Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fright Night: The Vegas Edition

Some films, no matter how old, can be updated without having to suffer more than the most cosmetic changes of fashion. Others are inescapably products of their time. 1985's Fright Night is an example of the latter. Screenwriter Marti Noxon (responsible for penning several Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes) and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) make a game attempt to bring writer/director Tom Holland's vampire tale into 2011 with their newly released remake but their film is ultimately more anemic than full-blooded.

In 1985, the original Fright Night was a fresh breath of Gothic air in the middle of a decade not known for its embrace of classic monsters. At a time when slasher superstars like Jason and Freddy were on the ascent, it was novel to see an old-school vampire on the big screen. Unlike other '80s offerings, like Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983), that deliberately went far from the classic cinematic image of the vampire as seen in the Hammer cycle of films, Fright Night homed in on that. By having horror host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) be a washed-up, one-time Peter Cushing type, Holland made his film into a love letter to the vampire movies of yesteryear.

In 2011, however, vampires are hip and popular in a way they weren't in 1985. That means the Fright Night '11 team isn't working under the burden of having to restore the commercial luster of an iconic monster - not with the Twilight series as well as HBO's True Blood and the CW's Vampire Diaries making bloodsuckers into modern day cash cows. If anything, the challenge here is how to remind audiences that vampires are supposed to be scary and not love-lorn puppies.

In the original, Chris Sarandon - as vampire next door Jerry Dandridge - was portrayed as a slightly melancholy, romantic figure but that's become such a played-out notion that Noxon and Gillespie fly in the face of that, making their Jerry (Colin Farrell) into a predator more akin to, as one character says, "the shark in Jaws."

As Jerry, Farrell plays the role as a cutthroat survivor. There's no hint that he has any instincts beyond satisfying his hunger. I like that angle, as it dispenses with any romanticism, and I like the fact that the new film portrays Vegas, with its transient population, as being a perfect place for Jerry to operate. When neighbors vanish in Vegas, unlike in a typical suburbia, it's not immediately seen as a cause for alarm as it's an area where few people put down permanent roots. The Vegas locale also gives Jerry a ready excuse to cover his windows without arousing suspicion as many Vegas residents work all night on the strip and sleep during the day.

The cat and mouse game that the new Jerry plays with the new Charley Brewster (Star Trek's Anton Yelchin) is much more ruthless than in Holland's version - at one point leading to a nice spin on traditional vampire lore. We're familiar with the old trope about vampires not being able to enter a home unless they're invited by its occupants - the celebrated novel and film Let The Right One In even took its title from that bit of myth - but we've never seen a vampire circumvent that by destroying the home itself. When Jerry wants to get at Charley as well as his mother Jane (Toni Collette) and girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots), he rips up the gas lines from under their lawn and blows up the house, and I think that's pretty cool.

I also, for the most part, enjoyed the revamped (heh) version of Peter Vincent, now played by former Dr. Who David Tennant. While Roddy McDowell's PV was a late night horror show, that just wouldn't work now. When Holland made his film, horror hosts were already a dying breed - that was the whole point of McDowell's character. So now Noxon and Gillespie have turned Peter Vincent into a cheesy Las Vegas entertainer - a Criss Angel-type magician whose stage show revolves around vampires.

It's a fairly ingenious update to the character (even if it's one that might be resented by many horror fans) that lets the new PV have some real knowledge and useful occult artifacts to bring to the table as Tennant's PV is a scholar of dark subject matter as well as a collector of rare items meant to thwart supernatural menaces. One of my main problems with the original Fright Night is that it was so idiotic for Charley to solicit Peter Vincent for help. I elaborated on this point in an earlier post but just to reiterate - for Charley to approach an ex-horror movie actor out of the blue and ask him for his expert assistance on killing real vampires is plain goofy.

While it's also nuts for the new Charley to do the same with the new Peter Vincent, this time around Charley is fishing for info rather than looking to recruit Vincent's personal assistance. It's not until Vincent has seen for himself what's going on that Charley asks him to go after Jerry with him. And this Vincent really has the tools for the job. It's not just McDowell putting on his old vampire hunter duds and playing the part for real, Tennant's Vincent is someone who has knowledge of what they're dealing with and possesses mystic items that they'll need.

So...in many ways, I found the new Fright Night to be a smart update. On the other hand, all the changes mean that this movie sure doesn't feel much like Fright Night, which begs the question: "why even bother?" Jerry isn't the Jerry we know, Peter Vincent is completely different, and the same goes for the new Evil Ed - now played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Ed is the most difficult role to update just because the original actor, Stephen Geoffreys, delivered such a one-of-a-kind performance as Charley's, er, quirky best friend that anyone would be hard-pressed to match it.

Fright Night was Holland's first outing as a director and I wonder if a more experienced director would've been quicker to rein in Geoffreys' over-the-top approach. It's a beyond-broad performance that, by rights, shouldn't work but yet somehow does. That leaves Plasse in the losing position of being an inevitably more subdued Ed. More problematic is the fact that, from a story telling point of view, the new Ed no longer serves much purpose. The character seems included solely because it's one that fans would expect to be there but it would've been better for this film had Evil Ed been left behind.

