Tom Holland’s cult favorite ’80s vampire flick came out 35 years ago this month
Original post by Jared Cowan – August 10, 2020
When writer-director Tom Holland began shooting his feature directorial debut Fright Night in 1984, vampire films were dead. In the age of the prolific, real-life serial killers of the 1970s, “slashers” made big bucks for studios and independent producers, and the mystique of the vampire waned.
Dracula, as played by the debonair Frank Langella in John Badham’s 1979 adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, performed modestly at the box office. The comedy Love at First Bite (1979), which saw George Hamilton’s clichéd Count Dracula travel to New York City after being evicted from his Transylvanian castle, was the final nail in the coffin for a monster whose trail of blood dates back to the earliest days of cinema.
“My feeling has always been when a genre goes to farce…it means the exhaustion of the genre, and that’s what Love at First Bite said,” says Holland. “Everything as it is right now [in horror] was totally the opposite back in 1983 or 1984. There was no particular market for horror, and anything to do with vampires was the kiss of death.”
Fright Night focuses on 17-year-old Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) and Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), the suave, good-looking vampire who moves into the creepy old house next door. When Charley witnesses from his bedroom window—a la Rear Window —his new neighbor about to sink his fangs into the neck of a young woman, Charley finds himself struggling to convince his friends that a vampire lives next door. With no other place to go, Charley turns to “vampire killer” Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), an aging, washed-up horror movie star, hosting a local monster movie program called “Fright Night.”
Released on August 2, 1985, Fright Night has become a cult favorite over the last 35 years and is, arguably, responsible for resurrecting the popularity of vampire films that continues to this day. But while vampires remained elusive on screen, sci-fi and horror narratives were being injected into teen movie fare. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982), Poltergeist (1982), Christine (1983), and Gremlins (1984) all take place in suburban neighborhoods or small towns. Directors, who grew up in suburbia watching monster movies and reading comic books during the 1950s, were now in a position to make movies in which they saw themselves as teens or adolescents.
“I don’t remember feeling like I was one of a group with putting Fright Night into the suburbs,” says Holland, who was a much in-demand writer after penning Psycho II (1983). “If I was going to have the kid see into the house next door, and see through the window and what was going on, I had to be in suburbia, didn’t I?”
As the country transitioned from the tumultuous 1970s into the Regan era of multiplex cinemas, urban vampires, as seen in Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) and Blacula (1972), also faded from view.
“Today it would be very easy to set the whole Fright Night package in an urban, downtown apartment world,” says Fright Night production designer John DeCuir. “I believe we felt that in the ‘80s the stereotype for easily spooked and vulnerable teens was suburbia, not a gritty urban environment.”
Originally hired as a production assistant on Fright Night, Steven Housewright became the film’s uncredited location manager after a colleague left the production. “They [the studios] definitely weren’t marketing films for urban kids,” he says. “You’ve got to figure most of the kids that are going to go out and see those movies to begin with are all kids living out in the suburbs.” Housewright worked in locations for about two decades before returning to his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, ten years ago to start a non-profit music education program for kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Holland grew up in a number of places, but he thinks mostly of Highland, New York, a small bedroom community across the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie, the birthplace of cult film director Edward D. Wood Jr. and today a declining stronghold of IBM. “It’s a one-street town. There certainly wasn’t anybody that was interested in show business or film like I was. I was a one-off. I was the mad movie fan wandering around with nobody to talk to,” says Holland. “I was Charley Brewster. I would have loved to have had the experience that Charley did as long as I was guaranteed that I didn’t get bitten and lose.”
Fright Night began filming in Los Angeles at the end of 1984 and continued into the early part of 1985, but Holland never wanted the setting to appear as L.A. “It wouldn’t have felt right,” says Holland. “Too sophisticated. You needed someplace in the heartland.”
“I never got the impression that Tom felt, nor did I, that we needed to visually sell that we were in a particular city or state,” says DeCuir. “I think the character of the narrative environments trumped any particular geography,” he says.
The town in which Fright Night takes place appears as an Anywhere, USA, which was a common aesthetic of suburban-based movies of the 1980s in an effort to appeal to a wide audience.
Holland imagined the town from Fright Night—called Rancho Corvallis in the script, but that name is never mentioned in the film—might be somewhere outside of Los Angeles. But the film’s locale is set in stone by a momentary insert shot; it’s just not the setting Holland had written. When Peter Vincent receives an eviction notice at his apartment, the address is written as the fictional town of Corvalis, Iowa. “My God, man! I forgot that,” says Holland, stunned. “I must have approved it, but when I wrote it in the script it was Rancho Corvallis.”
Though seemingly unintentional, setting the film in Iowa presents a unique spin on the character of Peter Vincent. Like all of the film’s sets, Peter’s apartment was built at the historic Culver Studios—then Laird International Studios—in Culver City. The apartment was modeled off of classic Hollywood courtyard apartments, says DeCuir. Therefore, if the characters of Fright Night live in the Midwest, Peter could bask in his Hollywood days by seeking out the only apartment in this small, Iowa town that would provide that sense of nostalgia.
