Girl Meets Context: February is going to be Freak’s Choice – where we watch and discuss some of the most formative films from Sean’s adolescence. Fright Night predates Scream as one of the classic meta-fictional horror movies, in which the characters are aware of the vampire film as a genre and constantly talk about the ‘rules’ of the vampire film as a way of navigating the vampire narrative they themselves are a part of. The film follows Charlie (William Ragsdale), a high school student who becomes fascinated by a pair of attractive men – elegant bachelor Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) and his male companion Billy (Jonathan Stark) – that move in to the Gothic mansion next door to his suburban home. He soon realizes that Dandrige is a vampire responsible for the deaths of several local women and makes it his mission to destroy him. He enlists the help of a washed-up horror movie star-turned-tv-host, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) to help him fight Dandrige, as well as his sexually frustrated girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and his sexually ambiguous best friend Evil Ed (gay porn star Stephen Geoffreys). Fright Night is both a love letter to the 1960s vampire films of Hammer Studios and a postmodern deconstruction of the vampire story as a metaphor for queerness/Otherness. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film. If you haven’t seen Fright Night, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: I definitely saw Fright Night through different eyes when I watched it with you.
Kristine: Less impressed eyes?
Sean: It appeared to be way more dated than I had remembered. I mean, it really felt like an artifact of a long-since-passed moment in pop culture. But I’ve also been all over the map with this movie since we watched it. I think I’ve decided what I think about Fright Night. I would say, ‘Yes, it is ridiculously dated and cheesy.’ But I maintain that it is significant and, also, that it’s a rich text, regardless of its weaker elements. I have some specifics about why I consider it to be a rich text. But that’s my opinion in a nutshell. Can you give yours?
Kristine: I know what you mean about the movie being a rich text. I like how referential it is, and the character of Peter Vincent is kind of brilliant. I like how Jerry Dandrige is constructed as vampire-by-way-of-Tom-Ford runway, though these days – thanks to True Blood – that’s kind of standard issue. I like the dark comedy, how Jerry keeps telling Charlie, all deadpan and matter-of-fact, “Charlie, you’re going to die. Just FYI!” But I found it to be quite dated, and the character of Amy is totally fucking insufferable. Despite the interesting ideas behind it, I still found the movie somehow… slight.
Sean: Was it entertaining?
Kristine: I give it a 6.5 out of 10 for entertainment value. Dandrige and Peter Vincent are very entertaining. Charlie and Amy are decidedly less so. Oh, and I forgot about the sidekick! Shit!
Sean: You’re forgetting…
Kristine: What’s his name?
Sean: Evil Ed.
Kristine: Ha! I can’t believe I forgot him. A thousand lashes for me. He is more entertaining than stupid Charlie and Amy, less entertaining than the pros.
Sean: Right. I mean, obviously the thing that most fascinates me about the movie is that it was (1) a huge hit at the box office with mainstream audiences and it is (2) one of the most overtly queer/”How can you not realize that’s gay?” horror movies of the 1980s.
Kristine: Can you tell me more about the mythology/film history of the “sexy vampire” archetype? Please also address how Sexy Vampire is almost always gay/bi/queer (Daughters of Darkness, for example).
Sean: Well, the first screen vampire, in Murnau’s Nosferatu, was depicted as a totally occult/Other/funereal figure. But even by the beginning of the 1930s, with Bela Lugosi’s performance in Dracula, there’s some mystique and glamour associated with the vampire. Though I don’t think Lugosi’s Dracula counts as “sexy” in the contemporary sense. But there’s something magnetic about him. That movie’s 1936 sequel Dracula’s Daughter is a full-on lesbian text where Marya Zaleska is this dark, exotic, queer Other. But it was really in the late-1950s when Hammer Studios started making their horror movies that the “sexy vampire” became a full-on thing. Then in the 1960s/1970s we get the rise of what’s often called “Eurosleaze” horror – lots of lesbian vampire flicks full of titties and blood made for a hetero male audience. Daughters of Darkness is a classier version of that EuroSleaze formula.
Kristine: I wonder why vampires? I mean, why not sexy zombies all eating brains erotically?
Sean: Because zombies don’t creep into your bedroom at night, lean over you, breathe onto your neck, put their lips on your skin and penetrate your body with theirs in order to get your blood, which they slowly suck out of you.
Kristine: OMG, remember the grandpa in Strigoi?
Sean: Yeah, that was sick and incestuous.
Kristine: It was amazing.
Sean: But Fright Night is – not to get too masturbatory, inner-circle-horror-fan here – a total love letter to those Hammer Horror movies that added boobs and lurid red blood to the vampire picture.
