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Thursday, October 26, 2006
Closet Monsters: Fright Night
One of the interesting things about horror movies is how very gay they frequently are. At first it may seem surprising, but it really makes a kind of sense. At their heart, most horror films are about ordinary people trying to survive the warped reality they've been introduced into by something that, in some way, violates the natural order and the way the world is supposed to be. This is not significantly different from the bulk of anti-gay rhetoric you hear from political and religious leaders. There's a certain kinship, in that sense, to gay people and the monstrous denizens of horror films, and not just in the sense that they're both preying on nice, normal heterosexual teenagers. In the bulk of horror films, these connections are unintentional or so deeply subtextual and coded as to be easily missed. But every once in a while a film comes along that plays with the themes and connections in interesting ways.
Charlie Brewster is a typical American teenager. He's a mediocre student, he likes cheesy horror films, he's got a girlfriend reluctant to go all the way with him, and he's got a vaguely queer sidekick he can push around. He's also got a mysterious new neighbor who only seems to come out at night. That neighbor, Jerry Dandridge has attracted some conversation amongst the neighborhood women. He's handsome, an agent of suburban gentrification (he fixes old houses for a living), dresses in an affected style with long coats and scarves, and has a "live-in carpenter." Charlie's mother, for one, is quite curious about the nice gay couple who have moved into the neighborhood. Charlie's a little more suspicious. He's heard strange sounds, and seen women go in who later turn up dead. Oh, and there's the fact that Jerry has fangs. In short, Charlie's convinced that the nice homosexual next door is, in fact, a vampire. And he can't get anyone to believe him.
Charlie's efforts to expose Jerry lead him into increased conflict with Jerry. As Dandrige plays a sadistic game of cat and mouse with Charlie, Charlie only succeeds in alienating his friends. In desperation, Charlie turns to horror movie host Peter Vincent. Vincent is more concerned with the fact that he's just been fired because vampire movies are old fashioned, kids today want "demented madman running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins," to take Charlie seriously. And when he realizes Charlie is serious he hightails it out of there, only to be roped into helping Charlie's girl-friend Amy and side-kick "Evil" Ed prove that Dandridge is only human. The experiment back-fires, however, as Vincent instead realizes that Dandridge is truly undead, and he flees the scene, leaving Charlie and his still skeptical friends to their fate.
The monster literally emerges from the closet of a teenage boy. No, no subtext here.
The film largely rushes towards it's climax at this point. Jerry seduces Ed and sends Ed to kill Peter Vincent, while Jerry comes for Amy, who just happens to be the spitting image of his long-dead love. Charlie and Peter are compelled to act together to rescue Amy and stop Dandridge. And at the end, heteronormativity is successfully restored, as Charlie and Amy get back together, all the challenges to the "normal" world are dispatched and Peter Vincent gets his job back and decides to stop showing vampire films. But there are still a few interesting twists to get there. The seduction into vampiredom of Evil Ed is just that. Ed is differentiated from the rest of the cast by his dark and sarcastic demeanor, his interest in horror and the occult, and his proto-punk/goth attire. He's marked out as an outsider amongst his peers. Jerry's speech, however, hints at even more of a reason why Ed is an outsider. "I know what it's like being different. Only they won't pick on you anymore. Or beat you up. I'll see to that." It's that suggestion of bullying violence that finally triggers the gaydar on Ed. Ed's a weird kid. A more conventional narrative would have him largely ignored in school. And Jerry doesn't attack Ed to transform him, rather Ed comes to him and, in fact, hugs him. It's very much like a "coming out" scene.
The post-transformation scenes with Ed and Peter Vincent are remarkable as well, and only accentuate these queer tones. For one, Peter Vincent is played as a slightly fey but dignified aging queen by Roddy McDowall. You don't cast McDowall if you want any implications of heterosexuality in a character. It's simply not the "type" that he plays. And the vampire Ed adopts an even more outrageous and campy persona than he ever had before. If human Ed was a closeted teen, vampire Ed is a flamboyantly out queer. At one point he even adopts a strange, rag-doll drag to trick Vincent.
