Fright Night Review
“Jerry … the vampire?”
Teen Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) has just about managed to break the shackles of his once notorious geekery and even got himself hooked-up with the school babe, Amy (Imogen Poots), when his ex-buddy, and nerd-extraordinaire, Evil Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) hits him with the news that there's a vampire in the neighbourhood. Worse yet, the alleged bloodsucker has just moved in next door to Charley and his single mum, Jane (Toni Collette). Naturally, Charley is ashamed that his highly mocked past has come back to haunt him, but with classmates going missing and Ed threatening to put highly embarrassing images of his prior life as bully-bait on the net, he reluctantly agrees to join the Scooby-style investigation. But things are not as cute and as cartoon-like, and instead of a normal guy hiding beneath a monster mask, there is, indeed, a monster hiding beneath that cheeky Kevin Webster (Coronation Street) mask-style face of Colin Farrell's Jerry Dandridge.
The suburbs of Las Vegas are about to get bloody as Charley is forced to wage war against the vampire in his midst. But, as he is quick to discover, this isn't like the movies and the stakes are real. In fact, the stakes are going to have to be very real if Charley wants to keep himself and his girlfriend out of the vampire's deadly embrace. But, after Ed goes missing too, Charley realises that, alone, he is no match for the undead. So, in desperation he turns to the acclaimed stage illusionist, Peter Vincent (David Tennant), whose world-renowned act and celebrity persona is built entirely around the mythology of slaying vampires, as an ally in the battle.
Being a big lover of the original Tom Holland creature-feature from 1985, I had mixed feelings about a remake, or a revamp, if you will. Let's be honest, remakes are ten-a-penny, but the good ones are rarer than rocking-horse poop. Having suffered the disgrace of Marcus Nispel's Conan The Barbarian adaptation I was possibly expecting the worst from this modernised fangfest from Mr. Woodcock's Craig Gillespie. Even the recent vampirical meandering of Stake Land left me severely underwhelmed, as you will see from my BD review of it. And having read that Gillespie was aiming for a virtually bloodless and more psychological experience I truly feared the worst.
What a wonderful surprise, then, to discover that Fright Night 2011-style is actually quite a nasty, slick and truly unnerving reinterpretation of the old neighbour-from-hell scenario that manages to improve upon the original in a great many ways and even become something of grim reminder that vampires are actually bloody scary … and not just Goth-romantic swoon-merchants. The film is gory, certainly more so than I'd anticipated ... and it actually makes you shudder at the thought of someone chowing down on your neck, which is something that only 30 Days of Night has been able to do in recent years. It slyly reworks the narrative from Tom Holland's film, sort of dropping us into the middle of things and attacking the relationships between the character from a different perspective. But this keeps the plot fresh and noticeably distinct from what we've seen before. Not too fresh, however, because before long we are dealing with a very similar situation.
But, as far as I am concerned, most of the alterations are very welcome.
And, to emphasise this right away, I love what they've done with Tennant's recrafted Peter Vincent. Updating the hoary old host of a late-night horror series on cable to an outrageous Vegas showman, clearly inspired by both Russell Brand and Captain Jack Sparrow, is a very valid and believable touch, and the ex-Doctor Who has a wicked time with the glitzy charade and, most especially, the tired buffoon who lurks beneath the wig, the eye-shadow and the amulets. However, I can't quite understand how a man whose stage-act seems to revolve purely around elaborate vampire illusions has made it all the way to Vegas and is able to live in a luxury penthouse-cum-artefact museum. Sure, the guy could have made it big with his website and whatnot, and he probably has a few other, ahem, tricks up his wizard's sleeve, but he comes across as a one-note, one-act performer who really, by rights, should only have made it as far as the end of Blackpool Pier. Plus Gillespie somehow feels the need to provide him with a providential backstory that just seems, well, tacky and contrived, if I'm being honest. A bit like his act, I suppose, but this pivotal slice of exposition struck me as rather unnecessary. Although I greatly admire the idiosyncrasies of this newly invigorated Peter Vincent, his case history smacks of exec-involvement to me. However, this is all just nitpicking. Tennant is hilarious in the role. Foul-mouthed and arrogant, he is also extremely clumsy, stupid and erroneously egocentric. His endless sparring with Sandra Vergara's glamorous, sexed-up assistant and occasional backstage lover makes for some terrific little asides to the main event that riff quite subversively on the former Casanova star. He is also able to make it look as though he is improvising, which adds a delicious off-kilter frisson to all of his scenes. Roddy McDowall's camp original was a tired old sham of a performer too, someone who is forced to expose his failings, confront his own demons and find some inner strength of character. It was McDowall who sold it … and, likewise, it is Tennant who makes what is an abundantly corny character vibrant and credible and utterly scene-stealing.
