Saturday, October 31, 2009

Horror Fest '09: Fright Night

Picture this: a teenager begins to fear for his life when he suspects his new neighbor of being a vampire. Well, that’s exactly the situation Charley Brewster, the main character of Fright Night (1985), must face. While that scenario may seem standard, even cliché, the film handles it well, making the most out of common story elements. For this type of film the story becomes almost secondary to the tone, which was what ultimately won me over. There are certain sensibilities which run throughout; mostly a sense of fun and a sense of history, which hit the right chords for me.

The appreciation for film history starts right off the bat. The beginning of the film will bring Rear Window to mind for many fans of cinema, as Charley spies on his neighbor and struggles to convince others to believe his wild theory. Referencing Hitchcock’s work, whether intentional or not, sets a particular mood – one of intrigue and suspense that will carry the film. Since no one he knows believes him, Charlie sets out to find Peter Vincent, an aging horror film star who happens to be down on his luck. The Peter Vincent character brings up more references to films past as his name itself recalls horror icons Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. The filmmakers do well to pay tribute to the genre without letting their admiration interfere with telling their own story.

This film boasts some fine performances, especially from Chris Sarandon as the creepy new neighbor. He strikes both a sinister presence and a suave charisma as suspected vampire Jerry Dandrige; a tough line to walk. One minute he’s charming, the next he’s dangerous. Most of the film’s scares come courtesy of Sarandon, especially when Jerry confronts Charley alone at night for the first time. Another top performance comes from Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, helping represent the lighter side of the film. He seems to be having a fun time alternating between the horror host persona and true-life cowardly self of his character. William Ragsdale and Amanda Bearse function adequately in the lead roles, although nothing overly memorable comes from them.

I enjoy the relatively small scale of the story as it allows the film to focus on performing the few key aspects it needs to function effectively. As an example of the film’s small scale, essentially only six characters make up the bulk of the film. That aspect makes the film easily watchable, something to throw on when whenever you want. There’s something satisfying about watching a film use standard elements well. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Sure, it may not be the best thing for you, but it’s familiar and likable. Perhaps Roger Ebert put it best when he wrote, "Fright Night is not a distinguished movie, but it has a lot of fun being undistinguished.”

Sometimes the simple approach works best. That’s certainly the case when it comes to Fright Night, a film filled with well-executed conventions. While some may call it cliché-ridden, the film’s overall effectiveness and sense of fun pulls it from stale territory and into fresh.

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