In the new film, Ed is now the one who discovers the truth about Jerry and who then must try to convince Charley. Ed is still a full-fledged geek in the way that his former best friend isn't (leading to a reprise of the line "You're so cool, Brewster!") so Charley doesn't want Ed back in his life - much less back in his life and with crazy talk about vampires. Charley, now with his hot girlfriend and his new non-RPG buddies, shuns Ed - until Ed's sudden disappearance leads Charley to pick up the threads of his lost pal's investigation.

For me, this just didn't work. If Fright Night is Rear Window with a vampire, it's better for the protagonist to be the voyeur who discovers for himself what's going on next door. That's a crucial element that needed to stay in place. Not letting us find out about Jerry through Charley's eyes gets the film off on the wrong foot. His broken relationship with Ed also makes us have to come around to liking Jerry, rather than instantly being on his side. It's just not sympathetic to have him be so dismissive of his former buddy and be so chummy with jerks. The trio of Charley, Amy and Ed in the original seemed comprised of all social misfits. While Charley and Amy weren't nearly as out there as Ed, none of them were part of the in-crowd and that was missed here, at least by me.

I'm willing to concede that some of my dislike for the new takes on Charley, Amy and Ed might be rooted in my affection for the original characters. However, one thing that doesn't work in the new film that I can't just attribute to nostalgia getting the best of me is the woeful special effects work. While it would've been unreasonable for Fright Night to stick to the same practical FX methods of the original, that doesn't mean that laddling on bad CGI was the answer.

I'm not anti-CGI (I love the Final Destination films and I don't think there's a single practical FX shot in that entire series). But, like any FX technique, it's got to look right and the CGI in Fright Night '11 just doesn't. Worse than that, it's often used in instances where no effects were needed at all. I can think of at least two moments - a swimming pool-set attack and a post-car crash confrontation - where a set of novelty store-bought fake fangs, rather than CGI, would've done the trick. As From Dusk Till Dawn featured better CGI vampire effects fifteen years ago, it's hard for to me to believe that no one involved in the execution and supervision of the CGI here wasn't aware of how lackluster this all looked. Or that director Gillespie didn't realize he was sabotaging his own film by including some of these shots. I don't know - maybe to some people this stuff looks ok but I don't see how that's possible.

Fans of the original might never have accepted some of the remake's character and story changes but I think they're all more or less defensible - perhaps save for Ed. But the FX is something that even total new comers to Fright Night can pick out as being a big mistake. If you're familiar with the original, then it's just that much worse. The giant Joker-mouth on Amy in the original might have been a little on the ridiculous side but it had a stylized comic book charm to it. It was a cool appliance and it was perfectly revealed. When they try to duplicate that here with CGI, it looks like something off the SyFy Channel. There's also no scene here that even touches - whether it be FX-wise or emotionally - the prolonged death of Ed, after he was staked through the heart in his wolf form by Peter Vincent. And Jerry's destruction has none of the cool factor of the original Jerry's climatic immolation. It's too bad that Gillespie can't pull his film from theaters and rerelase it in a few months with improved FX because I'd love to know how his Fright Night would play if so many of its moments weren't marred by lousy and/or gratuitous FX.

All complaints aside, I can say that I didn't hate the new Fright Night. If anything, the fact that I liked so many aspects of it (Farrell and Tennant, especially) makes my disappointment in its failings more acute. There are good moments and good performances but what could've been a fun vampire outing never quite pops the way it should.

Finally, how can you have a vampire film set in Vegas and not slip in a Kolchak reference? That's just bad form, man. For real.

5 comments:

Emily said...

Nice review. I liked this one a little more than you, though my problem lied in the very tentative tightrope walk it made between horror and comedy. I wish it would've committed a tad more to one or the other while still being both. Even so, it made me chuckle throughout and I liked some of the meaner touches. Not the best remake, but one that worked for me.

J.D. said...

Nice review. I was curious about this one. I really love the original and so I wasn't too keen on this new film, esp. the trailers suggesting what you confirmed in your review as its shortcomings. My problem with so many remakes is that quite often they barely resemble the original so why not just call it something else? I know, brand recognition but it clearly backfired in this case as the original FRIGHT NIGHT is a cult film at best and not a name that will fill multiplexes across the country.

Still, I will probably check this out when it comes out on home video.

Jeff Allard said...

Emily, I definitely didn't hate the new FN but that damn CGI was a real sticking point for me - on top of the fact that, as you say, it didn't completely succeed as either a campy horror flick or a serious one. Still, it wasn't terrible in my eyes - it's just not a movie that's going to be added to my DVD collection anytime soon.

J.D., it's definitely worth a home viewing. And, yeah, betting on FN as a brand name didn't pan out so well.

Mummbles said...

Great review, I saw the new FN a few hours ago and enjoyed most of it. I can see how people wouldn't like it though. I think the plus side was that it updated things nicely (like you said about Vegas being a perfect new local, Ferrell and Tennant were both good but more so Tennant who I thought was underused). I didn't see it in 3D as I try to avoid such gimmicks but I didn't think the CGI was so bad it took me out of the movie. Overall it was a pretty enjoyable movie and why it is nothing I will buy on dvd either I had a good time with it and I guess for $10.75 thats worth something.

Jeff Allard said...

Mummbles, I think I was in the minority on this as most people appeared to like it much more than I did. It certainly wasn't a disaster but for me, it was lacking on too many fronts to give it a complete thumbs up. I do think that less and/or better CGI would've improved my opinion of the movie.