Monday, October 12, 2009

Fright Night's Jerry Dandridge: A Sucker to be Reckoned With

As an afterthought/tie-in to their coverage of HBO's True Blood series, Entertainment Weekly published its list of the 20 Greatest Vampires of All Time in late July.

The list skewed towards the requisite flavors-of-the-month (True BloodTwilight's Edward Cullen, etc.), with a few detours into the inspired (Goth goddess Barbara Steele's vampiress Asa in Black Sunday!) and at least one WTF ranking (that'd be putting Bela Lugosi's immortal Count Dracula at number three--hel-LO??). But one of the most disheartening omissions was that of Jerry Dandridge, the principal bloodsucker in 1985's Fright Night.

On the face of it, I reckon I understand. Fright Night's almost 25 years old, and hasn't yet acquired the revisionist cache of Kathleen Bigelow's once-underrated-but-now-cultishly-adored Near Dark (whose Caleb and Mae did make the EW list). Too bad, because Chris Sarandon's portrayal of Dandridge is a stone-classic.

Fright Night details the misadventures of Charlie (William Ragsdale), a high-school kid who sees what he thinks is a murder next door. The crime's perpetrated by his new neighbor Jerry Dandridge, a drily witty, icily handsome bachelor who turns out to be (yep) a vampire. Charlie gets nowhere with the disbelieving local cops, so he's forced to take on this undead villain with the help of his squeaky-voiced pal Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) and a faded horror movie star (Roddy McDowall).

I'd accrued such fond memories of Fright Night that I put it on my Horror Movie All-Time Top 50 List during Horrorpalooza '07, despite not having seen it in several years (Heck, I was even in accord with those candy-asses at Rotten Tomatoes on that front). A recent re-viewing of it really opened my eyes.

It's a real relic of its era, in ways both fun (dig the puffy pastel wardrobes and clumsily-dancing white people in the club scene) and not-so-much (most of the clattery faux-nu-wave pop songs on the soundtrack just plain hurt, they're so lousy). And as entertaining as it is, Fright Night suffers from possessing a trove of great ideas--cowardly horror movie actor as reluctant hero, vampirism alternately representing escape and belonging to the film's resident misfit--that seldom see full fruition.

Good thing this little chiller sports one of the coolest vampires ever. With his serpentine good looks and droll delivery Jerry Dandridge is Cary Grant on a liquid diet, turning Charlie's mom (Dorothy Fielding) and his girlfriend Amy (future Married with Children co-star Amanda Bearse) into swooning puddles of goo with each offhanded bon mot. He also possesses enough cruel animal charisma to scare you spitless, even before he metamorphoses into a full-blown vampiric demon. I love the way Sarandon casually drags his long fingernail over the stair railing--taking ribbons of finish off of the wood--and how he turns something as benign as biting an apple into a wolfishly-amusing act of predation.

Most of the vampires delivered to us by current pop culture are mopey Heathcliffs, broody youngsters who put their wrists to their foreheads and bemoan the loneliness of being immortal and drop-dead gorgeous. Screw that. Jerry Dandridge represents that most welcome of bloodsuckers: A vampire who actually enjoys being a vampire. He's a guy unafraid of (un)living the good (un)life to the hilt, and we could all take a page from that book.  


No comments: