Wednesday, February 13, 2013

There Goes the Neighborhood: Revisiting FRIGHT NIGHT

I can't remember when I first saw Tom Holland's Fright Night, but afterwards I concluded that it was the kind of film I probably didn't need to see again. For anyone who might someday need to force me to watch something I don't care too much about, one way to do it is to throw it on the leading end of a theatrical double-feature paired with The Beyond. (Let me add that I'm endlessly grateful to the Carolina Theatre for doing this - Fulci on the big screen is always a cause for celebration.) While I can't say I'm still 100% sold on Fright Night, my opinions of things often double in magnitude after a rewatch, for better or worse. There must have been a seed of goodwill in my heart towards this one, because I warmed up to it a little bit that night. It may also be due to a subtext that adds a little bit of depth to the film, and had (bafflingly) escaped me the first time I saw it...

In Fright Night, all young Charlie Brewster wants to do is make out with his girlfriend and get to third base, just like any hot-blooded suburban teen. But there's a new neighbor next door who's distracting him... "He's got a live in carpenter," says Brewster's mom. "With my luck, he's probably gay."

Not too far off, Mom! But in this film, we're going to code that as "vampire." Enter Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandrige, the foppishly-dressed neighbor who can't seem to saunter into a room without a piece of fruit in hand (get it?). He's the source of much anxiety to Brewster, who can't get the guy off his mind. Not even when his girlfriend is literally taking her shirt off on his bed. Dandrige inspires a panic in Brewster even before the kid suspects he's behind a string of murders that have plagued the area. Any questions about Dandrige's true nature are put to rest when he confronts Brewster relatively early in the film. Dandrige walks (with thundering metaphorical footsteps) out of Brewster's closet to confront him in the night - the same closet into which he'll toss Brewster later on in the scene.

Even though Dandrige proves to be quite friendly with Brewster's mom, most interactions he has with any woman in the film end in violence or death. Traditional relationships implode when this guy is near. This is in addition to Dandrige's corrupting anti-boner aura that seems to sabotage Brewster's relationship with his girlfriend at every turn. This guy has all the magical gay sanctity-of-marriage-destroying powers that every hardline Christian fears. Ready the crosses and holy water!

Where Brewster remains essentially one-dimensional throughout the film, his not-quite-side-kick Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) is more complex. He starts off in an interstitial space somewhere between hero and antagonist, and ends as a flat-out villain. His eventual transformation is telegraphed from the beginning (even beyond his "Evil" moniker) if you're watching for the signs. While he seems asexual on the surface, his constant mocking of Brewster can be read as a thin mask for some genuine feelings for him. As an example, consider the scene when Ed pretends to become a vampire and threatens to "give [Brewster] a hickey." No surprise then, when Dandrige is able to seduce Ed and vampirize him. Seems like Ed was easy prey all along. (Interestingly enough, in real life Geoffreys moved from Hollywood into the hardcore gay porn scene not too long after this film.)

Despite the allure it bestows upon the antagonists, Fright Night still succumbs to the old horror mindset in which "other" in any form equals evil and thus Must Be Destroyed. Otherwise, how can we go home and sleep at night after the credits roll? It's a shame, really, especially when our protagonist is such a beady-eyed whiner. Dandrige's character oozes charisma and dominates every scene he's in. How great would it have been to see Brewster's terror at actually becoming vampirized at his hands? Also, how lame is the loophole that allows his girlfriend to become un-vamped despite having already been bitten? This lack of follow-through combined with some plot drag and the apathy that I feel toward the protagonist are the major factors that bring Fright Night down a notch in my book. Still, this rewatch was more entertaining than I anticipated, even if for me it was mainly a time-killer for the eye-gouging main event.

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