Regular old vampires: ‘Fright Night’ retreats from ‘Twilight’ and Pattinsonism, but not in a good way

Colin Farrell in Fright Night. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

It is certainly nice to meet a vampire these days who isn’t an achingly celibate sparkly-skinned romantic hero with stony abs, but an ominous terrifying monster of the night. It’s refreshing to see a vampire actually behave according to his nature.

The Twilight juggernaut, while popular amongst tween girls for obvious, hormonally induced reasons, has done much to defang the bloodsucker myth, to the detriment of the genre. Vampire tales are considerably less chilling when the vampire in question is engaged in a drawn-out renunciation of his own proclivities.

If nothing else, Craig Gillespie’s Fright Night, a 3-D remake of the well-loved 1985 film, does much to rehabilitate the vampire to its rightful position in the cultural imagination. The film features a juicy performance by Colin Farrell as Jerry, the vampire, and begins engagingly, in a way that suggests it will actually be the sort of vampire movie that is also a vehicle for talking about other things, like, in this case, suburban angst.

All of which makes it that much more disappointing when the movie devolves into unfunny cliché. And that's to say nothing of the fact that the original has held up pretty damn well, even against the current C.G.I.-enhanced horror flicks, which certainly makes one wonder why a remake is even necessary. (It can't be for the 3-D, which does nothing to add to the fear factor, since most of the scares in the film are situational, not visual.)

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Most of the elements in the original travel to the remake intact: The high school student, the single mother, the girlfriend, the vampire next door, and the “vampire expert” who turns out to be a fraud.

Anton Yelchin plays Charley Brewster, a high school student living in a symmetrically laid-out suburb contained in the desert surrounding Las Vegas. The houses sit close together, and the opening overhead shot of the entire community at night gives a sense of its vulnerability to outside attack.

Raised by a single mother (Toni Collette), Charley has only just discovered that he might be cool, thanks to his burgeoning romance with Amy (Imogen Poots), the hot girl who seems to have the hots for him as well. So he has ditched his former best friend, (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who happens to have incriminating footage of the two of them fighting in a backyard like superheroes complete with swords and capes.

The details of teenage life are particularly well-drawn, especially when evoking that precarious time in middle school and high school when you are still dealing with people who remember you from when you were five years old. How can you have “game” when your classmates recall your nerdy pre-teen past? This dovetails well with the vampire genre, which has always had a sexual component to it, what with the dark figure stalking the night biting human beings deeply in the neck.

Everyone is sexually frustrated in Fright Night, and that collective frustration comes to focus on the new guy on the block, Jerry (Colin Farrell), who moves in next door to Charley and his mother and immediately begins to behave in a suspicious manner. Charley’s mother peers eagerly across the lawn wanting to befriend the hot new guy; Charley peeks out from behind the drapes, and can’t make love to his girlfriend Amy for the first time because he is too worried about what Jerry might be up to over there.

Farrell’s vampire is a totally different creation from the one Chris Sarandon played in the original Fright Night (and Sarandon has a cameo here), with its suggestion of homosexuality (you know, he had that roommate) and overall air of detached ironic amusement. Farrell’s stalking masculine presence throws everyone in the neighborhood out of whack.

In their sexually repressed suburban world, he is a vision of a brand of masculinity most definitely left out of the picture: He doesn’t walk, he strides; he doesn’t eat an apple, he devours it in huge, juicy bites. He appears to be mainlining some kind of hypermacho and yet also hypercool energy, which is dangerously attractive if you live in a world broken up by white picket fences.

Farrell has a lot of fun with this part, and made me think again of Andy Greenwald’s great piece about Farrell in Grantland, in which he posits that Farrell relaxed when he decided to become a character actor and not a leading man.

Farrell without his sense of humor is an emasculated creature, and the snarling or stoic action roles he did early on did not highlight him well, despite the fact that he is a sexy handsome guy.

Here, he gets to be as sexy as he has ever been, but also theatrical, oozing with charm and threat. The C.G.I. renderings of what he looks like when he goes into full- on vampire mode (one shot in particular, which Gillespie was apparently so in love with that he used it twice, which is not a good sign) are not nearly as terrifying as what Farrell does as an actor, when Jerry leads up to his big deadly bites. He shivers, clenches, convulses involuntarily, and almost looks like he’s about to come. And then, a giant release, as he goes in for the kill.

Fright Night doesn't mess around with the is-he-or-isn't-he-a-vampire question: It is clear immediately that the guy is up to no good, and Charley begins a frantic race against time to stop Jerry from killing again.

Fright Night features some genuinely frightening sequences, one being a rescue mission Charley stages to free a woman who has disappeared into the bowels of Jerry’s house. Featuring a hallway of locked doors straight out of a "Criminal Minds" marathon, Charley has to pick the lock and rescue the girl, all while Jerry languidly strolls around his house downstairs, devouring his fruit and watching "Real Housewives." The tension is unbearable, most of all because it is apparent that Jerry totally knows that they are there. It's a masterpiece of a sequence.

Eventually, as the situation reaches its desperate climax, Charley and Amy reach out to Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a “vampire expert” who headlines in Vegas and who appears to be a cross between Criss Angell and Alice Cooper. In the role played by Roddy McDowall in the original, Peter Vincent is also a fraud, not an expert in anything except swilling absinthe as though it is Gatorade and treating his poor girlfriend (Sandra Vergara, gamely finding humor in a role that could have been dreadful) like shit. When faced, finally, with a real vampire in a real situation, Peter Vincent, who puts on such a show of fearlessness and bravado, crumbles. It is yet another example of the sexual anxiety vampires provoke in these kinds of stories: Are you as much of a man as Jerry the vampire? Can you ever compete with a vampire’s particular brand of immortalizing seduction?

The film loses momentum in the ensuing showdowns, first in Peter Vincent’s ridiculous Vegas pad filled with vampire paraphernalia, and then in Jerry’s basement which, forgive me, again made me think of some serial killer’s lair on "Criminal Minds," and not the home of a bunch of bloodthirsty people-stalkers. The scenes are meant to be shocking and entertaining—severed heads, amputated arms and lots of wisecracks in between—but somehow they're neither. (When your internal reaction to a severed-head shot is "yep, of course," you know something’s off.)

Give me a thrilling, taut scene showing two kids sneaking through a house trying to avoid detection by the vampire downstairs over a flash-and-crash 3-D thrill any day. It’s more honest. It’s also more difficult to pull off. If Craig Gillespie could have brought the same visual acuity and impeccable sense of timing to the final violent showdowns as he did to the scene of lock-picking and sneaking around … well, then, you’d have a remake worthy of the name, and a vampire movie worth seeing.