Whilst we shouldn't be surprised at how good Yelchin is, with Star Trek and Alpha Dog under his belt, it is also quite remarkable how deeply empathetic he makes Charley Brewster. It's not as unusual a role as it may have been for William Ragsdale in the original – we've seen a gazillion teens battle demons and save the world since then – but Yelchin is great at switching from swaggering, youthful froth to gibbering, red-eyed terror. He convincingly softens in the company of Amy, not neglecting his trappings as a nerd who still cannot fathom out how he won her over. In the UK, a lad of his age would be considered a “bloke” by now. He's got an uber-babe on his once geeky arm, he's a man of action, he can pretty much bomb around as he pleases - and yet, just because he's still in high school, he's still a “kid” who can be bossed around by his mum. This is the weird dynamic of the American home-life when compared to how things are done in the UK. But, without it, we wouldn't have an enormous amount of horror films, would we? There's a hint of Weird Science about the new jock friends that Charlie is keeping – or rather just about hanging onto – in the wake of getting the hot girl on the campus. Like the young Robert Downy Jnr. and Robert (Vamp) Rusler in John Hughes' cult comedy/SF classic, James Franco's younger brother Dave, and hairball Reid Ewing find themselves embroiled in the chaos purely because they think they can gain some female action as a direct result. But the cool shtick is dropped as the pair reveal themselves to be utterly irony-free and totally half-witted.
“I thought you needed an invitation!”
“Don't need an invitation if there's no house ...”
Ooh … can you smell gas?
But besides the wicked and over-the-top performance from Tennant, Fright Night has Colin Farrell absolutely nailing the role of Jerry Dandridge. Or should I say staking it? He is staggeringly good as the serial predator laying siege to the Vegas suburbs. Salacious, animalistic and laconically malevolent, he is a completely different breed of bloodsucker from the earlier one that Chris Sarandon played so smugly. What was once a debonair yuppie neck-nibbler now seems positively quaint and lounge by comparison to this cocksure rogue. With more in-common with a depraved serial killer, the new and more muscular Jerry likes to incarcerate his victims in a customised dungeon/larder that allows him to feed off them over a period of time. Like a Great White Shark, he is instinctive and relentless. He loves his abilities and the mesmerised fear that he can bring to his prey. He gets off on taunting his enemies and terrorising them, conscious of the fact that they may know some of the rules that he has to live by but also revelling in the knowledge that he is still infinitely more powerful than they could ever be. In one fabulously eerie exchange with Charley, he goes from chummy, nudge-nudge older buddy bonding session to sniff-the-pulsing-blood, stare-into-your-soul menace, signifying over a guarded and supremely sinister détente that the masks have been dropped and the borders set-up, though not stepped-over just yet. Cool, buff and exquisitely dark-hearted, Farrell is skin-crawlingly good as today's jobbing, ever-hungry vampire. But make sure to look out for Chris Sarandon's cameo appearance as the unfortunate recipient of the new Jerry's feral brand of road-rage – a savage baton-change for a role if ever there was one.
