Review: ‘Fright Night’ gets some things right, some things wrong in remake formula

There are horror titles that are universally considered part of the canon of the genre, pun fully intended.  The Whale films, Chaney and Lugosi and Karloff, the Hammer films, Val Lewton’s work, and many more.  It’s a lengthy canon, running from the early nightmarish fever-dream imagery of “The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari” to the freaky body-fearing obsessions of David Cronenberg, and every era is represented on the list in some way.  The ’80s had their high points, and I’d immediately name films like “An American Werewolf In London” and “The Thing” and “The Fly” and “Evil Dead 2” as classics from the decade. 

I know plenty of horror fans who would call the original “Fright Night” one of those movies, and while I think it’s solid and accomplished in places, I don’t think it’s one of the greats.  It has personality.  It has its charms.  It is just fine.  It has some clever ideas, and that goes a long way, especially in explaining the urge to add it to the lengthy lists of remakes no one was asking for.

After all, the entire idea of discovering that the person next door is a monster remains a very simple, primal fear that is part of our modern life, a given when it comes to suburbia.  When I moved my family into our house, our next door neighbor was deranged, although it didn’t seem like it at first.  It took us a few weeks to really understand just how weird he was, and then thankfully he was removed from the situation before it got bad.  It could have gone another way, though, and we could have found ourselves trapped in a terrible situation with someone living less than 40 feet from where my children sleep.  That’s terrifying.  I’ve made a much greater effort to know who my neighbors are, and one of the most frightening things I’ve done as part of that was running a search for registered sex offenders in the area.  Thankfully, I think we’re in a decent area, but it’s scary how many pings we got in surrounding areas when we were house-hunting.  There are a lot of scary people out there, and someone has to be living next door to them.

So why not Charley Brewster, played this time by Anton Yelchin stepping in for William Ragsdale?

Tom Holland’s script for the original was adapted this time around by Marti Noxon, and there are many things about the script that bother me.  Structurally, this remake starts in media res, with Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) already fully convinced that Jerry (Colin Farrell), Charley’s new neighbor, is a vampire who has been killing off one family at a time in the neighborhood.  The slow burn first act of the original has been replaced with a few quick scenes before everything’s off and running.  Ed, of course, is right, and Charley’s discovery of the real nature of Jerry is an invitation for the monster to turn his attention to Charley, his girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots), and Charley’s mom Jane (Toni Collette).  The remake plunges the characters right into harm’s way, and it wastes no time playing coy about the nature of Jerry.  Farrell has been having a good year, and he’s having fun here.  He plays his vampire as a an animal just barely smart enough to keep his identity hidden, but not terribly concerned about who figures it out.  He knows he’s powerful, and he’s got a history.  He’s survived for so long that he is convinced he’s untouchable.  Farrell seems to relish every awful thing he gets to do or say, and he’s a nice foil for Yelchin, Poots, and Collette.

In the original film, Charley based all of his knowledge of vampires on the films he saw during the late-night horror programming by Peter Vincent, a washed-up character actor who made a nice living in terrible horror movies.  Vincent was a horror host, a breed of personality that doesn’t exist anymore, and his knowledge of the undead was all based on the films he’d been in and the films he’d screened.  The notion of a kid raised on horror movies reaching out to his local horror host for help was something that sort of still made sense in the ’80s, but not since.  They just don’t do that anymore.  Nobody programs and introduces horror movies in character with awful puns or with hyperdramatic presentation.  So the first challenge for anyone remaking the film is figuring out who Peter Vincent might be today, and it appears that Noxon and director Craig Gillespie and star David Tennant all drew inspiration from Criss Angel and the modern Vegas magic scene.  And while Tennant does good work, it just doesn’t work the same way thematically.  There’s no reason a crappy Vegas magician would also be a vampire expert.  They try to explain the collection by giving Vincent a new backstory, but it’s just not consistent with his behavior.  It doesn’t make sense.  It’s never played for real.  And when they try to play it that way, there’s no reason for Vincent to even be in the mix.

In fact, many of the most basic moments from the original are sort of fumbled in execution here.  There’s some good energy from director Craig Gillespie, and he stages some of the sequences well.  But when you don’t have logic on your side, and when there’s the feeling that things happen in your film because they have to, not for any motivated reason, it’s hard to invest or take it seriously.  Howard Berger and the KNB team did a nice job with the practical make-up work in the film, and there are some really fun moments in terms of gore and creature design.  There are some exciting beats, some funny lines.  There are also some groaningly on-the-nose moments where Noxon’s dialogue lands with a thud, and there’s very little elegance to the way the last third of the film plays out.  It’s a shame.  This is one of those films where they could have really pulled off something special if they’d started with a script that took full advantage of the opportunities it offers.  Instead, it’s another modestly not-awful remake in needless 3D that will serve mainly as a nice excuse to release the original on Blu-ray.  So be it.

“Fright Night” opens everywhere this Friday.