Reading (and participating) in recent reconsiderations of John Carpenter films with fellow bloggers John Kenneth Muir and Joe Maddrey, has set me on the train of thinking about other genre films that deserve reconsideration. A proposition I never cease to find fascinating is how films of a certain era can play better in another time period, free of the expectations that might have surrounded them during their initial release. A classic example of this that is often brought up is John Carpenter’s The Thing. Released in the summer of E.T. and Star Trek 2, its bleak message and mood did not resonate with audiences. Now it is frequently hailed as John Carpenter’s true masterpiece. Agree or disagree I think there’s a strong case that the film was indeed misjudged, and that re-evaluation with fresh eyes has gone a long way toward righting that wrong. It was with this mindset that Muir, Maddrey, and yours truly took a look at Village of the Damned, Vampires, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man. With that in mind I plan to turn my attention for the rest of this summer toward the theme of looking at films that were (perhaps) wrongly maligned on their maiden voyages. To kick things off I will be reviewing Fright Night Part 2, a sequel to one of the most beloved horror films of the 1980’s.
First a little personal background on this one. As a teen in the mid-80’s I lived close to a rundown mall that had a twin cinema, which frequently screened all the second tier/B-movie releases. Stuff like Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, breakdancing films, etc. It’s also where I saw Megaforce, but that is a story for another day. Best of all they showed lots of horror films that the “better,” more highfalutin theaters wouldn’t play. Evil Dead 2, Re-Animator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, etc. The place was also in biking distance so I spent many a summer afternoon there, and was present for opening day screenings of a variety of films. In the late summer of 1985 I saw in the paper that a movie called Fright Night would be opening the next day. The poster art looked amazingly cool with a cloud full of fanged beasts hovering over a creepy looking house. That’s all I needed to know. The next day I was out bright and early to check it out. Now as this was the “dirt mall” as Kevin Smith might call it, my expectations were tempered somewhat. I figured I would be seeing a great, yet low-budget monster movie. Boy was I in for a surprise! Fright Night featured a stellar cast and performances (with career highs for Roddy McDowall and Chris Sarandon), Grade A special effects from Richard Edlund (Return of the Jedi), and a pumping 80’s soundtrack backed by a great electronic score by Brad Fidel (The Terminator). It was like experiencing Star Wars only with a vampire film. The mall cinema had totally blindsided me with a horror masterpiece!
It should come as no surprise when I tell you that Fright Night became the benchmark for me, against which many future horror releases would be judged. And not many would reach those heights in the late 80’s. As it turned out I was not alone in my enthusiasm for the film, and it did pretty terrific business at the box office. Consequently plans for a sequel were likely in the works before it even left the theaters. In those days before the Internet, information on movies like this was largely limited to magazines such as Starlog and Fangoria, and it was in the latter that I first saw a feature article on Fright Night Part 2. It talked a bit about the plot, and had a variety of fantastic looking photos of the new creatures returning vampire slayers Peter Vincent (McDowall) and Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) would be facing off against. I immediately began counting the days until it would show up in my mall theater, so I could repeat the terrific experience I had with the first outing. Unfortunately that count just kept on going.
I’m not sure of the exact details but for some reason Fright Night Part 2 received only a minor theatrical release, 148 screens according to IMDB. By contrast the original had been released wide on 1,542 screens. As a young lad I could’ve cared less about these business details, the end result was that it never made it to the mall! Interestingly during its release it just so happened that I went on a trip to a theme park in Ohio, and off the highway we saw a theater playing it (one of those lucky 148). I figured that it would be coming to my town in Kentucky, so again got excited . . . and then it didn’t. Now I was just fit to be tied. Making matters worse was that the video didn’t appear anytime soon thereafter (if my memory serves it was released almost two years later). I began to think I was never going to see this thing! When it finally materialized unannounced on the shelves of my local video store (conveniently located near the mall), it was like the end of some tiresome quest . . . but would it have been worth all the anticipation?
