One of the more annoying misconceptions about Hollywood today is that it’s wrong to be remaking anything, let alone everything. As if there are no great remakes — for instance, I finally saw John Carpenter’s “The Thing” last night, and while I’ve still not seen Hawks and Nyby’s original I can still recognize the 1982 version is excellent in its own right, if not better. Add that old defense to the new one: Craig Gillespie’s “Fright Night” redo is actually an enormous improvement on Tom Holland’s so-so 1985 film of the same name. Everything I complained about with the original has been fixed in the new movie, which was scripted by Marti Noxon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the TV series). The relationship between newly popular protagonist Charley (Anton Yelchin) and his spastic former best friend, ‘Evil’ Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is fleshed out in a nice “Heathers”/“Can’t Buy Me Love” back story kind of way. Charley’s mother (Toni Collette) is never forgotten, and in fact she’s quite bad ass in this one. Best of all, the uninventive updates on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” are abandoned. Jerry the Vampire (Colin Farrell) doesn’t have a long lost love who resembled Charley’s girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots). I think at one point someone might even allude to the Stoker with knowing dismissal that this isn’t that.
What it is instead is a terrific modernization of the first “Fright Night,” a schlock horror flick then situated in the not-quite-utopia of ’80s suburbia and a classic, Hitchcockian formula based in simple xenophobic paranoia. Noxon, whose work here is like gratefully subdued Kevin Williamson, has moved the setting to a housing development just outside of Vegas and perfectly places the action within the present context of the mortgage crisis aftermath and the local context of a city full of nighthawks and transients — how great it would have been for The Doors’ “The Changeling” to show up on the soundtrack for its title’s duality (not to mention a possible nod to the usage of “People Are Strange” in “The Lost Boys”). These contexts are directly referenced by characters, too, so when Jerry’s killing spree is masked by the usual abandonment of houses in Nevada (about 1 in 7 homes in the state is currently empty) or his lifestyle excused as common, these concepts are more explicit surface ideas than subtext, though at the same time we may accept an overlap where Jerry’s presence and activities deal in an overt subtext all the same.
How else is “Fright Night” bettered with the remake? It’s a lot bloodier, as opposed to goopy/slimy but also in contrast to the relatively minor body count of the original. Gillespie’s film opens with the typical horror prologue, in which a fairly insignificant (narrative-wise) family is slaughtered by an unseen murderer before we get to the main characters. Eventually enough kills happen, though, that you may wonder how such disappearances continue to go unnoticed by authorities, even in the current economy. But never mind those sorts of logistics in entertaining horror comedy. The primary way in which the remake succeeds is through its acting talent, especially of the comic-relief variety. Farrell, Mintz-Plasse (channeling McLovin more than ever, but for good measure) and David Tennant, who plays a theoretically awful yet ultimately very practical reworking of the Peter Vincent character, now a vampire-obsessed Vegas magician instead of a cult horror star, all bring a surprising amount of humorous charm that balances the horror elements. However, this relief might have been better were there any sort of real fright and tension to begin with. The “Fright Night” redo is enjoyable if not thrilling, but at least it’s not stiff like Holland’s take.
It’s also not too much of a think piece, even by popular movie standards. Yet not in a bad way. It wears its subtext on its sleeve, and we can appreciate this simplicity. So the only question we’re left with in the end is why the film is being released in 3D. Outside of making some floating, fiery ash look neat, the extra-dimension is put to no use as enhancement of spectacle or heightened depth perception. I would have been more satisfied, especially if I had to pay the surcharge, with at least some random yo-yos flying out into the audience. Hopefully you have the option of enjoying it without the additional cost or nuisance of the glasses. This coming from a still-strong supporter of the technology overall. This time, it’s my still-strong support for the potential of remakes that matters most.
“Fright Night” is now in theaters nationwide.
Recommended If You Like: “The Lost Boys”; “Zombieland”; “The Faculty”