Kristine: Fair enough.
Sean: Does that answer your question?
Kristine: Yes. I do think the obvious homo angle is interesting, both on it’s own and because, as you say, this was a very popular film. I am starting to think the 1980s was a lot more gay than I realized.
Sean: Well, its crazy because the movie is literally bursting with all these homo- and hetero-sexual codes that are flying about willy-nilly and are not always coherent.
Kristine: Seriously true.
Sean: I’d like to attempt a descriptive summary of the movie to help put those codes into some sort of order. May I? And you tell me if you think I’m right or wrong?
Kristine: Do it.
Sean: Okay, so Jerry Dandrige is a bisexual vampire who lives with his lover, Billy. Together they unmistakably read as a gay couple. Right so far?
Kristine: Absolutely agree that they read as a gay couple – especially with the house-flipping angle.
Sean: Right. Okay, so they “induct” Evil Ed into their bizarre homosexual lifestyle, which is conceived of as monstrous by the movie.
Sean: I also want to point out here how many times Jerry gives Charlie an opportunity to stop persecuting him.
Kristine: This is true.
Sean: Several times he could kill Charlie but doesn’t. Instead, Jerry’s just like, “Please leave us alone” and Charlie will not.
Kristine: Total persecution of the gays.
Sean: The reasons why Charlie will not: He’s dealing with his own latent homosexual urges and finds Jerry/Billy totally alluring and fascinating at first, but then when he realizes “what they are” he is disgusted and sets out to destroy them. Remember all the scenes of Charlie ignoring Amy with her tits hanging out so he could instead leer at the boys next door (pun intended) out the window. Yeah?
Kristine: Yes yes yes. The Amy scenes could not make it any clearer where Charlie’s attentions lie.
Sean: Right. Plus she has a boy’s haircut and wears overalls, but whatever.
Kristine: I have to insert here that making the Amy character so fucking annoying struck me as a bit anti-woman. She only gets to be awesome after Jerry, who is not truly interested in her at all, “infects” her with his apparatus (teeth) and turns her into a teenage sex fiend. From this movie I also learned that you can add overall bibs to any outfit: dress, skirt, shorts – anything goes!
Sean: I agree she’s only semi-cool after she’s vamps out. But I might posit that its because she’s been sexually liberated into amazing queerness. But that’s a stretch. Amy is nothing but a pawn in the games of men throughout the whole movie.
Kristine: I think it is a stretch – because remember she is chained in that room and only used as Charlie-bait.
Sean: Ha! Yeah.
Kristine: Poor Amy – but also, she sucks (pun intended).
Sean: Plus Charlie pretends that the reason he is on his antigay rampage is because of the women he knows Jerry is feeding on and killing, but his concern for those dead women is purely ceremonial. He demonstrates over and over that he barely sees women beyond being a pair of tits and cares little for their interior lives.
Kristine: And doesn’t even care about the tits part if there is hot homo vamp action happening next door that he can perv out on on through his binoculars.
Kristine: Don’t ever forget the sweating, mouth-breathing obese monster from Hardware.
Sean: Linc! Oh god, him. Good call. But again, Charlie feels entitled. He feels that the queer/weird life next door is subject to his purview, either as lurid masturbatory fantasy over his binoculars, or via his rampaging anti-gay missionary work.
Kristine: Ha ha! Exactly! His self-righteousness…
Sean: Charlie spends most of the movie trying to “out” Jerry. His straight while male privilege is in overdrive.
Kristine: How did you feel about authority figures dismissing Charlie right and left? Does it add some weight to Charlie’s mission, since he is the underdog fighting against the man?
Sean: It adds nothing for me because I hate Charlie.
Kristine: Or does it just show that Charlie is a twit who is outclassed at every turn (especially in the outfits department) by Jerry?
Sean: He’s a twit.
Kristine: I hate Chuckles Charlie, too.
Sean: But the movie turns and twists itself into a weird postmodern tangle with the introduction of Peter Vincent - a very fey and effeminate B-movie actor.
Kristine: Wait, before we get to that. Don’t you feel like if sexy African-Americans moved in next door, Charlie would be all up in their biz and then report them to the police for, like, acts of voodoo or something?
Sean: Hahaha! If it was two ladies, he would attempt to seduce them and when rejected would make it his mission to destroy them.
Kristine: I didn’t totally get the significance of Charlie’s mom being single and obviously looking for a man, but I feel like the movie emphatically tells us this is significant. Isn’t Jerry in consideration to be her new man? By which I mean, any single man is in consideration, right? I felt like there was some notion that because mom was single and works, Charlie has all this unsupervised free time to perv out and be a menace.
