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How Fright Night and its remake take on vampiric seduction versus rape

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Feb 20, 2020

It’s a simple story: Boy loves girl, boy becomes obsessed with hot male next-door neighbor, boy becomes convinced said neighbor is a vampire, and neighbor decides to bite everyone. Fright Night, released in 1985, is one of the era’s most enjoyable horror-comedies, although it never caught on in the same way contemporary hits like The Lost Boys did.

When a remake was announced, fans of the original wondered what the point was. Why do this story again, especially at a time when vampires were starkly different creatures from their ‘80s counterparts? It turns out that 2011’s Fright Night had a lot to say.

You can’t make a vampire movie in the 2010s and have its ideas and themes be wholly identical to those to a vampire movie from the 1980s. Some tropes are timeless — we’ll always be afraid of death and sex — but vampirism as a storytelling tool works best when it reflects and embodies contemporary concerns, acting as the ultimate metaphor for human anxieties. The original Fright Night came out during the peak of the Reagan era, a moment of prosperity where pop culture was obsessed with stories of horny teen boys whose only problems in life were whether or not they’d get laid. This was also the height of the AIDS crisis in America, a devastating plague that killed millions of LGBTQ+ people who were largely ignored by the government and societally shunned.

AIDS is never mentioned in the original Fright Night, and neither is Reagan, but those dual shadows loom heavily over the movie. Charley’s suburban life is safe, homey, and rooted in nostalgia, albeit one with some thoroughly modern holes poked into it. His pop culture obsession is a creaky late-night horror movie marathon that’s clearly shot on the cheapest backlot possible and hosted by Peter Vincent, a has-been actor wearing a vampire hunter costume that would have looked out-of-date during Bela Lugosi’s time. A revival of '50s kitsch and baby-boomer nostalgia was at its peak during the late '70s, but still held sway in the time of Greed is Good.

Jerry, as played by Chris “Prince Humperdinck” Sarandon, is the contemporary equivalent of the suave undead aristocrat, only here he’s living the suburban ideal and wearing fancy scarves that probably cost a fortune. He has evolved with the times, unlike Vincent, whose sad clinging to the past has rendered him and Charley a joke.

Vampirism’s metaphorical exploration of sexually transmitted diseases is nothing new. One of the long-standing and most-likely untrue rumors around Bram Stoker’s life was that he died of tertiary syphilis, which served as a key inspiration for Dracula. In the ‘80s, Tony Scott offered a rather literal interpretation of vampirism as a degenerative disease passed on through sexual liberation with The Hunger. Fright Night isn’t quite so on-the-nose, but the subtext is there, nonetheless. Jerry is a more traditionally seductive force here than he is in the remake, which is most evident in the nightclub scene where he wins over Charley’s girlfriend Amy. It’s up for debate whether or not she is hypnotized by him and therefore not fully in control of her choices, but the moment certainly plays like a romantic scenario where their chemistry is on full display. The message to the audience is clear: This is hot.

That carries over to Jerry biting Amy, complete with her in a flowing dress that she loosens herself and the implication that she’s the reincarnation of his long-lost love (the most common trope for making your vampire villain more sympathetic, as evidenced by way too many Dracula adaptations). The biting is hot, but the results are much more monstrous. These vampires are grotesque, with large gaping mouths jam-packed full of teeth and sinister stares straight out of a Dario Argento film. This is not a creature you would ever be tempted by and the message is clear: the most dangerous and ravenous of diseases can take the most deceptively appealing forms.

At the heart of the 1985 Fright Night is another theme common in vampire stories that feels crucial to its time: the notion of vampirism as a metaphor for queerness. Jerry lives with his human servant Billy Cole, a man who clearly adores him and often willingly takes submissive positions to his master, including one notable moment where he gets on his knees to dress a wound on Jerry's hand. His speech to "Evil" Ed, Charley's best friend, which convinces him to become a vampire is also cloaked in gay subtext, with Ed put into a submissive position once more before being infected (Charley’s own infatuation with Peter Vincent carries similar coding). Coupled with the AIDS subtext of the story, Fright Night ends up feeling highly moralizing for a fun comedy-horror, but that was also par for the course with stories like this during the ‘80s. How many movies of this genre are built on the lesson that you shouldn’t have sex because you’ll get killed by a man with a hook as a result?

Not all of Jerry’s victims willingly acquiesce to his seduction (like many a pop culture killer, he targets sex workers, who are at risk of high rates of violence and little care from the authorities), but Amy and Ed do. They are young, highly emotional, and dealing with their burgeoning sexualities, something that Jerry latches onto as a means of control. His sexual allure seems so freeing until they are infected by his vampirism. Charley’s refusal to be seduced by this queer invader and his adherence to the past through his Fright Night nostalgia is what saves him. He is kept alive through his yearning for “the good old days.” Welcome to the 1980s.

