In a major way, Fright Night is a film that was ahead of its time. Released more than ten years before Scream kicked off the self-aware horror craze, writer/director Tom Holland delivered a horror-comedy that found its characters turning to horror films of old to learn how to survive their current horror movie dangers. That it doesn’t fully exploit that idea doesn’t really detract from the fun, but it does keep it from being a true genre classic.

Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is an average suburban teenager. He’s in puppy love with his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), but is so driven by his hormonal urges for sex that he constantly finds himself alienating her. He’s not that great at school, and his social skills are awkward enough that his circle of friends consists only of Amy and the goofily horror movie obsessed “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys). In his downtime, he watches a locally produced TV show called Fright Night that features classic/cheesy Hammer-style vampire films. The star of many of these films is Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a hammy actor so down on his luck, he has been reduced to hosting Fright Night.

When suave new neighbor Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) moves into the house next door to Charley’s, his curiosity is immediately piqued when he sees an ornate coffin delivered. Days later, when he sees a woman enter the house, only to wind up on the local news as a murder victim, he jumps to the belief that Jerry is a vampire. But when his friends, the police, and finally Peter Vincent refuse to believe him, Charley discovers that he is right and Jerry bides his time, waiting for the right moment to destroy the suddenly vulnerable Charley.

Fright Night is at its best when they play up the connection between the characters and what they have learned from various horror movies they have watched or made over the years. “Evil” Ed thinks Charley is insane, but shares his knowledge of how to kill vampires that he has gathered from watching old Peter Vincent films. Peter Vincent is a treasure trove of working props — from carefully disguised mirrors to wooden stakes — who is too frightened to face up to the very obvious danger that has come knocking on his doorstep. Much like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, he is a sham who only knows how to brave when he is able to hide behind a fictional construct.

The film also works well when playing with the comic potential inherent in plopping down a vampire in the middle of suburbia. Taking full advantage of living in a town where the people really aren’t interested in what their neighbors are up to, Jerry is able to hide in plain sight. He brazenly brings escorts to his home to feed on, comfortable in the knowledge that people are just too polite to say anything to him or the police. At the same time, he finds Charley to be nothing more than an amusing annoyance. He takes his time, torturing Charley with the uncertainty of when he will attack because he knows that no one will believe his tales. In fact, this cat and mouse game takes up much of the film’s first two acts. The truly horrific elements don’t come along until the decidedly over-the-top third act.

But what a lot of fun the third act is. As a showcase for old-fashioned makeup effects (I hate to sound like an old man shaking his fist at “those damn kids,” but CGI will never match the startlingly grotesque imagery of a good, practical makeup effect), it’s a stellar entry. As a satisfying bit of horror film fluff, it’s exceptionally clever as Charley and Peter comb their way through what movie lore is true when it comes to vampires, and what is useless.

If only the rest of the film was as much fun as the third act. Between an awkward scene in a nightclub and Geoffreys’ colossally over-the-top performance as the obligatory, obnoxious best friend, there is enough ’80s cheese present to make the world’s largest pizza. Even worse, these scenes don’t even contain entertaining cheese, they are just filler to bridge the film across a largely uneventful second act.

Still, grounded in Ragsdale’s solid performance and backed by the hammy, but fun turns by Sarandon and McDowall, Fright Night delivers as a fun horror flick, even when it occasionally sputters as a comedy.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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