I’ve been excited to see Fright Night for months, not because I’m a horror fan–actually, I tend to avoid horror movies whenever possible, with a few exceptions–not because I’m a fan of the original film of which it is a remake–I’ve never seen it–but because of the cast–dear god, this cast! If Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, and Toni Collette weren’t enough, Fright Night marks what could be David Tennant’s breakthrough performance in an American film. With the exception of his small role as Barty Crouch, Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, most Americans who even know he exists tend to know him as the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who, and the idea of seeing him on the big screen in the United States in this prominent role as an unconventional vampire hunter far overrode any reservations I might have had about seeing a film called Fright Night.
And I am so glad that they did, because it was one of the most marvelously entertaining times I’ve had at the movies in a long time. Directed by Craig Gillespie, Fright Night is a near-perfectly toned blend of horror and sharp-as-a-stake comedy that works as a suspense-laden rollercoaster ride even as it has its tongue planted firmly inside its cheek, satirizing both its genre and the soul-deadened landscape that is modern-day Suburbia. Its story is simple–a teenage boy, Charley Brewster (Yelchin) discovers that his new sexy, charming male next door neighbor, Jerry (Farrell), is actually a vampire who wants to most literally devour his mother (Collette), his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and everyone else in town. As one might guess from its title, Fright Night is neither an artsy film nor a subtle one. It doesn’t waste any time on Hitchcockian psychological tricks that might cause the viewer to question whether Jerry is legitimately what Charley believes him to be or whether the boy is suffering from some serious delusions. From the very start, we know in no uncertain terms that Jerry is a bloodsucker, and–despite the swaggery, devilishly handsome facade he portrays in his day-to-day life (or should that be night-to-night?)–there is nothing alluring about his guise when he is in feeding form, at which point he shifts into a hideous monster with seemingly thousands of gnashing fangs. In other words, “Take that, paranormal romance fiction!” Fright Night‘s vampires are not an enticing option for immortality. These are unstoppable killing machine vampires, not sparkly lovesick ones.
Speaking of which, as main vampire Jerry, Colin Farrell seems to be having an unmitigated ball, impressively managing to not seem as if he is shamelessly gnashing on the scenery even when he is shamelessly gnashing on the scenery. This is something that can also be said about David Tennant’s (even better) performance, which is a honest-to-god work of comedic genius–grand theatricality and pomposity overlaying an unexpectedly tragic core. His Peter Vincent is like the love child of Criss Angel and Russell Brand: a temperamental, pampered Las Vegas show diva who snaps at the merest provocation and drowns his hidden sorrows by chugging back endless glasses of Midori (his drink of choice an absolutely inspired comedic touch). Great UK actors such as Tennant and even merely very good ones such as Farrell tend to have this ability to play over-the-top roles (particularly in silly genre pieces such as this) entirely convincingly, even when in the wrong hands the same material could have been the most campily awful thing imaginable. That isn’t to say that the screenplay itself isn’t very good. Penned by Marti Noxon, former co-executive producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and new head writer on Glee, it is a remarkably strong work of pulp, but it is one that requires high-calibre acting to sell it. There aren’t many American actors who could have pulled this off so smoothly. Significantly, nearly none of the cast originated from America. Yelchin was born in Russia, Farrell in Ireland, Tennant in Scotland, Poots in England, and Collette in Australia.
What makes Noxon’s script so great (and which really helps bring out the legitimacy of the actors’ performances) is that although it is ultimately a bloody supernatural romp, it is built on a layer of emotional authenticity one doesn’t usually find in horror films. Noxon brings her keen understanding of high school hell and the false security from danger that the suburbs claim to provide that she honed in Buffy to this film, which is as much about a boy who has forsaken his former friends in order to attain that mystical status known as popularity as it is about vampire hunting. At the start of Fright Night, Charley seems to be a likable, amiable kid, but it isn’t long until we learn that he hasn’t been the nicest person lately. A few years back, he was a hardcore geek obsessed with roleplaying games, fantasy, comic books, and the like, but when he realized that he was good-looking enough to blend into the popular crowd at school, he buried his old interests and dumped all of his old friends and now ignores them in the hallways and won’t take their calls, even when his former best friend, Ed, played to perfection by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (essentially an older version of the same role he had in Role Models), warns him that people at the school, including one of the other kids from their old gang, have been disappearing and that he fears it’s the work of vampires. In response, Charley treats him with dismissive cruelty. To him, Ed is an unfortunate reminder of who he actually is but is desperately trying not to be any longer.
As one might guess, however, ultimately Charley has to submerge back inside the “uncool” world of imagination and fantasy in order to save the lives of himself and his loved ones from the vampiric threat. Simply put, his arc is about learning how to stop being an asshole–to realize the pain he has caused others (and himself) by denying who he is. You don’t often find teen-driven movies in which the protagonist’s actions are questioned to this degree by the text of the film itself. Many teen characters are jerks, but most films about that don’t seem to realize it. What is most interesting about Charley, however, is that, particularly in the hands of the supremely likable Yelchin, he isn’t actually a horrible person. We aren’t encouraged to actively hate him. He has just fallen victim to the sad truth that high school is a cutthroat, Darwinian universe where people who might otherwise have been reasonable in other circumstances divide into cliques and often sacrifice their morals in order to emerge triumphant or alive. There is nothing worse to a teenager than being considered a social pariah and if one has to sell out one’s dearest friends in order to escape being bully chum, often people do it. The fact that Yelchin makes Charley so genial and sympathetic makes an even stronger statement than if he were an outright douchebag. In other words, high school can bring out the worst in nice kids, too.
Noxon also doesn’t fully absolve Ed, either. Besides the fact that he does sound a bit crazy when he goes on about vampires at the start, he also spouts some rather misogynistic remarks about Charley’s girlfriend and while one can understand that he is lashing out against his friend for betraying him, it is also a reminder of the rabid anti-female feelings that exist in far too many portions of the geek community. To many virginal geeks, girls are unattainable conquests whose refusal to acknowledge them turns to bitter hatred on the part of the spurned boys. They both desire them and at the same time try to make themselves feel better about themselves by considering women objects and spiteful objects, at that. There is also a low level of homoerotic subtext implied in the fact that Ed is jealous that this girl has stolen Charley’s affections from him.
So Fright Night plays with all of these interesting layers of social commentary, even as it inspires chills and laughs in equal measure. I’ve read in other reviews that some people felt that the original film (which is apparently quite different to this one) had a “purpose,” whereas this one does not, and though, again, I haven’t seen the original to comment, I would have to argue, from what I had seen, that it simply has a different purpose than that of the original. For example, as far as I know, this Peter Vincent is an extremely divergent character to that of the 1984 film and one with an entirely different backstory (does the original’s even have a backstory?). It seems to me that if one is going to do a remake, this is the right way to do it–paying honor to the style of the original but creating a new work from its base elements and perhaps even adding further layers to characters that might otherwise have come across as stock.
Jerry the vampire himself may not get much depth, but again, he is the MacGuffin–the external threat that Charley and Peter have to struggle against in order to rediscover their inner selves. Something I appreciate about Jerry, though, is that he is not an easily defeated villain. He is physically (and supernaturally) stronger than any of the characters who come up against him and has lived for four hundred years, so he has remarkable survival skills. This is not one of those films where puny humans fight and somehow win against centuries-old creatures with relative ease. No, there is a reason Jerry has lived so long, and in order to defeat him, our human heroes have to figure out how to work around that problem, with what meager skills they have.
I also have to recommend checking out Fright Night in 3D. Unlike many recent 3D films, it was actually shot in 3D, so the effect always seems natural. The characters in the foreground never seem to be floating in front of a fake background, as often happens with bad post-conversion. Even more impressively, however, the 3D is used effectively. Rather than over-using it gratuitously throughout by having characters regularly reach out to the audience or that sort of thing, the film utilizes “screen-escaping” 3D sparingly for a few key moments that provoke genuine delight and jumps. Surprisingly, the various “vampires exploding into ash” effects that occur throughout the film are not only visually dazzling but, in 3D, mesmerizingly beautiful. I could have stared at these scenes in awe for hours.
But, again, the top reason to check out Fright Night is David Tennant, particularly for those who have only seen him as the Doctor, for here we have him in a role that can be similarly manic but in which he captures an entirely different energy to the point that one quickly forgets he’s even the same man. Tennant is a true star, and while I also hope to see him in movie theatres one day in a more substantial film, he gives the part the same passion and authenticity he brought to the Doctor–that conviction that belies the assertion that any movie, even a horror trifle such as this, is not worthy of his full talent and heart. What is perhaps even more wonderful is that the entire cast, production team, director, and writer seem to agree with him, making Fright Night a delectable horror-comedy confection of the highest quality.