I don't believe it's meant to be a gag because we only ever see her within the crowd in a long shot. Were they that low on extras? Was she the gaffer's niece or something? These are questions that I fear may never be answered.

#8. Through the window.... THREE TIMES!

At one point, Chris Sarandon leaps through a window. Yes, this is something that happens, and this is something that I applaud. I also applaud the fact that Holland shows it to us three times, and from different angles. I love this movie.

#9. And now for a tribute to Chris Sarandon in FRIGHT NIGHT, one of the most spectacularly douche-ified villains to ever grace the silver screen.







The exquisite douchery of Chris Sarandon in this movie ought to be enshrined as a national treasure. If he's importing big-city hookers and cultivating an art collection and preying on the populace, why the hell did he move to the suburbs? More importantly, who cares?!


Like Jonathan Stark, he too occasionally plays it like a high school bully. After a miniature showdown with his kiddie nemesis he seeks revenge by... destroying his automobile!

He chortles, he snickers, he exudes conceit. A raised eyebrow, a superior pursing of the lips, a disdainful leer. He's got a smoove 80s walk and a way with the ladies. He smugly whistles to himself and somehow makes even the act of eating an apple an exercise in self-congratulation. He makes dancefloor moves to a song which is apparently titled "I Fight the Chemistry," because that's what the singer keeps repeating. He seduces/nearly rapes an underage gal to the schwingin' tones of a sleazy saxophone.

Oh boy. He's droppin' a douchebomb on this town, and there may be no survivors. The effect is only amplified when he's alongside Jonathan Stark.

There shoulda been a prequel chronicling these two buddies' zany, condescending misadventures. I would pay good money for that.

Anyway, my point is– if you haven't seen FRIGHT NIGHT, don't be so sad that Halloween has passed. Autumn's still got a solid month left, and Thanksgiving be damned!

–Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Sean, you've perfectly summed up everything I love about this movie and I too would love for there to have been a prequel. One of my favourite things about Jonathan Stark's character is that as a Renfield, he gets shit done. He fends off cops while looking perfectly reasonable and punches teenagers in the face when they're about to hurt his vampire. He's an inspiration, dammit.

J.D. said...

Yeah! Love this film, also. I saw Roddy McDowell's character as a love letter to classic horror films and always felt that he represented the filmmakers' statement on the state of horror in the '80s with douchebaggy villains and their condescending handlers and how they didn't hold a candle to the monsters of a bygone era. Er, or something like that.

I'm glad you pointed out the autumnal vibe of this film. The fall is my fave season of the year, hands down, and I also love it when any film manages to recapture that vibe, even briefly, which FRIGHT NIGHT does quite well.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by. And you're right about Stark's Renfield-type being an inspiration- he truly does not fuck around. I wish he'd act more. (He is great in his TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode, too.)


I agree on the love letter to classic horror, and must admit I was a little saddened while watching it, thinking about the fact that these local TV "midnite movie"-type programs seem to have almost completely died out. I'm originally from Ohio (which has a rich history of these sorts of programs, like "Ghoulardi") and when I was a kid, it was "Big Chuck and Little John"'_John
which sadly is no longer on the air. Of course, I can still watch old Elvira videos.

And yeah, the autumnal vibe is key. I should try and keep a list of movies that nail it jussssst right. A non-horror one that leaps to mind is THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.

Mike B. said...

Another great review and good comments above. "Fright Night" is indeed remarkable for how perfectly it hits all those notes that one wouldn't expect to work together. Gore, comedy, nostalgia, adolescent angst, it's all in there. And, it also seems like the mid-80s could be a bad fit for this film, but it turns out being precisely the exact time that it makes sense, even as it has aged. And indeed, that nifty "autumn" vibe that you mentioned, where you can almost smell that indescribably different air that lets you know you're on the cusp of the season; we definitely do need more movies that capture that.

Sean Gill said...


Agreed and thanks for the comments!

As a side note, has anyone seen FRIGHT NIGHT PART II, by Carpy crony Tommy Lee Wallace? I've heard extremely mixed opinions on the matter, and the DVD appears to be out of print.

Mike B. said...

Good point, I don't know anyone who has seen Part 2. I've got a weird fondness for oddly timed, little-seen sequels that come out several years after the originals and bring back only parts of the original cast. Usually they don't work, but when they do it makes you feel like you've gone deeper into some secret club. Phantasm 2 is a good example of this.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Great summary man. To me this one of Roddy McDowell's greatest roles. That moment when he faces off with the cross was inspiring

Sean Gill said...


I, too, am a fan of the secret club sequels, and PHANTASM II is a grand example. And I'll thrown PROM NIGHT 2 and GHOULIES II and CRITTERS 2, and I'm sure there's a host of others I'm forgetting. Anyway, I'm planning on hunting down FRIGHT NIGHT's second go-round one of these days.


Thanks for stoppin' by. Roddy really does bring a lot to that scene- there's something in his eyes that has brought a lot of sad intensity to many a genre film. Another scene that jumps to mind is in CLASS OF 1984 (which FRIGHT NIGHT's Tom Holland co-wrote), when Roddy pulls a gun on his class after a particularly harrowing day.