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Fright Night at 25: Roddy McDowall

Although the late Roddy McDowall will forever be known from his roles in the Planet of the Apes franchise, he also made an indelible impression as movie vampire Peter Vincent in the Fright Night films.
Interview conducted and copyright Edward Gross.

The death of Roddy McDowall was a shock to several generations of fans. The following interview with the actor was conducted at the time of FRIGHT NIGHT’s release.

He hunts vampires, but only in the movies. He introduces those fear flicks as host of TV's FRIGHT NIGHT THEATRE. And then, one dark and stormy evening, the horror cinema's famed "vampire killer" is swept into battle between local teenager and neighborhood bloodsucker. And FRIGHT NIGHT becomes something more than movies. It becomes terrifying reality for Peter Vincent.

"He's an absolutely marvelous character," declares the man who portrays him, Roddy McDowall, a veteran of nearly 90 films. "I've never done anything like it, so it was extremely rewarding to me. The appeal to me is that Vincent is such a terrible actor. The poor dear is awful. He's just a very sweet man with no talent in a difficult situation, though he's able to rise to the occasion--like the Cowardly Lion."

While he feels that any explanation of his approach to the character would sound extremely "dumb" on the printed page, McDowall does mention that he drew Peter Vincent--named in tribute to Cushing and Price--partly from childhood memories.

"There were a couple of very bad actors," he says, "whom I absolutely adored as a child, and whose names today's audience wouldn't know. They were very bad actors from another time, and Peter Vincent is like them. He's full of sounds, but no content."

When writer/director Tom Holland approached him with the FRIGHT NIGHT script, McDowall's reaction was immediate enthusiasm. "I thought it was fascinating," he notes, "very imaginative and very good. Tom is a good director and writer, and all those elements were very conscientious. A great deal of hard work went into it."

The mixture of horror and humor in FRIGHT NIGHT may recall the similar structure of John Landis' AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but the comparison agitates McDowall.

"I never saw that film," he begins emphatically, "but I absolutely apall the idea of comparing one thing to something else. Nothing is worth anything unless it's taken on its own terms. It's one of the great pathetic sins that people go around in the world trying to compare this to that or something to something else. Why doesn't everybody just accept a thing on its own terms?

"All you can do is make a piece of product, sell it on its own terms, stand behind it and hope that people will go see it. If you try to be like something else or appeal to any given group, then you can very easily end up being gratuitous and imitative. There's not much to be gained by that, and I think too much time is spent going around trying to be like someone else."

Additionally, he doesn't appreciate FRIGHT NIGHT being labeled a "horror" film.
"Some people think SNOW WHITE is a horror movie, so I never quite know how to deal with that kind of labeling," McDowall says. "When I did the pilot for NIGHT GALLERY, I never looked at it as horror. It was a wonderful script and my character was just a lousy son of a bitch who turned people over to get what he wanted. I don't look at LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE as horror either. It was just a story of people trying to exorcise a spirit from a haunted house.

"The so-called 'slice-and-dice' films are just gratuitous rubbish. I thought THE OMEN was a very good film. To me, horror is something gothic, strange and peculiar, like a fairy tale. Approaching the premise of FRIGHT NIGHT realistically, it's very scary. The script made sense, dealing with a vampire living next door, just like a ghost--but I'm probably overstating my case because I think that too many things are labeled incorrectly."

Nevertheless, he feels that his character probably holds a great appeal for the audience. "I suppose every territory at various times has a horror host who introduces late night shows with rubbishy dialogue," he muses. "If the audience cringes watching them, they'll identify with the characters in FRIGHT NIGHT. Also, the kids in the cast [William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys] are excellent. What sticks out in my mind is the group comraderie and closeness of everybody working on this film, really caring about FRIGHT NIGHT being good. And I think that comes across on the screen."
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