Hell to Page: FRIGHT NIGHT #13

Horror merchandise was a little hard to get my hands on when I was a kid obsessed with it. I was so stunned when things like the young adult Halloween novels or the Movie Maniacs figures reached our local shelves, because most things didn’t. We had to wait until October for stores like Spencer’s or FYE to put out anything remotely spooky. I’m envious and excited for burgeoning young fans today who can walk into those stores to see a Chucky doll at any time and feel exactly the way I felt when I was ten. But there were always exceptions, and they were always completely random.

Those exceptions were usually found in a Maine-only discount/overstock store called Marden’s. Usually, there’d be nothing for me as a kid but broken knockoff toys or remaining Congo action figures that just weren’t selling at Toys ‘R Us. But every once in a while, there’d be a whole supply of Halloween masks in the middle of the summer. I once saw a table with nothing but upwards of fifty copies of the Hellraiser short story anthology Hellbound Hearts. But when I was young, there was one thing I knew I’d be able to find any time I walked into that store: A Fright Night comic.

I discovered Fright Night—my favorite vampire film and one of my favorite movies in general—and its comic book tie in at almost exactly the same time. It was fantastic, because as soon as I saw that film and immediately fell in love with those characters and that world, it was all there for me. I just continued on seamlessly into their further adventures. I had a lot of gaps, only buying the issues that I would see whenever I walked into the store, but I could still follow on with Charley and Peter and all of their mind-bogglingly weird adventures after the end of the film. Being able to see Evil Ed return as a constant thorn in the heroes’ side, fulfilling the promise of his return in the movie, helped to make that character one of my favorite vampires ever.

Fright Night ran for 22 issues which was whopping for a horror tie-in comic, especially at the time. It began with a two-part adaptation of the movie, then quickly transitioned into a monster-of-the-week format, with longer storylines developing in the background and characters like Evil Ed becoming regularly occurring antagonists. It felt, in many ways, a precursor to exactly the formula that Buffy the Vampire Slayer would adopt when it hit television. The comic had a formula that it used very well, even when things got weird, like the issue where Charley got turned into a dog.

I couldn’t wait to see how the next issue picked up and where it would take the characters, even though I was buying this comic ten years after it came out. But then I picked up an issue that I absolutely would have overlooked had the Fright Night title not been on it. It could easily have passed as the cover of a kids book, showing a photograph of a girl bouncing a ball, surrounded by cartoon animals. I had no idea what it had to do with anything going on with Peter, Charley, Evil Ed or anything else, but I had to pick it up. It was the next issue of Fright Night that I hadn’t grabbed yet and I had no intention of missing out on it.

And shockingly, it might be the best of the entire series, even if abandons the formula completely. Charley and Peter and their new gang of monster hunters are absent in favor of a totally new and different story that harkens back to the classic EC Comics days in a big, bad way. Peter and Charley appear only at the beginning, to introduce this as an actual episode of Fright Night in order to very loosely tie it into the overall title. And it’s fun to watch Charley stand in as host of the show for a moment, awkwardly fumbling through the intro while wearing a robe that makes him look like the Cookie Crisp Wizard.

After Charley’s brief introduction, we’re flung headfirst into “Pup Pet,” the darkest and most unexpectedly twisted comic of the entire 22 issue run. We’re introduced to a little girl named Jenny, her handicapped father and a simple premise. The girl wants a pet more than anything. But her dad is confined to a wheelchair and cannot get around easily enough to care for a pet and cannot let her take on the responsibility of caring for it entirely by herself.  More than that, he definitely seems like a genuinely depressed guy who doesn’t see the appeal of getting a pet just to have to watch it die at some point, especially after losing his wife. But she has no friends, no one to play with or even really talk to outside her dad. She just wants a companion, but no such luck. They pass a pet store every day and it drives her crazy.

To make due, Jenny has begun retreating to the basement when she’s feeling upset to play with her new imaginary friends, cartoon animals that play with her and at the very least make her feel a little less lonely. She can tell them all about how frustrated she is, both at her dad for not letting her have a “real” pet and at everyone else in the neighborhood for having one.

Even when dad is secretly starting to warm up to the idea, the town is plagued by disappearances of neighborhood pets. After accidentally talking about one of her imaginary pets during show and tell—which the cartoon animals scold her for—her teacher takes an interest and wants to meet the new animal, only to discover the horrific truth. Jenny has been retreating to the basement to play with her imaginary animal friends—but her “friends” are actually all of the missing neighborhood pets, nailed to the wall and hung from the ceiling.

It’s probably a twist that anyone could see coming, but first reading this at the age of nine, it was absolutely harrowing. Even if Fright Night was a horror comic based on an R-rated horror film, this was way beyond anything that had been attempted in the series up to that point. For the most part, it was fairly lighthearted and fun, often goofy, retaining a quirky sense of humor throughout. This issue abandoned all of that to go absolutely dark. It’s not something that could be attempted in any other medium and probably isn’t something that a comic publisher would even be able to get away with today, just because of the sheer, stark change in tone. But that’s what makes it so fascinating.

This is the Halloween III of the Fright Night comic series, but it works really well. Granted, its low risk because fans knew that they would be getting back into the swing of things the very next month. But to take one issue off and do something wildly different is admirable, especially when it works. And in this case, it really does. “Pup Pet” makes me wish that we got more of these standalone Fright Night anthology issues that just passed themselves off as episodes of the show. During its run, there were things like the 3D special and the summer special that could easily have been anthology issues instead of double-sized monster hunting adventures, so it could have worked.

Fright Night is one of the stronger movie-to-comic series of its era, even when it goes in absurd directions like forcing Charley to play Theseus in a fight with the Minotaur at the behest of an alien. The story continued organically from the film, and things take insane twists and turns, but there are larger plot developments and recurring villains and—most importantly—the characterization is never sacrificed. These characters are recognizable as Charley, Peter and Ed. And even when it decides to do something entirely different, it only results in the most deeply disturbing, but also most effective issue of the entire series.

This comic series in general is a highlight for Fright Night fans because outside the movies, the only other material we’ve ever been able to read is the novelization, written by splatterpunk gurus John Skipp and Craig Spector. Tom Holland has always been a fan of the comics and has tried to get them back in print and it would be awesome if that could somehow happen. Even if not, the comics are out there and are fairly cheap. They cost more than they did at the time, generally, but less than the price of a new comic book now. If they never get reprinted, they’re still very easy to get ahold of compared to some other comic tie-ins.

In the meantime, we can all look ahead to the sequel novel that Tom Holland himself is currently writing, titled Fright Night: Resurrection.