Fright Night – The 0riginal 1985 version
The American TV series, Dark Shadows ran from 1966 to 1971 for 1225 episodes. A second series appeared twenty years later but lasted a mere 12 episodes. Dark Shadows was a huge success in the 1960s and a key element in the grooming of American children.
Fright Night begins with a camera tracking through an American suburb. The words we hear are sinister. An innocent woman is being prepared for seduction or something worse. The camera leads us into the bedroom of Charlie Brewster. He is on the floor at the side of the bed attempting to seduce his girlfriend. As things can happen on a bed, Amy thinks the floor is safer but it is also where Charlie cannot see or be seen by the TV. When Amy relents and climbs on to the bed, Charlie is distracted by the sight of a coffin being carried by the new neighbours into the house next door. Amy loses her temper and leaves but not before Charlie and Amy are summoned by his mother. She is watching the TV. In this household, the television is both the missing father and husband.
Charlie and his mother are alike. They cannot convince others in conversation and they are inefficient voyeurs. His mother sleeps at night with a visor over her eyes. She misunderstands the conversations that exist around her and fails to notice the veiled threats that Jerry the vampire makes against Charlie her son. Meanwhile, the son believes that everything he sees on the TV is true. This is why he asks a TV actor, Peter Vincent, to help him destroy Jerry the vampire. The glamorous blonde who visits Jerry next door is a prostitute but Charlie only realises this when he hears news of her murder on the TV.
It is the mother that allows Jerry the vampire into the home of the hero. Charlie will fight to save Amy but he also needs to protect his mother. ‘And I’d have to kill her, too,’ warns Jerry. Not only has Jerry sharp dangerous teeth, he has a tongue that can reveal to his mother what Charlie fears most of all, the truth about his voyeuristic self.
In the initial struggle between Jerry and Charlie, Jerry makes the reasonable plea, ‘I can give you something that I never had. I can give you a choice. Forget about me, and I’ll forget about you.’ Jerry is like an elder brother wiling to become a malevolent father. He reacts with a temper when provoked. But, like most elder brothers, he restricts himself to a superior smirk and veiled threats when left alone. And he offers the young the opportunity to borrow wisdom. He says to Evil Ed, who is a friend of Charlie, ‘I know what it’s like being different. All you have to do is take my hand.’
Chris Sarandon in the role of the vampire is a handsome 43 year-old male and has all the traits of the elder brother. Jerry has money, the loyal but irritating mate, a superior sound system, a great car, flash clothes and confidence with women. When Amy meets Jerry, she describes him as ‘real neat’. Amy and Charlie follow Jerry to the local discotheque. Obliged to visit discotheques in pursuit of sex the young male, like Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is enticed into the one location where his entitlement to male power and hierarchy is denied. Instead, rejection and humiliation by women has to be endured. It is different for men who have money and power. In the discotheque Charlie is humiliated by both Amy and Jerry.
When the vampire seduces Amy, he is naked to the waist. Amy wears a backless dress. Jerry is the object of desire. We see three lines of blood run down the back of Amy. The image suggests the breaking of the hymen but it is also a reminder that in the seduction by the vampire it is the woman who leaves fluid in the body of the man.
Before the seduction, though, Amy persuades TV vampire killer, Peter Vincent, to help Charlie. She does not recruit Vincent to fight Jerry the vampire as Charlie had originally intended. She concocts a scheme to deceive Charlie. This will be a charade with fake holy water intended to demonstrate that Jerry is not a vampire. Amy understands the difference between reality and imagination but is too pragmatic to be curious. In Fright Night, the woman is willing to manipulate what the male observes and to exploit his limitations. Few vampire movies are feminist, and Fright Night is no exception. The women are either uncomprehending mothers, beautiful prostitutes or Amy whose future will be determined exclusively by men.
Fright Night also reveals fears about the inadequacy of male decency. Charlie wants a decent partner to help build a future and provide nurture for the children, someone who can be loved. When Charlie sees Amy vamped into someone that resembles the girls who visit Jerry, he is afraid that Amy has his own weakness, that she is unable to resist the sex object who offers ecstasy, just like he could not when he saw the glamorous blonde prostitute next door. Bitten, Amy acquires great make up and fabulous hair. Charlie is tempted but the vampire monster that emerges within seconds is a warning what life will be like with a demanding uncontrollable fantasy.