After renting the film and anxiously driving home (having ditched the bike by that time), I popped the tape in my top-loading VHS player and awaited the magic to begin. It was almost like the breathless DTV premieres of the Steven Seagal films today to give you some perspective (okay to be fair it was nothing like that, it was actually much better), as the debut of the film was taking place in my living room instead of on the big screen. Thankfully the film was not the disaster I was concerned it might be given it’s mysterious non-release, but was instead a solid follow-up if not a groundbreaking outing. The chemistry was there between McDowall and Ragsdale, the cast again was up to the task, the production values were still good, and Fidel was back on board to do the music. Despite all of this fan reaction to the film has been mixed at best, with most discounting it as a lackluster sequel.
I was reminded of this notably when reading John Kenneth Muir’s review of the film in his outstanding book Horror Films of the 1980’s. In short summary, John was disappointed that the film was a bit of a retread in which McDowall’s character regressed to his former self (i.e. timid and frightened) and basically repeated the same character arc of the first film. More objectionable was that the plot, involving the sister of Fright Night villain Jerry Dandridge (Sarandon) coming for revenge, was lazy. John lamented that it didn’t pick up with Vincent and Brewster becoming quasi-adventurers seeking out opportunities to fight the supernatural. In other words it was a major missed opportunity to launch a franchise. The truth is he’s not alone in these thoughts, as others I’ve talked to have expressed similar sentiments. But are these concerns entirely fair, and has this film been unduly judged as an unworthy second chapter?
Perhaps the first item that needs to be discussed is the plot, as in my mind that is probably what troubles folks the most. Again the basic premise is that the sister comes back for revenge on the vampire killers. The fact of the matter is that this concept is not destined to win any awards for originality anytime soon. It would have been far more interesting to concoct a scenario with a new villain (maybe even a werewolf or other supernatural creature) that provides a different challenge for our duo. In and of itself having Dandridge’s sister come out of the woodwork feels like a lame excuse to grab some more money from folks who enjoyed the first Fright Night. The good news is that the cast of villains includes a great mini-rogues gallery, headed up by the highly charismatic Julie Carmen (In the Mouth of Madness) as Regine Dandrige. As a successor to Sarandon she does a fine job. In addition you also get the likes of Jon Gries (Real Genius) as a spacey vampire and Brian Thompson (Cobra) as the menacing chauffer to add personality to the mix. Word is they offered to bring back Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed, but he declined the role. In an interview I read with him circa 976-EVIL he bemoaned the fact they were doing a sequel in the first place, and his instincts were probably right in terms of not coming back. If the sister’s revenge plot was stretching things, his unlikely return would have caused the film to reach the breaking point.
While the starting point for the film may be a bit weak, it’s the character details that make it work. In order to add a twist to the proceedings, the film performs a bit of role reversal with Charley and Peter. In my mind it’s this element that truly elevates Fright Night Part 2 to the status of a worthy sequel. In a nice bit of economy, the film opens with a well edited sequence of Charley seeing a therapist. It is quickly established (by the end of the opening credits) that Charley has been convinced that the encounter with Dandridge, at least the supernatural element, was part of his imagination. Technically speaking it was a form of group hypnosis to deal with the gruesome acts Dandridge, who was presumably just a serial killer, had committed. So from the word go of this sequel the rules have been changed. Charley is now “cured” of his delusion, and no longer a true believer. He can go on with normal life and put the bloodsucking past behind him.
Conversely Peter Vincent is a believer extraordinaire. He now lives in the “glory days” in which he and Charley fought Dandridge, to the extent that he’s become obsessive. He will show nothing but vampire films on his television show, and regales Charley and his new girlfriend Alex by revisiting the tale over dinner. Charley humors him and afterwards dismisses Peter as a kind, but confused old man. Of course that is short lived when Regine Dandridge and her crew roll in hunting for the duo. She launches her revenge by visiting Charley and beginning the process of turning him into a vampire, her ultimate goal being to make him her servant and kill Peter Vincent. Along the way she lures one of Charley’s friends to a party she’s throwing, and Charley observes her sinking in fangs. It just so happens that she’s taken up residence in Peter’s building, so Charley immediately goes to enlist his aid to put a stop to this new threat. Peter, while initially skeptical/frightened, agrees to go along. They go to the party and become convinced that she’s nothing more than a performance artist, when Charley’s friend shows up no worse from the wear.
