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Fright Night at 25: Chris Sarandon

In Fright Night, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, actor Chris Sarandon played Jerry Dandridge, the vampire who has moved in next door to Charlie Brewster. In this interview conducted at the time of the film's release, he reflects on portraying a member of the undead.
Interview conducted by and copyright Edward Gross

In the past, cinematic vampires have been portrayed as pale-skinned ghouls wandering around cemeteries, draped in cumbersome black capes, and threatening to suck the blood out of any victims who happen by. Then, in the late 1970s, Frank Langells romanticized Bram Stoker's Dracula in the play and film of the same name, proving that vampires could be, above all else, charming.

Chris Sarandon contemporized this incarnation of evil to great effect in FRIGHT NIGHT, a film which has more in common with the Universal horror classics of the 30's and 40's than the current crop of slice-and-dice productions which have proliferated in the genre.

In this updating of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," Sarandon plays Jerry Dandridge, a vampire who will go to any means to make sure that his secret remains safe, including killing Charley Brewster, his teenaged next door neighor, who has learned the truth.

"The thing that appeals to me about Jerry," explains Sarandon, who, since the time of this interview has starred in THE PRINCESS BRIDE and Tom Holland's CHILD'S PLAY, "is that he's totally contemporary. That was something we all strived for, and something I found very interesting about the character, because he wasn't the Count of legend or Bram Stoker, but a guy who everybody knew and couldn't believe was being accused of being a vampire. He isn't the personification of pure evil that vampires are known to be."

What impressed the actor most about the character, was his multi-dimensional facets.

"Just think about this guy's problems," he says. "On the one hand you've got somebody who's got something everybody would probably love to have, which is eternal life. Also, he's tremendously powerful physically, and attractive sexually. What he does, people are, for some reason, attracted to. But at the same time, how would you like to know that if people found out about you, nobody would really want to hang around you? That is, to spend eternity--but to spend eternity shunned by any normal kind of society; not being able to form any kind of normal human relationship. To be, in a way, damned to eternity. There's a sense of this guy's tragedy as well as his attractiveness."

This obvious enthusiasm is surprising, especially when one considers that the actor nearly turned the role down.

"I was sent the script by my agent and immediately sort of got sucked in by the plot, because it's wonderfully constructed and plotted," explains Sarandon. "After I read it, I said, 'Gee, this is going to make a great movie. It's a shame that I'm not really interested in playing this part.' The reasons for that are that over the last couple of years I've played a few villains and didn't want to get locked into playing another one. I thought the character was an interesting one, though I didn't think it was quite fleshed out. Despite my reservations, I had some conversations with Tom, we came up with some ideas and I ended up doing it."

"I made a promise to Chris," adds Holland, "that I would make Jerry sensual and into a leading man; to show that side of him. He didn't want to do another wild and crazy character role."

Sarandon felt that what was missing was the character's haunted quality, part of which would come across in the playing, and that there were a few things needed in the script which would express this.

"The character's not so much the personification of pure evil, as he is a person who became a vampire by circumstances," he says. "We did all the groundwork for ourselves in terms of who this guy was and what happened; how it happened. Tom was very encouraging about that; to come up with that kind of life for the character so that he ultimately ends up more interesting for the audience."

Coming up with identifiable characters has been an objective of the actor's since graduating from the University of West Virginia, and, besides numerous stage roles, he's tried to achieve this goal via his various screen personas, from Al Pacino's gay lover in DOG DAY AFTERNOON (which won him an Oscar nomination) and the rapist of LIPSTICK, to a tool of the devil in THE SENTINEL, a leading role with Goldie Hawn in PROTOCAL, a comically evil prince in the aforementioned PRINCESS BRIDE and a homicide detective in CHILD'S PLAY.
Bearing this in mind, one wonders if he had any aversion to the idea of playing a vampire, certainly one of the most bizarre roles he's been offered.

"It wasn't so much that," he counters, "but that the guy was such a bad guy. In a way he was, but in a way he wasn't. I think that I carried in some of my prejudices when I first read the script. Rather than read it in a very objective way, I read it in a much more 'what's it going to do for me?' way. Having played a couple of villains in the past, I was a little worried about it.

"I don't want to get locked into playing anything," he elaborates. "I don't want to be known as a heavy or as anything in particular, but just a good actor who can handle anything that comes along. Wishful thinking, but that's the image I would hope to have in the industry. That's something you cultivate over time by the choice of roles you take. Also, I think I underestimated the fact that in the movie I did just before FRIGHT NIGHT, PROTOCAL, I was playing Mr. Total Straight Arrow. As nice guy and as totally uncontroversial a character as you'll find anywhere. Considering that that's the one I did just before this, I think I needn't have worried so much. I came to realize that after a while."

One thing which came close to being a problem was the marathon make-up sessions which enabled Sarandon to go from being the suave and good looking Dandridge, to the snarling bat-like "spawn of Satan" during choice moments.

"We had certain stages of change," he reveals, "which had a lot to do with just how pissed off Jerry is at any particular provoked he is.

"I was stuck in make-up so goddamned much of the time," he sighs. "I had two weks of eight-hour make-up calls, everyday. I'd go in at four in the morning and the make-up people would have to be in at three something. They'd start on me at four and I'd go to work at noon or one. Quite a remarkable experience. You either learn how to hypnotize yourself and meditate, or you become stark-raving mad.

"I tried to do the former," he laughs.

The big question was whether or not FRIGHT NIGHT could find a niche for itself in this age of the slasher or splatter film.

"That's a good question," he says. "The feeling I had, and I have reasonably good instincts as an audience, is that it would work. When I first read the script, I couldn't put it down. I don't mean that as a cliche, I mean that for real. When I read that script, I remember sitting in the very chair I'm sitting in as we speak, my wife sitting in bed knitting and I said, 'Sorry, honey. I know it's time to go in and start dinner, but I can't yet. I have to finish this.' I put it down like an hour and 10 minutes later, and I figured that it was going to be a terrific movie."

Obviously he was right.

The horror genre is one that has intrigued Sarandon over the years, although he isn't really a fan of splatter films. Friends of his love those "really shocking" horror movies, but he is much more of an afficiando of the older ones, such as the original Dracula and Frankenstein.

"And of practicioners like Hitchcock," he adds, "who really understood an audience. People who are much more interested in creating work which leaves a lasting impression. I'm much more interested in the resonance or haunting quality of the really good ones, and it'll be interesting to see if we've got one of those.

"There are a couple of things towards the end of the film where there's your requisite sort of special effects, bodies flying around and falling apart, and things like that. But that specifically comes about due to what's going on in the script. When I first read the script, there was, interestingly, very little real physical violence in it. What's so startling about it is you are in constant anticipation of a violent act, and that comes from good scriptwriting. The film also has a lot of humor, but it's intentional. It is a humor or irony in situation. Any humor comes out of the fact that the audience has invested a certain amount of emotional baggage with the characters, and if something funny happens they're going to laugh at that. We're having fun with it, but we're not making fun of it.

"Also, I think you'll find in this movie that in the first 40 minutes or so there's only one violent act, and that's somebody sticking a pencil through somebody's hand. The rest of that time is spent leading up to something happening. You know something's got to happen, but nothing does. To me, that's much more effective, a kind of Hitchcockian approach to that sort of material. What's much more important is how you lead up to the act rather than the act itself. It's not what you see, but what you've dreaded seeing," he explains.
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