Friday, June 5, 2015

Monster Serial: FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)


Imagine this:

“Your father’s wooden stake of handcrafted holly. This is the weapon of a Gentleman Vampire Hunter. Not as clumsy or random as a sawed-off shotgun filled with UV-irradiated exploding shrapnel; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. For over a thousand reels, the Affected Intellectuals were the guardians against supernatural evil across the screens of the world. Before the dark times... before the ratings code… before Anne Rice… before the remakes.”

We don’t live in that world.  Of course, we never did.  In reality.  But in art, reality and truth are two different things.  In truth, it was a golden age.  Like every golden age, we chucked it for w
hat we thought was better.  It never occurred to us that we could have both.

The subject is FRIGHT NIGHT (1985).  The real one.  The movie that was about one generation’s relationship with the horror icons of the prior generation.  It was a film that they should not have tried to remake now. Why?  There are no real horror stars of the prior generation.  Not like Roddy McDowall’s elegant, thoughtfully fey Peter Vincent.  Yes, we have some honored horror luminaries around today.  Bruce Campbell.  Jeffrey Combs.  Sid Haig.  Love ‘em.  But none are known for bringing highbrow élan and sincerity to Monster Chiller Theater.  We live in a time that’s in on the joke. We’re just too smart for it.  In “Peter Vincent’s Age” — which is some time between 1940 and 1965 — we believed that intelligence was our weapon against the supernatural.  Our heroes were the smartest guys in the room.  In many ways, it was the last refuge of the bookish pipe smoker.  Oh, yeah, the square-jawed guy helped.  He got the girl. But Peter Cushing was the hero of that beach, and don’t ever forget it.

Except we forgot it.

We were too busy being cool.  Literally, too cool for school.

Although this misses the mark by a decade or two, I’ll frame it like this; Giles was replaced by Buffy, not acknowledging that pop culture could sustain both.

So, is this The One where the cranky, middle-aged guy shakes his fist as if he were thirty years older.

“These kids,” he says, “have no idea what they’re missing.  In my day, horror had elegance.  It had panache.  Nowadays, it’s all stringy boy beards and CGI.  Feh.”

So, yes, this is that essay.  In fact, it’s impossible to discuss the film without “going there” because FRIGHT NIGHT is about that transition.  When it was happening, we really had no idea what the new generation of horror heroes would be like.  We only knew that Peter Vincent was the last of his kind.

I deeply appreciate the companion essay to this one; it showed me what to like in the remake.  That’s a good thing, because — prior to that — all the remake did was profoundly depress me.  The very essence of the original film has very little to do with Jerry (Chris Sarandon), the vampire next door.  (Because, let’s be honest, no one can take a vampire named Jerry very seriously, and I think that’s the point.)  It was about Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), an amalgam of both the great horror heroes of the Universal-to-Corman era, but also of the actors who played them.

Charlie (William Ragsdale), a swell, suburban teenage guy, is Vincent’s biggest fan, and one of Charlie’s weekly rituals is watching the autumnal actor host screenings of his films on a local affiliate.  (The movie never reveals how “Peter Vincent, actor” and “Peter Vincent, character” merged to be synonymous, but it pays the bills.)  One such night, Charlie’s attempt to lose his virginity, mid-screening, is derailed when he sees a coffin being moved in next door. As evidence (in the form of dead sex workers and some REAR WINDOWesque eyewitness intelligence), Charlie has no choice but to conclude that his neighbor is a vampire.  After the cops prove useless, Charlie heads to the local tv station where Vincent serves as host, attempting to recruit him.

Naturally, Vincent knows the difference between fiction and reality; he refuses to play Sancho, quite logically.  Later, Amy, Charlie’s girlfriend (future MARRIED WITH CHILDREN regular Amanda Bearse), visits Mr. Vincent.  Her wacky scheme is for the actor to feign an investigation with Charlie, and pronounce that Jerry is human.  This bit of psychodrama, they reason, should cure the lad.  She’s accompanied by “Evil” Ed, Charlie’s inexplicably obnoxious best friend.  I’m still amazed that this helped Amy’s case at all.  Ed is surely one of the most bizarre suburban kids of Eighties cinema.  By storytelling necessity and economy, he is inevitably an expert in All Things Horror, but his helpfulness is undercut by his sadistic, passive aggressive humor and shrill laughter.  Evil Ed is the Kramer of the movie… loathsome, but we cannot look away.

Actually, he’s a highlight of the movie, played with an insanity worthy of a (real) Batvillain.  Stephen Geoffreys essays the part, and his weird intensity could later be seen in such venerable classics as HALFWAY HOUSE HUNKS, LEATHER BUDDIES, and UNCUT GLORY. Adult films. The kind men like.  Seriously.  Grab your poppers and look them up. (Unless you already have, you DL devil, you.)