The heavy gay implications in Peter Vincent are hard to ignore as well. McDowall plays the character as a kind of cross between Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. He's got the faded dignity of Cushing, but the fey archness of Price as well. You have, in effect, a man known for playing gay-coded characters aping the mannerisms of two other actors who play gay-coded characters. It's a fascinating ororobous of affected mannerisms and mincing caricatures.
The relationship between Jerry Dandridge and his assistant/servant/lover Billy Cole is noteworthy as well. There are other hints of Dandridge's homosexuality, particularly a telling exchange with Charlie in which Jerry says he doesn't have a choice about his nature, but this relationship is the most prominent. The film does explicitly posit their posing as a gay couple as a cover for vampirism, but there are these incidental moments of tenderness and affectation between the two that implies more to their relationship than the standard Master/Renfield relationship in vampire narratives. It's why the introduction late to the film of Dandrige's obsession with Amy feels like a false note. She happens to look like an ex-lover, so he takes her from Charlie and transforms her into a vampire. It feels off, despite Dandridge's previously established habit of feeding off prostitutes (a brief implication is made via off-screen newscasts that Dandridge feeds on men as well, but we only see him feed off women). It's a peculiar statement of heterosexuality in a film steeped in gay characters and imagery, almost seeming like an attempt to deny the queer implications of the narrative. And, given the realities of film-making then and now, not an implausible explanation for it.
Which is why the casting of Amanda Bearse in the role of Amy is so brilliant. Seen now, years after she has come out, it only furthers the gay text of the film. But even ignoring that, Bearse's Amy is a very tomboyish character. She keeps her hair short and wears bulky, mannish clothing for most of the film. Her vampiric transformation, in contrast to Ed's enhanced sense of camp, transforms her into a slinky, long-haired seductress, the stereotypical "sexy female vamp" of so many films. It's a ludicrously oversexed and overdone vision of heterosexuality, in contrast to the relatively normative homosexual relationship of Jerry and Billy.
However, since this is a commercial film, and since this is a horror film, the monstrous queers must be dispatched. Peter Vincent successfully defeats Ed, in a scene ending with a protracted transformation sequence in which Vincent is overcome with sympathy for the boy he has just killed, and together Peter and Charlie dispatch first Billy and then Jerry, who never, it seemed, had the good sense to simply brick up the two dozen windows in his basement, rather than simply paint them black or put heavy curtains in front of them. No, it simply wouldn't be a vampire film at all if one of the more stupid and contrived plot devices of the genre wasn't present. But, not only are the queers killed and heteronormativity restored, but Charlie finally gets to go all the way with his handsomely boyish girlfriend. So heteronormativity is really restored. Though, tellingly, a hint does exist of at least one gay survivor, still in the shadows.
Of course she rides a scooter...
Fright Night is an interesting film for me, not just because of this playing with gay themes that it does so thoroughly. It also represents a kind of response to what were prevalent themes in horror at the time. Supernatural horror, especially of the "classic monsters" kind was, as it largely is now, out of fashion. Vincent's line about "demented madmen in ski masks" was as true then about the audience's taste in horror as it is today. The rise of the "gore and torture" films in recent years was mirrored in the early eighties by the masked slasher films. Fright Night was an attempt to return the supernatural elements to the horror genre, in an entertaining way, updated for contemporary sensibilities. As opposed to the peculiarly anti-sex and anti-pleasure themes of the slasher movie, writer/director Tom Holland makes a case for the sensual pleasure of the supernatural, as well as emphasizing the sense of fun and humor that those films had, as opposed to the grim seriousness of the gore genres.
"Welcome to Fright Night. For real."
In contrast to your typical tired and schlocky vampire, Chris Sarandon as Dandridge manages to make him appealing and sinister. He plays up the camp and queer undertones without ever allowing them to degenerate into a fag joke or an explicit condemnation of Dandridge for homosexuality. While largely dismissed at the time of it's release, the playing that Holland and his cast do with the conflict between "classic" monster themes and modern sensibilities and the coded gay subtext of the horror genre are still remarkable, and have not really been duplicated, or rarely even attempted to this day.