August 26, 2011

Fright Night

Last Saturday, we went to see Fright Night.

Normally I try to avoid remakes, especially if I like the original but the trailer sold me on giving this one a chance. The new version actually looked promising, like an interesting remake that didn’t seem hell-bent on murdering another pleasant memory from my youth.

Okay, well, that’s not entirely true. It was the trailer…and David Tennant. I’m a huge Doctor Who fan. Tennant is easily my favorite Doctor of the current run. Besides being my favorite Doctor, he’s one of Maria’s biggest crushes. So it was win-win.

I was surprised how much the new film retains the premise of the original. Briefly:

Charley Brewster, a high school kid, watches his neighbor out the window. Brewster learns the neighbor is a vampire responsible for a recent rash of disappearances. No one believes Brewster so he tries to enlist the aid of someone he thinks knows about vampires and can help his battle against the undead. Complications ensue when the vampire catches on to Brewster’s meddling and we build toward a horrific confrontation.

Both then and now, it’s basically a retooling of Rear Window. Unlike Distubria, it’s a clever one. The original Fright Night was funny with bits of straight-up humor and some wonderful moments of dark comedy. The comedic bits were nicely balanced against some spooky and genuinely tense moments with special effects that still hold up pretty okay. If there is a problem at all with the original film, it’s the horribly dated clothes and hair.

The important thing about the original Fright Night is that it came along in the middle of the first slasher/gore porn boom and offered a more fulfilling alternative to hockey masks and jiggling breasts hacked off by meat cleavers. Watching the film, it was clear that this was a movie that understood the horror genre in all its permutations. Fright Night knew succinctly what it was trying to do with its nods and allusions and, truthfully, it’s role as a throwback film focusing more on tension than chainsaws.

In the original, Peter Vincent was once the star of a number of Hammer style films, playing a fearless vampire hunter a la Peter Cushing. Now he’s the host of a late night horror show called Fright Night. (I believe a nod to Larry Vincent and his horror program produced by KTLA). His ratings have dropped and he’s about to be fired. No one wants him or his style of film anymore.

Or so he’s been told.

Through the course of the film, Vincent learns he still has a purpose. In a way, his character is a reflection of the movie itself, representing a level of self awareness that I believe contributed to the film's success.

Well, the horror film has come full circle again. This new version of Fright Night arrives in the midst of another torture porn explosion and, like the original, offers a successful and fulfilling alternative.

This new version of Fright Night is fast paced. Thanks to a very smart script by Marti Noxon (Buffy, Prison Break, Point Pleasant, Mad Men, Gray’s Anatomy) we start in right away with no wasted movements. Characters are introduced, we learn the neighbor is a vampire and we’re off for 120 minutes that doesn’t feel like anywhere near 2 hours.

Sure, lots of films have good pacing. However, a couple things really impressed me about Fright Night and its pacing. First, character is not sacrificed. Noxon manages to keep things rolling, but doesn't turn everyone in to cardboard cutouts. These people have personalities and identities. They’re not just there to move through the action sequences and offer a one-liner now and then. Noxon understands that part of fright, a genuine sense of terror and fear for a character, can only come through knowing and caring about that character. Sure, bits and pieces feel a little teenyboppery (Charley and Amy and Evil Ed’s relationship) and there's a later unnecessary explanation for Vincent's vampire knowledge that never really goes anywhere, but it all works. When everything is said and done, I know far more about these characters, all of them—even the vampire, than their counterparts in the original.

Not only does the film keep a quick pace without sacrificing character, but it retains the same beats and a lot of the same scenes and nuances of the original despite being a much "faster" film. You’ll love all these scenes and nods when you see them. This isn’t a mindless reshoot like Gus Van Sant’s pointless Psycho remake. The scenes are there out of respect for the material and the fans, but are tweaked to good effect.

I think a good example is the club scene.

Near the climax in the original film, the vampire is chasing Charley and his girlfriend through town. They take shelter in a dance club thinking the crowd will offer them safety.

It doesn’t.

Jerry follows. He hunts and seduces Charley’s girlfriend in the smoky, throbbing interior.

The scene is meant to be tense and a little sexy, but I always found it jarring and a little silly. The club is unexpected and out of place. The town you’ve seen up to that point in the original film doesn’t seem like it would have a dance club at all, let alone a huge, happening hot-spot.

This same scene is far more successful in the new film. Their arrival in the club is more natural and makes sense as a progression of the scene before it. It’s still not quite sexy, but it’s tense and it’s as clever as the rest of the changes and the updates.

The action in this modern version moves the story from an undisclosed suburb to Las Vegas (the original novelization by horror team Skipp & Spector names the town as Rancho Corvallis). Whether conscious or not, the move to Sin City is a nice nod to The Nightstalker. It also allows for a wonderful twist on Charley’s neighborhood. Our protagonist now lives in one of those tract housing subdivisions that Malvina Reynolds sang about. It’s modern and it’s anonymous.

It’s also unfinished and literally in the middle of the desert with nothing else around.

Anonymity and seclusion are horror’s chocolate and peanut butter.

Peter Vincent has gotten a tweak too. He’s no longer a former B-movie actor reduced to hosting a show on the local public access channel—which is for the best. I doubt if a younger audience would even know what he was supposed to be. Instead Vincent is now a big-name Las Vegas illusionist whose stage show features his “mock” battles against “vampires.” This Vincent is one part Criss Angel (tattoos and leather pants) and one part David Copperfield (a massive collection of occult/mystical artifacts). And it works.

Thanks to David Tennant. He just shines in the film. He’s everything he needs to be when he needs to be it: over the top, a little cheesy, drunk and vulgar, sad, cowardly and then brave.

I’ve never been a huge Colin Farrell fan, but he handles his role as the vampire neighbor well. He manages to walk a nice line between sexy and sleazy. His Jerry Dandridge is that douchebag you know in real life and you hate because every woman falls for his bullshit, time and time again. Farrell does give his douchebag an chilling undercurrent of menace.

Anton Yelchin is good as Charley. He’s likeable and relatable.He manages to play the geek and the popular kid believably. When Charley has no choice but to face the monster next door, he plays it with a nice sense of determine resignation.

The lovely Sandra Vergara plays Vincent’s assistant/girlfriend Ginger and she’s a dream. Her and Tennant have great chemistry together. Their scenes were some of the funniest of the entire picture.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is this new film’s Evil Ed. I have to admit I was a little disappointed in transforming Evil Ed from socially awkward kid who likes weird shit to…well, the same role that Mintz-Plasse will be playing for the rest of his life—McLovin. He is funny, though.

The main women characters don’t have much to work with. Toni Collette stars as Charley’s mom and she’s there mostly for exposition and to stress the broad appeal of Jerry’s sexiness. The unfortunately named Imogen Poots is passable as Amy. Any young actress between 16 and 22 could have played that part and it wouldn’t have mattered—which may be purposeful. There’s a subtext to this film, that’s all about pussy: what a man will do for it and how he will protect it...and even find it scary.

Really, however those are all just minor quips though. This new version of Fright Night was excellent. Easily the best horror film I’ve seen in a long time.


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