Although Jerry happily quaffs (unblessed) “Holy Water,” his feigned innocence is undercut when Vincent fails to spy him in a mirror.  Does this embolden the Hollywood horror hero?  Quite the opposite.  As it would in real life, this scares the bejesus out of him.  However, it also makes him a Reluctant Hero who has Crossed the Threshold, unable to Refuse the Call.  His eventual raid (with Charlie) into the Belly of the Beast (Jerry’s mansion) is an act that brings about his Rebirth as a true hero, Atoning with God, kicking ass, and Returning to the Home of his tv station, now the Master of Two Worlds.

Seriously.  Even though he may not have the lion’s share of dialogue, Peter Vincent is Joseph Campbell’s mythic ideal.  We’re used to this being a youth, well on his way to having his jaw carved by life.  None of that can be applied to Roddy McDowall, who has about as much grit as sorbet.  The film takes full advantage of this.  Vincent has one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film, but pushes past it to Do What Must Be Done.  (Then he goes back into Jerry’s house and helps Charlie to kill him and rescue Amy.  Okay, there.  Now, on to my point.)

I need to talk about that moment, because it is one that very few horror heroes face… especially with such emotion.  Jerry has transformed Evil Ed, who attempts to kill Vincent twice.  In their rematch, he transforms into a wolf and is nevertheless staked (mid-lead) by Vincent.  He doesn’t explode.  He doesn’t “ash.”  He doesn’t do anything but die in front of Vincent’s horrified eyes.  Ed dies slowly and painfully as his humanity reemerges.  Their eyes lock, and Ed’s expression offers no benediction.  It just silently asks, “Why?”  Not, “Why did Jerry do this to me?”  No, my sense is that he is silently asking Vincent, “Why would you take away the only strength I’ve ever known?”

(The following is written with my last Queer theory course about twenty years behind me, so forgive me if I use less academic language than I would have in the Nineties.)

Geoffreys’ later outing as gay retroactively adds a poignant layer to this silent exchange.   FRIGHT NIGHT was made in 1985.  Homosexuality was still both taboo and a punchline.  (And forgive me for the poppers and DL wisecracks above if you must.)  To be gay was to be ultimately ineffectual as a male.  In the film so far, we’ve seen a closeted gay man (Ed… or the actor playing him) finally gain some kind of physical and psychic prowess (after willingly submitting to Jerry’s penetrating bite) as a vampire.  Doesn’t last long.  Soon, we see him killed by an older generation of gay man, Roddy McDowall.  Why?  Because his newfound power is not used to uplift but to destroy.  The line between performer and role in real life blurs just as it does in the in-film plot.  So, did Vincent (and, let’s face it, Roddy) have that strength all along?  Did he just have the wit and sensitivity not to abuse it?  That’s the suggestion.

I think that’s what it meant to be an “old school” horror hero.  Many of them read as what we think of as “gay” (or English, which is pretty much the same thing in horror movie semiotics) and none more so than Vincent Price. But in the horror films of old, the hidden message is that sense of “gay” did not equal “cowardly.”  It meant that the hero was very capable of dealing with the arcane and unknown.  It’s easy to see the parallels.  Experts in secrets.  Codes.  The culture that hides in the night.  Yet, they still connect with “Normal Culture.”  There are always straight and square normative characters in need of rescue.  In many ways, to be effete just meant, well, smart.

This essay is one of dozens featured in our new
book, "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial."
Didn’t last.  Culturally, “strong” eclipsed “smart.”  Then, just “Not Giving a Rat’s Ass” eclipsed “strong.”  When I investigated the remake, I was crestfallen to find that the new Peter Vincent was a decadent, besotted Criss Angel-type.  This is someone I don’t want to meet in real life, much less see aped in a movie.  Because I’m not a DOCTOR WHO fan, David Tennant’s presence in the role was not the five-alarm panty drencher that it was for many of my friends.  But this is where we are.

The only actor who might have “read” in the role is Ian McKellan, our greatest and only senior-citizen-gay-action-hero-of-the-fantastic.  But even when Sir Ian was young enough to have been a middle aged horror hero, they hadn’t made that kind of movie in decades.

As FRIGHT NIGHT ends, Peter Vincent is again on the air, announcing that the evening’s film will be science fiction, not horror.  Although he’s only announcing a change of sub-genre, it feels like a retirement.  He avuncularly acknowledges Charlie, who then goes about finally losing his virginity.  Spiritually, Peter Vincent gives his youthful apprentice — and us — a dignified and affectionate goodbye.  The film takes us by the hand and lets us know that the changing of the guard will be okay.

I’m still waiting to find out if it will be.

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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