I was a real sucker for Amanda Bearse back in the day – so I can't blame super-suave Sarandon for putting the moves on her perky-pretty Amy. Though I should stress that she was infinitely more attractive as a vamp than as a coy, rosy-cheeked teeny-bopper with ribbons in her hair. No such disparages when it comes to Brit-stunner Imogen Poots, of course, who is gorgeous either alive or … slightly less than. She doesn't do too bad as the one fit girl who could actually fall for the geek because he is different, although this is a far cry from the likes of Jane Eyre and Bouquet Of Barbed Wire. Then again, Poots has been on the run from nasties after her blood before in 28 Weeks Later, and she does, at least, manage to put some more meat on the bones of what is, ostensibly, a character who could be seen as little more than set-dressing.
Marti Noxon, who wrote the screenplay, is no stranger to vampires and teen-angst, of course, having worked on both Buffy and Angel, and this post-modern awareness shines through in the quickfire banter and the wry put-downs, but is never allowed to overtake the deadly pace of a film that doesn't forget that your hair is supposed to be on constant bristle-alert.
Gillespie wrings a lot of suspense from several key sequences before he lets rip with the climactic tour de force. There's a lot of creeping about nice suburban homes that may, or may not be empty. An escape-and-evasion from Jerry's lair is a standout with a terrific pay-off that makes up for the fact that we have been totally convinced all along that we know something Charley doesn't. You spot the cluster of upended “For Sale” signs in the Brewster garage looking very akin to an arsenal of stakes … and you just know that someone is going to get the point later on. A great car chase sequence boasts some bravura 360-degree camera spins that act like Fright Night's answer to Spielberg's celebrated vehicle-twirling in War Of The Worlds. Even a Youtube tutorial on lock-picking fits the bill without coming across as too overly culture-tech-savvie. And I really enjoyed the scene that reprises the night-club seduction of Amy that old smoothy Sarandon pouted his way through with lots of 80's moves and a natty sweater. It is also worth noting that the usually irritating Mintz-Plasse becomes a great deal of fun once he, like his predecessor played by Stephen Geoffreys, gets “turned”. Some of the one-liners and teen-oriented insults that fly from his fangs are much too clever and cutting to have been thought-up on the spot, but they do spark with an infernal animosity that adds some wattage to the gulf that has opened-up between the two prior best friends. And what proper horror fans aren't going to applaud the sniping directed at the dross of the Twilight franchise? Holland's original was billed as a horror-comedy, but this was purely down the eye-popping silliness of the scenario and the sheer fun that everyone was having in reinventing a genre that had pretty much withered in the bloody arrival of the stalk 'n' slash pics. Vamps had been declared out for the Count after Christopher Lee's final swish of Hammer's cape, and John Badham's Dracula, Tony Scott's The Hunger and TV's terrific adaptation of 'Salem's Lot were seen as last-ditch and overly stylised interpretations - they're all awesome, actually – until the double-whammy of The Lost Boys and Near Dark shuffled out of the shadows. Joel Schumacher's more fly-by-night offering proved the most commercial and it is this more tongue-in-cheek approach that worked in Tom Holland's favour when he unleashed his creatures of the night a couple of years earlier. If Gillespie's remake is amusing – and it is – it is not as daft as Holland's could be when it felt so inclined. But whereas the original was great entertainment in the category of “cosy” horror, this feels much harder and more dangerously unpredictable and, as a consequence, much less “cosy”. It won't give you nightmares, but there is an undeniably more gruelling edge to it, which is marvellously reassuring these days.
After botching fantasies like Clash Of The Titans and Iron Man, composer Ramin Djawadi moves back into horror and delivers an appreciably spine-tingling score that blends jolts and suspense with equal measure. He gets the eeriness of it all, perfectly enhancing the mood of stealthy night-time prowlings and the more immediate dynamics of the kinetic confrontations. He should do well, though, considering he had a trial run with Blade Trinity back in 2004. The setting of Vegas is unusual, but fitting just the same. As we are told, the surrounding 'burbs are full of people who work all night long, vampire hours in fact, and tend to black out their windows during the glare of the Nevada sun during their downtime. This is exactly the sort of place that a ghoul like Jerry could slip into, unnoticed. We don't get to see much of the Strip, however, which sort of feels like a missed opportunity in a way. The few shots we see outside the window of Peter Vincent's penthouse suite notwithstanding, Fright Night seems to stick to the shadows, shunning the limelight. But I like the setting as it also pays its respects to the great monster-hunter Carl Kolchak, and his first vampire encounter in the classic Night Stalker TV horror outing for Dan Curtis that was centred in the glitzy realm of neon and sleaze.