The vampires of 2011 were a strange reflection of a new decade and century. The Twilight Saga offered the ultimate romanticized version of immortality, so beautiful and young and literally glistening in the sunlight rather than exploding, a world of essentially no conflicts and endless bed-breaking sex. The main focus of vampirism was sex appeal and good old-fashioned angst, harkening back to the peak of Anne Rice’s reign over the genre, albeit with a greater focus on the desires and interests of teenage girls. The full pop culture backlash to sparkle-vision wouldn’t come for another couple of years, which led to a return to vampires as more definitively monstrous creatures, such as the parasitic creatures in The Strain. The remake of Fright Night has its feet planted firmly in-between these two periods, telling a story that appeals to the contemporary desires of the genre while noting some of the darker tropes that had been overlooked in the more popular tales of late.

With a script by Marti Noxon of Buffy fame, this Fright Night makes some key changes: Charley and his mother now live in the suburbs of Las Vegas, a city where it’s not uncommon for people who work night shifts on the strip to completely block up their windows from the harsh gaze of sunlight. Peter Vincent is now a skeezy Criss Angel-esque magician. Charley is a former nerd who dumped Ed in favor of hanging out with Amy and her friends. This Charley, played by the late great Anton Yelchin, isn’t the horror obsessive or paranoid voyeur of his neighbor that he is in the original film. Instead, it is Ed who figures out he’s a vampire, something that Charlie initially dismisses because he has no interest in being the nerd he once was. Only after Ed has been turned into a vampire does Charley take action.

As Jerry, Colin Farrell is, to put it bluntly, hot as f**k. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that he’s exceedingly handsome in real life, but he’s especially alluring as the new guy in town who embodies every fantasy you’ve ever had about the sexy new neighbor in tight jeans who can flirt up a storm. In 2011, as the Twilight boom was at its peak, Farrell’s sexy vampire schtick was a familiar part of the culture. Hot bloodsuckers never go out of style, but they were particularly inescapable during this period, typically as part of the Twi-trend or in direct opposition to it. Fright Night tried to toe the line between both sides, appealing to that audience while also ensuring those naysayers that their story had “real vampires” who didn’t sparkle. In hindsight, the entire Twilight backlash, while frequently justified, contained some nasty elements of misogyny that directly attacked and mocked the primarily young female fans. To Fright Night’s credit, it never does that, although its update of the original movie’s themes does feel like a strong and necessary contrast to the overwhelming and problematic romantic tropes of Stephenie Meyer’s work. This isn’t a story of love: this is one of rape.

As sexy as Jerry is, he’s also undoubtedly a repellent monster and master manipulator. He uses the privilege of being a good looking white dude in the suburbs to cloak his obvious nastiness and taunt his victims. He does not dispose of his victims. Rather, he imprisons them in the labyrinthine series of secret rooms he has built under his house. When Charley tries to free one, she bursts into flames in the sunlight, hinting that Jerry is essentially turning these women into vampires as part of a sadistic experiment, something that somehow seems even crueler than merely killing them. Rather than toy with Charley and his mother, Jerry just sets their house on fire then chases them through the desert so that he can kill them. When Charley and Amy escape into a nightclub, he immediately goes after Amy. This moment is the work of a full-throated predator, utterly devoid of seduction. Where the original movie keeps the seduction soft, sexy, and clearly appealing to the viewer, the remake is violent, cruel, and clearly distressing for Amy. She does not want this. She fights it. She is hurt by it. She knows that, no matter how enticing the exterior, all that Jerry has to offer is a prolonged form of violation and agony that will destroy her.

There’s something about this moment that remains potent in its ability to shock the viewer. Perhaps we’ve gotten too used to the whole seductive vampire biting thing being coded as a consensual act of mutual attraction, or maybe we just see Imogen Poots in a nightclub with Colin Farrell and can’t help but wonder why she wouldn’t say yes. It’s easier and less tangled for storytellers to make vampirism something sexy rather than dangerous, especially when tackling its obvious sexual overtones. The issue of consent has always been at the heart of vampire fiction, but few major retellings take on the notion of how such an act inherently robs people of their ability to acquiesce. It’s one of the reasons I’m personally so annoyed by how many Dracula adaptations turn Mina into a love interest for the Count rather than taking on how genuinely traumatized she is by her experience with him. Fright Night is a rare and heartily welcome exception to the rule in that it understands the violation of the vampire’s forced contact and does not frame it as something a woman secretly wanted or should have known better about. There are no morals here, other than perhaps that we should always be okay with killing vampires. Fair enough!

Both Fright Night movies are heartily entertaining and worth your time, but they function best as a double bill that offers a perfect insight into how the vampire tale can be both a timeless and of-the-moment means to take on the contemporary issues that concern us and the fears that haunt us eternally. Both versions of the story are valid and neither one negates the other’s ideas, but sometimes you need to look at the past to understand the present and vice versa.

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