A confession: this writer has never seen the original “Fright Night.” It’s one of a certain kind of 80s VHS-era film (“The Goonies,” ‘Weird Science,” ‘Wargames“), beloved by a certain generation that this writer was a few years too late for, and that we’ve never caught up on, principally because it feels like there are plenty of better things to do with our time. This is a long-winded way of saying that if you’re looking for comparisons between the original and 2011’s “Fright Night”, if you’re looking for someone to tell you if Colin Farrell lives up to Chris Sarandon, this is not the review for you. What we can do is judge Craig Gillespie‘s remake on its own merits, of which there are a few: “Fright Night” is an enjoyable time at the movies. But we suspect it’s the kind of film that, when it airs on TV five years from now, we’ll only realize that we’ve seen before half an hour in.
As far as we’re aware, the plot stays fairly closely to the original, with a few alterations. Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is an ordinary kid, living with his mom (Toni Colette), in a Las Vegas commuter belt town. He’s a former nerd who’s now become a swan, as it were, and managed to land the hottest girl in school, Amy, (Imogen Poots), although he’s now ignoring his oldest friend, Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a friend who’s convinced that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire. But when it turns out that Ed was right, Charley has nowhere to turn but Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a flamboyant stage magician who claims on his website to have knowledge of how to kill the undead.
For all the current spate of vampires in movies, there’s one particular property that the new “Fright Night” resembles, and that’s Joss Whedon‘s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” — no surprise, seeing as screenwriter Marti Noxon cut her teeth, if you’ll excuse the pun, on the much-loved TV series. Blending teen angst and mythology, with a script full of witty asides and pop culture gags, it’s essentially like a two-part episode of that show, albeit stripped of the girl power and most of the subtext. And that should give you an idea of how you’ll feel about the finished film. If the idea of an extended, middle-of-the-range “Buffy” episode on the big screen makes you happy, you’ll likely have a good time. If you want something more ambitious from your cinema, you may be disappointed.
Director Craig Gillespie has certainly made a big shift from his last film, the indie comedy-drama “Lars and the Real Girl,” and for the most part handles it well — the tone, the trickiest aspect of a film like this, is nicely modulated, the shifts from coming-of-age to comedy to horror to action never feeling too breakneck. He’s sometimes a little showy with the camera — a “Children of Men“-riffing one-shot car sequence for one — but for the most part deals with the action and suspense nicely, and we can see why he landed the “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies” job after this. He’s got a good eye for 3D composition as well, showing a better grasp of the format than most movies this year (although he’s thwarted by the amount of the film that takes in place in darkness, not something that 3D does well, while there’s maybe one too many ‘coming at you!’ moments, and some truly awful CGI in a few places) .
So, the directing? OK, nothing special. Noxon’s script? Also OK, nothing special — the dialogue is sparky enough, but there’s maybe one too many logical leaps: it’s never clear why Charley has to seek out Vincent to learn how to kill a vampire, rather than going to, say, Wikipedia. But there’s nothing too intelligence-insulting, so it’s decent enough. How do the cast do?
You’ve probably seen this coming, but: OK, nothing special. Anton Yelchin is as amiable a lead as ever, mixing nerdiness and charisma like few can, and it’s nice to see him in a lead, even if he doesn’t really get to spread his wings. Imogen Poots makes the girlfriend part more interesting than it deserves, but she’s been better before, and better again. Toni Colette does what you hire her to do, and fleshes out an underwritten role, but she disappears for most of the film. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
It’s the two older male leads who come off best. Farrell’s good value as the villain, making Jerry a real threat, both to Charley’s life and his masculinity. One character describes him at one point as “like the fucking shark from “Jaws,”” and that seems to have been Farrell’s principle note; it’s nice to see a vampire more savage and ruthless than the “Twilight” gang. Tennant, meanwhile, is likely to be a new face for most U.S. viewers unfamiliar with “Doctor Who,” but he should get a good boost from the part, overcoming the fact that the role seems to have been written for, and turned down by, Russell Brand, to make his own mark, and walk away with most of his scenes, and the bulk of the film’s laughs, as well as convincing as an action hero in the brief time he’s allotted.
We had a fairly good time with “Fright Night.” We laughed a bit, we jumped a bit, we were invested enough in the characters that we didn’t want them to die. So to a degree, all involved can be happy enough with the job that they’ve done. But we’ve rarely seen a more transient piece of entertainment — like the cinematic equivalent of popping candy, it fizzes for an instant, and then it’s gone. And we don’t know about you, but we like even our low-ambition horror-comedies to have at least one truly memorable scene, or even a line. Sometimes, just doing your job isn’t quite enough. [C]