Craig Gillespie’s 2011 remake of Fright Night stars Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster, a teen distancing himself from a nerdy past to fit in with the popular crowd and impress his beautiful girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots). This means avoiding one of his closest friends, “Evil Ed” (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a loser desperately trying to convince him that Jerry, the new next-door neighbor played by Colin Farrell, is a vampire. Unfortunately for everyone, Ed is right.
In the 50s, 60s and 70s, Christopher Lee lurked in the shadows with fangs and a cape, buxom virgins fell under his spell and Peter Cushing bravely saved the day. The original Fright Night (1985) is a simple love-letter to the best days of “Hammer Horror” that seamlessly blends humor with scares. From the seductive yet sinister vampire, Jerry (Chris Sarandon), to the bitter actor turned horror host, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), this nostalgia is the heart of the film. The revamp abandons these references to update the franchise for a modern audience (e.g. Vincent, our vampire killer, is more Criss Angel than Peter Cushing). There are valid reasons to do this. Young viewers aren’t familiar with these old flicks and many have never even seen a horror host. Sadly, the result is a less focused story without the campy charm of the original. We lose the very essence of Fright Night.
One of the less successful attempts to appeal to a larger audience is our protagonist, Charley. The geeky horror fan, quick to spy on his neighbor and make laughable claims about vampires in the original, is now a skeptical ex-nerd determined to avoid trouble and look cool at all costs. The endearing Scooby-Doo-style sleuthing and paranoia that fans will remember from the original is given to “Evil Ed”, a supporting character, and most of the fun happens off camera. Yelchin is talented, but trying to broaden the appeal of Charley results in a bland character. In fact, he’s a jerk too. A bland jerk. I would rather watch Ed’s movie. The whacky, sad, and terrifying performance of Stephen Geoffreys is missed, but Mintz-Plasse does a good job with his brief screen time.
Colin Farrell’s vampire has a significantly different flavor as well. He’s a predator. He’s a wolf. Although undeniably handsome and intimidating, he forgoes the hypnotic charm and cheesy sex factor of the original. An alternative to the romance of popular titles like True Blood and Twilight, he doesn’t seduce. He assaults. Coldly storing his victims in cells like meat, Jerry is more reminiscent of a serial killer than Dracula. It’s not all grim business though. He manages to pull off a few solid laughs too. Unable to cross the threshold without an invitation, scenes where the sinister vampire passive-aggressively waits to be asked inside are awkward and hilarious (not to mention the ludicrous concept of an ancient evil named Jerry.)
The host of Fright Night, updated to a spooky Las Vegas magician, is particularly amusing. Roddy McDowell is a tough act to follow, but David Tennant (Doctor Who) manages to steal every scene he’s in. Stripping down from his ridiculous wig, fake facial hair and temporary tattoos, we’re left with the man behind the stage persona: a belligerent and cowardly fraud in eyeliner and leather pants. In a horror comedy that’s played a little too straight otherwise, Tennant stands out as the funniest and strongest performance of the film. Quite frankly, it’s a relief when he shows up and takes center stage.
Overall, the rest of the cast does a competent job with the material they’ve been given, but it’s not enough. The women are more involved in the action sequences, but they just don’t contribute anything significant to the story. Much of the social interaction, mystery and discovery is cut short to get to the explosions and computer-generated mayhem sooner. It’s no surprise to report that CGI is inevitably the film’s downfall. The 3D is done well enough despite ongoing struggles with darkness and movement, but WHY? It’s mostly utilized for cheap gimmicky effects of cartoony goop exploding in your face. Great. It’s hard to stay invested in the film when, like so many horror pictures, it ultimately devolves into a giant CGI mess during the climactic battle.
I enjoyed seeing the film, but it’s not perfect. There are plenty of fun references to the original for fans to catch including key lines and one very special cameo, but there’s no winking at the camera. These inside jokes won’t distract new viewers from experiencing the film on its own merit. Those lamenting the age of the sparkle vampire will appreciate some jokes at Twilight’s expense and a monster more interested in eating you than writing love letters. Unfortunately, the protagonist is unlikeable, unnecessary subplots muddy the narrative, many of the visual effects are terrible, and the Hammer Films flavor is sorely missed.
If you can bear the 80’s fashion, I’d recommend sticking with the original.
Fright Night opens in Philly area theaters today.