Horror directors in the 1970s enjoyed expressing themselves through the language of exploitation, fast forward to the 1990s and beyond and a sea change was made towards a more cynical, cheap, production line designed to make as big a profit as possible, of course, there are many exceptions but the tone of the genre has shifted for the worse. The bridging 1980s where an anomaly, unlikely to ever be repeated. That decade had the same ramshackle charm of blaxploitation, with output defined by young talent bursting onto the scenes, most of who were making it up as they were going. The charm of the films that burst forth with this punk, DIY ethic is undeniable, look at Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead or Tom Holland’s Fright Night to see this in action. The extent of this ethic in Holland’s film becomes evident in the documentary “You’re So Cool, Brewster!”that features on Eureka’s release of the latter.
Fright Night used the classic literary idea of the vampire and transposed it into then modern life, and its success instigated a wave of like-minded films, whilst also utilising the American idiom of devious neighbours. In Holland’s film, the naive Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) get a new neighbour in the shape of the handsome Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) and his housemate Billy (Jonathan Stark). Looking out of his bedroom one night, Charley notices the two men moving a coffin into their basement. Being a fan of classic horror and the titular TV show hosted by McDowell’s Peter Vincent, he instantly concludes that his new neighbour is a vampire that needs to be conquered. While Jerry is in fact vampiric, he causes trouble for his new neighbour which inadvertently puts a target on his back that will only be quenched with his death. As things escalate Charley’s Girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), what appears to be his best friend, Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and the aging horror actor Peter Vincent are dragged along for the ride.
Stressing that Ed appears to be Charley’s best friend is an important distinction to make as it informs one of the film’s great successes. Peter Vincent is a flighty actor that fuses Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee together and the cowardly opposite of his public persona. Until violence and otherworldly shenanigans start happening, Sarandon’s antagonist is the most likeable character. And Ed, or Evil as he is constantly referred to, is tortured with a cruel nickname he never quite deserves. Holland’s script is not only concerned with the re-appropriation of Hammer Horror’s ideals onto (then) modern America, he is also using his characters to subvert the type of people who are typically featured in this type of film. Time may have softened the subversion’s impact, the intent, however, will always be there.
Obscure Japanese Punk band Guitar Wolf had that same DIY ethic in their gonzo film Wild Zero, so too did a lot of 1970s horror, however, the thing that elevated the 80s was the proficiency of all the things that mattered most. To return to the enclosed 2-hour documentary directed by Christopher Griffiths, the one thing that tied together the cast and crew was their belief in the project. Looking at the actors, they are all committed to their performances and with the exception of the entirely deliberate(ly annoying) Evil Ed the clammy grasp of hammy over-acting never came remotely close to rearing its ugly head.
Sarandon turns his amiable self inwards and on a die to cut a genuinely imposing figure. Ragsdale and Bearse play the typical 80s teens to perfection without chasing the dragon of cool or ‘getting laid’, instead their performances and the scripting of the characters makes them more down to earth in spite of the craziness that has injected itself into their lives. The highlight of it all though is Roddy McDowell’s Peter Vincent. Despite having a name like the lead singer of a new romantic outfit, Peter Vincent is a man of contrasts; booming and confident, when things matter most he reveals a coward of a man who’ll do anything for money. While that isn’t particularly new a character bio, McDowell uses this opportunity to beautifully parody the ever-conflicting states of being a genre actor.
The effects and splatter, the other genre aspirations, are just as standout. While the crew may not have had a massive budget, or even expertise for that matter, what they do have is an imagination and the dedication to carry it out. There is the prodigiously iconic vampire smile, a melting man, and werewolf and vampire transformations. They may not have had Rick Baker on the set at all, in the feeling of out of the process they used the mask of cutting away to move between varying states of costume and design. The joints may be visible, but the visual prowess of mashing together in-camera effects such as the glistening body horror of a hairless werewolf with the human face of its actor is undeniably impressive. The marquee moment in the melting man has the typical 80s gore indulgence but the impressiveness of having this thing (its actor doesn’t even know what he was supposed to be) disintegrate and ooze into a puddle on the floor is every bit as disgusting and accomplished as the best the decade had to offer.
If there is any place where it falls down it’s the comedy with Fright Night billed as one of the best comedy horror in an age defined by this amalgamation. Jokes are at a bare minimum and the number of laughs barely makes any notches on the register. However, this isn’t what the film strives for, Holland is having fun with horror rather than at its expense like many so-called post-Klondike days comedy horror films. It does have a little of the gore so over the top it becomes funny but as charismatic as its players are it does have that one iconic focal point that its fellow top-tier comedy horrors did. Lucky it is then that the film doesn’t need the laughs, instead, it stands up by being outstanding in its entertainment value.
Using a flawless print and stacked with the most impressive body of extra features that any Eureka release has enjoyed in 2016, this has to be one of the finest releases of the year. To finish on a personal stance, this is the second time I have seen Tom Holland’s debut – first time out I was left a little empty inside, the second time out it clicked like it was an entirely different film. For all fans of 80s horror, this is nigh on unmissable a release.