The original Fright Night is one of my favorite genre films of the 1980s. It featured a fantastic vampire, a terrific vampire hunter and a teen sex comedy combined into a nice tight horror film. If you have been to the movies in the last ten years, you know that 80s films are being strip mined for remakes on a weekly basis. We have had remakes of Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, the Fog,Nightmare on Elm Street and a bucket load more. None of those remakes have been very good. They lacked the inventiveness, suspense and brilliant make up effects that made those 80s movies work so well. Most film makers today think that CG I effects can replace the inventive in camera work that was done on those movies, and they are wrong. There is a prequel to the John Carpenter’s “The Thing” coming, and it will be next to impossible to match the crazy practical effects in the original, which leads me to fear a CG I crapfest. So you can easily understand why I would be nervous about a remake of “Fright Night”. It turns out I had very little to worry about. This is exactly how you do a remake without desecrating the memory of the original.
To begin with, this version of Fright Night finds a vampire that is an equitable replacement for the original Jerry Dandrige. In the 1985 film, Chris Sarandon created a sensuous, wickedly funny, Lothario as the threat to all the neighborhood women. Behind his smirk lived a sad, lonely hedonist with whom many would be able to identify. Despite the fact that he is evil and the villain, we still like him. Colin Farrell does not try to replicate that. He has some of the same smarmy character traits, but he is more clearly a prick. He barely notices Charlie when first introduced, he is so busy licking his chops over Charlie’s mother and girlfriend that he mostly just revers to him as “guy”, like in “Hi guy”. Later he is so sure of his superiority he does not think through some of the risks he is taking as he fights the vampire fighters. We get a good sense of his smooth ways early in the film but we also see his fierce hunting abilities even before the main story has started. Farrell is perfect as a contemporary “bad boy”who really is bad. Instead of the lounge-wear of his predecessor, this Jerry Dandrige prefers a wife beater t-shirt and jeans. An early and solid joke in the film is that Jerry is a terrible name for a vampire. Well that, and his wardrobe are some of the things that help mask his true nature. Farrell is all coiled menace, with an indifferent attitude toward the threats and the prey that he is confronting.
The second character that is so important to get right in this story is the vampire hunter “Peter Vincent”. That name is a tribute to horror actors of the fifties and sixties Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. In the 1985 movie, Peter Vincent was a over the hill actor from those very films, trapped into repeating himself as the host of a late night horror film show. The very best thing about the 1985 movie was Roddy MacDowell’s performance as a gone to seed hero, willing to make one more stand for self respect. I remember being outraged that he was neglected in the awards season that year. Sure it was just a summer horror movie, but his work was top shelf and made the whole story click. When I heard that the new movie would make the character a Criss Angel like magician in Las Vegas, I was not sure it was going to work. The script however is clever enough to give some background to the character and make it somewhat believable that a Vegas showman would care about vampires. David Tennant does a good job conveying the douche bag nature of the performer, but also the frightened well read vampire mythologist. Clearly changes had to be made to make the story work in current times, and the switch in this character is necessary and largely successful.
The story remains quite similar to the original, with a couple of good twists. The Las Vegas setting is perfect, because it justifies a lot of the night time activity of our vampire and it allows the real estate developments of the area to serve as a realistic background. Another change that works is the integration of Charlie’s mother in the story. It makes more sense than her sleeping through most of the events in the story which is what happened in the original. That beefing up of the part also allows the casting a very strong actress like Toni Collette in this film. She is not the focus of the story but she is a good addition to the cast and the way the story unfolds. One other element that is slightly changed is that Charlie’s friend “Evil Ed” has a much better background story, and his part in the film is advanced to a spot significantly earlier in the movie than the first movie. Christopher Mintz-Plasse has appeared in two of my favorite movies of the last three years, Role Models and Kick Ass. He is still young enough that he can play young and that baby face of his helps set up one of the emotional back stories in the movie. He is the friend that gets left behind, the one that Charlie might have helped in more ways than one. The character is nothing like the one from the 1985 movie. In the original, Stephen Geoffreys is a young Jack Nicolson knockoff with a sense of humor and a chip on his shoulder. He was the main comic foil in the movie. That role shifts to the Peter Vincent character in the update, and the Evil Ed character becomes the guilty conscience of our hero.
There is a good combination of make up and digital special effects to create the monster images in the movie. We saw this in 3-D, which was a little odd since I did not know it was in 3-D until earlier this week. There were some good three dimensional shots that poke at the audience or spray us with blood. They are not necessary but they do not detract from the story and they add a few good moments on the screen. There are two very good scenes that did not exist in the first film and add to this one immensely. Ferrall’s vampire is limited by the traditional rules on vampires and he can only enter a house if invited in. This limitation is used in a long suspenseful character segment in which Jerry wants to borrow a six pack of beer. Later, the convention forces the vampire to find a way to drive his prey into the open, and that scene starts a really good action sequence. The sequence includes a frightening shock or two, a very funny visual gag, and a really nice surprise for those fans of the original movie.
I am very happy to report that Fright Night 2011 is a superior horror remake. It equals the original in many ways but it is also it’s own film and that is the real joy in a good summer horror film. After you see this, go check out the original if you have never seen it before. I can safely say that both movies should leave fans of real vampires delighted.