In Praise of Fright Night (well, sort of)

The forthcoming remake of Fright Night (1985) has spurred me on to write a post about the original film, which was a favourite of mine when I was a teenager.  I’m aware that this post may largely consist of me rationalising my attachment to a homophobic and sexist film, but what can I say? I loved Fright Night when I was a kid and, when I sat down and watched it again recently, I found that I still loved it almost as much.

For me, as a teenager, Fright Night appeared extremely queer.  It presented a hero who was more interested in spying on the handsome man next door than in consummating his relationship with his girlfriend.  Meanwhile, the handsome man next door lived with another man who appeared to be devoted to him.   The hero’s best friend, ‘Evil Ed’, could be read as the kind of gay kid who protects himself from attack by becoming the class clown (fun fact: Stephen Geoffreys, the actor who played Ed, stars in gay porn films), as could the washed-up, horror film actor, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), who is represented, at least initially, as the nervous, fussy, effeminate gay male stereotype.

Fright Night reinforces homophobic discourses most strongly in the representation of the vampire, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), as the predatory, older gay or (perhaps more accurately) bisexual man and, in 1985 when so many gay men were dying of AIDS, the homophobic metaphor of infection that he carries as a vampire can’t be ignored.  The film also has little to offer feminism.  Charley’s mother is a silly woman (bad single Mum!) who endangers her son, and Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, who is generally submissive to men, ends up as the object of exchange in a classic homosocial triangle through which Charley and Jerry channel their relationship with each other (another fun fact: Amanda Bearse, the actress who played Amy, is a lesbian).  Also, as soon as she’s vamped Amy manifests the monstrous female sexuality that vampire fiction by male authors has traditionally assumed to lurk in all women, and also treats us to some rather exciting vagina dentata imagery.

So far, so homophobic and sexist, but Fright Night is just so clever, so witty, and winks at its audience so outrageously, that I can’t completely condemn it.  It does something interesting is in its presentation of two gay role models for the boys – “evil” Jerry Dandridge versus “good” Peter Vincent.  It’s very unusual to see the effeminate gay man (as Vincent seems to be portrayed) being represented as heroic at all on film, and rather than simply saying that gayness is bad, the film suggests that there are good and bad ways to be gay.  Poor Ed makes the fatal mistake of identifying with Jerry (but you can understand why he does), while Charley is wise enough to hook up with Peter Vincent instead.  Of course this opposition between “good” and “bad” gayness is in itself homophobic, but it’s a little more interesting than a lot of other horror films.  I also feel that Fright Night is, on another level, sort of about homosexuality and homophobia in horror film, insofar as it acknowledges and plays with the gay subtext that is such a longstanding feature of the genre. In particular, it seems to be saying something about the role that the gothic and horror genres have played in telling coded stories about queerness that have been especially attractive to young people trying to sort out their feelings about sexuality.

At the end of the film, Charley still hasn’t managed to consummate his relationship with Amy and still gets distracted by looking out of the window.  You never know, he might manage it after the credits roll, but you can decide that his options are still open.

Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl II: The Frame

Don’t answer the phone.
Don’t answer the door.
Don’t do it.
No—really. Don’t.

Too late.

Don’t worry.
You will make it through this.
Stay calm. If you are reading this,
you are here.

You are here because you are in danger
and you are in danger because you are here.
You’ve got a bad case
of the captivity narrative.

This means you are a white female under 30,
and you haven’t had sex or
you only do it with your husband or
you only do it by force.

None of this is your fault.
Someone did something that put you here:
Your forefathers raped the land.
Your husband stole America.
Your father oppressed the poor.
Your sister had sex in the house.

You will be taken from your home
or you will be forced to leave it.

If you hear music,
you are in a horror movie.
That means you get a knife to fight back with.

If you hear music
and the people holding you captive
are wearing jackets that say “ATF”,
you are in Waco.
That means you are Joan of Arc.

If you are eating dinner with your husband
in early America
and there’s a knock at the door
and it’s Native Americans with weapons,
you’re Mary Rowlandson.

If you are eating dinner with your boyfriend
in late California
and there’s a knock at the door
and it’s white people with masks and weapons,
you’re Patricia Hearst.

If you are eating dinner with your boyfriend
in the living room
and he is killed by people with masks and weapons
when you bring the dishes to the kitchen,
you’re in a horror movie.

Here’s how to survive:
Watch as everyone around you dies.
Scream until your eyes work.
They will work when you pick up a weapon.
They will work when something changes:
Maybe the Native Americans are just like you.
Maybe money, your father, is the great tyrant.
Pick up a weapon and gain sight.
You will fight back or die.
You will fight back.
You will become a girl who is a boy.

The story runs all the way
to daybreak, when you can be a girl
again and everything
will be returned home.
Even us.
Until then, everything
is electric projection
and we are
your captive audience.

From the collection, Final Girl (Soft Skull Press, 2003)

Daphne Gottlieb (1968 – ) is an uncompromising feminist performance poet based in San Francisco.