Is there a better title for a horror movie like this? Not outright terrifying, just an all around crowd pleaser that just leaps off the screen. Fright Night. It has that special zing when you say it.
Though vampires are stewards of the night eternal, it’s a harder task to keep them fresh. Fresher than a clove of garlic, anyway. One of the first films to play with meta genre conventions on a large scale, Fright Night doesn’t attempt to redefine the vampire mythos like Near Dark or The Lost Boys. It merely implements them with a coming of age story framed with a Rear Window style narrative, giving it a slice of cheese only something born out of the 1980s could provide.
Fright Night is silly when it needs to be. Americana sex comedy drives the initial character decisions from Charley Brewster, but the reason feature sticks every landing is in how it plays its character constructs against one another. There’s an uneasiness to the teen angst rubbing up against the horror tropes of yesteryear.
A mature representation of everything Charley and his friends are up against, Jerry Dandrige is a one-of-a-kind villain here, perfect for the story being told. To Charley, Jerry is the suave mature counterpoint to himself. A grown man who is happily living his life and just wants to continue committing serial murder. Is that too much to ask for, Charley?
For Amy Peterson, Charley’s girlfriend, Jerry is a mature man who knows exactly what he wants, infallible to the lizard brain machinations of teen boyhood. “Evil” Ed Thompson, an uncontrollably exuberant teen who never quite fits in, finding entertainment in the macabre, is shown a guiding light of acceptance by the tall, dark and handsome monster. Last, but certainly not least, genre icon and performer Peter Vincent sees Jerry as the white whale and a chance to prove his pop culture stature against legitimate horror.
There’s a sincerity to a genre film like this and the personification of it is found in Roddy McDowall’s performance as Peter Vincent. An amalgamation of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, Peter Vincent is the representation of the classic horror icon. He’s a reluctant, uncertain hero with a heart of gold and someone worth rooting for. Where Fright Night Part 2 fumbles in its focus, it makes up for in bombast; but most importantly, it gives us more Peter Vincent.
Part 2 remixes the first film, Charley Brewster now the target of vengeance from Dandrige’s sister and her coven of vampires, each with their own replete personalities. A vampire with more werewolf-like appearance, an androgynous, rollerblading vampire and even a henchman who resembles more of a villain from Die Hard who prefers chomping down on insects instead of human necks. It lacks the touch of “Evil” Ed, a lightning-in-a-bottle character and casting choice if there ever was one. Part 2 also loses Amy Peterson, as Amanda Bearse had been too busy on Married… with Children so the decision was made to replace her with a new girlfriend. Alex Young is played by Traci Lind, a lovable companion and sometimes foil to Charley who the narrative can’t help but leave underserved.
Part 2 is about Charley being seduced by another woman, Regine Dandridge, while trying to remain loyal to his current girlfriend. Charley is clearly in the wrong with a situation like that and the film doesn’t play coy trying to prove otherwise, even if the metaphors can sometimes get slightly mixed with vampirism, seduction and cheating spouses. Perhaps the character of Amy should have remained the same even if the actress couldn’t return simply because it carries more weight with the arc of a pre-established relationship rather than one we’re thrown into for a sequel. It’s the only major issue the film comes across because the rest is fun as hell.
While leaner than its predecessor, with far less meat and potatoes for its metaphors and story beats, Tommy Lee Wallace (who I am quickly discovering as one of my favorite genre artists) manages to whip up something that remixes the first film but feels wildly different from its predecessor. Although, as a jumbo fan of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, it lacks that film’s ground-up reworking of a franchise—one of the few marks I can hold against the film.
Where there was a tragic death in an ally-turned-villain in the first film, delivering a poignant passing in the midst of a thrilling climax, the second film replaces it with a comedic subversion of a similar beat as a vampire isn’t staked to death properly. The vampire complains “That hurts. This feels terrible. You didn’t push quite hard enough. I don’t suppose you could accommodate me. I know something of what you’re feeling. It’s important for you to experience that. I’ll take care of it myself. There. I think I got it. You may go.” so the villain dies, a new path is opened for a hero and the climax to the film commences. It’s a wild ride and one I wasn’t prepared for.
That doesn’t even touch on our introduction to the new antagonists is a flying camera hopping from each individual to what will be their trademark methods of hunting prey. Jerry Danridge was a classic horror vampire fighting against new ’80s teens, while Regine and her cohorts are entirely wound with 1980s pop culture stylings.
Both Fright Night films mark themselves with the literally explosive stylings of ’80s style and classic horror vibes that feel like a gateway of genre blendings we still see today. The effects are almost as tightly wound, though far more subdued. Both films contain just the right amount of plastic sheen to feel unreal and just the right amount of slime and ooze to be disgusting; it all adds up to a funhouse look to a duo of movies designed to entertain.
A third film was in the works but after a meager box office of $2.9 million, plans were scrapped. It’s unclear where a third film even would have gone but I see only one direction: the next generation of vampire. Each film would tackle the past, present and future of horror. That kind of foresight is hard to muster and after Tom Holland and Tommy Lee Wallace, any director would have had trouble following these guys up. Maybe it’s for the best the series ended with the equivalent of a genre double-billing. Third time isn’t always the charm. When there are already two films as deliciously enthralling as the Fright Night pair, audiences already have more than they could ask for.