Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There Goes the Neighborhood: FRIGHT NIGHT


Fright Night, a Todd Holland film from 1985, is a horror comedy about a teenaged horror fan who is convinced that there is a vampire living next door. It’s a film that’s fitfully amusing and frightening and very much of its time. When I saw that, very eighties, film for the first time earlier this year I found myself affectionate towards it while seeing room for improvement. Now, here comes Craig Gillespie’s remake, a film with gimmicky 3D effects, a soundtrack featuring Kid Cudi and Foster the People, and characters checking their smart phones for important information. In other words, it’s Fright Night marked specifically for posterity as belonging to 2011. It’s also, luckily, a slightly better movie in some ways than its predecessor, a little bit funnier, a little bit scarier, a little bit slicker. It’s a good story that’s now been well told twice.

This version bursts to life in a stylish way. Bold, graphical splashes of blood-red credits announce the film’s visual energy. The camera swoops in bird-of-prey circles around the little neighborhood, spinning mid-air to capture the isolated tract housing, the place with the unseen menace lurking under a deceptively normal setting. The movie situates the suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps. It’s the perfect cover for this vampire who can claim his blacked out windows and nocturnal habits are because he works the night shift in a downtown tourist trap. Jerry the Vampire trades in his relaxed, suave Chris Sarandon eighties wear for a grimy workingman wardrobe placed on the muscular shoulders of Colin Farrell. He’s a physical creature, a matter-of-fact menace, and a disarmingly regular guy who digs around in his home improvement projects and kicks back with a beer in front of his TV to watch some iteration of the Real Housewives.

The kid next door knows what’s really up, though, but not at first. The kid (Anton Yelchin) is Charley, a high school student. He’s a former nerd who’s distanced himself from his best friend (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in exchange for entry into the cool crowd, including a budding relationship with a class hottie (Imogen Poots). The new neighbor only registers as a mild annoyance until Charley’s friend comes to him with proof of strange goings-on. People have been disappearing and a chart of last know positions puts Jerry’s house at the center of the mystery. That seems to point to more than just an annoyance next door. With a little research (well, spying and Googling), it becomes clear that Jerry is indeed a vampire. But we already knew that.

The film then becomes more or less what you’d expect, an escalation in the tension between the teens and the vampire. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) is a little oblivious. She thinks she might have a chance with the attractive neighbor. Charley’s girlfriend’s weirded out. Why doesn’t he want to make out with her, prefering instead to leap up at the sound of a car in the neighbor’s driveway? Charley finds this all distressing. Why won’t anyone believe him? It’s bad enough that the vampire tells him to his face that his mom and his girlfriend have nice necks, but now his friend is among those who have disappeared. (Maybe Charley should ask for help from the Vegas magician (David Tennant) who claims to be expert in the occult). It all builds to a series of splashy effects pieces, well rendered conflict between the horror creature and the only mere mortals who know what he really is

This is effective, energetic popcorn filmmaking. Like the original, it’s a halfway decent teen comedy that turns into a series of effects sequences. Laughs are lightly mixed in with the flowing tension and gooey gobs of CGI blood. The performances are largely charming and the adapted script by Marti Noxon (a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) knows its way around teens and vampire hunters while still humanizing them all. There’s enough grist of psychological complexity (not a lot, mind you, but just enough) to ground the insistent effects and showy scares in some small semblances of reality. The film also makes great use of a score by Ramin Djawadi that contains a wonderful melodic flourish that works hints of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” a piece associated with old-school horror, into the film’s musical texture. All of this just to say that this new version of Fright Night surprised me. It held my attention and entertained me by being better than I expected it to be. It’s not a lazy remake of a minor 80’s hit. It’s reworked and, as they say, reimagined into a proficient new telling of a solid story.

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