Teenage nightmares

Intergenerational co-operation in Fright Night. 

“Nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore, or vampires, either.  Apparently all they want are demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins.”  So says actor-turned-TV-host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) to Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), the teenage boy who has come to him for help in disposing of the vampire who’s just moved into the house next door in Fright Night (dir. Tom Holland, 1985).  It’s a more or less good-natured vampire comedy that attempts quite consciously to fuse the teen slasher subgenre with the vintage monster movie.  Fright Night was released at the height of the slasher-movie craze that more or less defined the horror genre from 1980 to 1989, as the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises churned out a seemingly endless series of sequels.  It’s to these formulaic slasher pics that Vincent refers when he laments the lack of demand for the good old-fashioned monster movies in which he once starred.  We see glimpses of them on Charley’s bedroom TV: they’re affectionate parodies of the Hammer horror films of the 1960s, in which Christopher Lee went skulking about in catacombs hung with cotton spider-webs. 

Fright Night thus imagines a co-operation across horror cinema’s generation gap, represented by the Vincent’s decision to join forces with the teenage Charley.  It understands that horror cinema has become a young man’s (and young woman’s) game: gone are the days when Peter Cushing—or Dana Andrews—did battle with the forces of evil in Gothic castles and on fog-drenched moors.  1980s horror takes place in altogether more juvenile milieux.  The castles and moors have become high schools and sleepaway camps.  The heroes and heroines are pimple-faced kids wearing tube socks and tank tops.  (William Beard, in Laughing Screaming, reminds us that the rise of the teen slasher pic paralleled that of the teen gross-out comedy—that the pleasures of a film like A Nightmare on Elm Street might not be so different from those of Revenge of the Nerds, both of which were released in 1984.)  Whither goeth the elegance of the classical horror film?, Peter Vincent seems to ask.  But for all the respect it pays to a bygone era of horror cinema, Fright Night’s gently comic re-creations of the Hammer films remind us that the thrills those films provided were perhaps just as cheap and gimmicky as those to be found in Friday the 13th, Part IV: The Final Chapter.  In transplanting the conventional vampire plot rather easily from old-world Europe to modern-day suburbia, Fright Night is a testament to the mobility and endurance of horror’s tropes.  Unlike Count Dracula, they thrive just as well under the bright suburban sun as in the shadows of a Transylvanian crypt.

Parodying a bygone era of horror cinema.

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