In the lexicon of iconic horror performances, there are more than a handful that can be attributed to incredible portrayals of vampires. Max Schreck as the imposing and relentless Nosferatu; Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman and Christopher Lee as the charming and egomaniacal Dracula; Kiefer Sutherland as the young and undead David in The Lost Boys; all of these great actors turned out memorable takes on these creatures of the night by adding a physical presence and personality to these beings as had never been seen before. And yet, to many genre fans, one of the most inimitable variations on the cinematic vampire comes in a much more casual and confident package through Chris Sarandon’s literal ladykiller, Jerry Dandridge.
The mixture of the mad imagination of first-time director Tom Holland and the defined practicality of the Academy Award-nominated actor birthed an unforgettable antagonist in 1985’s Fright Night, one who not only uses his supernatural powers and savagery but also the laws of logic and social etiquette to his utmost advantage. Furthermore, Holland and Sarandon did something incredibly difficult for the archetypal bloodsucker: they made a vampire relatable, adapting the common themes of lust and desire seen as far back as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and molding it into a symbol of sex, charm and even humor.
Had audiences not seen him lure teenagers into a fate of demonic servitude, Jerry Dandridge might have been a neighbor you’d want to converse with, learn from or, even more likely, outright envy. In many ways, Jerry Dandridge was the quintessential American vampire. It’s one of the many reasons why Fright Night is still one of the most effective horror comedies and vampire tales to this day, and as fate would have it, the original Jerry Dandridge himself, Chris Sarandon, spoke to Diabolique about the role that redefined the vampire…
DIABOLIQUE: As someone who comes from a theatrical background, do you prefer working with supernatural genre work for the flexibility of having a world you can transform to your liking or do you prefer having a grounded human element to your genre performances?
CHRIS SARANDON: I think that Tom [Holland] was the guide here; his background was as an actor and he understood that an audience wasn’t going to identify with the characters in this kind of movie unless there was, as you put it, a grounded human element. Even though one is working in a genre-based, fantastic world, each character, even the vampire Jerry Dandridge, has human feelings and needs. But coming from the theater, I had that sense that also there can be epic, mythic qualities working within the human frame: there are great horrors in the stories told by Shakespeare, as well as those by Lovecraft or Poe… and Tom Holland.
DIABOLIQUE: You’re best known throughout the horror community for your tour-de-force performance in Fright Night. What inspired you to take a casual approach to the menace of Jerry Dandridge over a more traditionally inspired vampire? What attracted you to the role of an antagonist in a genre film?
SARANDON: Again, [it was] Tom Holland [who] set the tone by having rehearsals in which we were all encouraged to give our characters backgrounds, motivation, needs, etc. Much came from these meetings. And Tom encouraged me to keep Jerry grounded, for it is in Jerry’s interests to come across as “the guy next door”; a charming but regular guy. If he is too gothic or grand, then his cover is blown. Also, while Fright Night and it’s characters are fully in the grand tradition of the classic vampire tales, they are contemporary beings; in this case, citizens of the US in the 1980’s. And as for what attracted me to the role, this was a GREAT script, with a writer/director who clearly had an affection for the genre and who was very much in charge of the story telling.
DIABOLIQUE: Fright Night has had an incredible legacy, as its longevity and cult audience are impressive, even by today’s standards. What do you think gives Fright Night a timeless appeal? Is it important for you to be within genre projects that are either subversive or dissimilar than mainstream films?
SARANDON: I think Fright Night has been enduring because it is a well told story with a classic structure that also sets the genre on it’s ear a bit. It has fun WITH the genre, without making fun OF it. There is great affection in its subversion of some of the classic genre tropes. It manages to be scary and funny and sexy, all at the same time, which is quite a trick. Its subversiveness was a great attraction to me, as was its classic structure and its obvious affection for the vampire legends.
DIABOLIQUE: In Fright Night, you were able to work with a diverse cast with both younger, lesser-known actors as well as more recognizable and seasoned actors, like Roddy McDowall. How was your experience working with both generations of actors?
SARANDON: This is becoming a broken record, but Tom Holland’s contributions don’t begin and end with his writing and camera eye. He cast this movie brilliantly with young but intelligent and talented actors who were a joy to work with. I never felt that I was working with an inexperienced cast- Roddy, of course, excepted- because they brought both the requisite youth as well as a wisdom of what their characters required. Roddy was a joy from day one: we had a great time making the movie together with the young cast. Roddy is greatly missed, but the cast still remains friends to this day.
DIABOLIQUE: You returned to work with Tom Holland on the original Child’s Play film. With consideration to the films subject matter, was there any hesitation on your part to board that project? When choosing horror-related projects, is the portrayal of violence (straightforward as opposed to campy, ala Fright Night or Bordello of Blood) ever a factor in your decision?
SARANDON: I had no hesitation coming on board with Child’s Play, another terrific script by Tom. The actual shooting was much more arduous, even though the heavy makeup scenes in Fright Night were a pain in the ass. But working with Chucky in his various incarnations, as he was a combination of robotics, dolls, little people, and children, was much more trying and difficult.[In regards to the second question,] as long as the violence is organic to the story, I have no problems. And the genre is horror after all, although I object to the word “campy” in describing Fright Night, for the very reason I mention above of its having fun with the genre but not making fun of it; a major distinction.
DIABOLIQUE:Your voice has become iconic to a whole generation of youth in your role as Jack Skellington in A Nightmare Before Christmas. Did you find it difficult to bring any complexity to a non-physical performance? With the film having the loyal and endearing audience as it does, would you ever consider reprising that role for a sequel, if given the opportunity?
SARANDON: Doing animation voice work is quite different than live acting, for obvious reasons, but the incredible artistry of Tim Burton, director Henry Selick and his team of animators was what really brought that Jack Skellington to life. I’d jump at the chance to do a Nightmare sequel, but I don’t know of one in the offing.
DIABOLIQUE: You’ve acted in several horror-comedy films throughout your career. In your opinion, what do you think makes comedy and horror work so symbiotically as genres?
SARANDON: I think as an audience we need relief from tension: obviously horror is about tension, sometimes even on a relentless level. Humor gives that relief.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you have any other projects, genre or film-related or otherwise, that is in development or soon-to-be-released? Can you speak at all about your role in Tom Holland’s next film, The 10 ‘O Clock People?
SARANDON: I’m normally not a superstitious person, but as a veteran of the movie business, I don’t talk about projects until I’m actually on the set working. There’s an old saying, “There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.” Ask me when we start shooting.For those interested in checking out Sarandon’s classic work, his performances in the films Safe, A Nightmare Before Christmas and Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood are available on Netflix Instant Streaming. His films, which include Fright Night, Child’s Play, The Princess Bride and Dog Day Afternoon, can be found on DVD (and in many cases, Blu-ray) at most major retail outlets, such as Amazon, Walmart, iTunes, Best Buy and Target. The sequel to the remake of Fright Night (in which Sarandon also appears), Fright Night 2, will be released this fall from 20th Century Fox.
For more from Chris Sarandon and Fright Night, including our exclusive chat with Tom Holland, check back later on DiaboliqueMagazine.com during our FRIGHT NIGHT week! Also, don’t forget to pick up Diabolique Issue #17, our incredibly great and star-studded horror-comedy issue, which goes on pre-sale soon!
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.