“He's not brooding. Or lovesick. He's the f*ckin' shark from Jaws!”
Things do get corny in the final act. But, really, I don't know how else they could have gone. And both Gillespie and Yelchin handle the ubiquitous tooling-up sequence with riotous aplomb.
Filmed in 3D from the get-go, this is a fine three-dimensional experience so long as you don't go in expecting so see too much in the way of visual gimmickry to duck from. What the effect does, it does well, with the action-packed final stretch claiming the lion's share of in-yer-face antics, but this is not ripe with the expected stuff hurled out of the screen at you. The main event, visually, is the make-up fx from long-time gore-and-monster specialists, KNB. I commented in its review that Stake Land managed to give its vamps a nice new and unusual look, and it is even more impressive that Fright Night has been able to pull off a similar trick. We may lose the sundry other creatures that helped to populate the original – Geoffrey Stevens' amazingly noisy werewolf, Jonathan Stark's melting zombie familiar, and Sarandon's hideous bat-thing – but the twisted, extended and fang-pronounced visages of the undead have a really disturbing look. They aren't the mangled, ravaged corpse mugshots of Stake Land, and nor are they the pulsing-veined baldy mutants of I Am Legend or Blade II. Farrell's full-on dead-head is a frightful countenance, make no mistake, but Gillepsie doesn't really linger too long on such things, which makes their sudden impact all the more effective. Farrell, himself, is actually more intimidating just with a lecherous grin and those Sasquatch-stolen eyebrows. Plus, he can speak with his fangs in his mouth without sounding like he's chewing on a bull's behind unlike Sarandon – all together now “Mishhtuh Vwinshent!!!” I still reckon he's a deadringer for Weatherfield's moaning mechanic Kevin Webster, though!
By turns tense and twisted, funny and frightening, this is pretty much the perfect updating and re-evaluation of the original story. The 80's vibe is lost but not missed, the characters painstakingly evolved into believably complex, confused and off-the-cuff modern counterparts and the tone is, predominantly, lifted into a more dramatic and mean-spirited dimension than the campy original. Holland's film was fun and it wanted to play with the genre and to provide a bevy of then-state-of-the-art special makeup FX to a crowd who were enjoying regular monster-fixes with the cavalcade of Re-Animator, Return Of The Living Dead, House, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Evil Dead II. It totally succeeded. Gillespie, who was initially a bit reticent to helm a vampire-movie sinks his teeth into the essence of what made that scenario so effective and engaging – the characters, living and undead – and tweaks it all around for a vibrant and considerably more serious take.
Much better than it had any right to be, Fright Night provides superior mainstream thrills and chills, bolstered by three great performances and a suitably darker tone than the original.
I loved it and certainly recommended a good Fright Night out.
Fright Night, revamped, is a tremendously effective horror yarn, and a very worthy remake. It hits all the right little reflections and beats that fans of the original will enjoy, and it genuinely provides a well thought-out new spin on the situation and the characters.
Somewhat annoyingly, the screenplay still can't resist throwing in a few rather obvious clichés, and it does manage to paper over an awful lot of incidents and action without a second glance – the Brewsters would have some serious questions to answer after their intense fracas with the nosferatu, that's for sure. And this is evidence that either American neighbourhoods are too terrified to ever get involved when they hear trouble, or that soundproofing in houses is standard over there.
Farrell and Tennant own the show.
The original is well-loved, but it is certainly no classic. I came home from seeing Craig Gillespie's version and instantly watched Tom Holland's. It was still enormously enjoyable (a severely limited edition BD release has been announced) and it is remarkable how well the two films can stand together. The tweaks, subversions and neat switch-arounds that the new one makes feel valid and intelligent and not just variations made simply for the sake of it as we saw in fun but unnecessarily stupid The Wolfman.
I had a great time with this and I definitely believe it's worth sticking your neck out for.
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