Joshua: The past several years have been a tense spell of looming dread for horror fans. The remake beast seemed unstoppable and insatiable, chewing up and shitting out horror film after horror film of yore, both big and small. Like the doomed crew of the USS Indianapolis, it had become a waiting game, fans floating there helpless until the remake beast returned to claim another beloved classic. In other circles I would refer to Fright Night as a minor classic, but at CHUD I think it is safe to call it simply a classic. Tom Holland’s teenage suburban revamp of Dracula encapsulates much of what many horror fans love about the mid-to-late-80’s — it is a little sloppy and rough around the edges, but buoyed by great ideas, weird performances and most of all, a spirit of fun that doesn’t come at the expense of the horror.
Though met with the expected derision upon its initial announcement, the 2011 remake had a couple things going for it right off the bat: 1) It wasn’t Platinum Dunes, and 2) the script came from Buffy the Vampire Slayers‘ Marti Noxon. Though some Buffy fans blame Noxon for the downfall of the series (or at least Willow’s lesbian subplot), she nonetheless seemed like a particularly appropriate person to tackle the teenage suburban Dracula thing — one who wasn’t going to turn it into a Twilight knock off. And Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie was a weird but potentially interesting choice. In other words, this remake had at least some people intrigued.
For those familiar with Holland’s 1985 original, the story, set-up, and character structure is largely the same. For those unfamiliar, the lowdown is thus: Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a relatively average high schooler. He has a nice girlfriend, Amy (the unfortunately named Imogen Poots), a coolish single mom, Jane (Toni Collette), and a geeky friend he is trying to distance himself from, Ed Thompson (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). He also has a brand new neighbor, the studly and mysterious bachelor, Jerry Dandrige (Colin Farrell), who Ed is convinced is a vampire. Certain events occur that bring Charley around to Ed’s opinion, and Charley isn’t sure where to turn for help. In desperation Charley seeks advice from Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a Chris Angel-like magician superstar whose stage shows are riddled with vampire themes and imagery. Things come to a head when Jerry sets his sights (or rather teeth) on having Amy. Action ensues.
Alright guys, let’s talk some Fright Night!
Sebastian: I’ll get this out of the way; I like the original Fright Night just fine, but I don’t think it’s a sacrosanct text, and the idea of a remake never bothered me, especially since the original is more or less a remake of Rear Window with vampires. That said, a lousy remake is a lousy remake, and I’m happy to report that this remake is not lousy. Fright Night 3D does what a good remake should; reinvent the story for a modern audience, and this film pulls that feat off brilliantly. By setting the story in a barren, flavorless suburb of Vegas, Noxon gives the events a perfect context. There’s a huge population of nocturnal dwellers in Vegas, so the idea of Jerry Dandridge as a guy who sleeps all day and blacks out his widows makes sense. It also provides a context for the reinvented Peter Vincent character. It was the most controversial change from the original when news of the remake began to leak, but having Vincent be a Criss Angel style stage magician makes perfect sense in this reinvention. There aren’t TV horror hosts anymore, so Vincent needed to be some sort of performer with tenuous ties to the world of the supernatural that exists in our modern day media. Who better than an insufferable gothic douchebag who fronts a cheesy vampire-themed stage show? It’s this sort of clever adaptation that lets you know you are dealing with a smart genre script.
Another area in which the film succeeds is by making these characters feel like real people. The original exists in a wonderfully cartoonish pocket of 80’s horror movies, but this one doesn’t have that luxury. Modern audiences demand a certain authenticity, and by casting this film with top notch actors, the film pulls off the unique trick of being fun without feeling like a cartoon. Colin Farrell is the standout performance wise, and I’m sure we’ll get to him, but for me the entire cast was great. Much credit should be given to Anton Yelchin, who imbues Charley Brewster with a real pathos. He feels bad about ditching his childhood friend Ed, but Ed’s nerdishness is getting in the way of Charlie’s social life, in particular his successful wooing of hot hot Amy. This schism is the emotional core of the movie, and although Mintz-Plasse’s version of “Evil” Ed will never be able to touch the bizarro power of Stephen Geoffreys in the original, the relationship between Charley and Ed felt real and is the sort of thing I am sure resonates with teens even today. This relationship was crucial, and these two actors nail it without breaking a sweat.
Renn: The original Fright Night is not a film that’s ever made it in front of my eyes, and since I tend to avoid originals when remakes are announced (I enjoy acting as a “control” of sorts in these cases), I went into this year’s remake clean. What unfolded in front of me ended up being one of the most enjoyable films of the year– a true horror comedy filled with excellent performances, scary moments, and enough good ole fashioned subtext to make you feel good for liking it so much. Since Josh and Sebastian have done a fine job giving the overall rundown, I’ll dig right in.