After Charley leaves Peter learns the truth, and upon confronting Regine gets ready to flee town. When he attempts to warn Charley, his concerns are dismissed by his old friend. The duo formally splits and Regine’s plan appears to have succeeded. Peter makes to leave town and Regine sets to completing her transformation of Charley. On his way out of town Peter sees that Regine has been hired to take over his television show, and things begin to change. Once again he finds the courage within himself to become the Great Vampire Killer, and he picks up Charley’s girlfriend for an action-packed rescue mission.
I think a large part of the reason Fright Night Part 2 has met with criticism is that fans, put off immediately by the apparent lack of an original premise, were not able to accept the directions the characters take throughout the course of the film. This wasn’t clear to me until reading JKM’s review, in which he lamented the fact that Peter seemed to undergo the same cycle of emotions as he did in the first film. Essentially it would appear that nothing had changed. I had never taken the time to ponder this since I enjoyed the sequel, and it gave me something to consider. While I understand this viewpoint, I would suggest that the film represents a more honest assessment of what would likely have happened following the events of the first film. First let’s start with Charley. While it’s tempting to imagine that he found some kind of warrior spirit after the first film, we must remember he lost a friend and witnessed some pretty horrific things take place. How many people would go through that and continue on unfazed. It’s entirely reasonable to believe he would seek some counseling, and be eager to put the events past him, even if it meant buying into an alternative explanation of what took place. Clearly it has caused him difficulties in his personal life (e.g. Amy is no longer with him, and his current girlfriend is aware that he has “issues”), so he’s had to do whatever is necessary to get on with his life.
Conversely, Peter has wholeheartedly accepted that vampires truly exist and that one must be ever vigilant with keeping watch. He has embraced his persona to the opposite extreme of Charley, and it has also affected his life. Whereas he was on the verge of ruin in the first film due to irrelevance, now he is at the brink again because of his comeback with a vengeance. However, as events unfold in the sequel Peter displays the same fears he exhibited in the first film. He is initially hesitant and cowardly when the new threat emerges. It is understandable that this doesn’t sit well with fans, as it seems a bit of a regression. But there is more to it than that. The truth is that even though he underwent a transformative experience of sorts, it is not so easy to be something you are inherently not. And Peter Vincent at heart is not an action hero. He can rise to the occasion when loved ones are in trouble, but he is not some sort of fearless Hammer killing machine. That’s the whole point of the character. He is an actor, not the character. When push comes to shove he becomes the character he plays (as he does in the climax of Fright Night Part 2), and ceases to be the real man. This serves as a vehicle to carry him through the crisis, after which he again becomes the real person.
There is an element worth noting however, in that there is a middle ground in which Peter the actor and Peter the man meet. In the original film Peter initially failed to ward off Dandridge with a cross because he didn’t believe. That’s where the real growth occurred. By the ¾ mark of Fright Night he came to believe in vampires, and his faith was real. That growth did not experience a regression in the sequel. In Part 2 it is clear Peter believes, but as the real man he is still afraid . . . as any sane person would be. While we may want him to now be an invincible action hero, the filmmakers do not chicken out and take the superficial road. Instead they deal with his character, warts and all, and that is commendable. This may not be as satisfying in some ways as a straight sequel in which the duo become the supernatural equivalent of Mel Gibon and Danny Glover, but it’s a bit more honest and thoughtful than the superficial revenge premise leads one to believe. Considering that character exploration is the mission of the film, I would further suggest that the bland premise is all the more devious on the part of the filmmakers. It acts as a bait and switch in that you are initially led to believe you should focus attention on Regine’s plans, when in fact your ultimate focus will be on Charley and Peter’s relationship (which is the true strength of both films).
I guess if I have any regrets at all about Fright Night Part 2, it’s that we didn’t see a third entry. By taking the road of character study as opposed to franchise development, those behind the sequel were perhaps guilty of not thinking long term. They must ultimately be declared innocent though, as they managed to create something rare in the halls of horror sequeldom, a true development of an original rather than a continuation. We get to see our heroes as they would most likely mature, rather than simply become cardboard cutouts the way that Hollywood all too often demands. So if you haven’t seen Fright Night Part 2 in a while, or at all, I would urge you to give it a chance with a fresh set of eyes. While it may not have the same magic as the original, it has a special quality of its own that absolutely merits another look 20 years later. And on a closing note, as Fantasmo All-Star Tony Mercer has rightly said, if Patrick Dempsey got another chance why not Ragsdale! Truer words were never spoken : )