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Entries in Fright Night [2011] (1)

Sunday
Aug212011

Fright Night (2011)

Slay (I Missed You)

Now, this is how you remake a movie! For the last several years, Hollywood has gone out of its way to support the snide but seemingly true notion that it has run out of ideas. From prequels to requels to sequels, from re-imaginings to reboots, I've suffered through tons of glossy, uninspired updates to classic films--the best of which I can count on my middle finger.

The two big questions at the heart of these celluloid Xeroxes are A) Why are they necessary? and, B) Why remake good movies instead of improving upon bad ones?

Both can be answered, of course, with the words "brand recognition". In the cut-throat, fickle, and risk-averse world of mainstream film, a name that the target audience is already familiar with is always a safer bet than something original (one might site Avatar or the Pixar movies as arguments against this theory, but both James Cameron and The House that Toy Story Built are themselves brands: audiences know exactly what to expect before they reach the ticket booth. The newest flavor from the Coca-Cola Company is just a slightly tweaked formula for carbonated sugar-water, and film remakes are simply recycled products with better film stock and slick, new floating-heads posters.

This proven, pathetic fact is what makes director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Marti Noxon's new version of Fright Night such a mind-blowing surprise. With a series of deft touches, they preserve the spirit and story structure of the Tom Holland's 1985 vampire picture while offering up a contemporary version that is in many ways smarter and more engaging than the original. Often, I worry that the new generation of filmgoers will mistakenly consider a remake to be the definitive version of a particular film. But Fright Night stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessor, and both have unique qualities that distinguish them as great horror movies.

The new film stars Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster, a high-schooler whose summer of maturation has netted him sudden popularity and a hot girlfriend named Amy (Imogen Poots). One evening, he comes home to find his mother (Toni Collette) chatting up the hunky, new next-door neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell). Jerry is smitten with both girls and acknowledges Charley as a sort of masculinity-improvement project.

Meanwhile, Charley's former best friend, diehard geek Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), tries to warn him about a series of disappearances in the area; Ed believes that Jerry is a vampire, and that he may have killed one of their friends who'd gotten too close to his secret. Charley blows him off and accuses him of being jealous of his newfound social standing.

Soon, Ed turns up missing and Charley begins to suspect something's not right with the new guy on the block. Using a nifty little test that I won't spoil here, the teen learns the truth; more importantly, he gives himself away in the process and creates a charming, deadly enemy. If you're familiar with the original Fright Night, then you know that Charley seeks the help of a professional demon-slayer named Peter Vincent. In 1985, the character was a washed-up horror-movie host; today, Vincent is a middle-aged Las Vegas illusionist whose schtick involves vanquishing undead hordes with fireballs and wire-work. After much convincing, Vincent offers to help Charley defeat Jerry, which leads to a weird, bloody climax in the vampire's lair.

Though the film's destination isn't surprising, the journey feels completely new, thanks to Noxon's re-tooling of key elements and an expansion of the teen characters' relationships that was sorely missing in the original. Holland's movie felt very small; consequently, I never believed that Charley, Amy, and Ed were really in high school; they seemed like an insular trio of virginal, obsessed-nerd archetypes. By playing up the tension between Ed and Charley and Charley's new crowd, Noxon gives everyone's motivations a gravitas beyond the supernatural struggle between good and evil.

She also messes with Fright Night fans' expectations about who the characters are. As originally portrayed, Charley was a kind but sassy geek, and Ed his obnoxious sidekick. In the new film, Charley is kind of a dick who runs around with people that the Charley we know and love would never have associated with. And Amy comes off as a stuck-up Aeropostale model who wants her man to be less dweeby and more preppy. It's a bit much to take at first, but with these changes, Noxon turns the movie itself into an illustration of what her characters are going through: Ed sees his old, familiar pal morphing into a shallow creature; Charley sees Amy as the unattainable dream girl who can save him from his LARP-ing past; Amy sees Charley as the kind of nice guy that one can't find among the ranks of the super-popular. We, the audience, aren't sure of this new version of our old friend, mostly because we're too scared to admit he/it has grown up a bit.

