I'm not entirely sure, but I think Fright Night was the first R-rated horror movie I ever saw. That probably makes me biased, but remembering the experience that 10 year old me had while watching people turn into vampires (and other monsters of the night) makes me think that it might be the perfect introduction to "adult" horror for a younger horror fan. I was old enough (or was I just smart enough?) to know that the things I was seeing were both not real and really cool, and that helped make a big difference in my path toward horror fandom.
Today, Fright Night still seems like the pinnacle of '80s vampire films thanks to its respect for the past and its secure footing in horror's most excessive decade. William Ragsdale stars as ordinary teenager Charlie Brewster, who likes horror movies, his girlfriend (future Married With Children... co-star Amanda Bearse) and trying to have sex. So when he catches a view of his new neighbor Jerry (Chris Sarandon) with an attractive topless woman, he stares like most ordinary teenagers would. And then he sees fangs, and then Fright Night becomes a glorious vampire story.
If the set up sounds simple, it's because Fright Night is heavily a horror update of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (my favorite film of all-time, if we're sharing), but it doesn't settle for just being a play on Hitchcock. Writer/Director Tom Holland (who also directed previous Midnight Movies of the Week Child's Play and Thinner) adds something of a horror-movie-superhero to the proceedings in Peter Vincent, an aging star of Hammer-esque vampire films who now hosts the late night spook show for the local TV station.
I've long held the belief that the portrayal of Vincent by Roddy McDowell might be the finest performance given by an actor in a horror film. I realize that there's a bit of hyperbole to that statement - not to mention a bit of an insult toward Anthony Perkins and Psycho - but McDowell it has to be said that his performance is more than just a parody of actors like Peter Cushing and Vincent Price who gave him his name. The real treat in McDowell's performance is his emotional range as Vincent, perfectly presenting as both the aged actor who doesn't believe in real world evil and the confused old man who is forced into vampire hunting duty...for real. The moments where McDowell is able to change his presentation in an instant - the scene in which he first meets Charlie, for example - push the performance further toward greatness, and the moments when the great Peter Vincent suddenly seems shocked and saddened by what he sees feel incredibly genuine.
The film's villains are another highlight, as our lead vampire is surrounded by a lot of bizarre and surprising creatures. Sarandon is the centerpiece of the conflict as the suave but devious Jerry Dandridge, and he seems to always have a smirk on his face that lets us know he's got something evil going on in his mind. The film refuses to rely on him only, and the final battles hold a few great surprises as the minions assisting our lead vampire reveal themselves in different ways. There are some special effects that still look fantastic on display as numerous transformations occur, and the battle that Charlie and Peter have to take part in feels deadly and exciting because they make us wonder where the film could be going next at every turn.
Though it's not the most serious take on the mythology and suffers from a few post-'80s side effects, Fright Night stands up on multiple viewings as one of my favorite vampire films of all-time. Maybe I'm biased again, thanks to my early connection to this film, but it's one of the most fun and endlessly watchable horror films I've ever seen. With great performances, fantastic monsters, and an A+ premise, Fright Night simply is one of the best horror films ever made.