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FRIGHT NIGHT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall
Director:  Tom Holland
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  September 7, 1999

Film ***1/2

Fright Night is a gleefully fun horror movie.  It maintains a consistently creepy atmosphere that keeps you both dreading and eagerly anticipating what might happen next.  It’s also one of the few horror movies I’ve seen that uses humor to real advantage.  Jokes aren’t present just to be funny, or corny, or campy.  Each bit of humor actually enhances the menacing mood of the film, and makes you laugh and cringe a bit at the same time, knowing usually that it’s reflective of something dreadful to come.

Charley (Ragsdale) is a young teen convinced something is wrong with his new next door neighbor.  He’s pretty sure he saw a coffin being moved into the basement.  And when a woman who visits the house later turns up on the news as a victim in a series of bizarre and brutal murders, his suspicions grow.  But when he sees neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Sarandon) open his mouth wide to take a bite out of an unsuspecting woman’s jugular, revealing a pair of long white fangs…well, things are even worse than he imagined.

The problem is, nobody believes Charley when he tries to convince them there’s a vampire living next door.  And who would?  Not his mother, not his friends, not the police.  It sounds ridiculous.  It makes the situation all the more frustrating and precarious for Charley.  Jerry is protected by everyone’s refusal to believe.  And he knows that Charley knows his secret.  Is Charley on his own?

No.  He enlists the reluctant help of a movie star and TV host Peter Vincent (McDowall).  Vincent once starred in a series of cheesy B grade horror films as a vampire killer, but he’s now just a has-been in the business who’s reduced to the indignity of hosting his own old movies on a local station.  He’s not really a vampire killer.  He doesn’t even believe.  He shows up just to prove Charley wrong, but soon, he knows too much as well.

The film climaxes with an all night horror fest in Jerry’s house.  It’s just Charley and Peter against him, with Charley’s girlfriend (Bearse, of Married With Children fame) at stake (no pun intended).  Her life will depend on our intrepid duo’s ability to outwit, outfight, and outlive the undead demon until the morning sun breaks through.

This is an original and entertaining horror film that flat out succeeds in everything it sets out to do.  All elements work exceptionally well, including the casting of Sarandon as the cool, charming but deadly vampire.  But particular attention should be paid to McDowall’s fine work.  His character is the most interesting, as the one time star being slowly forced into becoming his famous character for real, and having to find the courage in himself to rise to the occasion. 

But the aspect of the film I liked best was the way it brought a force of evil into our world.  This is not a movie about kids who explore a haunted house, or get lost in the woods, or in some other creepy and surreal locale.  This is about a vampire who moves into our familiar suburban neighborhood.  He stalks and terrorizes his victims on their own turf, completely destroying the illusion of safety in familiar surroundings.  The result is a truly disturbing and unsettling element, and it makes the overall effect that much more scary.

Video ***1/2

This is a terrific transfer from Columbia Tri Star.  I only watched the anamorphic widescreen version, but given that this is a film from the mid-80’s, it looks surprisingly good.  Images are sharp and clear throughout, and despite the many night scenes, there are only one or two instances of noticeable grain.  Color rendering is generally very good, with no bleeding evident.  

Audio ***

The Dolby surround soundtrack is quite good, with a few pieces of music that come through strong, and a great array of sound during the hectic climax.  The rear single channel stage adds to the eeriness, and both stages create a full, ambient listening experience.  A commendable effort.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Fright Night is a terrific horror film that still seems fresh and fun today as it did when it first came out.  Perhaps the fact that it never became a movie franchise (only one unmemorable sequel) has allowed the film to retain its sense of fun and power, and genuine creepiness.  It’s definitely a movie where its many good elements add up to a whole that’s even greater than the sum of the individual parts.