On the spectrum of Hollywood remake fodder, Fright Night is probably a fair target. The 1985 original is an above-average horror film with a good premise (a suburban kid discovers his next-door neighbor Jerry is secretly a vampire), but it loses its way in the home stretch, hinting at very interesting twists in Amanda Bearse's character and her interactions with Chris Sarandon's Jerry, before abandoning them in favor of a simpler resolution that has the characters stumbling through sloppy action beats. It'd be easy for an updated version to take the seeds of Fright Night and produce something that does jusice to the concept while offering a fresh take on the material, but the new movie only musters superficial improvements.
The new screenplay, by "Buffy" writer Marti Noxon, retains main character Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin), his girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots), his best friend "Evil" Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), his mother (Toni Collette), and vampire neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell), and relocates the quiet street to a housing development in the Nevada desert, just outside of Las Vegas. In the original, it's Charley who investigates Jerry's suspicious nightlife, but in the remake, it's Ed, whose begging eventually convinces Charley to sneak into Jerry's house to see for himself, where he finds some indisputable evidence of Jerry's blood-sucking ways. At the same time, it becomes clear that Jerry knows he's been found out, and Charley tracks down the only vampire "expert" he can find: Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a Criss Angel-style Las Vegas magician whose stage show (called "Fright Night") involves vampires.
Some of Noxon's changes have promise, but the film struggles to capitalize on them. When Ed tells Charley about Jerry, he's as concerned by the increasing number of absent kids in class as he is by the growing rift between Charley and himself. Thanks to the social demands of high school, Charley's stifled aspects of his personality and his friendship with Ed in favor of a girlfriend and "friends" like Mark (Dave Franco), who seems concerned that Charley would even look at a nerd, much less be friends with one. Ed's feelings of being an outsider are important in both the original and the remake, and the idea of Charley slighting Ed plays into that nicely, but Fright Night 2011 isn't interested enough in character development (or Ed, for that matter) for the storyline to pan out in any meaningful way.
Noxon also completely overhauls the Peter Vincent character. Admittedly, an update is necessary; the original Peter Vincent was a former horror movie star relegated to a weekend hosting gig on basic cable, a job that was apparently already very unlikely in 1985 and even more unlikely today. Instead of petty self-righteousness in the face of a crumbling career, the new Vincent is a womanizing egomaniac, surrounded by a bevy of scantily-clad showgirls he casually sleeps with and then bosses around in their free time, all of whom hate his guts. On the surface, the character isn't very funny, but more important is the fact that facing his fears and/or helping Charley doesn't really redeem the new Vincent. Like Charley's new friends, most of Vincent's sexism is simply played for laughs; although I'm sure Noxon (who is a woman) wants to show how Charley's a better, more mature person than those around him, the movie doesn't really emphasize it enough, resulting in an overabundance of uncomfortably crude humor. The movie itself may not be seriously sexist, but characters like Vincent and even Ed (who resents Amy for taking Charley away) uncomfortably toe the line when their hatred is frequently delivered like a hilarious joke.
On the other hand, Farrell is a pretty good pick for Jerry. Tennant's lothario act is big and broad, but Farrell is more sly, locating a tone that winks at the conventions of the vampire movie and the character even more than Holland's original, all with the same "allure of the vampire" spookiness that made the Sarandon's performance so interesting. He also throws in more than a handful of funny tics and an occasionally unusual cadence around the fringes, potentially for his own amusement. Toni Collette gets a bit more material this time around as Charley's mother, although like the mom in the first film, the film suddenly sidelines her at the halfway mark. The rest of the movie's positives can be chalked up to director Craig Gillespie, who gives the film a nice, mostly natural look, a smoother build, passable and coherent action sequences, and a better ending, although the 3D is patently worthless (only the title sequences look all that cool with the added dimension).
These elements eventually add up to a somewhat pleasing popcorn picture, but it's hard to shake the sense that the film could've been more than that. In the original, some of the Amy character's choices during the third act were interesting and different, but Noxon, in her efforts to prevent Fright Night from becoming Twilight, lops the entire angle right out of the film, inadvertently reducing Amy's character to a plain old damsel-in-distress. While it's true that the end result doesn't call out for the same improvements as the 1985 film, it's only because the filmmakers have removed all signs of this thread in order to play it safe. If we're going to go to the trouble of re-writing, re-casting, and re-shooting movies that have already been made, it seems only fair to hope the result is a significantly better movie. Instead, Fright Night is only sort of better than original, and those improvements are so on-the-surface, so lacking in ambition, that the new film is also worse at the same time.
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