All that is well and good, but what about the vampire stuff? It's pretty terrific. As with his small but memorable role in Horrible Bosses, Colin Farrell brings an unexpected twist on his gorgeous, L.A.-player persona in the choices he makes as Jerry Dandridge. Twenty-six years ago, Chris Sarandon (who, along with Lisa Loeb, who pops up in a cool little cameo) played Jerry as a cultured Yuppie who happened to have moved to the suburbs. His old-fashioned charms made the transformation into quietly menacing dark lord that much creepier. Farrell goes a completely different route, making Jerry into a beefed-up Vegas douchebag who, if he weren't draining strippers of their blood would certainly be slipping them roofies.

Gone is the subdued politeness; in its place is the pompous, beer-laugh arrogance of a guy who knows he's the coolest thing on the planet. He hides in plain sight, and I can't imagine the neighbors would be surprised to see him in a domestic-abuse story on the evening news. Farrell's effectiveness in the role is up for debate. I like the new take, but there's a phoniness to his slick persona that rubbed me the wrong way; I can't be sure it Farrell had trouble being cool while playing cool, or if he was playing Jerry Dandridge as a predatory chameleon still getting used to his new skin.

David Tennant is absolutely great as Peter Vincent 2.0. Rather than imitating Roddy McDowall, he creates a unique character from the archetype. This Vincent is an irredeemable, hard-core drunk who hides in his mansion-suite and buys mystical relics off eBay in his spare time. Everything about him is a magnified illusion--from his hair to his love for the occult, and his dismissive cruelty towards Charley hits harder here. My one major beef with the character is that we learn his parents were killed by a vampire, which explains both his supernatural empire and his reluctance to pursue its real-world implications; he's a coward, through and through. But the victim-parents angle goes one step too far (it practically hurdles off a cliff when we learn just who killed his parents; this throwaway line feels like a studio note compared to the rest of the film's solid writing).

Speaking of pushing boundaries, I saw Fright Night in 3D, and would like to, once again, express my disgust at this ticket-inflating trend. All 3D does in a movie like this is exaggerate the cheapness of the CG effects. The only half-way entertaining use of the technology came in the form of a stake launched at the screen, which was caught in mid-air and snapped in two. The other money-shots look like out-of-the-box After Effects plug-ins, from the generic blood splatters to the godawful vampire faces, which mix computer imagery with practical effects. I guess the idea was to re-create the look of the wide-mouthed cartoon-character vamps found in the original film; but I wished the makeup and effects departments had followed the writer and directors' leads and developed something new--at least something that isn't completely ridiculous and scare-free.

Oddly enough, the production design almost makes up for the effects problems. Richard Bridgland does some great, spare work here, toning down the grand, Goth spectacle of Jerry's house from the original in favor of a utilitarian prison/food-storage-locker in the remake. Some of the most intense moments find Charley trapped in a white corridor, trying to free a neighbor from one of several locked rooms where Jerry keeps his victims. Later, when he and Vincent face off against the head vampire in his basement, we're treated to these eerie, gravity-defying dirt walls and small caves that look like they actually sprouted from sub-division construction, but which definitely don't belong there (very much in line with the way the monsters in the Alien series enhance their surroundings using organic matter). It's rare that both the events and visuals of a horror movie's climax offer up this many continuous surprises.

While not a perfect film, Fright Night 2011 is stunning proof that not all remakes have to be lousy, that there is room for innovation and personal touches. This movie doesn't feel like a product so much as a brilliant, fan-created, alternate-universe homage. I know I spent much of this review drawing comparisons, but the best way to experience Gillespie's movie is to set aside everything you know about Holland's; my greatest challenge in watching it was turning down the volume on my Critic Brain, which has become so used to harping on remake discrepancies over the years that I couldn't trust Noxon's vision until twenty minutes into the show. I can't wait to see it again, to appreciate the odd choices that lead to cool payoffs; to paraphrase "Evil" Ed, this movie is so cool.