‘Fright Night’ (1985) is A Perfect Horror Comedy
You’re so cool, Brewster!
Horror comedy is (arguably) one of the most difficult horror subgenres to execute effectively. There must be a blend of chuckles and chills that work seamlessly together without one inhibiting the other. If the ratio isn’t staged just right, the finished product often feels off-kilter or tonally awkward. However, when the appropriate balance is achieved, the end result has the potential to be something very special. And that’s precisely what Tom Holland’s Fright Night is—something very special. Fright Night (which was released on today’s date in 1985) is not just a brilliant horror film. It’s also a brilliant comedy. And that is no small feat.
Fright Night follows the exploits of Charley Brewster, a fairly typical teenager, with one minor exception—he’s convinced his next-door neighbor is a vampire. Naturally, those closest to Charley discount his claims. So, when people in his hometown begin to turn up dead, Charley turns to Peter Vincent, his favorite cinematic vampire hunter, for help. Begrudgingly, Vincent agrees to assist, thinking he will be able to quickly disprove Charley’s outlandish claims. But what Peter and Charley find sets a series of events into motion that places the duo in grave danger.
Underneath the vampire narrative, Fright Night has many of the basic elements of an ‘80s teen comedy. A likable protagonist in a romantic relationship that’s on the rocks? Check. Eccentric best friend with outrageous one-liners? Check. Clueless parental figures? Check. Additionally, we have an older, wiser supporting character that takes the protagonist under his wing, another trope popular in the teen films of the ‘80s. That basic setup allows for some great comedic exchanges between the key players, which serves as a nice reprieve from the film’s more harrowing moments. However, the comedy never overshadows the macabre aspects of the storyline. And that’s precisely how an effective horror comedy should work.
Thanks to Tom Holland’s keen directorial oversight, the film effortlessly transitions from comical to spooky on a dime. Many of the most jarring exchanges stem from the contentious dynamic between Charley and his new neighbor, Jerry. Initially, everyone but Charley believes Jerry is completely harmless. Charley sees through Jerry’s façade. But because no one believes his claims, Charley becomes particularly vulnerable to Jerry. That dynamic becomes painfully apparent when Charley’s mother extends an open invite to Jerry, which leads to the crafty creature of the night stowing away in Charley’s bedroom and scaring the living hell out of him (and the audience).
Chris Sarandon is the primary reason the Jerry character is so effective. Sarandon understands precisely the kind of film he’s in. He hams it up just a bit but never goes off the rails. Jerry is quietly menacing, always remaining cool and collected. And that proves to be far more frightening than if he’d veered too far into camp territory.
While Sarandon is responsible for many of the film’s most chilling sequences, Stephen Geoffreys as Ed is at the center of many of the flick’s greatest comedic exchanges. And given that Ed primarily exists for comedic relief, Geoffreys never passes up the chance to chew a little scenery. Ed’s inability to take anything seriously leads to a number of hilarious encounters that provide brief moments of levity between the more frightful interchanges. Much of the success of the Ed character is thanks to Geoffreys’ timing and delivery. Case in point: He makes the line “His dinner is in the oven! MMMM-MMMM!” unforgettable. In lesser hands, that line would have fallen flat and we wouldn’t still be talking about it after all these years.
Aside from great showings by Sarandon and Geoffreys, William Ragsdale also turns in a stellar performance as Charley. He is easy to accept as a regular guy in an extraordinary situation. And the fact that Holland has scripted him as a horror fan makes him immediately accessible to anyone that grew up with a penchant for the macabre.
Ultimately, Fright Night perfectly walks the line between horror and comedy. It’s as funny as it is scary. That’s why it remains a bona fide classic and one of the best horror comedies of the ‘80s.
If you’re keen to chat more about Fright Night or the output of genre stalwart Tom Holland, you can find me on Twitter @FunWithHorror.