Saturday, August 22, 2015

Welcome (back) to Fright Night

In which our Diva gets to revisit an old friend on the big screen

Thirty years ago this summer, I got my dad and then my friend Kathy to drive me to Aurora from the booming metropolis of Bennett, Colorado (population ~1800) for three separate viewings of a movie with the dubious title of Fright Night. Once I got my hot little hands on a VHS copy, I systematically wore it out over the next couple years.

It's the tale of a teenage horror fan who happens on unusual nocturnal activities next door and quickly discovers that his new neighbor is a vampire.  It sounds like the setup for a joke, and there's no shortage of humor. But, as with so many stories that seize my little fangirl heart in their fangy jaws and run away with it ("A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost share a house," anyone?), there's a whole lot more going on too.

All these years later, I'm gratified to know that I'm not the only one who thinks so, and that it has taken its rightful place as a horror classic. Its cast is in high demand at conventions, two limited-edition Blu-ray pressings have sold out in a snap, a forthcoming documentary blew its Kickstarter goal out of the water, and mere mention of the 2011 remake can elicit the kind of vitriol usually reserved for those who dare meddle with beloved childhood icons. (I'm secure enough in my fan cred to assert that said remake is perfectly serviceable, albeit nothing special.  But that's not a course I recommend undertaking lightly.)

Last night, at an anniversary screening as part of Bruce Campbell's Horror Film Festival at Wizard World, the Chin himself opened the festivities by asking who had seen it in the theatre. I raised my hand and confirmed that I'd done so three times, when I didn't yet have a driver's license and the nearest movie theatre was 25 miles away.

If you've ever seen Campbell in action at a fan event, you're probably not too surprised to hear that this resulted in a solid five-minute interrogation about just what was so special about this particular movie that I went to those lengths. Trying to be concise (yeah, I know, good luck with that!), I first mentioned what really was most important to 15-year-old me: "Teenagers who made more sense to me than the ones in the John Hughes movies." Pressed for further reasons, I mentioned the gorgeous production design, and how there always seem to be more details to notice in both the visuals and the characters. (Just last night I registered for the first time that the pendant worn as part of Peter's "Great Vampire Killer" outfit is a hamsa.) I didn't mention the balance of horror and humor -- so commonplace today that it's hard to remember just how groundbreaking it was in 1985 -- partly because it's so intrinsic to the film that I no longer consciously think about it, but mostly because I was thinking back to why it was so compelling to me then.

Fifteen-year-old me didn't really think much about the uniqueness of the horror/comedy thing, as much as it's gone on to become part of the DNA of so many of my favorites. She just knew she was in love with these characters and this story.

Thankfully the Groovy One finally moved on to quizzing another fan, though heaven knows I could babble for an hour about why I love this movie. About how it was a lightning strike, exactly the movie I didn't know I needed at exactly that moment in time, that might or might not have made the same impression on me if I hadn't been fifteen and smart and bouncy and weird and living in a small town that seemed hopelessly limited and limiting.

When writer/director Tom Holland did his introduction, I didn't even need to ask the one question I'd brought to the Q&A, about why he chose to make this particular story about teenagers. As he explained before the screening, his original brief for Cloak & Dagger was a sort of juvenile update of Rear Window, but the final form of the screenplay didn't go that way. Still, the idea persisted, and he reached the conclusion that the only way for it to make sense for a modern kid to see a murder through the neighbor's window and have nobody believe him or do anything about it would be if the murder he witnessed was supernatural. And the only adult he could turn to would be the horror host he watched on TV... and thus a classic was born.

They said "Be crazier than that!" I'm in the fourth row center, obliging.
Charley, Amy, and "Evil" Ed are ordinary kids living ordinary lives until they're forced to deal with something extraordinarily dangerous. We don't know what the social pecking order of their school looks like, except to infer that Ed has been bullied and that he and Charley have bonded over horror fandom. All three are just a little awkward, drawn not as stereotypical nerds, just regular kids navigating the bumpy transition to adulthood -- heightened emotions, stilted relationship talk, and all.

Amy is bouncy and optimistic and compassionate and enthusiastic and adorkable. She also bears the perpetual Hollywood onus of being "the girl" (and thus damned to represent all girls), and has taken a lot of flak over the years that -- as someone who strongly identified with her, flaws and all -- I sometimes have to remind myself not to take personally. Four years after the remake, I still bristle at dismissals of her as a flimsy damsel-in-distress in the process of praising the more assertive characterization in the update. Now, don't get me wrong -- I love Amy 2.0. Heck, when the promo stills were released, my first comment was a gleeful "Amy gets a gun. I could be on board with this." And the character we eventually saw lived up to those images and to the promise of a Marti Noxon script.