Sean: I agree with those thoughts. I definitely think it opens up an avenue for Jerry to get invited inside – the mom is hot for him – that also has perverse implications: he could fuck his mom, he could be Charlie’s daddy. Right?
Kristine: Right. Also, hot.
Sean: Kristine, the dance scene in the “punk” club?
Kristine: Hahahaha, that sweater! With weird ribbing? Ribbed for her pleasure?
Sean: Hahahaha! The bow in her hair.
Kristine: Oh, the hair accessories in general were over the top.
Sean: Jerry pressing the front of his pleated white dress slacks into Amy’s willing ass?
Kristine: I can’t. I am tearing my toes off.
Sean: Hahaha! So bizarre and gross. But this is part of Jerry’s sexual threat to Charlie. I wonder, actually, if this is part of why hetero men are “threatened” by gay men in general.
Kristine: I can have your girl and your mom. Damn. Oh, I think definitely.
Sean: Right? Like “I can never be as fit, and charming, and sexy, and beloved as this faggot.”
Kristine: “I could have your girl and your mom and I don’t even want that stankin’ pussy.” Says Jerry to Charlie.
Kristine: Not cute.
Sean: On to Peter Vincent?
Kristine: He is the best part of the movie, I thought.
Sean: Oh for sure. But if the movie is clear that the “vampire hunter” is always a culturally conservative, anti-queer force policing normalcy, then the Peter Vincent character is really weird and unexpected. Again, totally fey actor, single, obviously gay. McDowall’s IRL queerness was a Hollywood open secret. His ashes are fucking interred with Harvey Milk’s in the Neptune Society Columbarium in San Francisco.
Kristine: Seriously? Amazing! I really like how the movie documents this specific cultural sea change, with Peter Vincent getting canned from his TV gig.
Sean: Talk me through the cultural shift that gets Vincent fired.
Kristine: Oh, shit I can’t remember the details. Just that he is seen as a hacky, corny throwback, right? And that no one is scared of vampires anymore, so they don’t need a “vampire hunter.” Little do they know… I think part of Jerry’s threat is that vampires have come out of the darkness and are integrated with society – like you said, they are charming and beloved. They are calling the shots. Remember how the police believe Jerry and not Charlie? With Vincent, it’s like the real vamps have convinced the culture-at-large that they don’t exist. I am astonished at how this is exactly how conservative maniacs narrate the “evil” of gay values taking over America and becoming commonplace and how we must be vigilant against the gayness coursing throughout culture.
Sean: Yes, it is really conservative. I mean, this is a very conservative, traditionalist horror movie even though it plays with gay tropes and also, I’d argue, imbues the queer monster with an outsized, melodramatic amount of pathos… It’s still all about destroying the queer, outside elements threatening suburbia.
Kristine: Surely this movie can’t be on Charlie’s side. Ugh!
Sean: But remember that Peter Vincent says he was fired because all the kids want are “maniacs running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins.”
Sean: He’s talking about the slasher movie craze of the 1980s. This is where the movie gets very meta. It takes on horror cinema as one of its Big Subjects. Like Jerry going, “Welcome to Fright Night… For real!”
Kristine: Yeah, I liked the self-awareness.
Sean: But also, the slasher-killer is often pointed to as another deeply conservative force threatening to punish those who don’t obey the rules of Reagan’s America. So its all very convoluted.
Kristine: Agreed. Maybe this movie isn’t as slight as I thought.
Sean: The paradox of Peter Vincent is that he is both a queer agent and an agent employed to destroy queerness.
Kristine: Right. He is commissioned into action by Charlie (or maybe hounded is the right word – God, Charlie spends the entire movie fucking harassing gays in one way or another!!) because of his expertise on… queerness!
Kristine: I loathe Charlie.
Sean: Here’s where we have to talk about Evil Ed’s spectacular death scene. Remember, its just Peter Vincent and Evil Ed in that scene.
Kristine: Poor Ed.
Sean: Do you remember how it just goes on and on?
Kristine: Yes, it is excruciating.
Sean: And Peter first finds Ed posing as Charlie’s mother, with a Raggedy Ann bright red wig of yarn on his head. (Which is a perverse callback to how Charlie’s mother wants to fuck Jerry – well, Ed got to fuck Jerry, so now he’s “Mom”).
Kristine: How could I have forgotten the worst drag moment ever? Well, except for the end of Psycho. That was a bad moment for drag, also. OMG, Peter Vincent is like Evil Ed’s drag mama!
Sean: Ed’s death scene goes on and on and is this huge FX setpiece and also this huge acting setpiece for Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, who is torn between pity and identification and horror and disgust the whole time.
