Mr. Beaks Revisits FRIGHT NIGHT (And PSYCHO II... And CHILD'S PLAY...) With Writer-Director Tom Holland!
Published at: Sept. 19, 2008, 10:23 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
Being that it was released in the midst of the 1980s slasher film craze, you'd think that Tom Holland's FRIGHT NIGHT would've bowled over the decade's most influential critics. Unfortunately, the folks who should've picked up on, and celebrated, its inventive amalgamation of the the (then passe) vampire movie with the (then ubiquitous) coming-of-age comedy lazily acknowledged its proficiency while missing the picture's thematic ambition. A sampling:
But it was distinguished, Mr. Ebert! And it's far too briskly paced to qualify as "uneven" or "flat", Ms. Maslin! From the very opening scene, the movie slyly sets up its central dilemma, which is not "What is Charley Brewster going to do about the vampire next door?" but "Why can't Charley Brewster fuck his girlfriend?" Obviously, FRIGHT NIGHT works brilliantly as escapist fare (when the film hooked me at the age of eleven, I'm pretty sure the primary enticements were airtight storytelling and killer Richard Edlund f/x), but Brewster's panic in the face of something sexually aberrant (by Reagan-era suburbia's standards) is the peculiarity that keeps on provoking. Though I'm not suggesting that Holland's film is an all-caps Social Commentary on the level of a Romero zombie movie, a casual deconstruction of the narrative does reveal a good deal of subversiveness coursing through the veins of this '80s genre classic. Like all great horror films, it speaks to something deeper.
If you've never seen FRIGHT NIGHT, the special screening this Friday night (September 19th) at the Nuart Theatre - replete with a post-film cast-and-crew Q&A! - is a must. For starters, scientific studies have shown that all horror films are more effective when screened in a darkened theater. Secondly, unless you can track down the movie on HDNet (where it's aired a few times over the last month), your only other viewing option is a beyond-shitty DVD release from 1999. Why? Hm. Could it be that Sony's genre factory, Screen Gems, is preparing a disposable PG-13 remake? The studio has denied this in the past, but I can't think of another reason to stick with a substandard disc, especially when "Special Edition" DVDs are a great way to reinvigorate catalogue titles. Perhaps Sony simply hates money.
While we're waiting for someone to do the right thing, it's possible that an unsanctioned, unofficial (and, therefore, unencumbered by studio legal!) commentary might surface over the coming months. If this were to occur (and it's not unheard of), I would very likely provide you with a link so that you might enjoy said unsanctioned commentary with your HDNet burn of FRIGHT NIGHT. In the meantime, I thought it'd be fun to spend some time hitting up the likes of Tom Holland, Chris Sarandon and Stephen "Evil Ed" Geoffreys for their thoughts on this seminal 1980s film.
We'll start today with the great Tom Holland, who made his feature directing debut on FRIGHT NIGHT after becoming one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood. I sat down with Holland at Jerry's Deli in Studio City (which, for future transcription reference, is too damn noisy), and we immediately fell into a fun, freewheeling conversation that covered everything from his tutelage under the late director Richard Franklin - who shot two of Holland's best screenplays: PSYCHO II and CLOAK & DAGGER - to the state of the filmmaking industry (the forward-looking Holland is currently prepping the internet release of a horror serial called "Five or Die", and we'll have much more on that over the coming weeks). It was just a pleasure to chat with a master genre craftsman. I can't wait to do it again. (And I might be doing it again very soon, but, again, more on that at a later date.)
And I do hope to see you tomorrow night at the Nuart.
Mr. Beaks: I want to start with tone. I was reading an interview you gave a year or so ago, and you were lamenting the wink-and-nudge, self-parodying style of horror. It's what people resort to when they've stopped being interested in horror. It happened to the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series after DREAM WARRIORS, and it happened to CHILD'S PLAY after the first movie. The monsters became stand-up comics.