However. You don't get to say "only hung sweetly by Charley's side" about the girl who steps up save him before he ever needs to save her. (Well, it's a free country; you can say whatever you want. But I'll take umbrage.) When, according to all evidence available to her, he's having some kind of mental breakdown and is determined to do something that will get him locked up for the rest of his life.

Ed turns to her and says "What are we going to do?" It's Amy who immediately comes up with the tactic of asking Peter Vincent for help, thus buying time in which Charley promises not to take action and marshaling the resources of the only adult he's currently prepared to listen to. If they had been living in the world they thought they were, if Dandridge had not in fact been a vampire, then Charley's sanity and future would have been saved entirely on Amy's initiative.

I babbled something to that effect at Amanda Bearse during a Q&A at a convention a couple years back. It wasn't the most coherent thing in the world, but she seemed pleased, and I hope she's rightfully proud of the character she created, particularly having now raised a daughter herself.

On a related note, another aspect of that article linked above that irritates me: "until she was turned vampire by Jerry and became the typically sexed-up evil female. Evil because she is sexual, as has been the case in vampire narratives since Carmilla and Dracula. Contrastingly, in the remake Amy has far more sexual agency–and is not demonized for it."

Here's my problem with that line of reasoning: The original Amy had an agency that was immensely important for 15-year-old me to see, the agency to make her own choices and have them respected.

Charley, with his "we've been going together almost a year" outburst, very nearly disqualifies himself as a hero before even starting to become one, then saves it by apologizing in the next breath without prompting. He was clearly parroting the script he's been force-fed by popular culture about what he's supposed to want and how he's supposed to get it, and he's instantly ashamed, probably without fully understanding why he even said it. He admits to being scared too -- a cardinal no-no in the teen-movie guy code! -- and the ensuing earnest discussion of what level of physical intimacy they're ready for is funny without being played for laughs at their expense. They have all these feelings -- and yes, they both have them -- but not the experience to deal with them in any way that isn't all kinds of awkward. So they talk about it awkwardly, and healthily, and with the understanding that it's important to talk about what they are and aren't ready to do. In the teen-movie landscape of 1985, this was nothing short of a revelation.

So it's all fine until Dandridge comes along and uses Amy's sexuality against her, manipulates feelings she has explicitly stated she is not ready to act on, with the aim of overwriting her identity and turning her into someone else entirely. Not even the long-dead woman in the portrait, but merely his image of her. She's not "evil because she is sexual." She's dangerous because Dandridge is using her as an extension of himself.

At the end of the movie, when she's free of that influence, we're nominally back where we started, with Charley and Amy making out -- fully clothed -- in his room. But it's comfortable in a way that it wasn't at the beginning. They've survived shared trauma and come out stronger, but they're not adults, and they're refreshingly not in any hurry to be. They've decided what they're ready to do, and there's no tension about whether that should change. It will come in its own time, and we're left with the sense that they'll decide it together.

So... that's Amy. One character. That's not even getting into Charley and Ed and brilliant creepy-charming-predator Dandridge and the treasure that is Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent. A blog post only has so much space.

Anyone still wondering why I love this movie so much? :-)

Monday, August 17, 2015

The accidental filmmaker

In which our Diva took a walk and made a thing

I love where I live. To wit, where I can, on a Friday morning whim, walk two blocks, shoot for about an hour with a consumer DSLR and zero crew, and by Saturday afternoon have made this:

Even before I went to VidCon, I've been pulled up short more and more often recently by the ever-expanding array of creative tools accessible to the ordinary person. Did you know you can download full-blown 3D animation software for free? I didn't until last week. And those hand-drawing-on-a-whiteboard videos you see all over the place? Sparkol VideoScribe is only free once, but isn't terribly expensive after that, and it's super easy to use.

Cross-pollination of ideas from tech to arts and back again drives evolution of both at a merry clip, with concepts like open source and Creative Commons benefiting creators and consumers alike.

Next thing you know, you've made a thing that can quite properly be called a short film, starring a gorgeous pocket of nature that happens to be down the block.

Nature and technology conspire.

It's a pretty fantastic time to be a storyteller, y'know?