Kristine: Quick aside – I thought the FX were pretty good.
Sean: They hold up well.
Sean: That, to me, is the big queer moment in the movie, where Fright Night most openly toys with acknowledging that killing queers is bad and horrible and wrong.
Kristine: Peter basically says, ‘This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,’ right before driving a splintered banister through Ed’s body. He couldn’t let young Ed live this perverse life of queerness, right?
Sean: Though the movie ends with Charlie and Amy back in the bedroom, consummating their heterosexuality, Peter back on tv, and then we see red eyes watching them from the darkness outside the window and hear Ed’s evil cackle. So it does end on a destabilized note. Ed was destroyed, but persists – it’s a cheap, stupid ending but there it is.
Kristine: True. I have a question. Jerry’s partner, Billy – is he also a vamp or is he a Renfield?
Sean: He’s some kind of Renfield zombo monsterguy. Not a vamp.
Kristine: Can I say I find the Renfield archetype to be one of the most compelling/disconcerting things about vampire mythology?
Kristine: I’m surprised it is not incorporated more into modern vampire stories. I guess there’s the Fang Bangers in True Blood, but they don’t really count. My understanding is that the Renfield character is a human, but is so enamored with blood-drinking and the ways of the vampire in general that he is totally subservient and basically a slave to the vampire. He wants to get “made,” but the vamp community won’t, because 1. He’s too gross and pathetic to join the cool kids and 2. holding the promise of eternal life is what keeps them in line. Am I correct or off base?
Sean: Right. Remember Ben Foster in 30 Days of Night as the grotesque homeless freak who gets locked up in the prison cell and warns of the coming vamps?
Sean: I’ve never thought much about this.
Kristine: I have decided that the Renfield archetype is going to be my area of study.
Sean: Bring it.
Kristine: I will.
Sean: Do you agree that Ed’s death scene is the movie acknowledging/being fascinated with/mourning the destruction of the queer monster?
Kristine: Yes, but I would also add that it portrays the life of the queer monster as being truly horrendous. Like, he must be destroyed. This movie is so conflicted about the gays. Is it all fabulosity and fashion and killing it at the club (á la Jerry)? Or is it agony and misery and alienation (á la Evil Ed)?
Sean: True. That image of Ed as this mutating, engorged, phallic monster with a huge rod sticking out of his chest, covered in blood, moaning… That is a moment of sadomasochistic pleasure and queer desire.
Sean: That scene has been masturbated to by somebody, I guarantee it.
Sean: Real talk.
Sean: Well, what about Amy and her gigantic red wig of hair and huge vagina dentata mouth?
Kristine: Ugh, must we?
Sean: We must.
Kristine: I just hate it. She is a misogynistic invention. Can we leave it at that?
Sean: Yes. So, the fanboy appeal of this movie is what? Getting to enter into the text of the horror movies you grew up loving, right? At one point Peter says to Charlie, “So far, everything has been like it was in the movies. We just have to keep hoping.” That seems like the entire idea of this movie boiled down to one piece of dialogue.
Kristine: Yes. Charlie is the ultimate fanboy – and the movie panders to that in how his real life escapades mirror the movies he loves. This is one of the reasons for Charlie’s tiresome vigilantism, right? Early on, he sees himself as the protagonist in one of his movies. Which, in his mind, gives him the authority to keep going. And he is rewarded with Amy giving it up. Gross.
Sean: Right. It’s almost like…. The Game. I just feel like Peter Vincent saying, “So far, everything has been like it was in the movies. We just have to keep hoping” is an acknowledgment to the viewer that maybe life could be like it is in the movies. Just maybe. Again, The Game.
Kristine: OMG, you’re right. Yes, both movies revolve around the fanboy appeal of entering the text – and endorses the idea that all those hours spent consuming media will pay off.
Kristine: “Mom, I’m doing research. God!”
Sean: I feel like we’ve got Fright Night pegged. Would you ever watch the sequel?
Kristine: Sure. How is it?
Sean: In the sequel, Jerry’s sister comes looking for Charlie to get even for Jerry’s death.
Kristine: Oh, Christ.
Sean: Yep. It’s real silly and dumb.
Kristine: When you first saw this as a kid, did you think Jerry was hot?
Sean: I never thought Jerry was hot. I was into Evil Ed. Can you believe? Ed the future gay porn star, I might add.
Kristine: Very interesting.
The Girl’s Rating: Flawed but essential AND This Film IS the ’80s
The Freak’s Rating: Postmodern as hell AND Provocative and problematic AND Queerer than you’d think