Borrowing from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, writer-director Tom Holland (Thinner, The Langoliers, Child's Play) centers Fright Night on Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), an average Southern California teenager who, one night while his girlfriend, Amy Peterson (a pre-Married with Children Amanda Bearse), tries to get romantic, sees something strange outside his window. Quickly grabbing his binoculars, Charlie sees his new neighbors, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) and Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark), carrying a coffin inside. The same night Charlie sees or thinks he sees Dandridge grow fangs and attack a half-naked woman (it was the less-enlightened 80s, when gratuitous T&A was the norm). Charlie's efforts at hiding his actions prove futile: Dandridge sees Charlie seeing him, setting up Charlie as Dandridge's next victim (or the victim after that).
A frightened Charlie reports Dandridge to the police, who send a detective, Lennox (Art J. Evans), to investigate Charlie's claims of a vampire next door. After Lennox dismisses Charlie's claims, he approaches Peter Vincent (McDowell), the host of a late-night, television program (named after two horror icons, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price). Vincent acted in series of low-budget horror films, playing (what else?) a fearless vampire hunter. Charlie soon discovers, however, that Vincent is neither fearless nor a real vampire hunter. Charlie's best friend, 'Evil' Ed Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys), offers Charlie invaluable advice on how to handle vampires (advice any horror fan should know). As Charlie becomes increasingly unhinged, Amy and Ed decide to get Vincent's help.
With Vincent leading the way, Charlie, Amy, and Ed venture into Dandridge's home. Vincent almost convinces everyone that Dandridge isn't a vampire. Until, that is, he inadvertently drops a mirror case and doesn't see Dandridge's reflection. The comedy and humor in Fright Night slips away, leaving Charlie, Amy, Ed, and the cowardly Vincent to fight Dandridge and Billy. In Fright Night's most memorable scene, a fear-stricken Vincent flees to Charlie's house, only to discover a vampire waiting for him. The vampires in Fright Night can transform at will from human to bat (and back again) and from human to wolf (somehow managing to put their clothes back on when they return to human form).
To his (and our) surprise, Vincent rises to the occasion. That, in turn, sets up one of the longest reverse transformation scenes on film, equal or almost equal to The Howling and An American Werewolf in London's transformation scenes four years earlier. Holland infuses the scene with pathos as Vincent struggles with his emotions (e.g., fear, compassion, etc.). As memorable as the prolonged reverse transformation scene may be, it's McDowell's performance that really deserves credit for elevating (and selling) the scene on an emotional level. McDowell's face flits from fear to compassion to pity and finally, acceptance. From that point on, he becomes the fearless vampire killer he played in countless, low-budget horror movies.
Coda: Predictably, a Fright Night remake has been slated for production. The only surprise is that it's taken so long. Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock, Lars and the Real Girl) will direct from a screenplay by writer-producer Marti Nixon (Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Colin Farrell (Ondine, Alexander, The Recruit, S.W.A.T., Phone Booth) has signed on to play Jerry Dandridge. David Tennant (Doctor Who) will play Peter Vincent. In the remake, Vincent will be a Las Vegas-based magician who performs in horror-themed stage shows. Anton Yelchin (Terminator: Salvation, Star Trek, Charlie Bartlett, Alpha Dog) will play Charley Brewster. Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Kick-Ass, Superbad) has signed on to play "Evil" Ed Thompson.