Anyone who grew up loving horror movies must have imagined in their youth what it would have been like to discover that a real, live (or rather, undead) vampire has moved in next door. Writer-director Tom Holland certainly did, and he brought that teenage fantasy to life in 1985’s Fright Night.
At once a state of the art 80s special effects extravaganza and a heartfelt love letter to the old Gothic traditions of horror that seemed to be dying out at the time, there’s a timelessness to Fright Night that makes it every bit as beloved a horror hit today as it was on release. Let’s take a look back at Fright Night with some facts you may not have known… (beware of major spoilers.)
20. It was the director’s first ever film
For many years, Tom Holland (no, not that one) worked as a jobbing bit-part actor, but he didn’t really break big in the movie business until he moved laterally into screenwriting. The early 80s saw Holland pen the scripts for a number of films, including Class of 1984, The Beast Within, Cloak and Dagger, Scream For Help, and most famously Psycho II.
It was the success of Psycho II made it that bit easier for Holland to persuade studio Columbia Pictures to let him make his directorial debut with Fright Night. Holland then proved his mettle and established his own status by directing one of the best-loved horror movies of the decade: 1988’s Child’s Play. Today, however, the director seems best known for being the namesake of a certain young Spider-Man actor.
19. Holland had to describe his vision for the movie shot-for-shot to convince Chris Sarandon to star
Chris Sarandon was a respected stage and screen actor, not to mention an Academy Award nominee (for 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon), when he was approached to play Fright Night’s central vampire, Jerry Dandridge. The actor has admitted he was sceptical about making a vampire movie, but within “10 seconds” of reading the script he was hooked. Even so, though he loved Holland’s writing, Sarandon had doubts as to whether the first time director was really capable of realising the film.
The actor then took a meeting with Holland, wherein the writer-director proceeded to literally describe how the entire film would run, shot by shot. On the strength of this, Sarandon says he was convinced – “this guy knows what he’s doing” – and signed on straight away.
18. Peter Vincent is named after two horror legends – one of whom Tom Holland pursued for the role
Peter Vincent, Fright Night’s B-movie actor turned TV horror host played by Roddy McDowall, is a lampoon of two of the great horror actors of yesteryear: Peter Cushing (above), and Vincent Price (below). Vincent Price was still a working actor in Hollywood went Fright Night went into production, and Holland was keen to cast his childhood hero in the role. Unfortunately, the elderly Price was in poor health as production on Fright Night approached, and as such could not commit to a film.
Because of this, Holland decided instead to pursue Roddy McDowall, who – though comparatively young for the part, being in his mid-50s – happily accepted the role. McDowall had previously appeared in Class of 1984, which Holland wrote.
17. Roddy McDowall shot his own behind-the-scenes footage (which no one ever saw)
Whilst filming Fright Night, actor Roddy McDowall took his own videos of what went on behind the scenes of Fright Night. Unfortunately, none of the other cast members ever saw the footage and no-one now knows where the footage ended up. However, all of them look back fondly on working with the seasoned actor, who by all accounts identified closely with the character of Peter Vincent.
Director Holland also recounts that, while McDowall was his second choice after Vincent Price, he actually got to meet Price through McDowall. McDowall invited the director to a dinner party at his house during production, where Vincent Price and his wife were also guests.
16. Charlie Sheen wanted to play Charlie Brewster, but was refused an audition
Before William Ragsdale was cast in the lead role of teenager Charlie Brewster, another well-known actor showed up to audition: Charlie Sheen. However, Tom Holland knew immediately that Sheen was wrong for the part, and wouldn’t even let him read for it. The writer-director had written Charlie Brewster as an awkward, somewhat nerdy boy next door, which William Ragsdale was a perfect fit for.
The writer-director had written Charlie Brewster as an awkward, somewhat nerdy boy next door, which William Ragsdale was a perfect fit for. Future Platoon star Sheen, by contrast, was then “too handsome,” by the director’s estimation. Holland says that Sheen was left quite upset by his refusal to let the actor audition at all – but we’re confident he made the right call.
15. The director got the cast to write their own characters’ backstories
Film actors, even on big-budget studio productions, are accustomed to having to get to work in front of the cameras with little to no rehearsal time – but this was not the case on Fright Night. Drawing on his own experience as a classically trained actor, Holland made sure that he and the cast had a whole two weeks to rehearse their scenes before the cameras rolled. To help get more personal performances out of his actors, Holland had each of them write up several pages of backstory for their characters.
This even included Art J. Evans, who has a comparatively small role as Detective Lennox, but admits he composed a backstory for his character that “was like Gone With The Wind.” The only person resistant to writing a backstory was Evil Ed actor Stephen Geoffreys, but he relented after his agent advised him he was in danger of getting fired.