While house interiors were built on stage, an estimated budget of $9 million meant that it was imperative to scout for existing house exteriors, and the search for Jerry and Charley’s respective houses proved lengthy.
“I didn’t go through holy hell finding [them], but he [DeCuir] did,” says Holland.
“Our primary focus was trying to find Jerry’s house and have that Victorian, vamp-ish, Gothic look, next door to Charley’s suburban house,” says DeCuir. “We scouted all over L.A. to see if we could find that combination of looks side-by-side. In fact, we scouted both houses in two separate places and tried to figure out, how do we bring those worlds together given multiple scenes that demanded intercuts between the two houses?”
The classic Victorian has, for decades, lent itself to the haunted house aesthetic in our collective cinematic consciousness. “At the turn of the century a Victorian mansion might be built with plenty of acreage surrounding it,” says DeCuir. “Then, over the course of fifty to one hundred years, plots would be subdivided and more contemporary housing would be nudged right up to the old mansion, and so the Victorian house became the weird, old, spooky house in the neighborhood.”
Housewright recalls scouting Carroll Avenue, just on the edge of downtown L.A. The famed street of classic 19th century Victorians had just been filmed for the archetypal haunted house in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. “It was so recognizable to a lot of people. I think that was one of the things that excluded that,” says Housewright. He also remembers that Heritage Square Museum, the preserved collection of Victorian structures just off the 110 freeway, was scouted. The idea was abandoned due to freeway noise.
When DeCuir suggested looking at the residential street on the Disney backlot in Burbank, serendipity struck. The filmmakers found two houses—one a Victorian—positioned side-by-side. The street had recently been used for another macabre picture, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).
The houses were originally constructed in 1960 for The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), in which the film’s villainous businessman, Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn), lives in what would later become Jerry Dandridge’s house. Throughout intervening years the houses would be seen in Disney films including The Shaggy D.A. (1976), Pete’s Dragon (1977), and That Darn Cat! (1965), in which Roddy McDowall appears on the street he would revisit on Fright Night.
Post Fright Night, Jerry’s house was seen in the ghostly “Magical World of Disney” movies, Mr. Boogedy (1986) and Bride of Boogedy (1987). By the early ‘90s, the Disney backlot, once located on the east end of the studio, was razed to make way for more soundstages and a parking lot.
Fright Night is largely a set-bound film with a good deal of action having been shot at Laird Studios and the Disney lot. There are only seven practical locations featured in Fright Night and they are not as widely dissected as other popular films of the 1980s. Some locations appear on screen for a just few minutes, at most; some are shot with a shallow depth of field making the background indiscernible; a couple of them appear at night making it difficult to find identifying markers. Thirty-five years later, comparing the film to Google maps is like looking at a vampire’s nonexistent reflection in a mirror, and the search for enduring locations is as challenging as trying to convince your friends that a vampire lives next door. Nonetheless, the quest for the small handful of locations in Fright Night—some found only by using 1980s phone books and archival newspapers—provides a deeper appreciation for what DeCuir calls the “narrative environment.”
As is often the case, there are Fright Night locations that were chosen purely out of convenience. The house of Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), Charley’s eccentric, misunderstood friend and horror movie aficionado, was a block away from Laird Studios.
A grade school seen on screen for only 30 seconds was a needle in a haystack search until Holland recalled it being somewhere in the Culver City/Santa Monica area. The only unique identifying feature was a covered walkway leading toward a major street. Searches of the Santa Monica and Culver City school districts were unsuccessful. Finally, a Google search of LAUSD schools with 310 area codes provided a match in Palms Middle School. A covered arcade runs from the middle of the campus to Palms Blvd. that provided an appealing depth perspective for filmmakers. “You’re choosing locations for production value,” says Holland. “You want to be able to look down the corridor and see the depth of the outside school.”
As locations radiated away from the studio, they became more intricate and, in some cases, historic.
The first day of filming on Fright Night took place inside Heaven, a novelty shop in the old Century City mall that featured a retro ‘50s diner in the rear of the store. Opening in Century City in 1984, it was brand new when the filmmakers used it for Fright Night. The company soon thereafter began franchising, and other locations opened around California.
“It had the brightness and it was a change of pace and mood,” says Holland of the location.
The 1980s saw a spike in ‘50s nostalgia. Everything from oldies radio stations, novelty candies, and a return to the ‘50s diner aesthetic were “in,” and the Baby Boomers who grew up on the stuff were now in a position to expose their kids to their memories, and spend money on it.
“Everybody’s taste was kind of in that direction. If it was a teen place, what was cool back then was Mel’s [Drive-In], that sort of Googie architecture,” says Housewright. “If you go back and look at ‘80s movies, you’ll see that same type of location.”
When speaking with Holland today, it seems as though there was no grand scheme behind the film’s locations, and it’s suburban setting was a means to create the film’s inciting incident: spying out a bedroom window and seeing a vampire in the house next door. But over time it’s clear Fright Night fans have identified with the film’s observations of the suburbs.