A film review by Craig J. Koban August 22, 2011

FRIGHT NIGHT jjj
½ (see review addendum)

2011, R, 101 mins.

Anton Yelchin: Charley / Colin Farrell: Jerry / Christopher Mintz-Plasse: Ed / David Tennant: Peter / Imogen Poots: Amy / Toni Collette: Jane

Directed by Craig Gillespie / Written by Marti Noxon, based on the 1985 film "Fright Night" written by Tom Holland

SCREENED IN
3D

The original 1985 FRIGHT NIGHT, directed by Tom Holland, did many things right.  It had an unusual, for its time, self-awareness about the horror genre and movies in general.  It successfully appropriated the moody and bloody Hammer films of yesteryear.  It was a biting commentary and satire of the conventions of mainstream horror films of its era.  And, lastly, but most importantly, it mixed shock and awe gore and scares with a scathing sense of irreverent humor throughout, which was – and still is – not the easiest dichotomy to effectively pull off.

I recently saw the old FRIGHT NIGHT and was surprised by how very well it held up after even 26 years.  What amazed me even more, however, was how much more I enjoyed this new remake, which also does many things inordinately well.  It has a slew of thanklessly decent and memorable performances.  It mimics the original’s unique hybrid of scares and laughs.  It generates palpable tension and suspense.  Lastly, FRIGHT NIGHT-redux does what all great remakes, in my mind, should aim to do: it both honors the memory of its antecedent by being both faithful to the original’s story while simultaneously not being completely slavish to it.  Those who hold the early FRIGHT NIGHT (as I do) so close to their collective hearts will, no doubt, find the new story very familiar.  Yet, this most recent incarnation manages to make the whole enterprise feel fresher because of minor and major tweaks made judiciously here and there to allow for it to stand proudly on its own two feet.  The result is a reinvented horror/comedy that is sly, hip, stylish, and, yes, frightening that will appease both die-hard fans of the original as well as new devotees.

Charley (the routinely solid Anton Yelchin) is a former high school geek that has abandoned nerdom (and his former best buddy, Ed, played by McLovin himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in order spend more time with the “cool” and “with it” kids at his local Las Vegas high school.  This does not sit very well with Ed, who seems to take it very badly that his former BFF is now hanging with people he finds socially repugnant.  Charley does not really mind, seeing as he has an improbably hot girlfriend in Amy (the fetching and spunky Imogen Poots) that seems to genuinely like him (granted, one of the film’s weaknesses is explaining how a girl so woefully out of Charley’s league has hooked up with him).  When not spending time at school or with his girl, Charley is at home with his mother (a very good Toni Collette) who has recently separated from her husband.

Strange things, however, are starting to occur in Charley's world: some students from his high school have gone mysteriously missing, which he takes all in stride.  Ed, however, thinks that they have been kidnapped and sucked dry by Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Collin Farrell).  Charley rightfully thinks that Ed is crazy for thinking that Jerry is a vampire.  Even upon first meeting Jerry, Charley is not all that convinced: his new neighbor is tall, sculpted, roguishly handsome and seems like a polite and pleasant fellow that keeps to himself (sure, he only seems to come out in the very late afternoon or night, but…no matter).  Despite the fact that his mother appears very smitten with the hunky Jerry, there is not much to the man that seems to bother Charley.

His attitude changes pretty quickly, though.  Ed appears to disappear like many of those other high schoolers, which peaks Charley’s idle interest.  Then Charley stumbles across some recent video recordings Ed made of Jerry that start to set off some minor warning signs about his potential duplicitous nature.  Then Charley gets really, really freaked out when he notices that Jerry does not appear to cast reflections in mirrors or show up on camera, which makes the once doubting teenager now a full-on believer that, yup, Jerry is a blood sucking sociopath.  Realizing that he may need more than a bit of help to rid his neighborhood – and the world – of this deadly nosferatu, Charley seeks the aid of a local Las Vegas illusionist and occult expert named Peter Vincent (David Tennant) that, initially at least, thinks that the deeply anxious and scared kid is insane, but when Vincent sees irrefutable evidence of Jerry’s nocturnal proclivities, he begrudgingly finds himself partnered with Charley on a potential suicide mission to slay the vampire.