14. The film’s production designer was the son of a legend
Considering what a beautifully designed film Fright Night is, it may be a surprise to learn that it was only the second credit of production designer John DeCuir Jr. However, John Decuir Jr had learned the trade from one of the best in the business: his father, John DeCuir. John DeCuir Sr. was one of the most highly regarded production designers and art directors in Hollywood, having worked from the 40s all the way through to the 80s.
Decuir’s CV includes such lavish productions as The King and I, South Pacific, Cleopatra, and Ghostbusters (his final film). After Fright Night, DeCuir Jr’s later credits would include Top Gun, Turner & Hooch and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
13. The special effects team helped Holland rewrite the film
Fright Night luckily shared many of its key SFX artists with the last supernatural comedy hit to come from Columbia Pictures: Ghostbusters, released several months before Fright Night started production in 1984. These included visual effects producer Richard Edlund, and creature designers Steve Johnson and Randall William Cook. Tom Holland made a point of giving the team a great deal of creative input, asking them about things they would like to do with vampires, then incorporating those ideas into the supernatural sequences.
In one instance, the director even re-edited a scene – the moment when Charlie stabs Jerry through the hand with a pencil – at the advice of Steve Johnson. Holland had originally inserted a cutaway to Charlie’s reaction as Jerry pulls the pencil out, until Johnson pointed out this spoiled the effect.
12. The most complicated special effect involved Jerry’s reflection in a mirror
Typical of 80s horror, Fright Night boasts all manner of extravagant, colourful, and frequently very gooey special effects. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn the shot that gave the FX team the greatest challenge actually came in a relatively subtle moment. Jerry, having not long since been invited into the Brewster House by Charlie’s mother (Dorothy Fielding), proceeds to enter through her bedroom window as she sleeps.
Jerry then casually leaves the room, passing a mirror – in which, of course, he casts no reflection. This effect was achieved by putting a blue screen over the mirror, then super-imposing a blank reflection onto the mirror later – but if you look closely, a faint blue outline remains.
11. Stephen Geoffreys endured 18 hours in full body make-up for Ed’s death scene
Having previously worked on the groundbreaking transformation sequences of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, special effects artist Steve Johnson was keen to outdo both movies in Fright Night. Johnson thought he had the perfect opportunity in Evil Ed’s death scene, in which the recently turned vampire is staked through the heart, before gradually reverting to his original human self. For this sequence, Stephen Geoffreys had to spend a staggering 18 hours having full body make-up applied (“I don’t know how I endured it”, the actor said later).
Things were doubtless made worse when Johnson applied what he thought was methicil (a thickening agent) to Geoffreys’ mouth and eye – then realised too late that the substance was actually glue. Still, Geoffreys may have been able to draw on his very real discomfort to make the death scene so surprisingly emotional.
10. No one seems to know what Billy Cole is actually supposed to be
Perhaps the most enigmatic character in Fright Night is Jonathan Stark’s Billy Cole, the man who lives with Jerry. For one thing, the precise nature of Billy’s relationship with Jerry is never clear – whether he is Jerry’s servant, his best friend, or his lover. Neither Stark nor Chris Sarandon have dismissed the idea that the two men are romantically involved, but both insist it wasn’t something they discussed whilst making the film.
Perhaps more pressingly, although by the end of the film it’s clear that Billy isn’t human, precisely what kind of monster he is meant to be isn’t clear (we know he can’t be a vampire, as he can walk in the sunlight). Stark has emphatically stated he has no idea what Billy actually is, though Holland has suggested he is only a half-vampire of some sort.
9. Amanda Bearse goes through more make-up transformations than you might think
While Amy might initially seem to be nothing more than a basic love interest, she actually winds up one of the most interesting characters in Fright Night, as she is slowly seduced into vampiredom by Jerry. This transformation from demure girl next door to ravenous creature of the night required a lot from actress Amanda Bearse – but also from the make-up team. Amy’s first subtle transformations occur in her dance sequence with Jerry: as the seductive dance goes on, her hair and makeup gradually mature, turning her from girl to woman.
More obvious changes are made once she is bitten by Jerry, as she dons a full wig, fangs, contact lenses, more extensive beauty make up – and, last but not least, prosthetic breasts. Bearse actually took these fake breasts from the set, keeping them for 25 years before finally giving them away at a fan convention.
8. Amy’s iconic ‘shark mouth’ was a last-minute rush job
Amy’s most memorable transformation – into a humanoid creature with a giant, shark-like mouthful of fangs – almost didn’t happen at all. Holland had neither scripted nor budgeted for the scene, but realised late in the day that the climactic sequence needed something extra, and begged Randall Cook to do it for free in the last days of the shoot. Cook reluctantly agreed, knowing he couldn’t create anything that great in so short a time – but Holland insisted it would only be used for a single shot.
