There’s plenty to like about the original 1985 version of Fright Night: the performances from Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowall, the great practical horror effects, and the thoughtful subtext about teens coming to grips with their burgeoning sexuality and the familiar inadequacies that come with it. The remake of Fright Night ditches almost all of these aspects but still manages to be an entertaining creature feature filled with excellent performances, plenty of humor, and some nice surprises as it tries update the film for a new audience.
As in the original, teenager Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) has a smoking hot girlfriend (Imogen Poots) but he also has a serious problem: a vampire named Jerry (Colin Farrell) has moved next door. That’s where the similarities begin to fall away as Charley has become popular and left his former best friend “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) behind. Ed desperately tries to convince Charley that Jerry is a vampire. In his on-the-nose description, Ed says Jerry “Is the shark from Jaws.” Charley soon realizes that Ed was right and he has to find away to defeat Jerry and save his mom (Toni Collette) and girlfriend. He tries to get some help from “professional” vampire-hunter/entertainer Peter Vincent (David Tennant) only to find that the Criss Angel-esque Las Vegas stage magician is a vainglorious ball of nihilism and hedonism. Meanwhile, the threat of Jerry (yes, the film makes fun of the fact that the monster’s name is Jerry) looms over everything Charley does.
The remake of Fright Night keeps the set-up and the climax of the original along with the character relationships, but throws almost everything else away. It’s a modern film that doesn’t really want to owe much to the classic horror movies and instead is more intense, fast-paced, and action-packed. There’s still a horror aspect to the movie and director Craig Gillespie shows he’s well-equipped at building tension even if the payoff is predictable (although there’s one great surprise that threw the entire audience for a loop). The action scenes could also use some polish as the film’s big set piece has such obvious green-screen that the one-shot take gets overshadowed.
But character is where it counts and while it may not be the scariest film this year or have the best set pieces, Fright Night has one of the best ensembles I’ve so far in 2011. Anton Yelchin shows some great leading-man chops as he convincingly goes from self-involved teenager to vampire slayer over the course of the story. Collette and Poots also get in some good moments, but the scene stealers are Mintz-Plasse, Tennant, and most of all Farrell.
Armed with angry nerd one-liners, Mintz-Plasse makes for a brilliant audience surrogate and he’s the only character who seems truly aware of the outsized circumstances of the film’s plot. One of Fright Night‘s biggest flaws is how it introduces Evil Ed, makes us love the character, and then drops him out of the plot until the end of the second act. David Tennant suffers from the same problem but in reverse. We don’t meet Peter Vincent until halfway through the movie, Tennant has the audience rolling over in laughter, and then he doesn’t come back until act three when he truly gets a chance to shine. Marti Noxon’s script has more than a few self-reflective elements and Mintz-Plasse and Tennant make them work.
But the true star of the movie is Farrell. Chris Sarandon gave a great performance as Jerry in the original, but his character was confined to a one-on-one battle with Charley to the point where it seemed like Jerry was more preoccupied with taunting his next door neighbor than doing vampire stuff. Since the remake has a bigger budget and can go far beyond the suburban streets that confined the original, the new Jerry treats Vegas like his own smorgasbord and he should. He really is the shark from Jaws if the shark could talk, walk on dry land, and was really, really handsome. Like in the original film, Jerry enjoys taunting Charley, but Farrell takes it to a whole new level by showing the tremendous confidence of a creature that has survived for over 400 years and is the dominant species on the food chain. The charm, charisma, and devilish glee Farrell brings to the role are worth the price of admission alone.
It would be nice if the movie shared some of that charm by embracing some practical effects of the original. The new Fright Night can indulge in all of the CGI blood splatter it wants, but the creativity of the gore is diminished by the over-reliance on digital effects. There are some times when it’s necessary, but elements like Jerry’s true vampire form and some of his kills can look a bit cartoony. And while I hate to keep harping on it, the 3D diminishes the movie. Perhaps if it were shown at the proper luminosity, it would be warranted because Gillespie is clearly having a good time throwing stuff out of the screen and providing the flick with its creature-feature vibe. But the story mostly takes place at night and the result is one of the dimmest movies I’ve ever seen in the format. Trying to find the characters is like trying to find a shade of grey against a back drop of a slightly darker shade of grey.
You’re not going to get the subtext of the original Fright Night. The remake isn’t about a teenage guy’s fear that his girlfriend will run to a more sexually experienced older man. There’s no subtext about Ed being a closeted homosexual. But in their place the remake manages to drive through an enjoyable, fast-past paced action-horror-comedy that’s filled with terrific performances.