Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fright Night

1985, Tom Holland -- Netflix

I've always mistaken Fright Night for Monster Squad, two classic horror movie homages produced in the 1980s, a time where I really wasn't old enough to watch horror movies (or at least was protected from watching them). Even now I still get them confused, to the point where I started watching Fright Night on Netflix for the first time a few weeks back and was wondering why Shane Black wasn't named as a writer in the opening credits. I know precious little about Monster Squad, and knew even less about Fright Night, except that many of my contemporaries had fond memories of both films, though I hesitate to call either a "cult classic".

Unlike the more garish horror films in the gore-splatter vein of Friday the 13th, Hellraiser and A Nighmare on Elm Street series, Fright Night has stayed pretty far under the radar for an 80's horror film. That it is, in part, a Hammer Horror homage and also somewhat lighthearted probably keep it from staying a relevant part of the discussion of horror films of the era. That, and, well, it's an awkward film.

The story in Fright Night is fundamentally sound: Charlie - a teenage kid who loves watching the weekend horror revue on TV while making out with his girlfriend (but never gets past first base) - believes his neighbour is a vampire and enlists the local horror revue TV host, faded 60's cinematic monster killer Peter Vincent, to help kill him. The first problem with the film, however, is there's no suspense since it is revealed rather quickly that the neighbour is indeed a vampire. Any ambiguity is dispensed with and the Rear Window parallel which plays out less-than-subtly in the opening 15 minutes is forgone.

The second act spins its wheels as it tries to recover from the loss of tension. While Chris Sarandon's smarmy vampire plays with a petrified Charlie like a cat with a mouse, Charlie's friends go to Peter Vincent - who initially rejected Charlie's request for help - in hopes that he can convince Charlie that vampires aren't real. Of course, by the end of the second act, Vincent has proved Charlie correct and is scared out of his mind. Charlie's friends, still skeptical are attacked by the vampire and Charlie must find it within himself to confront him.

The third act plays out better, if fully melodramatic in that '80's way, as things turn continue to turn sour and Charlie's enlisted hero, though less than heroic, musters the courage to join him in his fight. Roddy McDowell's turn as a faded cinematic monster killer is played nicely but his arc is poorly designed, especially the incongruity of him getting fired from his TV gig then appearing on it again at the resolution of the film (it's rather a pointless bit, but apparently necessary for him to be desperate enough to help Charlie out?)

The film uses classic vampire tricks that have pretty much forgotten in these days of the action-and-sex vampires like Buffy, Blade and True Blood. Turning into a bat, the ineffectiveness of crosses by unbelievers, and, as a major plot point, the psychic allure that vampires use to draw the opposite sex to them and control them.

While passably entertaining, it's tone, which wavers between mild spookiness and tongue-in-cheek homage, never solidifies and it never comfortably settles into a proper storytelling rhythm. There's no real scares, certainly not for a modern audience anyway, the character of "Evil Ed" is beyond annoying (his 2 minute "death" sequence is the apex, having that typical 80's "let's linger on the effects because we paid so much for them and boy aren't they impressive" feel, as he transitions from wolf to human form) and I was never actually clear on his relationship with Charlie. Chris Sarandon's vampire is more sleazy than scary, and once I realized that Charlie's girlfriend was Amanda Bearse - the shrewish neighbour on "Married With Children" - I couldn't see her as sexy and vamped-out.

I'm not usually one to encourage or endorse remakes, but there is a core here that could be better explored and exploited by a couple of rewrites and a more assured directorial hand. A remake is ready - starring Colin Farrell in the vampire role and former Doctor Who David Tennent as the Peter Vincent character - so it will be interesting to see whether it can improve upon the original or if it will fall into more modern traps of going too comedic or too dead-teenagery.