Tom Holland: It used to be that people were ashamed of having to do genre seriously. The filmmakers and writers were looking down at the genre the were working in. So this was a wink to the audience saying, "I'm better than this." That's when it becomes self-conscious. It breaks the fourth wall and pulls you out of the movie. You can't identify with it and can't believe it, so it's not participatory, and, therefore, loses its power. You'll find none of this in the first CHILD'S PLAY. The humor stays within the reality of the dramatic situation. It's perfectly acceptable. When Chucky says "Fuck you" in the elevator, it's hilarious, but it doesn't degrade the terror because it comes out of the character of the doll and the situation. When you start to wink to the audience and say, "Isn't this ridiculous?", it indicates the coming exhaustion of the genre. I would suggest to you that farce is the last gasp. There are all of these subgenres in horror which reach this point. For example, in the '80s, LOVE AT FIRST BITE was the nail in the coffin - excuse the pun - of the vampire genre for two or three years. But when it ends up being farce, that just means someone has to reinvent it.
Beaks: But this is an old conundrum. When Universal couldn't figure out what to do with their classic monsters back in the '40s, they brought in Abbot and Costello.
Holland: Oh, but I love that! That's what I was doing on the staircase in FRIGHT NIGHT! When [Charley and Peter] are walking up the staircase, and Billy Cole, the Igor character, comes walking up behind them, and they hear that creak... Peter Vincent stops, and then Charley stops. Then they turn, and he's right there. And they go "Aaaaah!" That's from ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. I think. It's from one of those.
Beaks: Right. But that's a laugh from tension.
Holland: Hey, it worked for Abbot & Costello! Why shouldn't it work in FRIGHT NIGHT with Roddy McDowall and William Ragsdale? FRIGHT NIGHT is really my loving look back at all the horror movies that I loved as a kid - especially those from AIP and Hammer. Peter Vincent is Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. That's where I got the name of the character.
Beaks: Did you go out to Peter Cushing?
Holland: No, I didn't. I did think about Vincent Price. I met him through Roddy, oddly enough, and he was definitely compos mentis. But he wasn't strong enough, and Roddy was. And now, posthumously, Roddy is that generation's Vincent Price. It's interesting that Roddy should end up being a revered figure in horror; I don't think he did that much [in the genre] before FRIGHT NIGHT.
I'll tell you who else is on his way to that: Malcolm McDowell. You know, somebody came to me and mentioned doing a remake of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, and I was trying to think of who could possibly do that. The only person I could think of was Malcolm McDowell. Can you think of anybody who could be the Vincent Price of our generation?
Beaks: Funny enough, Harry and I were just talking the other day about remakes, and he brought up PHIBES.
Holland: Would you dare remake it?
Beaks: It was so of its era, I wouldn't have a clue how to do it. Harry had an idea, though. But then he said he wouldn't want to do it because it would draw all the attention away from the movie he loved as a kid. Even if he made a great PHIBES, it would somehow take away from what was unique about those movies. But the name he mentioned was Ian McKellen. And that makes sense to me. McKellen is not only one of the greatest actors living today, he loves doing horror. Give him a decent script, and he'd have a blast with PHIBES.
Holland: I felt that way about Malcolm McDowell. When I was a kid, PHIBES was already old-fashioned. I saw it, and I enjoyed it, but it was already campy. The acting was so hammy. I wrote stuff like THE BEAST WITHIN, CLASS OF '84 and PSYCHO II as a reaction to stuff like DR. PHIBES. There was another one that Vincent Price did where he was killing off all of the critics: THEATRE OF BLOOD. And wasn't there a sequel to DR. PHIBES?
Beaks: Yes. DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN. It's not bad.
Holland: Is it a paucity of imagination that they keep remaking everything? Is it our failure? Is it the public's failure?
Beaks: I always figure it's the studios doing market research, crunching the numbers, and realizing they can get "x" amount of dollars from capitalizing on an established brand.
Holland: That's probably true.
Beaks: Still, there are a number of remakes that puzzle me. I don't see the appeal because the originals weren't wildly successful. THE STEPFATHER is one of those movies. It wasn't a success in the theater. I mean, it did well enough on video to merit a sequel, but who, besides genre fans, thinks of it now?
Holland: You know, I'd written something like that before FRIGHT NIGHT. It was called SCREAM FOR HELP. But it got so messed-up, it was unreleasable. It could've been THE STEPFATHER before THE STEPFATHER.
Beaks: At least your experience with Richard Franklin on PSYCHO II was much more positive.
Holland: Richard Franklin was underappreciated and undervalued. He taught me everything I know about Hitchcock. While I was writing PSYCHO II, he sat with me and had me watch almost every [Hitchcock] movie. I knew, at one point, every spectacular shot in everything from BLACKMAIL on. I even knew the silent pictures before BLACKMAIL. Franklin was the best expert on Hitchcock I've ever met. He had a rather dry, academic personality. He was a teacher by nature.
