"Fright Night" is really "Fright Lite," a film promising more than it delivers, and even that delivery is so late in the game that you may want to arrive fashionably late and skip what passes for plot development and concentrate on Richard Edlund's special effects.
Tom Holland, the scriptwriter, doesn't really give Tom Holland, the first-time director, much to work with. The plot is all obvious road signs, no intriguing side roads, and in 1985 a vampire film needs all the intrigue it can muster.
William Ragsdale plays Charley Brewster, the near-nerdy teen-ager (what ever happened to heroes old enough to drink?) who suspects a vampire has moved in next door. Unfortunately, Charley's the only one to see the coffin being delivered to the basement in the middle of the night, the only one to have seen the hooker arrive at the house the day before her decapitated body is found, the only one to see what shiny, pointed teeth his new neighbor grows after dark.
But nobody wants to hear it. Not Charley's dizzy mom (Dorothy Fielding), not his moronic high school buddy (Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed), not the police and not his virginal girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse). And neighbor Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) isn't too happy that Charley is bringing attention to him, so he decides to play some mind games with his next meal.
Somewhere along the line, Jerry and Amy meet and it's love at first bite: she reminds him of someone long ago (fangs for the memories?) and she says "God, he's neat!" Later he seduces her at a disco and wrecks Charley's Mustang. The guy's a monster.
Luckily, Charley happens to be a vampire film cultist. His favorite television program (apparently the only one he watches) is aged horror hokum star Peter Vincent's "Fright Night Theatre," so naturally he tries to enlist Vincent's aid. Vincent, it turns out, is a milquetoast who doesn't want to get burned by reality, though, as so often happens, he stumbles into heroic and redemptive action. Any resemblance between the pallid Roddy McDowall and one's memories of Vincent Price is probably on the cutting room floor.
While there are some cute twists on genre convention (Geoffreys as a bucktoothed vampire, Sarandon sidekick Jonathan Stark coming on like a Jaycee and Sarandon's use of an expensive stereo system and sensual music as seductive tools), there are not enough turns to grab one's interest. And since the special effects (and apparently, most of the film's budget) were all plowed into "Fright's Night's" last 25 minutes, the preceding hour drags like two.
Holland has cast "Fright Night's" ambiance somewhere between '50s sexual repression and '80s hedonism. Which may explain why Jerry's transformations are only slightly more intense than Amy's: she goes from Sandra Dee with Charley to Sheena Easton at the disco and, after Jerry makes a withdrawal from her blood bank, someone who looks very much like Kathleen Turner would if she didn't brush her teeth until 1995.
Sarandon, who got his start at Catholic University, sinks his teeth into this role, at first playing the debonair Jerry as a smug bon vivant (one suspects that the age of his victims is as important as the age of a good bottle of wine to a connoisseur), and only later as a nasty, single-minded piece of business. Looking for a victim, he cruises the disco scene in a leather coat and GQ demeanor. Unfortunately, when his transformation overloads him with fangs, his speech tends to garbling and hissing, which diminishes the fear factor considerably.
Holland obviously intended "Fright Night" as a redemptive film for a genre for which he has genuine affection. In one sly aside, he has McDowall complaining after his show has been canceled for low ratings: "Nobody wants to see vampires anymore. All they want to see is some demented madman running around in a ski mask hacking up young virgins."
But when it comes to his own finale, Holland falls back on Edlund's grisly special effects and they are not substantially different from what he's complaining about. Good enough to provoke a few cheap thrills, but not really different. And the segues from effect to effect betray "Fright Night's" budget.