Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Frank Review of "Fright Night" (2011)

The Short Version? Not Another '80s Movie Remake.
What Is It?Horror-Comedy.
Who Is In It? Chekov 2.0, Bullseye, McLovin, the older sister from 28 Weeks Later and the Mommy State of Tara.
Should I See It? Yes.

An excellent rule of thumb in filmmaking is to never remake a good movie, much less a great one. You're just setting yourself up for unfair comparison, unrealistic expectations, and resistance from the fans. A few directors have managed to buck the trend and improve on the original, but usually a remake stands as a blemish on a resume.

Craig Gillespie hasn't been associated with any stellar pictures, and in the case of Mr. Woodcock, one so wretched co-stars Seann William Scott and Billy Bob Thornton reportedly feared it would end their careers while they were making it. This likely led to the unenviable position of remaking the second highest grossing horror film of 1985, a cult classic that spawned a comic book series, video game, and a sequel. However, not only was Fright Night no great film, but I've been arguing it wasn't even an especially good one since seeing it on VHS in the late '80s. Solid premise, likeable cast, swell poster, decent script, but for me the chemistry was never there.

I feel a lot of the original's appeal was its outreach to the nerd core; the first feature length fan wank love letter to all the losers who grew up on Zacherley, The Munsters, Hammer horror and early Stephen King. Charley Brewster was the hero who could be them, paired off with their favorite Saturday late night horror host against the kinds of vampires they read about in some monster compendium, stalking their own suburban neighborhood. The Lost Boys scored big with the same premise a couple of years later, and now this sort of 4th wall handjob is a cliché unto itself. Fright Night was an okay flick, but it was never a favorite of mine, and its few pioneering aspects were improved upon by those who followed. As a result, Craig Gillespie had an opportunity to make that rare superior remake, and in partnership with screenwriter Marti Noxon, did just that.

In the oldest horror movies, audiences were educated alongside the ignorant peasants onscreen exactly what type of monster wrecked havoc in the dark of the night. Remember, tropes like killing a werewolf with a silver bullet were actually invented for the silver screen. Both parties accepted what they were told about the supernatural. They just needed a gypsy or some such to lay it down for them. As film horror shifted away from isolated European villages centuries gone, the delaying tactic to fill screen time between monster attacks in more modern settings was denial that such foolish, superstitious notions could relate to any calamity faced. However, as audiences became more sophisticated, it was increasingly annoying to know that they were seeing a monster movie, but everyone on screen (but perhaps a true believer or two) dismissed the obvious until the final reel. Fright Night was among the last of those frustrating features where our hero figures out a vampire has moved into the neighborhood in act one, and spends ninety minutes on cat and mouse games of implausible length while trying to convince anyone else of the nature of his problem. However, it was also at the vanguard of a media aware generation of characters who would reference other films explicitly to determine a favorable course of action. This would progress to the Scream franchise, where the accumulated lore of other horror movies and their connoisseur's awareness of same would make the viewer a party to their thought process. These characters would speak out of both sides of their mouth, mocking the established conventions in anticipation of their viewer's criticism, yet still making bonehead mistakes so that they could die by the rules they espoused.

Fright Night 2011 is part of a new breed of horror written by learned fans whose characters unapologetically accept the supernatural when presented with convincing evidence, and seek remedy with the conviction of 1930s Universal villagers. They don't crack jokes about how if they were in a horror movie, they'd be killed for going into the basement, before getting killed like the smug assholes they are in the basement. Instead, when their acquaintances start turning up missing and their neighbor casts no reflection in a mirror, they sharpen stakes and prepare to do battle with the forces of Satan. Who wants to waste their time watching Charlie Brewster whine that nobody will believe him about the scary monsters? The viewers want characters who will react as they would in the same circumstances, so that they can see how that would play out while potentially being surprised by the outcomes. Charlie Brewster, despite being "one of us," is smart and heroic enough to hold a vampire at bay. Said vampire still plays some games, but is legitimately stymied by the hero's actions, so that he doesn't look like an overconfident tool in the final act. It's a lot more satisfying than shouting options at the screen to deaf, dumb characters.

A lot of current movies remain slaves to outdated storytelling techniques. For instance, if I'm in a car with a couple of friends, all of us will be carrying a cell phone, which offers three methods of contacting any one of us at any given time. You must therefore either incorporate this accessibility into a script, or come up with a convincing excuse for why none of the three cell phones work. Marti Noxon's clever script is practically built on this rule. Rather than a hindrance, Fright Night uses an iPhone as a tool to advance the story, correcting past errors. Instead of explaining contrivances, her characters can leap frog past obvious obstacles into ones that would try any of us. When the characters act as we would, with all of our expected resources, failure and tragedy impact on us because we would be just as flummoxed as the protagonists. In the new telling, we're not wishing Charlie Brewster well, but trailing behind him in trying to figure out a way out of this mess.

I'm fond of William Ragsdale, and Charley Brewster was one of his signature roles, but Anton Yelchin is more believable, entertaining and compelling. Colin Farrell's take on the vampire is one of his best performances to date; sexy, slithery and decidedly menacing. Twenty-seven year old Amanda Bearse was never remotely believable as a teenager, and her character was pretty much strictly an inexplicable object of desire. Imogen Poots is vastly more appealing in every way, including as a stronger heroine, even if she ultimately remains a distressed damsel. Toni Collette has quality good scenes as Brewster's mom, and unlike Dorothy Fielding's role in the original, she's more than just a minor plot device.

On the negative side, while it was obviously necessary to update the Peter Vincent character, David Tennant's take hasn't a fraction of the charm or weight of Roddy McDowall in the part. Stephen Geoffreys' "Evil Ed" was one of the '80s most memorable horror characters, and while Christopher Mintz-Plasse gives it his best, he's still McLovin the vampire arriving late to the game. Aside from the amusingly foul-mouthed Sandra Vergara as Ginger and a surprisingly strong turn by Emily Montague as Doris, most of the other new characters are unnecessary in the extreme.

Fright Night isn't just a remake, but a reinvigoration. It's clearly written by a fan who is as faithful to the original as is reasonable, but recognizes quarter century old tropes won't work any more. The director then follows through with superior casting, editing and effects, so that audiences new and familiar can be equally excited by the finished product. Fright Night is great fun, doing justice to the original while improving upon it, and comes wholeheartedly recommended.

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