We’re back to standard reviews with a largely ambivalent look at the “Fright Night” remake, which if nothing else has at least gotten me psyched for the roster of horror and thriller titles rolling out over the next few weeks.
Next time we’ll look at producer Guillermo del Toro’s update of the 1970s television horror-movie-of the-week “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (unless “Our Idiot Brother” pulls me away, but I doubt it), followed by the “found footage” shocker “Apollo 18.” After that will be Steven Soderbergh’s bio-apocalypse thriller “Contagion” (“Warrior” could bump it, but again doubtful), which will lead us right up to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Cannes honoree “Drive.” Sounds like good times to me.
Most horror movies, good or bad or in between, at least have an easy time establishing a consistent tone — scary or campy, or a deft mix of both, if the director really knows what they’re doing and can effectively juggle different sub-genres. Craig Gillespie’s remake of the 1980s camp classic “Fright Night,” however, never seems to find its place. A choppy and confused blend of old-fashioned vampire horror and more self-aware, borderline-meta camp, the movie never properly gels (especially when it tries to add genre homage into the mix, best exemplified in the scene where original “Fright Night” star Chris Sarandon shows up in an unimaginative token cameo as an ill-fated motorist).
Within the course of single scenes the film lurches from serious to light-hearted and back again, the sort of tonal shifts that are impressive when properly executed but disastrous when they lack confidence and finesse. It doesn’t help that few of the scares are actually effective, and whatever camp appeal the film may have offered is rendered moot by its refusal to truly embrace the inherent goofiness of its storyline. This kind of thing requires creativity and reckless abandon, but all I see is laziness and timidity. Though it is not terrible in a technical sense, “Fright Night” should be ashamed to call itself a horror film.
The overall plot from the original “vampires in suburbia” film remains more or less intact here, with Anton Yelchin (best known from “Star Trek” and “Terminator: Salvation”) taking on the role of Charley Brewster, a geeky teen who begins to suspect that his next-door neighbor is a vampire. Given the unexplained disappearances of his friends and neighbors, it wouldn’t seem like Charley would need to be a super-sleuth to discover the truth. But Charley, recently accepted into the cool crowd at school, is distracted and in denial over the suspicious activity, even after his nerdy former best friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) presents him with compelling evidence that something nefarious is afoot.
It is only after Ed himself disappears that Charley begins his own investigation into his seemingly amiable neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell), who is soon confirmed to be an ancient bloodsucker with an insatiable appetite for complacent suburbanites. And worse yet, he’s onto Charley. With nowhere else to turn, our hero seeks the help of Las Vegas magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant, in a role originally played by Roddy McDowell as an aging television personality), who purports to have an extensive knowledge of the undead but may in fact just be a dysfunctional alcoholic. Either way he’s the kid’s only hope to stop Jerry, and after Charley’s girlfriend is taken, the two arm themselves with Peter’s vast arsenal of anti-vampire weapons and lay siege to Jerry’s lair.
Aside from a couple decent set pieces (the most notable being Charley’s discovery of his neighbor’s true identity, and the ensuing effort to rescue Jerry’s latest victim from a basement prison; and Jerry’s initial attack on Charley’s home, when the gloves come off and the fangs come out), “Fright Night” is short on thrills. This final showdown, presented with an adequate build-up, gave Gillespie a prime opportunity to redeem the rest of the film and give us a good, no-nonsense vampire smackdown. And though it is intermittently satisfying, this cookie-cutter climax feels like just one more sleight in a film that consistently fails to deliver on the level that was promised.
With such iffy direction, it is up to the cast to keep the viewer’s attention. Unfortunately, the performances and characterizations are very much a mixed bag. Yelchin makes for an engaging enough hero, but the character’s willful stupidity and abhorrent behavior in the first act make it difficult to empathize with his hardships later in the film (particularly when he’s committing such cardinal horror movie sins as incapacitating the bad guy, only to turn and run without finishing him off). Colin Farrell, offering plenty of smarmy smirks and nice-guy appeal, seems like he wants to have fun with the role but — much like the viewer — can’t shake the feeling that he was woefully miscast. After a while, he just sort of gives up.
Mintz-Plasse (“Superbad” and “Kick-Ass”) is at once the best and most frustrating element of the entire movie. With a couple key scenes near the beginning of the film, he stands out as a believable, unique and forceful personality in a movie that is sorely lacking in vim and vigor. After he is turned by Jerry, one anticipates that a primal force is about to be unleashed, and that Ed could turn out to be much more dangerous to Charley than Jerry is himself. But his return near the end of the second act is the biggest letdown in the whole movie, and we see an effective performance made stale by insipid direction and a screenplay that lacks subtlety. Like the rest of “Fright Night,” this characterization is a half-formed mishmash of good ideas that simply never pan out.
“Fright Night” is rated R for profanity, graphic violence and gore.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.