Saturday, September 3, 2011

Movie Review "Fright Night" (2011) by David Pretty

Greetings, Children O' The Night!

The remake of Fright Night is just different enough to lead one to believe that the producers just attached the title to a completely unrelated script for added marquee value.  Mercifully, this actually bodes well.  After all, most horror remakes tend to boil down to a shot-for-shot recreation which does nothing different or innovative, save dressing the actors in modern garb.

See if you can get a sense for this in the film's tense-looking trailer:

Fright Night stars Anton Yelchin (Star Trek's Pavel Chekov 2.0) as Charley Brewster, a typical teenager trying to make his way through his High School's popularity minefield.  In order to do so, he's turned his back on his former geek buddy, the still-loyal but slightly paranoid Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  This harsh tactic seems to have worked in the short-term since Charley is now lucky enough to be making time with uber-hottie Amy (played by the preciously named Imogen Poots).

Charley and his mom (Toni Collette) live in a suburban development tract way out in the Nevada desert, which looks like the same place where the Barenaked Ladies shot their video for "Call and Answer".  Into this identical, already inherently creepy setting comes Jerry (Colin Farrell) a tall, dark, Luciferian figure who turns the collective heads of the entire resident female population with his smoldering good looks.  As a night time construction worker, no one thinks it odd that he sleeps all day and keeps all of his windows painted black.

Soon Ed resurfaces like a harbinger of doom, claiming to have proof that Jerry is actually an immortal, nocturnal bloodsucker.  Given Ed's hyperactive imagination, Charley dismisses his ravings as delusional.  But when his former pal vanishes, photographic evidence surfaces and a neighborhood girl comes under threat, Charley gets pulled into the vampire's dark realm. 

Needless to say, Jerry doesn't take too kindly to his secret being threatened and when his assault on the Brewster household comes, it certainly isn't slow pitch.  To try and combat the undead threat, Charley turns to  Las Vegas gothic stage magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help.  Even after he's forced to believe the boy, Vincent turns out to be a craven poseur who's as useless as a screen door on a submarine.

Eventually this leads to the inevitable showdown, but even when forced to traipse down this mandatory plot path, the script continues to throw in periodic sliders.  You can credit former Buffy The Vampire Slayer scribe Marti Noxon with most of the film's innovations.  Just as we're getting ready for the conveyor belt of cliches to switch on, she defies our expectations.  For example, I really liked the shocking culmination of   Charley's early failed rescue attempt.  Also, after Jerry's true nature is revealed, I fully expected a slow, protracted mental chess game to occur between Charley and the vampire.  Instead, Jerry plays the equivalent of a nuke card.  As soon as this happens, we instantly suspect that the movie will take us into uncharted territory.

Director Craig Gillespie serves the witty script with a very low-key and almost retro style, kinda like the horror equivalent of Joe Johnston's Captain America.  He isn't afraid to invest some time in building tension which is infinitely more engaging then a series of unconnected jump-scares and gratuitous CGI.  When Charlie attempts to free Doris (Emily Montague) from Jerry's secret prison, it almost plays out like a scene from a Tarantino flick instead of a cheesy vampire yarn.  You almost expect Jerry to burst in dressed up as "The Gimp".

Speak of the devil, Colin Farrell's performance is a lot of fun to watch.  At the drop of a hat he's alternately charming, smarmy, threatening, psychotic, rage-filled and predatory.  In fact, he does such a great job here that it helps the film rise above it's inherently fanciful and preposterous premise.  His interpretation of the role is one part Chris Sarandon in the original Fright Night (he gets a fun cameo here) and one part Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.  The results are refreshingly original.  Frankly, it's high testimony to say that I wouldn't mind re-watching the film again just to see him go totally batshit insane again.

He's well-matched by Anton Yelchin's charming and earnest take on Charley.  I love that the script makes him flawed, having thrown off his Farscape-ian past and turned his back on his old friends.  He certainly does pay dearly for his lapse of social elitism.  When he finally gets proof that Jerry is indeed a vampire, Yeltsin does a fantastic job internalizing his terror.  You feel as if this kid is really suffering, trying to come up with a realistic way to keep his mom and girlfriend free of the vampire's thrall.  His desperation makes his encounter with Peter Vincent a bit more plausible.

David Tennant does a good job with the role of  Peter Vincent, but unfortunately we've seen this sort of wasted, obnoxious, British rock star type of character way too many times before.  In fact, he really just boils down to Criss Angel meets Russell Brand.  The script tries to provide him with a bit of a backstory and some progression but it's all pretty superficial.

To make things worse the whole "Fright Night"/Vegas stage-show angle feels pretty weak.  It's a shame that late night T.V. "Creature Features" have long since gone out of vogue since it made a lot more sense for Charley to seek out Vincent's help in the original film.  In that one, Charley watched "Fright Night" every evening on television, which allowed him to consistently see Peter as a sagely Van Helsing type.  Here believability is strained since Vincent is depicted as a nominal stage magician who's act we barely get a chance to see.    

Imogen Poots (Tee, hee!) as Charley's girlfriend Amy gets more to do then the average distressed damsel.  She's in the fight for as long as expectations will allow and her character even gets what passes for a minor arc nowadays.  Actually, this arc has more to do with our own expectations since she's immediately characterized by Ed as a vapid twinkie right from the start (presumably just because she's a hottie).  But soon the script drops hints that there's more to her then we originally surmised, like when she's seen devouring a copy of Wuthering Heights.

Unfortunately she (along with the rest of the film) eventually becomes master-slaved to the familiar dictates of the plot.  We know someone's gonna hafta get captured.  We know our hero will lead an assault on the vampire's stronghold.  Mercifully, Marti Noxon isn't content just to turn in a checklist of cliches.  For example, Charley manages to devise an innovative, self-inflammatory method to fight Jerry.  Having said that, I've gotta take a star away for the lame artifact provided by Peter Vincent, since it might as well have been called The Holy Script Convenience.  In fact, it's presence in the film really neuters the threat factor.

The special effects are used fairly sparingly and often employed to revel in the inherent powers of the vampire.  I got a kick out of Jerry digging up Charley's back yard, hucking huge boulders around like marbles.  There's also a stellar car chase scene which features Jerry doing his best Indiana Jones impersonation and then being impaled by the most creative use of product placement I've seen in years.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse also gets a few funny scenes, proving that just because you've got awesome vampire powers, it doesn't mean that your fighting skills have improved.  It's a riot watching him get woefully and comically mutilated during his extended scrap with our heroes.

Props also go out to the film's producers for coming up with a stellar vamp dusting effect which is really enhanced the the 3-D process.  More then once I felt compelled to reach out and stir the still-burning remnants of a dead bloodsucker around in the air.  The film's fiery and chaotic climax also gets a lot of mileage out of this gimmick, but earns jeers for it's copious use of CGI flying blood.

You won't see me write this very often but here goes: I'm not completely against the existence of this remake.  The solid performances and understated and original script ensures that I won't want to destroy every copy of the film after I become Emperor.

But I really do wish they'd changed a few more things and just come up with a brand new title.

Tilt: up.                                      

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