Even the devout keepers of the flame at Fangoria lost track of Fright Night Part II. First they reported an August 1988 release and featured it that month as if it were playing at a theater near you, then covered it again in September with the vague assurance it’d see the light of day in 1988. When it did finally open — not in 1988 but on May 19, 1989 — moviegoers would be forgiven for not noticing. It opened on only 148 screens, less than a tenth of the original’s rollout. It was a strange, piteous fate for the sequel to the highest-grossing horror movie of 1985 that didn’t have Freddy Krueger on the poster.
The story of Fright Night Part II has all the hallmarks of a home video resurrection and, when the kids who put it in a PG box so they could legally rent it from Blockbuster grew up, redemption on the internet. Trouble is, Blockbuster somehow outlived it. VHS and Laserdisc copies can be found at your local horror convention for about the cost of a base-model Keurig, usually with a handwritten sign promising “RARE” in case you didn’t believe all three digits on the price tag. Its last official release in North America was a low-run 2003 DVD that claimed to be a “full-screen” version of the original master but was in fact a VHS transfer. The cheapest copy on Amazon, condition Used – Very Good, can be yours for $72. If you see it much cheaper, it’s either a foreign import or bootleg of the mythical widescreen pay-cable cut, both of which have identical artwork to the official release but are better.
Thirty years later, in the pop culture bipolarity where everything’s both the Best and Worst of all-time at the same time, Fright Night Part II is still a ghost. That’s impressive and borderline impossible, considering it’s a passing-grade sequel to a beloved ’80s horror movie (a small miracle in itself) that occasionally reaches the same heights when it’s not covering the Greatest Hits. They even landed cult classic royalty behind the camera with Tommy Lee Wallace, director of the most over- and underrated horror sequel of all time, Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
What staked Fright Night Part II was bad timing and worse luck.
Columbia Pictures did not expect the original Fright Night — a Rear Window-with-vampires riff from a first-time director with a mostly unknown cast — to be a hit. They certainly did not expect it to make more than double its budget in the States alone. But producer Herb Jaffe knew what they had. He knew it months before Fright Night ever opened, when he wrote to Columbia brass reminding them that the eventual home video release could double as free advertising for Fright Night 2 if they got the greenlight fast enough.
Whatever ears his plea fell on, they were not allowed on the Columbia lot much longer. In 1986, British expat and Oscar-gilded producer David Puttnam took over as chairman and CEO of the studio. He’d made a name for himself with prestigious, capital-F Films like Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, and The Killing Fields. The capital F did not include Fright Night Part II. His tenure was marked by notorious resentment of Columbia’s crowd-pleasing hits; despite the 1985 re-release cementing it as the highest grossing comedy of all time, Ghostbusters did not get a sequel until 1989 because Puttnam didn’t find Bill Murray as grateful for his success as Robert Redford.
Fright Night Part II stood no chance under Puttnam, so Jaffe bought back the rights to produce it himself. By the time he did, everybody else was busy. The original’s writer-director, Tom Holland, was working on a silly possessed doll movie called Child’s Play with the original’s vampire, Chris Sarandon. The only returning cast ready (or willing) for more were William Ragsdale and Roddy McDowall. The resulting story, from Revenge of the Nerds writers Tim Metcalfe and Miguel Tejada-Flores, picks up with an older Charlie Brewster leaving his last therapy session with a clean bill of health after admitting vampires don’t exist. It widens the world from shadowy suburbia to a college campus, a bowling alley, and an upper-crust apartment building where the units are so big that the vampire-of-the-week can fit an entire Whitesnake video in her living room. All with more monsters and mayhem than the first Fright Night. All on a tighter budget.
Roddy McDowall, who by all accounts absolutely cherished his role as a washed-up Hammer-adjacent horror star, wanted better for the franchise. After producing Overboard (yes, the one on TBS right now) and suffering for it, he was determined to take more control over his own projects and convinced Holland to spitball a proper Part III, potentially direct-to-VHS. Tristar distributed Part II and LIVE Entertainment held the home video rights, but both were partners of ‘80s action powerhouse Carolco, so frightful nights present and future fell under the jurisdiction of a single Carolco executive. Holland agreed to a meeting, but McDowall did his best to warn him, calling this executive the “worst human being” he’d ever met.
Holland would never meet the new rights holder, but McDowall still had to talk to him about the current state of the franchise. As Fright Night Part II played in one theater for every 17 showing Ghostbusters II (the other belated Columbia horror-comedy sequel of 1989), Wallace accompanied McDowall to make their grievances known about the second-class treatment. Nobody remembers exactly what was said, but Wallace described it in a 2008 interview as “kind of negative,” leaving the property in a “shaky and dark” limbo.
That limbo lasts to this day. That Carolco executive was José Menendez. Just a few hours after his lunch with McDowall and Wallace, he and his wife were murdered by their sons, Lyle and Erik, leading to one of the most publicized trials in American history.
As soon as the news broke, McDowall called Wallace and said, “Well I didn’t do it. Did you?”
The home video rights to Fright Night Part II remain a lost cause. You can order a Made-On-Demand European Blu-ray if your player can handle it. Last year it unexpectedly appeared on Amazon Prime, earning horror site coverage out of sheer shock. But it disappeared not long after, and if you search for it now, Amazon apologizes that “Our agreements with the content provider don’t allow purchases of the title at this time.” Even You’re So Cool, Brewster, a two-and-a-half-hour documentary about the making of Fright Night, devotes only three minutes of side-eye conversation and no footage of the sequel. The general consensus? Not bad.
Thirty years later, for all its tortured life and continued death, that’s a fair eulogy for Fright Night Part II. A better sequel than most, but not worth the legendary quest to find it unless you’re truly hellbent. The movie may be less than its myth, but any movie that includes a scene of vampires blowing off steam at a bowling alley to the tune of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” is the kind of movie worth remembering. Fright Night Part II is that kind of movie.