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 double 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) Fright Night 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 Fright Night 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.
Fright Night 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, Fright Night 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.
Fright Night 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.
I loved him in Fright Night. Roddy McDowell was such a great actor. Of course as a kid I remember him most as Cornelius in the planet of the apes
Well, Jerry didn’t have any interest in Charley’s mother and Charley knew that. Jerry needed a way to gain access to the house to get to Charley. Charley saw Jerry kill one of his victims. Then Charley started snooping around Jerry’s house. A vampire cannot enter a house unless he is invited, so Jerry came over to introduce himself to Charley’s mother as the new neighbor. That got Jerry in the house and, of course, Jerry would return to warn Charley to stay out of his business. So, Charley would not have any jealousy over Jerry “romancing” his mother. So, I have to respectfully disagree about the subtext of Charley seeing Jerry as an intruder for romancing his single mother. Charley knew instantly what Jerry’s visit was about. Jerry even made a veiled threat to Charley (about Jerry coming over any time he felt like it) before he left.
Roddy was so campy and an under rated entertainer.
Plus Amanda Bearse as Charlie’s girlfriend, Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed (who’s turning at the hands of Jerry plays like a seduction, and who did gay porn for a while before returning to horror a few years ago, and Johnathan Cole (Billy, Jerry’s day-protector/lover (??) wrote Ellen’s coming out episode for her show!
Awesome, classic film. The sequel also features a bisexual vampire, turned by a male and female vampire at the same time, and as far as I’m aware, cinema’s only transgender vampire (on rollerskates!)
Yes Roddy McDowel has been VERY underrated. He kept his head down and did the work.
I always loved him. And he was fabulous on Evil Under the Sun. HIGHLY recommended.
The real Bruce
He sure looked like he was having a great time “vamping” Talullah Bankhead. He also starred in one of the best “Night Gallery” episodes ever. Many famous stars would flock to his beach house for his afternoon parties. Miss him!
He was a child star…the original Lassie film. He had that star quality even then…I was but a child but I could see it. ;>)
His first film, if I am correct, was How Green Was My Valley.
Loved this film and also liked the sequel. William Ragsdale was fun and the dance sequence between Christ Sarandon and Amanda Bearse was amazingly elegant. And Evil’s turning…
“Hello, Edward. You don’t have to be afraid of me. 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. All you have to do is take my hand. Go on, Edward. Take my hand!”
Of course, Roddy was pitch perfect, especially once he realized there really are vampires. But he’s been so good for so many years. “How Green Was My Valley” and “Poseidon Adventure” and “My Friend Flicka”…he worked nonstop. To be able to build emotion behind those masks on the Planet of the Apes films shows how talented he was.
Just a good time
The Original Fright Night is one of the best/fave horror movies for me of all time. Remember waking from my house into downtown Scranton right after seeing it to a record store and buying the album soundtrack. Was a walk there and back of of about 5 miles. Loved it sooooo much.
I miss Roddy, one of my favourite actors, wish he were still here. I hope they’ll make a story one day of his and Monty Clift’s relationship. Montgomery Clift is another gay actor who transformed the acting style in the late 1940s and 1950s, he doesn’t get enough recognition. He’s been overshadowed by Brando and Dean’s mythology for far too long.
I seem to remember him being a villain in TV’s Batman series. He played “The Bookworm”.
Roddy McDowall….tried to like him in multiple films….really difficult with how he gravitates to behaving like a matriarch. I’m sure he was a great person, and I’ve read that he was really excellent with remember people’s birthdays throughout the years.
I think for me, my favorite Roddy McDowall roll was Ben Fischer, in “The Legend of Hell House!”
This movie was great! Managed to be funny and at times, also scary. They did a remake in 2011 with Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin, but it didn’t capture the excitement of the original. It played more like a straight-up horror movie and wasn’t bad on it’s own, but it fell way short of the original.
totally herschel walkers favorite movie.