Beaks: How much of your visual style did you get from Franklin?
Holland: A lot. He taught me how to do it. He made me watch so many Hitchcock films... I had three years of film school.
You know, the great trick with PSYCHO... what made Norman live as a character is that you felt sorry for him even though he was a serial murderer. He touched your heart. The problem with the sequel is that we got Norman off. So how do you get the [audience's] sympathy? I think the stroke of genius with PSYCHO II, he modestly said, is that Norman is desperately trying to hold on to his sanity as the victims of his victims slowly drive him insane. It's a situation where you're empathizing with Norman Bates. That's what gives the film its power.
Beaks: PSYCHO II is such an underrated movie. Quentin Tarantino has frequently said he prefers it to the first PSYCHO.
Holland: I worked harder on that script than I ever worked on any other script because I just knew I was going to get shredded by the critics. There isn't one hole in that script that I know of; there's nothing that doesn't gibe with the first one. And Richard was really on top of things, too.
Beaks: And then you two did CLOAK & DAGGER, which has endured as one of the better video game-inspired fantasies of the 1980s.
Holland: Well, you can feel that it has a heart. There's a sweetness to it. But there's a sweetness to FRIGHT NIGHT, too.
Beaks: Yes, and what's odd about FRIGHT NIGHT's sweetness is that most of it comes from Evil Ed. His moment in the alley with Dandrige is so touching, and it works on so many levels. Obviously, there's a subtext of homosexuality there, but, on the surface, it's just a kid who's a social outcast because he likes horror movies. And here he's found a protector; someone who's going to not only rescue him from his tormentors, but empower him to fight back. He's finally been accepted for who he is. Horror fans really connect to Evil Ed. He's their surrogate. And I think that's one of the biggest reasons why FRIGHT NIGHT has such a devoted following.
Holland: I think you're right.
Beaks: But I don't think the film has been properly appreciated for its thematic depth. When I saw FRIGHT NIGHT last July at Diablo Cody's festival, it was my first time watching the movie since I was a teenager, and I was kind of overwhelmed. There's a lot going on in the movie that I hadn't picked up before - that I couldn't pick up before because I was just too young. I mean, the film opens with Charley Brewster in his bedroom getting ready to lose his virginity to his girlfriend. Every teenage guy's dream moment, right? Then this light goes on in the house next door, and it's like, "Oh, what's this?" Well, it's a pansexual vampire who feasts on the blood of one-night-stands, and also has a fiercely loyal male roommate who seems to fill the traditional role of a significant other. All of this scares the shit out of Charley, and, suddenly, he's fixated on destroying the vampire next door rather than trying to fuck his girlfriend.
Holland: (Somehow not signaling for the check and dashing to his car) Thank you. I was trying to elevate the genre, and I had a brilliant cast. Chris Sarandon helped a lot with that. He has a dry wit, and is extremely smart. He brought a great complexity to the character of Jerry Dandrige; he knew how to play subtext, and he knew how to make him likable. That's why, all of a sudden, you see Amy [in the portrait]. That was Chris looking for a way to have this love affair that echoes through the generations. His lover is constantly reborn. That's great stuff. He also came up with Jerry eating fruit all of the time.
But Evil Ed was mine. I don't know how I knew that. (Pauses) Actually, I do. We all felt like that in high school. I was a horror movie fan, too.
Beaks: Didn't Sarandon contribute the "Strangers in the Night" bit?
Holland: Yes. He and Roddy were the smartest, mostly because they were the oldest and most experienced. The rest of them were just kids then. Stephen was so inventive. He took so many chances. Most actors would not be brave enough to make character choices that wild.
You know, it's interesting. I've just discovered over the last couple of years that [FRIGHT NIGHT] has become a multigenerational film. Whereas FRIGHT NIGHT was an R back in 1985, it feels like a PG-13 now. And what's happened is that parents show the film to their children; it's become a family film. And I've got these kids hooked because they watched it with their family on DVD. Who knew? If you'd told me that was going to happen with CLOAK & DAGGER, it would've made sense. But I never thought about it happening with FRIGHT NIGHT.
Thanks to Tim Sullivan for setting this up. My interviews with Chris Sarandon and Stephen Geoffreys will be posted shortly.