The 13th Floor

Examining “Gay Panic” Themes in the Vampire Classic, FRIGHT NIGHT

In Harvard Professor Marjorie Garber’s invaluable 2000 work BISEXUALITY AND THE EROTICISM OF EVERYDAY LIFE (one of the only notable scholarly works on bisexuality, although Kenji Yoshino’s THE EPISTEMIC CONTRACT OF BISEXUAL ERASURE also comes recommended), she posits (to make a generality about her work) that bisexual women are typically eroticized in films to directly compatible with all notions of the heterosexual male gaze. Their sexuality is rarely incidental, and it’s almost always seen as something titillating. And while there are media examples that buck this theory that have arisen in the last 17 years since the book was written, bisexual women are still largely depicted as straight male sex fantasies.

Bisexual males, meanwhile, are most often depicted as secret gay seducers who are targeting the straight male viewership into a dark lifestyle of demonic gay sex. When a bisexual male does appear in a film or on a TV show — an incredibly rare occurrence at best, notably in CABARET, THREE OF HEARTS, VELVET GOLDMINE, THE HISTORY BOYS, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, maybe SKYFALL — they are rarely seen as heroic. Their “gay” side or their “straight” side is often seen as deviant, as if a male is not allowed to live in between gayness and outright heteronormativity.

The bisexual male — and his ability to “trap” straight men — is the subject of a lot of panic in movies, and seems to be the source of a lot of confusion among both gay and straight people.

One of the more notorious bisexual male characters in all of horror cinema, at least metaphorically, is probably Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), the seductive vampire-next-door from Tom Holland’s 1985 classic FRIGHT NIGHT. This is a film which, upon a recent revisit, struck me as being a great horror film with some amazing special effects, great characters, and a fun premise, but possessed of a sneaky undercurrent of gay panic that may not sit well with modern audiences. The film’s queer subtext has been explored in the past in various newspapers.

Holland’s film is about a teenage boy named Charley (William Ragsdale) who is addicted to horror, and whose favorite TV show is a horror retrospective called FRIGHT NIGHT, hosted by Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), clearly evoking Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. Charley, directly rebuffing direct sexual advances from his girlfriend (Amanda Bearse) spies on his new neighbor Jerry as he moves in under suspicious circumstances late at night. Charley begins to get direct ideas that Jerry is indeed a vampire, and enlists Peter Vincent’s help to fight him off, just like in those old Hammer movies. At Charley’s side is his bratty best friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), a hyperactive twerp and outcast who cackles and dresses in drag.

Let’s take stock of the well-known queer undertones so far. Chris Sarandon’s most famous role is probably that of the transsexual Leon in Sidney Lumet’s classic DOG DAY AFTERNOON. While Roddy McDowall never publicly came out, it was widely posited he was gay. Amanda Bearse came out as a lesbian in 1993. And Stephen Geoffreys, all throughout the 1990s, worked in gay porn under the pseudonym Sam Ritter. Additionally, while we can interpret Charley’s rebuffing of his girlfriend to mean that he’s not quite mature enough to handle a sexual relationship – he prefers monster movies over girls – it does look an awful lot like he may be more into his handsome new neighbor than he is his girlfriend.

The element of FRIGHT NIGHT that doesn’t sit that well with me is the treatment of Evil Ed. The relationship between Ed and Charley reminds me of the relationship Sal Mineo’s character had with James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Mineo (a gay man, incidentally) played a character named Plato who looked up to Dean’s character, Jim, with something of a romantic fervor, and innumerable think pieces and film essays have been written in the ensuing decades about how Plato was not-so-secretly in love with Jim. Plato’s sexuality is a subtext of REBEL that has, in the modern age, been accepted as canon.

I feel the same thing has been happening to Evil Ed. Ed, small, awkward, cross-dressing, and intensely interested in Charley, strikes me as being kind of in love with him. But he doesn’t necessarily realize that he is gay just yet — an awkward position that many young queer kids find themselves in — and doesn’t have the social grace or intellectual wherewithal to really realize that.

That is, until the handsome bisexual vampire moves in next door to Charley. Ed, perhaps already gay, is more or less “seduced” by the bisexual predator, waking up his nascent sexuality for the first time. But, seeing as there is no actual sex (it’s not even really implied), we have to accept that Ed was seduced metaphorically. Which means being “turned gay” by a bisexual man is equated with being turned into a vampire. Indeed, Ed is turned into a literal monster in FRIGHT NIGHT, sporting a wolf face and claws.

Vampires have long been associated with sexuality, going back as far as at least Bram Stoker, and remaining a cogent metaphor for one’s loss of virginity as recently as the TWILIGHT movies. It’s rare that vampires are out-and-out monsters, and are more likely seen as wicked, super-sexual beings who want to insinuate themselves into your life through seductive voices, classy Eastern European charm, and — this is key — an outright invitation. Classically speaking, vampires are all about finally opening yourself up to the darker side of sexual appetite, and the ruin that can have on your life. You may live forever, but now you must live in a world of death and sin.

Jerry taunts Charley with his sexual prowess. Charley, for instance, was unable to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend, but Jerry is perfectly willing to bring her around. Which he does in a good-‘n’-sexy down-by-the-fireplace scene. Charley is unable to accept the feelings he may be receiving from Ed, so Jerry steps in to provide a “sexual” mentor for him. Jerry is, in many ways, the classical bisexual predator. He is not only stealing girlfriends, but boyfriends as well. He is “corrupting” the young with the overpowering force of his body and his allure.

Charley ends up doing battle with Jerry, defeats him, and is eventually rewarded with a night of heterosexual passion with his girlfriend. In many ways, it’s hard not to see this triumph as a young straight boy overcoming a gay seducer. Jerry walked into Charley’s life with sexual experience, seductive acumen, and a tantalizing offer of a life of omnisexual hedonism. Charley sees the “lifestyle,” rejects it, and destroys it. Operating from gay panic, the straight man lashes out against the bisexual monster.

Is the bisexual monster wholly evil? Well, thanks to the casting, no. Chris Sarandon is such an affable and good looking actor, that we can’t help but kind of like him. Indeed, Jerry and Peter Vincent emerge as the more memorable characters from FRIGHT NIGHT, standing out far more starkly in the imagination than Charley. Charley’s a fun, wide-eyed innocent, and Ragsdale plays him very well. But Jerry, the heavy, is way more fun. Even if FRIGHT NIGHT was meant to be all about repressed sexuality, we still see the bisexual character as kind of heroic. Like Dr. Frank-N-Furter, he may be the villain, but he’s everyone’s hero.

Is all of this an acceptable interpretation? It certainly operates as subtext, although this is more of an academic reading than based on anything that is stated outright in FRIGHT NIGHT. The film still functions perfectly well as a horror thriller, and remains one of the better vampire flicks of the 1980s. But when viewed through the lens of gay panic, there is indeed something kind of unsavory going on.

 

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