Evil Ed, the friend of Charlie, is competent with symbols and data but inadequate with human reality. Evil Ed is good at trigonometry. Charlie thinks everything is real including hammy TV programmes about the supernatural. Evil Ed sees everything as if it is all TV entertainment. He giggles at news of the decapitation of the first two victims of Jerry the vampire. The film uses TV clips and news items to help advance the narrative. There is no difference between reality and the imagined on TV. All is delivered by adult talking heads. Evil Ed will soon become a victim of Jerry. Charlie may have to understand that Peter Vincent is only an actor but at least he has faith in himself and his own optimism. Lacking faith of any kind, Evil Ed is destined to die, killed by Peter Vincent who has abandoned his role in the imaginary to deal with the real.
When Amy asks Vincent for help, the actor imagines that the task will be accomplished with a typical hammy performance. Vincent accepts because he has just been fired and needs money. The ruse designed by Amy is successful but Vincent opens his cigarette case and observes that Jerry has no reflection. This moment of seeing is important to both the theme of the film and the moral progress of Peter Vincent.
Fright Night is a comic film. Yet director Tom Holland risks destroying the mood with three graphic scenes involving death and transformation. Peter Vincent witnesses these events and the camera cuts between the grotesque and his shocked incredulous stare, which never wavers. By refusing to avert his eyes, Peter Vincent acquires, despite his cowardly nature, courage and strength. He is now able to witness real horror and be more than a fake and a substitute. Faith is important in Fright Night but it is not religious faith. It is a certainty based on a confidence in knowledge
The first task for Vincent and Charlie is to kill Billy Cole who is the servant and friend of Jerry the vampire. The smoke of the gun makes it difficult for Vincent and Charlie to see Cole and aim. After training their eyes to see through the smoke they will be ready to view horror. Charlie and Vincent destroy Jerry by smashing the windows of his basement retreat. It not only exposes Jerry to the sunlight but also provides Charlie and Vincent with the light that helps them see Jerry.
The movie ends as it begins with a tracking shot to the bedroom of Charlie. Vincent has now been reinstated on his TV programme. Charlie and Amy are on the bed and, in his introduction to the weekly episode, Vincent acknowledges Charlie. Before Jerry the vampire, Charlie only had a box of technology for a father, a deceitful box. With the help of his new father, Charlie can distinguish between reality and imagination. He smiles at the TV screen and grins. Secure that he will have the support and approval of a father, he will consummate his relationship with his future wife. Charlie switches off the TV.
The strong patriarch is criticised in Westerns like The Big Country, and the male that is dominated by the wife is treated with contempt in teenage angst movies like Rebel Without A Caus’. Star Wars imagines a distant planet where American adolescents can live parent free. Charlie is a man of action and, as in Star Wars, adolescents are successful where adults have failed.
In a world of absent fathers, Charlie seeks help from the television. If Charlie thinks he is rejecting reality for Star Wars adolescent fantasy, he is mistaken. He will learn the truth about Peter Vincent. Because of the importance of the TV in his home, he is asking the one man whose gaze Charlie tries to avoid when he attempts to seduce Amy. After defeating the vampire he has an approving father and can cope with the critical gaze from the TV. Charlie has achieved this despite living in a house with the number 101, which represents the inadequate nuclear family inside, the mother and son and no father.
Although Fright Night is concerned with how the integrity of the voyeur is important to moral development, it does not neglect identity. All the characters have alternative identities. Amanda Bearse was picked to play Amy because she has the ability to appear both homely and attractive. The mother of Charlie has nightmares about being seen naked yet she can still contribute a worthwhile shift at the local hospital. Charlie is the seedy voyeur but hero. Ed is clever albeit shallow and although irresponsible he is a decent friend. The greatest enigmas are the mature men. The policeman is adult authority to Charlie but a submissive juvenile with Billy Cole. Jerry is charming and considerate until angered, and Peter Vincent is a hero and coward.
The film is positive. It argues that we need not look away from the complex or even the horror. We should not be afraid. The horror that is seen will not diminish those who gaze. Instead what they see will make them strong. It is why Fright Night warrants being called a feel good movie. Or, in the final words of Evil Ed from the unseen dark, ‘Oh, you’re so cool, Brewster.’
The above is an edited and abridged version of an essay that appeared in Telegraph For Garlic, a collection of academic criticism edited by Samia Ounoughi.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.
If you want to read more about his travels click here.