The film starts out on a great foot, diving breathlessly into the story to build character, setting up relationships, and putting the plot in motion almost instantly. The film doesn’t waste time trying to fake out the audience with the vampire component, and the solid logic driving the story empowers it to infuse character-building into scenes of exposition right away. So in the same scene that we get some set-up for the Vegas setting and the deal with the house next door, we’re getting a really warm look at the relationship between Charley and his Mother, and soon after, his girlfriend. Each time a new character enters, be it Jerry or Ed, we’re learning more about these characters, laughing at the chemistry, and being primed to genuinely fear for (or be afraid of) these characters. It’s an old saw among movie buffs that you can saw the first 20 minutes off of any movie and make it better, and this is the rare case where it felt like that was done for us at the screenwriting level.
Even such a well thought-out script wouldn’t be as much fun to watch if a bunch of assholes were spitting it out, but Yelchin, Ferrell, Poots, Mintz-Plasse, Collete and Tennant are a wonderful ensemble. There are a lot of familiar archetypes here — geeky friend, sassy mom, nerd-tolerant hot chick — but to mix them all together and have it all ring true requires real talent, and the performers and Gillespie make it sing.
Joshua: To keep the contextualizing going… I am a fan of the original Fright Night, though the idea of the remake never bothered me. If we can get a new Dracula every handful of years, we can stand a new teen riff on Dracula every twenty five years.
To echo what Renn was saying, I was rather impressed with how Noxon effortlessly throws us into things, without any confusion or gimmicky bullshit where we’re forced to piece the backstory together as we go along. It is a very well structured Act I, and Gillespie has said it was Noxon’s script that sold him on doing a horror movie in the first place. If only one thing deserved praise here, it would be Fright Night‘s screenplay, I think. Even though this is a remake it feels like an original script. Noxon clearly put real thought into the characters and the story, and avoided a lot of intrinsic flaws remakes can have at the script phase — namely, it doesn’t feel like she was overly concerned with trying to be similar or dissimilar to the original, but rather treated Holland’s script as a popular novel that she was adapting.
And yeah, the cast is top notch. I normally dislike Yelchin like a dull, aching bruise. There is just something about him I can never accept. He’s got that certain Henry Fonda cold inhumanness in his eyes, minus all of Fonda’s screen presence and intensity. He has always hit me as unrelatable and often grating, even when gussied up with a silly accent and goofy dialogue in Star Trek. I can’t quite say why he worked for me as Charley, but for once he didn’t bug me. Maybe it is because Charley is caught in kind of a dickish period in his life when we first meet him, cruelly ignoring his childhood best friend, Ed, simply because Ed’s shameless nerdiness is holding Charley’s social development back. I don’t know. And while Farrell’s second approach on Hollywood technically began with his left-field appearance in Crazy Heart, I think it more officially begins here. Farrell has reassessed himself as an actor (his film choices, and his performances), and it shows. Jerry is a very fun and oddly subtle performance from Farrell, trading on both his natural charm and latent thuggishness.
My only complaint amongst the cast would be David Tennant, although my issues aren’t with his performance so much as the character of Peter Vincent in general. I completely agree that they couldn’t have kept Vincent a schlocky TV horror host, but the Chris Angel take did not feel particularly fresh to me either. It is unfair to say “He wasn’t as interesting as Roddy McDowall in the original!” But viewing both objectively, McDowall’s nervous, embarrassed old man was a unique type. Making the new Peter Vincent a sardonic, drunken British rockstar type felt really old hat. They might as well have cast Russell Brand. Most of the new Fright Night feels extremely fresh; Peter Vincent feels typical. And Tennant comes across as very charactery. I never bought his alcoholism beyond the visual of him constantly drinking. That felt very safe. Also, when we start to delve into Vincent’s past and his knowledge of the film’s vampire mythology, things started to get a bit too Buffy-like.
Sebastian: I think the geek community is going to have to accept that David Tennant has always been a world class ham and not the “real” actor they thought he was based on Doctor Who. He is really the only one here who slips into caricature, although I would argue that it’s welcome. And it does seem to be the way the character was written in the first place.
I have two legitimate gripes with the film, one of which is the sidelining of Toni Collette. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, Collette leaves the story at the third act transition and is left out of the climax. This follows the plot of the original for the most part, but Charley’s mom being absent from the story was something that always bugged me about the original. And in Collette’s case it is just a damn shame because she is a great actress and makes Charley’s mom a totally fleshed out 3D, ahem, character. I also don’t mind saying that I have a crush on Collette and her toothy unconventional looks. But the point is she’s really good in this and in the end you can’t help but feel she’s a little wasted.
My other gripe is the inevitable trip into CG monster territory. I don’t know if it’s just my old school, make-up loving bias, but why must every mainstream Hollywood monster movie throw in what appears to be half-baked creature CGI in the final reel? The original film had some fun state-of-the-art–at-the-time make-up which “monsterized” the vampires in the final act, and as silly as it looks now, it gets props for being the first time cinematic vamps were depicted as deformed creatures. So naturally the remake has to pay homage to that, and unfortunately, it is done with CG. It’s mostly tolerable until the very end when Farrell gets swapped out for something that looks like a rejected animatic from The Mummy Returns. (Alright, I’m exaggerating there but you get the point. This review can’t be all gushing.) Thankfully it is brief, and in all other respects, the technical aspects on display are top notch.
