Apparently, it was Fright Night’s turn to take a spin in the Hollywood Remake-O-Tronic. At this point, raging against Hollywood’s seeming inability to write an original film is pointless. If you removed all the remakes, films based on existing properties, and movies that might as well be remakes but are just original enough to avoid that title (looking at you, every rom-com in existence), your local movie theater would be a sad and desolate place, with tumbleweeds rolling past the concession stand as you choose between one of three low-budget indie films being shown. It’s just best to accept that everything ever filmed that made even a few dollars will be remade. Think I’m kidding about that? There is a Citizen Kane remake floating around Hollywood right now. Wrap your head around that. Nothing is sacred in Hollywood, least of all the 1985 vampire horror film, Fright Night.
Vampires are hot right now, and horror remakes can be made quickly and for less money than many other types of films. Plus, horror fans are a dedicated bunch that will generally support most films in the genre. The flipside is that they can be among the most critical fans, and sometimes appeasing them can mean alienating the more mainstream audiences. But for a horror film to really succeed and have any staying power, it needs to walk a fine line. It must satiate the legion of fans that support the genre, while still offering something that appeals to a mainstream audience.
Fright Night fortifies its mainstream appeal by toning down the gore, cranking up the suspense, and injecting a fair amount of humor. It works, thanks to a stylish look, top-shelf acting and a smart script. In fact, it works very well. Fright Night is easily among the best horror films of the year, and while some hardcore genre fans might complain that it doesn’t offer enough scares or blood, it walks the line well enough that it should win over plenty of audiences regardless.
Fright Night, the remix
I should start by saying that the original Fright Night is little more than a name and a distant memory to me at this point. I’ve seen it and I liked it, but it was never as close to my heart as it was to so many other filmgoers. I also made it a point to avoid seeing it until after I watched the new film to avoid making too direct of a comparison. I mention all that because there are some significant changes between the two movies, and those that cling to the original may take issue with a few of the ways that the characters have been reinvented. But at its core, the idea remains the same.
Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a fairly average Las Vegas high schooler. He goes to class, owns a dirt bike, has a girlfriend and happens to live next door to a weirdo named Jerry (Colin Farrell). When several of his classmates begin to disappear, Charlie’s former friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) suspects vampirey shenanigans. He wants Charlie to help him investigate the disappearances, so he blackmails him with video of Charlie in his full-on nerd days being distinctly “uncool.” Not wanting his girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) to know of his former dweeb-ness, Charlie goes along with it, but doesn’t for a second believe in vampires. That quickly changes.
Jerry decides that rather than just kill Charlie, he wants to toy with him a bit. So to protect his family and friends, Charlie heads to the only person he thinks might be able to help him, Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a Criss Angel-like Las Vegas stage performer and self-professed vampire expert, who is quick to point out that his own life is little more than illusion. But to save his girl and protect his family, Charlie must defeat the evil incarnate known by the fearsome moniker, Jerry.
In terms of premise, the new Fright Night is the same as the original: A high school kid discovers a vampire living next door, hijinks ensue. Fright Night really is as solid a remake as you might hope for. It honors the original and carries over the concept, but modernizes it and changes enough aspects to make it feel fresh and original. A lot of that is credit to the screenplay from Marti Noxon, best known for her work as a writer and producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
This clever script makes sense in the context of the world the characters occupy. The setting is Las Vegas, which allows Jerry to project the semblance of a normal life. His windows are blocked out because he supposedly works on the Strip at night, and many of his victims are ignored due to the transitory nature of the city. It also allows for the character of Peter Vincent to be nearby.
The dialogue is also crisp, and in traditional Buffy-style, it is filled with several good one-liners and plenty of pop culture references, something that the original was also big on. The characters are also well developed, even (to a degree) Jerry. You quickly know everything you need to about him through his actions, and yet he is still incredibly fun to watch on screen. The same is true for Peter Vincent, although you do hear more of his backstory and he has more of a character arc.
