Fright Night feels like a valentine, gift-wrapped in Halloween colors. Horror aficionados will revel in it, especially fans of the Lugosi-Karloff era. Everyone else can bask in the cozy glow of 80s nostalgia, replete with froofy hairdos and cheeseball one-liners. Few scary movies have ever provoked so much weightless joy.
The story opens somewhere within the seemingly benign expanse of suburbia. Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a volatile mix of teenage hormones: He’s horny, geeky, and jumpy about the world around him. That powder keg of angst goes off when Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) moves into the house next door. Jerry is handsome and suave, but in a strange, slippery sort of way. Charley is convinced Jerry is up to something.
Charley immediately goes into Rear Window mode, spying on Jerry’s every move. This obsession pulls his focus from Amy (Amanda Bearse), his neurotic girlfriend. As Charley’s nosiness gets the better of him, a neglected Amy furiously stomps out the door. Meanwhile, the local media is abuzz about the disappearance of a several young women.
As Charley snoops around the house, he stumbles onto a frightening possibility: The charismatic, slithery Jerry could be a vampire. It doesn’t help that Jerry has a strange, irritable housemate (Jonathan Stark) who shoos Charley away at every turn. A frustrated Charley turns to “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), his obnoxious best friend, for help exposing Jerry. Unfortunately, not even his mom (Dorothy Brewster) will believe his shenanigans.
Out of options, Charley hits up an unlikely source: Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) is an urbane TV host who once headlined horror B-movies. Like everybody else, Peter is initially convinced that Charley is nothing more than a young kook, but a little bribe eventually brings him onboard. Eventually, this makeshift Scooby Gang has to thwart Jerry before he can unleash his true power onto the neighborhood.
Yes, Fright Night is absolutely as goofy as it sounds. But that, my friends, is a key component of its durable charm. Director Tom Holland quickly establishes an infectiously hokey sense of humor, and the film never steers away from it. This approach basically insulates Fright Night from just about any criticism: How do you knock something that absolutely refuses to take itself seriously?
The cast uniformly buys into this vibe of laid-back silliness. Ragsdale plays Charley as the prototypical teen protagonist of the 80s: He’s a delicate balance of cool and nerdy, intelligent and obtuse. Somewhere in all his dorky shouting, we find a way to keep rooting for Charley. Bearse is stuck playing a cliché, as the clingy girlfriend whose main function through the film’s first half is to be a righteous buzz-kill. As I said before, Geoffreys is like a spork down a chalkboard as Evil Ed, but I also suspect much of that lies in how the character was written.
One of the best things about Fright Night lies in its creature creations. Jerry and his cohorts can contort their bodies and transform into various monsters, and the filmmakers deliver eye-popping makeup and special effects to make it all look phenomenal. For all its modest budget, Night is an eye-popping film to watch.
More than that, Night is a great film to experience. It’s a funny, freewheeling artifact that hearkens back to yet another bygone era. You may find yourself laughing with it and at it, and I have no doubt that’s exactly what the filmmakers intended.
106 min. R. AMC+
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