Joshua: The omission of Toni Collette didn’t detract from the film for me, but it was a missed opportunity for a very different climax. How many horror movies feature a climax in which a teen weapons-up and heads into danger with his mom? That could have been interesting.
Though, now that I’m thinking about it, it is actually a little weird that Jane disappears, given Noxon’s approach to the script, which is a bit more Proper Screenplay minded than Holland’s original. I don’t mean that as an insult, just a fact. She is much more concerned with unambiguous motivation and everything fitting orderly into place. This is most apparent with Peter Vincent (and likely the source of my problems with the character). The whole gag in the original was that Charley was so young and clueless and lacking in resources that he seeks out an actor who was once famous for playing a vampire hunter in shitty movies. The new Peter Vincent actually is obsessed with vampires, and actually does know how to fight them. He may be a douche and drunk, but he really is a Van Helsing. Your screenwriting teacher would tell you this is a good change, because it makes Vincent more relevant to the story. Which is true. But it also isn’t quite as much fun.
Renn: Sidelining Collete definitely comes across as something mechanical that the script needs to do to simplify and ramp up the final act, but it’s done in a way that’s not overly bothersome. Tennant also truly enters the picture here and his “hammy” performance definitely feels broad in an old school way that fits right in. I’m not much of a Tennant fan, but he brings the right amount of Vegas into this vampire story, and builds a quick rapport with Yelchin for the final scenes.
Ultimately I feel there are two things that really make this film special: a wonderful performance from Colin Ferrell, and a satisfying wealth of subtext dealing with friendship, masculinity, and growing up. The former is simply a result of Farrell perfectly nailing the mix of charm and menace that Jerry requires, having no issues playing the hunk for the girls, the vaguely intimidating yet awkwardly friendly jock type to Charley, and of course the monster when the shit all goes down. The latter is another indication of the strength of Noxon’s script, which makes vampire paranoia and the deliciously intimidating moments between Charley and Jerry subtle but rich stand-ins for the moments of doubt and insecurity that every growing young man feels. Here we have to watch Charley come to terms with how his shift into sexualized adulthood affects his relationship with his childhood friends, and how even as he feels more grown up and confident there are still forces that can frighten and emasculate him. It’s simple themes like these lying beneath surface action that often makes good horror films into classics. Here it buttresses a tightly composed creature feature and turns it into something really worthwhile– one of the better horror-comedies in years, and definitely one of the best films of the summer.
Sebastian: I think we can all agree on what the most fun part of this movie is, and it’s Colin Farrell’s performance. Farrell is at his most magnetic here, and if this isn’t necessarily his “best” performance on film, it’s certainly the most fun to watch. He plays Jerry Dandridge as a suave scumbag, and he infuses the character with wonderful, twitchy ticks. I loved how he would greet Charley with “Hey guy!” every time — it’s such a perfect scummy unwanted familiarity and one I have experienced with many real life sleazebags. It’s the kind of performance you want to see more of, and while I wouldn’t say that movie suffers when Farrell is off screen, you definitely find yourself wanting to get back to him. It’s not some career defining villain performance like say Heath Ledger’s Joker, but for a horror remake, it’s as good as it gets. It’s certainly miles better than Jackie Earle Haley’s limp turn at Freddy Krueger, though in fairness the character of Jerry Dandridge isn’t saddled with iconic baggage. Still, I felt it honored Chris Sarandon’s original take while being its own thing entirely.
Joshua: I’ll toss in that the film’s 3D seems part of a new trend I’d call “inoffensive” 3D. It’s not Avatar awe-inspiring, nor is it Clash of the Titans rage-inspiring. It’s just there. Which means it is not really worth your extra money. If you want some 3D horror to get your motor going, you should be seeing Final Destination 5 this weekend.
We seem to agree on most points here, except Peter Vincent — who just didn’t work for me as a character or performance. This caused me some problems towards the end, when Charley is separated from his mother, his girlfriend and Ed, and it is just him and Vincent. I like Charley by himself. In fact, the strongest portions of the film for me are when Charley is skulking around, spying on Jerry, breaking into Jerry’s house, etc. But the final portions of the film left something to be desired, and that is when the film should be its most exciting. I saw Fright Night earlier in the summer, and I think it is telling that I very vividly remember most of the film… except the big climax. That certainly hurts my impression of the film, as the excitement I had at the beginning and for most of the middle, is dissipated quite a bit by the time the credits roll. But I don’t mean to end on a sour note here. All-in-all I really enjoyed the film and definitely think it is worth seeing for horror fans. In our post-Twilight world it is nice to see teens and vampires in a gruesome fashion. And if nothing else, it is nice to see a remake that people at least tried to make good.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars