Fear Works

I was watching Fright Night the other night. The original. One of my favourite vampire films. I watched this late one night as a kid – as I did so many movies – and it terrified me. I think the entire concept of a vampire living right next door to you was what really got to me. The sense of this kid fearing each time it grew dark. Having to fill his room with garlic and crosses. I can’t stand garlic!

It was even worse when the vampire realises he knows. To know a vampire lives next door is one thing. To know he (or she) knows too is horrifying. That puts you right in the cross-hairs.

But as I watched this film, I wondered why I didn’t like the remake as much. It isn’t that bad of a movie, to be honest. But when I saw the remake, it didn’t grab me. Arguably higher quality actors. Better special effects – although I’m a fan of the old school physical effects myself, but I know most people seem to like CGI. So why didn’t it hit me? Okay, I’m older now, I know the story, but something didn’t quite work.

Then I got it. Roddy McDowall.

So first off, he’s a great actor. Second, I have seen him in lots of things and always love his performances. He could be so emotive yet quietly so. Hell, he acted the shit out of being an ape while wearing a mask. In Fright Night, he adds some real presence and depth to what could be a daft film – much like Alec Guiness did to Star Wars or Gregory Peck to the Omen.

But here’s what really works. His character is a coward. He shows it. Roddy acts the hell out of being scared. When someone is that scared in a film, it gets to you.

What I loved about his character – Peter Vincent (which is such a great horror name, I suspect it is a combination of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price) – is that he is all bluff and bluster, so when he realises the vampire is real, he gets out of there. He is petrified. He then hides at home, is attacked, barely trusts Brewster (the main character) when he comes asking for his help, then refuses as much as he can. This is someone who only helped when he got paid before, but no amount of money will make him take on a vampire now.

Yet, he gets talked into going. He shows bravery, which makes you like such a wretched character. He is still scared though. This isn’t someone who has that film moment, gets over the fear and never looks back. He slowly follows Brewster into the house of the vampire. He tries to act big, then realises he is out of his depth. He flees. The fucker actually runs out and leaves Brewster there!

He is attacked again. This time he kills. Now this whole scene is really well done. He defends himself and kills the young, rash vampire more by accident than design. But this vampire takes ages to die. He really does! He is slowly dying and changing from his wolf form. He tries to pull the piece of wood out of his chest but can’t. He becomes the boy again and is weeping as he dies.

What is great here is that Roddy as Vincent empathises with this young man despite the fact he almost killed him. He feels for the fear of dying. He is horrified by the change. At one point the wolf-thing reaches out to him and he almost holds his hand before recoiling in horror.

This is the moment Peter Vincent changes fully. He has seen the horror and the humanity. He has killed and felt pity, but did what had to be done. He returns to the house and is much braver, with faith in the cross, and puts himself at great risk. He is still scared. There is a great moment where he traps the vampire by closing his coffin, only to realise he is now cornered. I’ll leave it there. 😉

As I said, Roddy is great in this because he gives us someone who is utterly terrified, and well he should be! As a young boy watching this, he made me fear for him. I didn’t blame him for not wanting to get involved or for fleeing. I had my heart in my mouth when he was cornered. Roddy McDowall was a great actor who displayed fear, cowardice and desperation perfectly.

Fear works. When I watch a movie or tv show and people in it are scared, it makes me scared. Sometimes scared for them, which is the best. I grew up watching horror films where the thing/monster/killer etc was terrifying to those involved.

Then we had the change. Characters started making smart remarks. Jokes would be thrown in. Bad-ass characters who aren’t afraid of anything became the norm.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these too. I’m for diversity, variety, unpredictability. But I do love me some scaredy-cats. I feel for them much more. If someone isn’t scared of a monster, and they’re meant to be a real person facing a real threat, then why should I fear?

I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer a lot, but I don’t find it surprising that the only time I found anything even slightly intimidating was the one with the Gentlemen in. Yes, they were creepy looking, but the fact no one could talk, joke, banter, etc. That was the difference.

When I watched Fright Night that first time, and every time since to an extent, I felt that deep thrill as I watch a terrified man dare to enter the den of the beast. In the new one, I never had that. Tennant’s character was like Roddy’s but nowhere near as good, or as well acted.

So what’s the stand out scare scene for me? That end bit of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The girl is trapped and the family of lunatics are slowing trying to kill her, helping their near dead grandfather to do it. She is freaking out. She is screaming and thrashing and everything. Her fear made me fear for her. It was so drawn out it became almost unbearable. I could have cheered when she escaped. The very end, where her screams become laughter, worked so well because you knew her terror had pushed her over the edge to where her survival was nothing short of ecstatic relief.

I’m a fan of terror. Shock kills, no matter how gory, rarely work and even then they just make me jump a bit. Terror, the slower the better, is what gets to me. There are certain films I would dub terror films more than horror. I love them, but damn, they are hard to watch. Which is why I love them!

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