Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Queerty Rockin’ Roddy Double Feature Part I: Fright Night
Why does Roddy McDowall not get more love? The quiet, whisper-voiced actor appeared in a whopping 270 movies & TV shows before his death in 1998. He also became one of Hollywood’s most renowned film historians, amassing a collection of more than 1,000 films at a time before most movies were even available on videocassette.
Oh yeah, McDowall was gay and threw some of Tinseltown’s most notorious gay beach parties. So, there’s that.
In honor of the late, great, Mr. McDowall, we’ve devised this weekend’s Screen Gems dual feature. We begin with one of the actor’s most popular films–and one of his best performances. Director Tom Holland’s (no, not that Tom Holland) FrightNight became an unexpected hit back in 1985 thanks to its unique mix of horror, humor and Jungian undercurrents. It remains a classic of the era to this day.
The story follows Charley (William Ragsdale), one of those prototypical 80s, male geeks obsessed with horror movies, and Peter Vincent (McDowall), a horror host very much in the vein of Elvira or Svengoolie. A handsome bachelor named Jerry (Chris Sarandon) moves in next door and begins to romance Charley’s single mom. Charley begins to notice a few details that suggest Jerry is actually a vampire. Since nobody will believe that vampires actually exist, Charley reaches out to Peter Vincent for help in defeating his mother’s undead beau.
Of course, horror and hilarity ensue. Sarandon and Ragsdale may get higher billing, but the success of FrightNight rests on the shoulders of Roddy McDowall. The actor sinks his teeth (pardon the phrase) into his role, playing Vincent as a bitter old coot of middling talent who finally finds purpose in his life: to use all the bad horror movies he’s seen as ammunition against the undead. Other actors would have played the character as an action-movie badass or shrieking pansy. McDowall hits those notes and everything in between, and also adds an extraordinary quality of his own. There’s something touching about watching his Peter Vincent, an actor of limited success, find a mission in battling real monsters. Over the course of the film, he begins to actually like himself, possibly for the first time ever.
FrightNight also succeeds thanks to its toying with subtext and latent anxieties of the era. Divorce was rampant in the 1980s; plenty of kids, regardless of gender, had to deal with the stress of watching mom or dad date. That made for some severe feelings of intrusion into the safe space of the home. Whether Jerry was a vampire or not, we have a feeling Charley would have rejected him as an intruder.
The movie also leans into homoeroticism: Jerry seems to want to seduce Charley as much as his mom. Several other scenes of the vampire dealing with his henchman, Billy, suggest a gay relationship…one quite blatantly. Does that fall into the trap of the gay villain/80s homophobic exploitation? Maybe…though watching sissy Peter Vincent battle it out with Jerry adds another layer of complexity. In a sense, FrightNight is really about two coded gay characters dueling for Charley’s soul. We love that, and have to wonder what a sequel or remake that fully embraces the gay elements would look like.
FrightNight doesn’t aspire to be a horror classic on par with, say, Rosemary’s Baby. On the contrary, it revels in its shlockiness, but has the good sense to make the dreck about something deeper. We recommend it for the gayness, the nostalgia, and above all, for Roddy McDowall’s iconic performance. Go figure that a gay actor could make something so scary and funny at the same time.
Streams on Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.