Fright Night the Film and the Comic (From Above Left) Columbia Pictures came up with a crackerjack of a movie poster for Tom Holland’s 1985 masterpiece, Fright Night. This author recalls being mesmerized by the poster when it was put up at the local Cineplex and demanding a family member to immediately take me to a showing! The ad for the NOW COMICS adaptation and ongoing series had much the same effect on me when it debuted a couple of years later! (Fright Night the film TM & Copyright Columbia Pictures; Fright Night the comic book TM & Copyright Respective Copyright Holders)
I’ll admit it: I was one of those fans in 1985 America that the character of horror movie host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) was bemoaning to All-American teenager Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) about; the fan that demanded – and got – umpteen movies featuring “demented mad-men running around in ski-masks hacking up young virgins.” True, I had nursed a passionate love affair with the old Universal monsters such as Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf-Man when I was younger, but at the ripe old age of twelve-and-a-half I fancied myself light years beyond all of that. What I wanted in the era of “more is better” was blood and gore and lots of scantily clad women, particularly all in the same film. And, oh boy, did the movie studios ever cater to my burgeoning and hormonally tinged horror requests. John Carpenter’s original Halloween had unwittingly begun a trend that, by the mid-80s, seemed to have no end. Within a handful of years a flood of movies ranging from the good (Joe Dante’s The Howling, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street) to the pretty awful (Chopping Mall, Troll 2, Silent Night Deadly Night) flooded the local drive-ins and mall movie theaters and like a raging addict whose drug of choice was bad dialogue and cheesy special effects, I inhaled them all, selfishly going on long benders of mindless late night television watching and covertly stealing my way into the dreaded “R” rated movies that played at the little two movie theater in my hometown of Rome, New York. Stumbling into seventh grade homeroom on Monday mornings, I was like a junior version of Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, but rather than a bottle of Jack Daniels my hard liquor was a dash of Steve Miner films and a splash of Tom Savini special effects. In short, there was no amount of rehabilitation that was going to get this glorious monkey off my back.
Until the day I saw a little film called Fright Night.
There was really no advance warning that this little vampire film-that-could by director Tom Holland was coming down the pike. Instead, like all miracles of life such as first loves, striking sunrises and unexpected shooting stars, Fright Night materialized from the great unknown and landed upon the land of horror films with all of the impact of an atom bomb. Seriously, the mark left by the movie was that seismic and that profound. It shook this Friday the 13th worshipping automaton from my sluggish and complacent sleep and it did so with the simplest of plot devices: A young high school boy believes that a vampire – Jerry Dandrige – has moved next door to him and in order to stop the evil creature of the night from ‘sucking his way through the entire town’ he enlists the aid of a cowardly and burned out television horror movie host to stop him. A deceptively simple plot that owed at least a passing nod to Cornell Woolrich’s Rear Window, Holland’s own love note to the horror genre helped reintroduce me to the brilliance of vampires and ghostly things that go bump in the night.
So, how did Tom Holland hit upon the idea for Fright Night? Many years after I first saw the film I had the opportunity and good pleasure to speak with the maestro himself about the origins of the movie that, like Jerry Dandrige himself, has been hard to keep down.
“Fright Night was my love letter to the old horror films of my youth,” Holland noted to me as I put him through the wringer with my fan-boy questions on his seminal movie. “It’s what I would have liked to have happened to me when I was a kid. It would have been wonderful!”
Having come to the world of directing via acting (“It was a way to get in” to his preferred choice of writing and directing), Tom wrote a script for a movie called Cloak and Dagger which, he admits, was better than the actual film itself. Based off of Woolrich’s 1942 short story The Window – which, in turn, would later go on to become the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window – this screenplay provided him with the meat of what eventually would become Fright Night.
“While I was working on Cloak and Dagger trying to come up with a story I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if a kid looked out his window and he’s a horror fan and he saw a vampire next door chomping down on somebody?’ So I had that idea rattling around in my head. I thought it was a great idea, but I didn’t have a story yet.”
Stuck on where to go with the story, Holland got inspiration one day while visiting with the head of the story department at Columbia Pictures, John Byers; while speaking with Byers a bolt of inspiration – divine in nature as it would turn out – occurred to him. “I grew up with the horror movie hosts and the ‘Friday Night Frights.’ I was one of those guys. But that gave me the idea for Peter Vincent. Once I had Peter Vincent I couldn’t wait to go home and write it.”
One part Peter Cushing and one part Vincent Price (Peter Vincent’s name is an homage to the two horror greats) with a sprinkle of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz thrown in for good measure, the character of Peter Vincent was born as the yin to the stoic, if not heroic, character of boy next door to the vampire, Charlie Brewster. And as embodied by the legendary film icon Roddy McDowall and young actor William Ragsdale, the teaming of these two “fearless vampire killers” was screen magic that enthralled not just a freckle faced twelve year old version of ye author, but also the entire world.
What made Fright Night resound not just for audiences in 1985 but to people all over in all walks of life regardless of specific year? The film’s director summed it up succinctly to me during our interview and his explanations acts as perhaps the best epitaph for a film that is still going strong over thirty years later: “It was not a cynical movie unlike so many horror films you see today.”
Attempting to capture lightning in a bottle, a young comic book company upstart, NOW Comics, licensed the rights in 1988 of the first film from Columbia and the (Tom Holland-less) sequel from New Century/Vista and set about not only adapting the two films to comics, but also introducing new stories in the Fright Night universe. This was manna from heaven to this kid, for it should now be duly noted that not only was I a horror movie junkie but also a confirmed comic book geek. ‘What sort of exotic cocktail could be made,’ I wondered aloud to my fellow Fright Night fan and best friend in the seventh grade Matt Steiner after learning the news of the impending comic, ‘combining my all-time favorite movie with the four colored world of comic books?’ A delightfully oddball and true in spirit to the first film concoction as I was soon to discover.
Lasting a mere twenty two issues, the Fright Night comic book inhabited a land where, after the events of the first two films, Peter Vincent and Charlie Brewster continued to find themselves thrown together in order to fight the minions of the supernatural. Sound sort of odd and clunky and inconceivable as a springboard for an ongoing series after the one on-one off nature of Tom Holland’s masterpiece? Well, it experienced its fair share of growing pains as a handful of writers and artists fought to find just the right tone of reverence and the perfect balance of horror and humor so ingrained in the DNA of the first film.
After he had adapted the first film within the first two issues of the series, writer Joe Gentile bowed out and was replaced by James Van Hise who wrote in his five issue run what would be the template for the remainder of the series: a trifecta of terror, humor and whimsy which was a shout out to the original film along with being a tip of the hat to the beloved 1970s television show, Kolchak the Night Stalker as well as a prophetic precursor to Chris Carter’s The X-Files.
“I saw the first Fright Night in the theater when it was originally released and I liked it a lot,” Van Hise reminisced to me during a phone interview. “I was already working on NOW’s Ghostbusters comic, they liked what I was doing with that and they needed a writer for the Fright Night series.”
During his run, Van Hise had Peter Vincent and Charlie Brewster tangle with brain bats from outer space (“The Dead Remember”), a killer octopus (“Eight Arms To Hold You”), a human spider hybrid (“The Spider Boy”) and, in his two part swan song about a vampire organization hell-bent on obtaining revenge for the death of Jerry Dandrige (“The Legion of Endless Night”). This last arc, particularly, had quite an effect on me when I read it at the age of fifteen as it seemed more of a direct continuation of the first film than the actual sequel.
Anatomy of a Fright Night Comic Book
Looking back on his short but memorable tenure playing in Tom Holland’s sandbox, James Van Hise is philosophical. “I can’t remember if they wanted to take the book in a different direction or if there was just a particular writer they wanted to use for future issues…I was still writing Ghostbusters, so it wasn’t like I was being demoted…(Moving forward) I probably would have just tried to do more stand-alone stories like the ones I’d been doing rather than revisiting old ideas.”
The series did continue after Van Hise’s departure and, with writers such as Tony Caputo (who also ran NOW Comics), Diane Piron and Katherine Llewellyn and artists Neil Vokes and Kevin West, fans of Fright Night were treated to the long-awaited returns of “Evil” Ed Thompson (essayed to perfection in the first film by Stephen Geoffreys) and Jerry Dandrige (ditto Chris Sarandon). I continued to devour the issues just as quickly as NOW could churn them out, rooting for the series when it seemed at times on shaky ground creatively and cheering it on when it tonally seemed to recapture the magic of the original film. And, ever the optimist, I looked forward to future stories involving this evolving universe.
But ‘twas not to be.
With issue twenty two, Fright Night the comic book was felled not by stakes and hammers nor silver bullets, but poor sales. The end came not with trumpets and streamers, but with nary a whisper that this was the end of NOW’s efforts to produce original stories for the series. Being far removed at the time from the internet (that Al Gore invention was still a few years in the future) and most of the trade periodicals of the day that might have given some notice to the end of the book, I became the veritable waiting sweetheart on the home front for a soldier that would not be returning. Pretty heavy handed stuff, I know, but it really felt like a loss of something important to this longtime Fright Night supporter. You see, for me it was personal thanks in no small part to (by then) editor Katherine Llewellyn who saw fit to select a handwritten letter I had sent to the book just the month before for publication in this final issue. I look at that letter today, twenty six years after it first saw print, and I marvel at the fan I was then and the fan that I am still today. Reading it is like taking a dip in a parallel universe where I’m perpetually a teenager and still have all of my hair. In short, it’s fun but painful.
I wrote in that letter, in part, “Although it is great to see Evil Ed and Dandrige back in the picture, let me urge you strongly not to keep them on as characters forever, especially Dandrige. I am not asking you to kill them off immediately, I’m just asking that you not wear them thin…” But the time for this iteration of Tom Holland’s characters had indeed come to a close much sooner than I could have ever foreseen. Horror movies, always very cyclic, were waning in mass popularity by 1990 and it would be a number of years before a new resurgence of our favorite ghosts and ghoulies would come around again.
Perhaps it’s best to give the final words in this article to the man who created a world that was fun and scary enough that many of us wanted to return to it over and over again; if not in the movies then in their orphan stepchild, the comic book. When asked about the NOW version of his movie and what its exact legacy might be, Tom Holland – without missing a beat – summed it all up for this fan who still nurses a broken heart for a comic book, and a film series, that we may never see the likes of again: “I thought those stories were pretty good. And they were fun!”