One of the most delectable pleasures of the first FRIGHT NIGHT was the legendary Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, who was presented in that film as an aging and down-on-his luck, Peter Cushing-esque horror star at the twilight of his career that finds himself helping his young fan defeat the vampire.  What I liked about the new FRIGHT NIGHT was how it did not just haphazardly resurrect the Vincent character as a carbon copy.  Trying to recapture what McDowall did beforehand would have been a mistake.  Instead, the makers have completely revamped him as a droll, swaggering, potty mouthed, and deeply full-of-himself magician that seems like the three-way love child of Criss Angel, David Copperfield, and Russell Brand.  Ex-Doctor Who Tennant is a rambunctious, cheeky, and egocentric scream playing the re-imagined Vincent that’s part Van Helsing and part deeply narcissistic stage performer.  Most of the film’s manic and lively comic energy is due to in large part to Tennant’s willingness to make a complete ass of himself.

The other casting coup de grace of the remake is for sure Collin Farrell.  Why on earth has the Irishman not played a vampire before in a film?  What’s great here is that Farrell wisely does not choose to replicate Chris Sarandon’s famous performance from the ’85 version.  Instead of playing Jerry as unnervingly amiable and devilishly sly, Farrell opts to portray his monster as a frighteningly unpredictable blood lusting force.  What’s so unbecoming about, say, the TWILIGHT films is how they have turned vampires into pensive and love sick bores.  What Farrell does with such a pulsating vitality and mischievously sinister edge is to re-appropriate the cinematic monster as just that…an unhinged and terrifyingly deadly beast.  Even better is how he suggests deeper layers to his character: the manner that he parades around Charley’s block as a spectacle of almost hilarious masculine bravado and sexual desire is almost as creepily menacing as his monstrous alter-ego.  It’s kind of paradoxical, but he kind of underplays Jerry to the point of evoking an overplayed theatricality.  Farrell is all kinds of right here.

Inexplicably enough, the new FRIGHT NIGHT was directed by Craig Gillespie, whose last film could not have been any different, 2007’s  LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, which I proudly placed on my Ten Best List of that year.  What’s so unexpected with the filmmaker here is how is carves out scary suspense scenes that are crisply delineated and well executed.  There’s one scene involving Charley infiltrating Jerry’s house, trying to uncover his secrets and rescue a poor captive, that adeptly shows, at the same time, how each character grows to learn more about the other.  Then there is a sequence later in the film – sensationally realized – that involves Charley, his girlfriend and mother trying to escape Jerry’s ravenous pursuits on a darkened Las Vegas highway.  It amusingly concludes with one of mom’s Century 21 billboard signs – with its stake-like post – stabbed into the ribs of Jerry, which has to be one of the more innovatively improvised weapons in a vampire film.

The film also has considerable fun in its fever pitched climax, pitting Charley and Vincent – all suited up and packing serious undead heat – versus Jerry and his minions, which is all handled with solid production design and blood curdling CGI effects.  Throughout all of the visceral carnage and mayhem, though, Gillespie and company still manage to keep their tongues firmly in cheek and not so much that the resulting film comes off as mindless camp.  In the end, I was genuinely surprised by how much I thoroughly enjoyed this reinterpretation.   The new FRIGHT NIGHT made me think rather fondly of its forerunner, but not because it slothfully regurgitates it, but rather by how it uses it as a revitalizing springboard to carve out its own inimitable niche for the genre.   This is a bloody good remake that definitely does not…suck.

 

REVIEW ADDENDUM

FRIGHT NIGHT represents a real Hollywood rarity in the sense that it was apparently shot with actual 3D cameras during principle photography.  Aside from a couple of really nifty, in-your-face effects involving blood splatter and fiery ash, the film is perhaps one of the most squandered and foolhardy uses of 3D I’ve seen.  Considering the film’s oftentimes oppressively dark cinematography, I found it almost too impossibly murky at times to discern details from shot to shot.  If you see FRIGHT NIGHT in the very unnecessary - and distractingly shoddy - 3D presentation, the film deserves to have one star taken away from my above rating.  In the pleasures of 2D, though, it’s a three and a half star film…for sure.

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