However, the director was so impressed with the mouthpiece that he shot a whole day with Bearse in full make-up, using it throughout the scene in the final movie. Indeed, the look proved so striking that, to the surprise of everyone, the marketing team opted to use the image as the centrepiece of the movie poster.
7. William Ragsdale suffered a production-delaying injury which cost the studio $100,000 per day
Whilst filming scenes on Christmas Eve, 1984, William Ragsdale injured his foot running down a flight of stairs. While Ragsdale and the crew initially thought this was just a sprain, the sound recordist actually heard the bone break in his headphones, so the actor was rushed to hospital. Because of this injury, Ragsdale’s action scenes had to be pushed back, with other scenes filmed first instead while he recovered.
The production was also required to dip into its insurance coverage to extend filming, which resulted in some tension with the studio. Afterwards, Ragsdale says that he was often followed around on set by an angry producer who, when no one was nearby, would quietly growl at the young actor, “$100,000 – that’s what you cost me every day.”
6. The originally scripted ending saw Peter Vincent become a vampire
Fright Night famously ends with Evil Ed’s cry of “You’re so cool, Brewster!”, implying Charlie’s friend-turned-vampire survived and will be back – but this was not always the plan. As scripted, Fright Night’s final scene played out similarly, with Charlie and Amy in the bedroom – but things changed once Peter Vincent appeared on TV. Rather than simply introducing a movie, Vincent would have reared back his head to reveal glowing eyes and fangs, having been bitten and turned into a vampire himself.
However, once work on Fright Night was almost done, Holland took a call from the head of Columbia Pictures himself, Guy McElwaine, demanding the ending be changed. McElwaine insisted that such a downer ending would ruin the movie – and, for once, it’s fair to say the studio boss was almost certainly right.
5. It was the second-biggest horror film of 1985
No one had expected Fright Night to wind up being much of a hit, so its success caught everyone off guard. On its US release in August 2nd 1985, Fright Night made over $6 million in its opening weekend, recouping most of its budget. By the end of its theatrical run, it had made just shy of $25 million.
This made the film the second-highest-grossing horror movie of the year, behind A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, which made $30 million. Fright Night also received near-unanimous positive reviews, and is today rated 91% fresh by Rotten Tomatoes.
4. The soundtrack album was also a big seller
Fright Night was also an early example of a movie that made the soundtrack album a key part of its marketing. As Columbia Pictures were closely linked with Columbia Records, a roster of new wave artists including Devo and Sparks were commissioned to create all-new songs specifically for the movie, and the resulting album proved popular. The score, meanwhile, was provided by Brad Fiedel, who Tom Holland hand-picked for the job having been impressed with his work on The Terminator.
The score is performed entirely by Fiedel himself, primarily on synthesizers, plus piano and electric violin. Fiedel also sings an original track on the album, Come To Me, although Holland decided to use this without the vocal in the movie.
3. The Fright Night series ended abruptly when the head of the production company was murdered
This time directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, Fright Night Part 2 was released in 1988, with Roddy McDowall and William Ragsdale the only returning cast members. Tom Holland was unavailable to direct as he was making Child’s Play at the same time; but even so, Holland hoped to return to the franchise with a third film, which he had discussed with Roddy McDowall.
To this end, Holland and McDowall had arranged a meeting with Jose Menéndez, chairman of production company Live Entertainment, which owned the Fright Night rights at the time. However, this never came to pass, as the night before the meeting had been scheduled, Menéndez and his wife were murdered by their own sons. This not only scuppered any chance of a third Fright Night, it also impacted the marketing and distribution of Fright Night Part 2. The series effectively ended there.
2. The first film has been remade three times, more or less
Western readers are likely to be aware that Fright Night was remade in 2011. While it was met with mixed reviews and low box office receipts, it sported an above-average cast in Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and the late Anton Yelchin. However, you might not have known that an unofficial remake of Fright Night had already been released before that – in 1989’s Wohi Bhayakar Raat.
This Bollywood production cast Indian actor Kiran Kumar in Chris Sarandon’s role as the vampire next door. The 2011 remake also spawned a straight-to-DVD sequel, Fright Night 2: New Blood, which is essentially yet another retelling of the same story, with no actors returning from previous films.
1. There may be a third Fright Night movie on the way after all
Tom Holland recently re-obtained the rights to Fright Night and has declared his plans to revive the series. According to US copyright laws established in the 1970s, the original creator of a property will automatically get the rights to their creation after 35 years; so as Holland sold the rights to Fright Night back in 1984, he now has them back.
Holland announced in 2017 that he plans to continue the Fright Night story where Part 2 left off; first as a novel, then hopefully as a movie. The writer-director says the novel will see the return of Charlie and Amy, who once again find themselves living next door to a vampire – potentially Ed, as hinted by the end of the first film. Holland’s last film as director was the 2017 horror Rock Paper Scissors.