There are some tense moments in the film, and the blood does fly—especially in the 3D, which is gimmicky but entertaining—and there is always a sense of fun and style to the film. It moves along quickly, and so rather than waiting for the film’s characters to catch up with what the audience already knows (i.e., “the guy’s a vampire, oh god, run for your life you idiots”), it quickly reaches a point of understanding and then goes in a different direction.
Few things are more frustrating in movies—especially in horror films—as having to wade through the obligatory and only slightly necessary setup to get to the payoff. If you are watching a horror movie about a guy with an axe killing beautiful co-eds, the audiences doesn’t need to know the family history of the soon to be axe-sheath. Fright Night avoids that with witty writing, entertaining performances and solid pacing.
An international cast of Americans
A script is only as good as the people that act in it, and that is where the movie really succeeds. Anton Yelchin is solid and likable as Charlie, and following his turns in movies ranging from blockbusters like Star Trek to smaller, indie roles like in The Beaver, seem to indicate that Hollywood is loading Yelchin on the catapult, and intends to launch him to super-stardom. He is one to watch.
But the real scene stealers are Farrell and Tennant as Jerry and Peter Vincent respectively. Jerry positively revels in his evil. He toys with Charlie, and Farrell is both charming and unnerving. Farrell seemed to be enjoying himself in this role, and it shows.
Tennant as the illusionist Peter Vincent is also a standout, and fans of his turn as Doctor Who will see several sparks of what made him so successful in that role. Vincent has an easy mania that accentuates his vapid nature, which in itself is covering a deeper history. It is a huge departure from Roddy McDowall’s memorable role as the burnt-out Vincent in the original, but it works.
Tennant and Farrell both gleefully attack their roles as larger-than-life characters, while Yelchin’s Charlie grounds them both as the straight man. Without strong performances from the actors playing Jerry and Vincent, Fright Night would have been a forgettable film. With them, they combine with Yelchin’s role to make one of the best movies of the summer.
As a side note, the film is loaded with international talent. Yelchin was born in Russia, Farrell is Irish, Tennant is Scottish, Poots is English, and Toni Collette — who plays Charlie’s mom — is Australian, as is the director Craig Gillespie. The only one of those actors that doesn’t play the role with an American accent is the Scot David Tennant, who speaks in an English accent. Five years from now when that is a trivia question, you will thank me for that useless factoid.
Everyone in the film seems loose and dives into their roles. For that you have to give the credit to Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock, Lars and the Real Girl). This is his biggest film to date, and the $30 million budget should be recouped within the first week or two thanks to strong reviews and good word-of-mouth, which means you will be seeing more from him soon.
Despite the fact that the majority of the film is set in a desert suburb without much color, Gillespie (and his cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe) find a way to wring all the color and style out of the setting that you could want. It looks great. The only flaw in the direction comes at the end, when a fight scene moves so quickly that it becomes hard to follow, especially in 3D. It is a minor issue though, and the exception rather than the rule.
Fright Night is an incredibly entertaining movie that will appeal to a wide audience, despite its horror roots. It has a witty and smartly written script that honors the original, and feeds off of pop culture references that add a spark to the film, just as the original did. While the second and third acts are more action driven, the first is mostly introductory work that is filled with dialogue. This could have bogged down the film, but instead it sets up everything you need to know quickly and intelligently, and even knocks out some humor for good measure. There is even a funny Twilight references that in one swoop drops in a good joke while addressing the current vampire craze.
Yelchin, Tennant and Farrell make this movie. They all seem to be having fun with their roles, and the wild natures of Farrell and Tennant’s characters fit well with Yelchin in the middle. One of them is on screen at all times, and that is a good thing. Credit to Gillespie for that, as well as the look of the movie.
Fright Night is one of the best movies of the summer, and with the Hollywood machine churning out remakes at the same pace that Honda churns out cars, we should all hope that they are this well made.
(Fright Night is rated R, with a running time of 106 minutes)