Written by: Marti Noxon (screenplay), Tom Holland (story)
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, and David Tennant
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“I really hate to be the one to tell you this but that guy, your neighbor?”
"Yeah, he's a vampire."
"Yeah, he's a vampire."
The Fright Night remake has been a long time coming and has gone through a bunch of different forms on its way to theaters. To my knowledge, it was announced nearly 4 years ago, and there were some vague rumblings that it’d involve an amusement park (which doesn’t sound like Fright Night at all). Then there was a great meta idea thrown out there that would see Chris Sarandon playing himself (ostensibly in the Peter Vincent role) to help some kid who thought a vampire moved in next to him. Even Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier pitched an interesting idea that’d cleverly update the original. Eventually (and perhaps unsurprisingly) though, they pretty much settled on retelling the familiar tale we saw 25 years ago, and having seen the final result, I think any of the other pitches would have fared better.
In this version, Anton Yelchin is Charley Brewster, and Colin Farrell is vampire Jerry Dandridge. When the latter moves in next door, Charley is warned by his friend, Evil Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), that he may be a bloodsucking fiend who’s responsible for a recent rash of disappearances. Charley shrugs it off until he’s unable to ignore the signs and he soon finds himself enlisting the help of Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a self-professed occult specialist who stars in a theatrical stage show called Fright Night.
This film serves as a perfect example of how a few tweaks can wreck a great concept. What made Fright Night great was its clever simplicity--it was basically a high school movie mixed with an old fashioned vampire tale that was genuinely witty and filled with great characters. The update has very little of that, as it takes that simple formula and transforms it into an overwrought mess that ultimately misses the point entirely. It admittedly starts in that same great place--high school drama. However, this time, the drama’s shaken up and is a little bit different because Charley’s become one of those preppy dicks who has left his dweeby past behind, much to the dismay of Ed. I was very intrigued that maybe they’d turned Fright Night into a tale about the friendship between these two, which is actually an inventive, valid take on the whole thing. I was even willing to forgive the script for making us sit through gobs of exposition to establish their frayed relationship. However, I couldn’t forgive that it drops this angle completely and ends up telling the wrong story.
In fact, it basically forgets what it sets up during the opening fifteen minutes because Ed completely drops out of the picture for damn near an hour (meaning he’s literally only in about three scenes). If you’ve seen the original, then it’s no surprise that Ed gets turned by Jerry, and I thought they would surprise us by having the film be about Charley saving Ed from his vampiric fate. I think that would have been an inventive way to explore some interesting coming-of-age stuff, but it’s ultimately nowhere to be found. In fact, it doesn’t even seem to be an option and Charley shows no remorse about how things have gone down between the two. And that's the real bitch of this Fright Night: it’s hard to dispute that Charley is a bit of a prick. Oh, sure, he comes to the realization that he wrongly shunned his former best friend for the sake of popularity, but it carries no weight because it’s an empty arc without Ed actually being around.
So instead of something fresh and intriguing, we instead set a sort of misshapen rehash of the original film. Except even this is mostly bungled because it misses the thrust of the antagonism between Charley and Jerry. The cat and mouse game between the two in the original worked because Jerry essentially toyed with Charley because all of his cries fell on deaf ears; Jerry was congenial and suave as hell and wanted to stay hidden (which, of course, is the entire point of moving into a normal neighborhood). Not so here, as Jerry all but screams “I’m a weirdo” anytime he comes into contact with anyone; he even dispenses with the act quickly by blowing up Charley’s goddamn house right in front of everyone, so you’re wondering why he’s trying to be so covert in the first place.
I think that scene speaks to the fact that Fright Night gets way too big and elaborate for its own good. Even worse, it’s just not having much fun while being so, despite the fact that it should be. I say this because some of the performances are genuinely enjoyable. Colin Farrell is actually quite good as Jerry, and, in fact, I was on board with this remake from the moment he was cast. There’s something really devious, mischievous, and, yes, feral about his performance--it probably just belongs in another movie because something like this calls for a more seductive charmer. Then again, maybe not because even the subplot that sees him targeting Charley’s girlfriend (Imogen Poots) feels half-hearted. Playing out like lip service to the original, this aspect pops up late in the game just to add some more stakes to the last act. It certainly doesn’t tap into the sexual anxieties that occasionally pop up between Charley and Amy (which of course was one of the main points of the original).
David Tennant is also an energetic bright spot; I’d heard so many good things about this guy from rabid Doctor Who fans, and they’re absolutely right--this guy should be a star. It’s sort of unfortunate that even his Peter Vincent is hard to like at first--would it have killed this script to let us actually like a character right off the bat (seriously, Jerry is the only one I liked upon introduction)? This isn’t your father’s quaint, old Peter Vincent, of course; instead, he’s a little bit more belligerent and it feels like Tennant is trying to be Russell Brand and Captain Jack Sparrow all at once. He’s really a screen stealer though, especially once we get on his side. However, even his character is bloated and saddled with an arc that that muddies the waters. I hate to belabor comparisons to the original, but McDowall’s performance worked because he was a kooky old guy trying to recapture some glory; Tennant’s Vincent is written in such a way that the script wants to have its cake and eat it too. Sometimes he does seem like a kooky, cowardly wuss that betrays his stage character, but a later revelation about him betrays even that, so you're left wondering just what his deal really is. Just as I feel that there’s a great, personal story to be told between Charley and Ed, there’s an intriguing conflict to be found between Vincent and Jerry.
Somehow, the film clumsily mishandles both of these plots and leaves us with some empty horror thrills. Craig Gillespie obviously has chops, and he shows them off with some fun, action-packed sequences (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone hurl a motorcycle as a weapon before). But just like everything else about this movie that I liked, I wish it was at the service of a better film. Even a lot of the horror stuff is marred by some poor effects. I don’t care if it makes me sound like a curmudgeon--the sense of awe and wonder that you got from the original Fright Night are washed away here by a sea of CGI fangs (yes, even the fangs aren’t practical) and silly vampire makeup. Genre legends Nicotero and Berger are credited, but I’d like to know how much of their practical stuff got unnecessarily touched up with CGI. And this is coming from someone who is a staunch advocate for using computer effects when necessary; however, they rarely are necessary when you just need to spill some blood and tear open some throats.
Fright Night isn’t just a disappointing redux of a cult classic--it’s just a sub-par movie standing on its own wobbly legs. Most disappointing is that many of its changes open so many doors that are ultimately never walked through. Why is it set in Las Vegas? Because it can be and certainly not because it lends itself to themes of decadence and whatnot. In fact, there are no well developed themes at play here because none of the dots in the script ever connect in satisfying faction. What should have been a great coming-of-age movie about the perils of popularity gets completely lost in a script that wants to both rehash and shake things up, and it does neither successfully. The film’s best moment is an admittedly awesome nod to the original; however, it just made me wish I was at home with the original Fright Night…for real. Rent it!
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