Remember when horror movies were fun? Fright Night does, and the world is a little better for it. It’s hard to believe, considering that this is yet another remake of a cult classic and yet another foray into the now totally shopworn territory of vampires. And to be sure, Fright Night doesn’t promise the moon. It desires only a little earthy August delight, buoyed by some timely digs at the Twilight model and a new take on the whole “monster next door” notion that made the first Fright Night a cult classic.
And while it bears the same title as that 80s icon, it most closely resembles a more recent bloodsucking phenomenon: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Screenwriter Marti Noxon penned a number of episodes of the beloved TV show, and the same wry sense of humor shines through here. Where else could you expect a vampire to figure out new ways of getting people out of a house to which he hasn’t been invited? Or combine the monster-slaying with high school angst such that the two don’t seem totally incompatible?
Noxon’s script examines notions untouched by the first film: delving deeper into the relationship between Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and his friend Evil Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), for instance, or giving more attention to Charlie’s divorced mother (Toni Collette) to help smooth over some of the first film’s plot holes. It results in a more interesting tale in some ways, though the name of the game is still finding clever new ways to riff on the basic vampire formula.
Fans of the first film know the basics, but not the specifics. Charlie, a resident of the Vegas suburbs, soon comes to suspect that his handsome neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) might actually be a member of the undead. Ed initially tips him off before mysteriously disappearing, and while Charlie enjoys newfound popularity in school and a new girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), none of that can help him when Jerry comes calling.
The concept thrives on the adroit presentation of nifty notions, rather than specific story details. Indeed, director Craig Gillespie dumps us rather unceremoniously into the proceedings and expects us to keep up without a lot of assistance. Seeing the first film – and being well-steeped in vampire lore – helps keep an even keel. Soon enough, we’re caught up in the game, looking for the slick ways it’s going to turn traditional bloodsucking notions on their ear. Gillespie quickly hits his stride, tossing us plenty of curveballs to keep us guessing and keeping the energy levels high. The set pieces are standard but infused with imagination, from the particulars of Jerry’s abode to a nighttime highway chase that stands as the film’s high point. Jerry himself comes across as something utterly unlike the tragic romantic of the first film: an inhuman killer who pretends to be a normal person for survival’s sake, and who frankly finds the concept a real drag.
Not every piece fits, but even those that don’t – such as the fraudulent vamp hunter Peter Vincent, reimagined here as a douchebag Criss Angel clone – maintain their own sense of cleverness. (David Tennant plays Vincent here and he has a blast.) The film’s inherent cleverness carries it past the occasional grab-bag pastiche, helping us readily forgive the fact that not all of it makes sense.
The teenage drama works surprisingly well too, particularly in the early stages when no one suspects any supernatural presence. Charlie basically abandoned his friend Ed to the school bullies when his fortunes turned; he used to be a similarly dorky outcast, and Mintz-Plasse elegantly handles the combination of betrayal and envy which that equation entails. Fans of the first film know his ultimate fate, but the new material here puts it in a much different context. It enriches the character while paying homage to what has come before.
The rest of the film performs a similarly adept balancing act: delivering a new version of the tale that holds up well against its predecessor without overshadowing it. Many remakes strive to such goals, but few ever achieve them. Fright Night succeeds by not overshooting its bounds and by respecting the original even as it seeks new things to do with it. Above all, it hearkens back to an era when horror didn’t take itself so seriously: before the pretense and shock tactics of torture porn all but swallowed the genre whole. It’s nice to see a return to form… and nicer still to see it arrive in such an enjoyable package.