The original Fright Night (1985) was a puff pastry: a John-Hughes-meets-John-Carpenter concoction that was pretty tasty even if it was basically filled with air. William Ragsdale played Charley Brewster, a teen who’s convinced his new next door neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire. (Ragsdale has continued to act, most recently as a regular on the FX series Justified.) For help, he turns to the host of a late night horror movie program, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), who styles himself a vampire hunter. Sarandon was campy cool as Jerry, while McDowall played Vincent as an anemic poser when faced with a real vampire. But he discovers a bit of Peter Cushing mojo and helps Charley defeat Jerry. All is well, until the sequel.
Along with other movies and TV series such as Footloose and The A-Team, Fright Night has been remade. Unfortunately, it’s been lost amid Hollywood’s display of unoriginality. This new Fright Night, though, isn’t just a remake; it’s a full upgrade for the post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer world. In fact, the new screenplay was written by Marti Noxon, who was a writer and producer on both Buffy and Angel, and has also worked on Grey’s Anatomy and Mad Men.
The action has been moved to Las Vegas, which is an inspired choice with its 24 hour lifestyle. Sleeping all day and being active at night doesn’t stand out. Charley (Anton Yelchin) and his mother, Jane (Toni Collette), live on the outskirts of the city in a planned development of cookie-cutter homes. Jane’s a realtor, an exceptionally frustrating job in Las Vegas these days, though a new resident, Jerry, has moved in next door to them. Charley is a recovering geek who is now dating one of the hottest girls in his high school, Amy (Imogen Poots). His still-geeky former friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) corners Charley and tells him Jerry is a vampire who’s begun picking off people, including another of their friends. Charley responds, “That’s a terrible vampire name. Jerry?” He blows off Ed, but when the home room teacher takes roll call the next morning, Ed is missing.
Once again Charley turns to Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help. In this incarnation he’s a Las Vegas magician who does a vampire-themed show. He looks like a cross between Chris Angel and Russell Brand (though he sounds more like Brand). Vincent’s website proclaims him a vampire hunter, and his apartment is filled with arcane superstition memorabilia. Vincent throws Charley out, refusing to help. Then he takes a closer look at photographs Charley took during a sneak inspection of Jerry’s house. He sees something he hasn’t seen since he was a child.
The script for Fright Night blends and balances the humor and horror perfectly. Who would believe that reading a class roll could be an exercise in suspense? Noxon takes a number of the vampire genre rules and turns them on their ears, especially that a vampire can only enter a house when invited.
The director, Craig Gillespie, worked in commercials for years before doing his first movie, Lars and the Real Girl, a couple of years ago. He’d also worked with Collette on The United States of Tara for Showtime. Gillespie handles the action with a sure hand, setting a ferocious pace. There is an extended scene of Charley, Jane and Amy trying to escape from Jerry in a minivan that plays like a single uncut shot with the camera rotating through a full 360 degrees as well as up and down. The only awkwardness is that the movie was shot to be released in 3D. Some of the action appears stage just to look cool in that medium. It’s like watching the paddle ball in House of Wax – nice effect, but can we get back to the movie? Other effects are amped up beyond the norm for a vampire flick. In this film, when a vamp gets caught full by the sun, they don’t just catch fire, they explode.
Yelchin doesn’t have an easy role, since he’s in effect the straight man of the production, but he pulls it off with charm and confidence. Imogen Poots will be a breakout star soon, even with a name that sounds like she’s a discarded character from the Harry Potter books. You’ll see Chris Sarandon, the original Jerry, in a small role in the movie as well.
The film, though, is stolen by Colin Farrell and David Tennant. Farrell handles the over-the-top violence with casual grace, yet he can also give you a chill simply by sniffing the air. It’s good to have an intelligent villain as well. At times the action follows the standard scenes we’ve seen in movies forever, such as when Charley breaks into Jerry’s house. Jerry comes home but Charley manages to get out without being seen – the standard movie action – and then Farrell reveals with the smallest of smiles that he was toying with Charley.
Tennant leaves his days playing on Doctor Who mashed up and stuck in the waste basket. His Vincent is completely profane and raunchy, wearing hip-hugging leather trousers. “They don’t breath,” he complains to Charley while pulling at the crotch. “You wouldn’t believe the rash I get.” He’s helped in embodying the role by Sandra Vergara, who plays Ginger, his assistant and lover who gives right back the attitude he gives her.
There are only a handful of remakes that totally eclipse the original. The TV version of Buffy made you forget the Kristy Swanson movie (which, if you saw it, is a merciful act). The Harrison Ford/Tommy Lee Jones version of The Fugitive took a classic television show and raised it to a whole new level. This version of Fright Night joins that pantheon.