Examining Hollywood Remakes: Fright Night

When the remake of the classic vampire film Fright Night (1985) came out in 2011, the initial  reaction was very positive because it was such a relief to have truly evil vampires back. After the brooding and sparking vampires of Twilight started a trend of angst-ridden or lovelorn or depressed vampires, fans were thrilled that the blood-sucking antagonist of director Craig Gillespie’s new Fright Night remake and his fellow vamps were hard-core predators with no reservations about chowing down on their next-door neighbor. The Fright Night creatures-of-the-night were more Dracula than Edward. It was good to have the badness back. However, upon reflection, the 2011 version doesn’t hold up that well. It’s not really a bad movie but it definitely does not compare to the 1985 film.

The remake was written by Marti Noxon, who worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, so the woman had a few vampires in her resume. She kept the basic premise and general plot of the first Fright Night film but added more action and explosions than the first version. Despite the action, the new film is not as good as the 1985 original Fright Night has become a cult favorite vampire film aficionados. The remake is a flawed movie, no doubt, although it isn’t an insult to the original, as many remakes tend to be.

In the remake, Anton Yelchin (Best known for playing Ensign Chekhov in the Star Trek remake) is Charlie, a formerly nerdy kid who manages to get the school hottie Amy (Imogen Poots) to go steady with him, raising his social status up into Coolsville. He is now part of the popular crowd, much to the chagrin of his geeky former best-buddy Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who Charlie is rudely avoiding. Charlie should be listening to Ed, however, because Ed seems to be the only one in town who notices the pattern of disappearances of local families. Most people are willing to chalk up the vanishing people to the transient nature of people who live in this Las Vegas suburb. Ed is dorky enough to believe in vampires and puts the pieces together. No one believes him, not even his former pal.

Ed tries to warn Charlie that his macho but elusive new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell, taking on the role played by Chris Sarandon in the original) is a fanged fiend. Ed points out that Jerry keeps his windows covered up all day but Charlie points out that this is a usual Las Vegas habit because so many people there work on the strip at night and sleep during the day. Ed insists that Jerry is turning the population into happy meals. Charlie scoffs but when Ed disappears, Charlie starts to investigate and comes to realize that he should have heeded the warnings sooner, because there’s a monster living next door. Worse still, Charlie’s mother (Toni Collette) is charmed by the handsome Jerry.

When evil Jerry realizes that Charlie is on to him, he taunts and stalks the kid. The desperate Charlie goes to see popular stage magician Peter Vincent who is appearing in Vegas, and who advertises himself as the world’s foremost expert in the supernatural. Peter Vincent (who was played by Roddy McDowell in the old version) is portrayed here by David Tennant (Best known as the star of the BBC sci-fi hit TV series Doctor Who). Charlie is disappointed when he meets the so-called master of darkness, who is actually a sad, bitter drunk with a secret tragedy in his past.

The first half of the film is actually pretty well done. After Charlie starts to understand what’s living next door to him, the tension escalates and Charlie becomes increasingly terrified of his dangerous neighbor, who is sufficiently menacing. However, halfway through the film, things start to go awry. It switches from horror to action and things tend to get out of hand, with explosions, car chases and lots of special effects. The excesses and sometimes unintentional humor make the second half of the film far less effective than the first. While there are still some good moments in the latter half, it could have been better if the mood of suspense had been maintained. The final confrontation where Charlie and Peter go to rescue the kidnapped Amy is lively but not as effective as the more low-key ending of the original which utilizes the character’s personalities to make the climax more effective.

Colin Farrell is much less suave and sophisticated as Jerry than Chris Sarandon was in the role. While Farrell is intimidating as the vampire villain, he comes across as a macho he-man, who doesn’t think things through carefully. For instance, he spends the first part of the movie trying to keep a low profile but as soon as Charlie becomes a problem, his response is to blow up the kid’s house. That’s the kind of thing that should have attracted some attention. Fortunately for Jerry, the cops in this town were suffering from ‘Bad-written-itis’, and never bother to investigate a house blowing up in the middle of town. The car chase also escapes detection by those alert local cops. (Chris Sarandon has a cameo in the car chase scene.)

Yelchin is fine in the lead role but nothing special. The script does him no favors by making him seem less likeable than the original Charlie, played by William Ragsdale. The 2011 Charlie is rather cruel to his former best friend Ed, shunning him because he doesn’t want to lose his access to the popular clique. In the 1985 version, Charlie is still best buds with Ed throughout the film. Ed is called “Evil Ed” due to his interest in morbid stuff. (Which explains his interest in the local disappearances.) Both versions of Ed get turned into vampires by Jerry and are sent to kill Charlie but “Evil Ed” (Stephen Geoffreys) had a bigger role and the actor seems to be having more fun with the part. New Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has very limited screen time so he doesn’t really make much of an impression.

 Amanda Bearse played Amy in the 1985 version and she was more fleshed-out in the original. She was pretty enough to be one of the popular girls but still nervous about the idea of losing her virginity to Charlie. Also, the fact that she was a twin of Jerry’s former love helps explain Jerry’s interest in her. Imogen Poots, as the new Amy, comes across as a generic film girlfriend, with her only notable trait being her prettiness. The new film dispenses with the resemblance to the old lover.

David Tennant is a scene-stealer as Vincent and he’s the best thing about the remake. His interpretation of the character is a far cry from Roddy McDowell’s gentleman actor in the original but the twist works well enough. McDowell played Vincent as a faded horror movie star who was hosting a TV show called “Peter Vincent: Vampire Slayer” and who tried to maintain an image as a modern Van Helsing but in truth, he didn’t believe in vampires until he actually met one. He is terrified at first and wants no part of the hole scary mess but he ultimately finds his courage and joins Charlie in the climactic confrontation. Tennant plays Vincent as an odd cross between Chris Angel and a burnt-out rock star, who advertises himself as a gothic magician and occult expert but really fears what’s in the darkness because of a plot twist not included in the original about him having witnesses Jerry kill his parents when he was a boy. Like McDowell’s version, he finally overcomes his dread and confronts the bad guy. Both versions of Peter Vincent are fun, and as a fan of both McDowell and Tennant, it’s enjoyable to watch the different approaches.

The film clearly has a lot of problems. For instance, we can understand why Charlie won’t go to the police to report a vampire on the loose, but why doesn’t he summon the cops when Jerry does things that are clearly illegal, even for non-vampires, like blowing up people’s houses? And why does no one in the neighborhood notice the strange things going on in public, such as when Jerry kills two guys in a parked car, or when a female vampire explodes on Charlie’s front lawn? Also, the plot twist about Jerry having killed Peter Vincent’s parents–which was totally unnecessary to the story—is thrown in at the last minute and not used to any interesting effect.

Despite its flaws and fact that the second half of the film loses its focus, the Fright Night remake still manages to deliver some creepy moments, and the FX are good. The chase scene is nicely filmed, which a circular panning shot. The idea of a monster living in next door suburbia has a lot of potential but the idea is utilized better in the 1985 version, which was directed by Tom Holland, who also directed Child’s Play. The newer one misses the mark, although David Tennant is a lot of fun as Peter Vincent and there are enough suspenseful moments in the first half that this movie so that it isn’t awful. It’s actually an okay horror film but it doesn’t match the quality of the excellent 1985 original. 

That’s all for this week’s look at Hollywood remakes. We’ll see you next week with the next installment in our series, and feel free to look up the earlier articles in our Examining Hollywood Remakes series.