“I have just been fired because nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore, or vampires either. Apparently, all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins.”
Fright Night, 1985 (Chris Sarandon) Columbia Pictures
Hammer horror movies have a cheesy elegance about them. They were always top-notch productions made on low budgets with excellent art direction, costumes, and makeup, but with themes of maudlin melodrama in addition to all the gore and sex on display.
To understand and appreciate a movie like Fright Night, you have to understand and appreciate the canon of Hammer Film Productions founded in 1934 by William Hinds and James Carreras. Initially, Hammer produced whodunits and gangster movies before getting into the horror racket, often retaining the same group of actors to appear in different movies.
You would see Christopher Lee playing Dracula, and Peter Cushing playing Van Helsing. There was a slew of “post-modern” horror movies such as Madhouse and Scream and Scream Again (both featuring Vincent Price). Fright Night plays as an acknowledgment of Hammer movies while avoiding licensing any of those titles by showing us fictitious movies starring famed vampire hunter “Peter Vincent” (Roddy McDowall).
When teenager Charley Brewster suspects a vampire has moved in next door, he recruits Vincent (now a horror movie television host) to help him slay the creature. His friend and girlfriend think he’s crazy. The cops won’t listen. The vampire in question, Jerry, (a suave Chris Sarandon) makes friends with his Mom. Vincent has to bring the kid back down to earth. There are no vampires. It’s only a movie. You know the drill.
Charley’s girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse) makes a special appeal to Vincent to put on a mock show in helping the kid to “out” his neighbor as a vampire. When Vincent notices Jerry casts no reflection, he freaks out. Not only is it confirmation that Jerry is, indeed, a vampire, it’s also confirmation that there are such things as vampires! Fright Night has all the tropes of a vampire movie (as well as Dracula) but within the context of parody or satire.
When Jerry meets Amy, he is smitten with her immediately because, as it happens, there is a painting in his blacked-out cellar of a woman that’s a dead ringer for her. Jerry decides to abduct her and make her a creature of the night, and it’s up to Charley and his vampire-hunting friend to rescue her and kill Jerry before dawn. These are the rules of Fright Night. It seems every vampire movie (such as The Lost Boys) has different rules.
Horror scribe Tom Holland (The Beast Within, Psycho II) crafts a remarkably confident (and clever) first film as director. The movie was released at (arguably) the peak of slasher cinema, and it was a welcome change from all the girls running from lunatics in hockey masks. I saw Fright Night as part of a triple feature that included Ghostbusters and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge at the Colonial Theater in South Philadelphia in 1986. It’s one of my favorite horror movies of all time. Holland would go on to direct Child’s Play and Thinner.