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Fright Night: The Past, The Present, & The Spoofs

The early 80's were hardly a slow time for horror movies however, they were a terrible time from vampires. The 80's saw a distinct move away from supernatural creatures towards slashers. (You can read more about horror history in my earlier blog.) Between 1980 and 1983 there was 1 major vampire film: The Hunger.

Vampire movies, up to and including The Hunger, traditionally depicted vampires as moody, sullen, sexualized lonely souls creeping around forever in the shadows of our world. They are short on words, menacing in actions, but generally have some sliver of humanity tinkling around in their black, un-beating hearts. They delicately tread the line between 'bad' and 'simply misunderstood.'

And then it was 1985 and Fright Night showed up.

Fright Night was a new kind of vampire movie: a classic, 80's coming of age story tinted with the darkness of a horror movie and boasting a completely different type on vampire. Chris Sarandon's Jerry Dandridge is no shy, shadow-slinking vamp: he's suave, well-dressed, and charming. He's also old and very bored. He's seen the world many times over. He's done all the things he cared to do and now he's desperately seeking to amuse himself. He doesn't so much miss 'being human' as he misses 'feeling human.' Because of this, he's got a sense of humor that permeates everything he does.

The 80's also gave us teen-centric films populated by self-sufficient youths living in a world of ignorant, ineffectual, and generally indifferent adults. Alcoholic parents, police with sub-par IQs, and corrupt officials ignore the pleas of our informed, under-20 heroes. Faced with life-threatening, world-ending events, these kids are forced to leap from childhood into the adult world.

Fright Night pits three of these teens against the blood-sucking antics of a hungry vampire. You've got to wonder how they could possibly win but the answer is actually quite simple: they're youthful enthusiasm, idealistic determination, and child-like ability to believe in the 'unbelievable' gives them the footing they need to survive.

Now, just to spice things up a little, let's look at the remake (gasp! you should.)

To successfully remake a movie you must maintain the 'soul' of the original while modernizing the details to make the movie accessible to new audiences.

This will not surprise you but the news of a Fright Night remake make me feel sort of queasy: the original version managed to completely change the tone of vampire films while breathing new life into a dying subgenre. How can you match that?

I was also concerned about the casting choices. Colin Farrell as Jerry Dandridge? Star of Phone Booth. Known for being a sloppy, drunken, Hollywood bad boy and basically a joke of an actor. Really? Surrounded by some of Hollywood's trendiest new actors (Anton Yelchin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and David Tennant) there could, literally, be no hope for the movie.

Turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by the remake.

But let me back up a step here before I jump into the details. Since the release of the original Fright Night things have changed. Vampires seem to be everywhere, nearly over-taking the horror genre. Once relegated to the hearts and minds of underground horror fans, even housewives and grandmothers now lust after the fanged undead. But at the same time, we've seen another evolution in the vampire mythos: dominant species bent on world-domination. (Look at Interview With A Vampire, BladeDaybreakers, 30 Days of Night, Underworld, and even True Blood.)

These vampires make Jerry look like an old-fashioned sissy. To them, humans are cattle. Meat for eating. They don't want to blend in. They don't want to hang out. They're not doing this for fun. They want to kill their way to a human-less world. (For now, let's ignore food sources or the long-term issues with that plan.) These vamps don't have that good-old Jerry sense of humor, they're deadly serious.

Colin Farrell's Jerry embodied this new, aggressive breed of vampire. He's an animal. A predator. And he's just pleased as punch about it. When Chris Sarandon wants to get into Charley's (William Ragsdale) house, he charms an invite out of Charley's mother (Dorothy Fielding). When Colin Farrell wants in, he tears out the gas line and blows up their house. Talk about escalation. When Chris Sarandon feeds from women, it still seems kind of romantic. When Colin Farrell feeds from women, it feels closer to rape.

To further modernize the movie, Peter Vincent had to be seriously updated.Roddy McDowall's Peter Vincent is a late-night, horror Tv show host. (Do kids even know what that is anymore?!) He's a fake in that he doesn't know anything real about the supernatural, he doesn't even believe in it. David Tennant's Peter Vincent is a stage magician (think here Criss Angel) with a seriously nerdy streak in that he not only believes in the supernatural, he knows all about it. And it worked. The character was still a lovable, reluctant hero who you cheered for.

After all that, what's left to talk about? Let's call it, 'the other side of the coin.'

Another glorious film gift given to us by the 80's: the horror / comedy subgenre. Ranging from black comedy (think Heathers - or for you youngsters Jawbreaker) to gross-out (think Goremet), the horror movies of the 80's sought visceral reactions of any kind from audiences. Screams of terror became as desirable as peals of laughter. This combination gave way to many pseudo satirical, horror-spoofs.

So, what did this mean for vampire films?

The effect was two-fold: it watered down the scariness of vampires while also making them more versatile characters. Vamps didn't have to be sulky, stoic creatures of the night - they could be happy-go-lucky teens just trying to survive the perils of adolescence.

The vampires of these films were snuggly, laughable, mild-mannered outsiders who really just want to be left alone to live their own lives. They really, genuinely just want to know why everyone can't just get along.

Many also break other traditional creature conventions by being able to go out in the daylight or by feeding only on animal or synthetic blood.

Let's talk quickly about a few of the standouts from this group.

Once Bitten (1985)

Starring Lauren Hutton as a centuries old vampire who must drink virgin blood every Halloween. She jokes about the increasing difficulties of finding eligible virgins (particularly in 1980's LA). In order to win her most recent conquest (a young Jim Carrey) she has a dance-off with his girlfriend at their high school dance.

Jerry doesn't care about virgins, feeds when he pleases, and doesn't have time for dance-offs. (Although, you may catch his 80's incarnation at a night club or two.)

If you want absurd though, this movie absolutely fits the bill.

My Best Friend is a Vampire (1987)

Starring Robert Sean Leonard as a shy, awkward teenager turned vampire he must evade two zealous, incompetent vampire hunters while working with his 'vampire guidance counselor' to become the best vampire he can be. His parents take his strange behavior to mean he's gay and do their very best to support him.

Jerry isn't looking for a protege. He doesn't care to be a mentor. His needs are carnal and immediate: eat, sleep, kill.

If you're looking for a touching tale about finding your true self though, this is it. 

Vampire's Kiss (1988)

Starring Nicholas Cage as a yuppie on a seeming descent into madness, this movie falls more towards 'black comedy.' Constantly guessing if his character is actually turning into a vampire (when his fangs don't appear he purchases a pair of plastic ones at the store.) or if he's just losing his mind, Vampire's Kiss feels a bit like American Psycho, if American Psycho were meant to be a comedy.

As with any black comedy, Vampire's Kiss often makes you laugh because the situations are so uncomfortably awkward and surreal that you're not sure what else to do but laugh.

It's not really the vampires that make you laugh in Fright Night, it's the supporting human cast who make themselves seem laughable.

If you want your vampires ambiguous and strangely (painfully) comical, give this movie a try.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Of all the movies I've just written about, it's most likely that you've seen this one. If you ever wanted to see a ridiculous vampire, Paul Reubens is it. And if perhaps you doubt me, his death scene alone will change your mind. 

Honestly. Nothing to fear here except the fashion!

...and what Colin Farrell's Jerry might do to them all. Pathetic humans.

Alright. Wrap up time.
Vampires are surprisingly complex characters who evolve and change over time; the mythos you chose to believe about them says something about you as a person. 

I favor the world-dominating vampires because that makes the most sense to me but, possibly that's just my inner evil genius speaking.

...the world may never know. Mwahahahahahaha!


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