Shot-For-Shot: Fright Night

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August 31, 2011 by abbyo

It’s funny how things in life tend to cycle. About a year after my first regular post on this blog, where I wrote about a remake of a vampire movie (“Let Me In”), we’re back with…another remake of a vampire movie. This time it’s “Fright Night,” a remake of the 1985 movie of the same name. In my post on “Let Me In,” I wrote that the best remakes work in one of two ways: giving new life and bringing a new audience to a good but obscure movie, or taking a second crack and bringing a movie to the audience it was always intended for, but missed out on the first time. “Fright Night” mostly fits this pattern, in the first sense. The difference being that the original is obscure, but not necessarily good.

Unless you came of age in the 80s, or spend lots of time watching late-night horror movies on cable, you might not be familiar with the original “Fright Night.” It’s known, and has its fair share of cult followers, but it doesn’t occupy a place in the 80s horror pantheon in the way “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Poltergeist” does. It’s often overlooked. In terms of mining material, the studios were more or less scraping the bottom of the barrel here. But in this case, it’s a good thing they did—they picked a movie that not only could be remade, but easily improved on; and put together a movie that does more or less everything it should, and does it pretty well.

The story is fairly simple. Charlie, a kid living in the suburbs gets a new neighbor, whose nocturnal habits are suspicious to say the least. Charlie, a horror fan with an active imagination, realizes the guy is a vampire. He takes it upon himself to do away with him, and seeks out help from the host of a local “Tales from the Crypt”-type show, a self-proclaimed vampire hunter who turns out (no surprise) to be a phony. Along the way, Charlie’s skeptical friend and girlfriend are captured, and he has to rescue them both. Both films follow the same plot. The difference is that while the original doesn’t try to develop anything beyond that simple premise, the remake puts in some nice details that make the material live up to its potential.

Tom Holland’s original 1985 “Fright Night” is funny, well-intentioned and has some impressive special effects sequences, as well as entertaining performances from Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowall. But it’s also pretty rickety. The characters and setting are poorly developed. Characters who are supposed to serve as comic relief are just plain annoying. The lack of development early on makes the film’s climactic last half sloppy and hard to understand as unexplained background details suddenly get piled on at the last minute. Not to mention, Sarandon’s vampire is surprisingly easy to kill. Considering he’s supposed to have been around for about 400 years, you’d think he’d have developed better survival skills. The movie is a little over 100 minutes, but everything happens so fast that it feels more like half an hour. Given that there were plenty of horror movies at the time that did scares and humor well (“An American Werewolf in London” and “Evil Dead,” just to name a couple), it’s disappointing that “Fright Night” doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. It’s a movie that deserves to be a lot better than it is.

This is the main reason the remake is so satisfying. While the original movie barely waits five minutes to start on the bloodsucking action, 2011’s “Fright Night” takes its time introducing characters and establishing at least the basics of each relationship before moving on to the stuff we’ve all come to see. In the original, the audience knows very little about Charlie Brewster, the main character, other than his enjoyment of hokey horror movies, and the fact that he had a single mom, a girlfriend, Amy, and a whiny-voiced frienemy, Ed. In the remake, Charlie’s a former nerd and high school social climber. Amy is his ticket out of Dungeons and Dragons territory. Ed, Charlie’s spurned best friend, now has a reason to act towards Charlie the way he does. Charlie’s mom, who, in the original, was little more than a cardboard cutout, now has a little depth—just enough to make her a believable suburban single parent. It’s not Chekov, but it works for what the movie’s trying to accomplish.

We’re given a location, too, which is more than we get in Holland’s film. The remake is set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, in a weird little island of streamlined civilization just outside of the city, surrounded by desert on almost every side.  Screenwriter Marti Noxon, best known for working on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” does a good job of combining two common concepts in horror movies: the idea of peaceful neighborhoods masking ultimate evil, and that “nobody can hear you scream” sense that comes from isolated locations. There are plenty of peaceful neighborhoods in “Fright Night,” but they’re peaceful because many of the houses are abandoned. It makes for some effective imagery—the idea that really nasty things could happen in those houses, and nobody would know.

However, the 2011 version disappoints in that it doesn’t pick up on what strengths there were in its source. In the ‘85 film, Chris Sarandon’s Jerry was an old school, seductive, flamboyant bloodsucker. He was interesting to watch. Colin Farrell’s version is a working-class bachelor tool, which I suppose works for his cover (nighttime construction worker), but just doesn’t give the audience much to look at. The regenerative creature effects, so neat-looking in the original, show up in the new version, but aren’t used to their fullest extents. In fact, the violence of the 2011 “Fright Night” on the whole is pretty slick-looking, which was a letdown. The best parts of 80s horror movies are their low-budget, DIY quality, which this new generation of remakes have none of.

In either form, “Fright Night” isn’t the best of movies—neither the ’85 or ‘11 versions are standouts, but that was never really the point. “Fright Night” is meant to be straight entertainment: a good story with some thrills, spills and chills. The original film has the better look, but the remake is better where it really counts: story and characters. It’s a solid (if disposable) movie that takes some interesting steps to improve its source.

Random observations:

-I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the remake’s interesting filmmaking pedigree: In addition to Noxon’s script, the film is directed by Craig Gillespie (of “Lars and the Real Girl”). In Noxon’s case at least,  I can’t think of a person better suited to write this script—it carries a lot of “Buffy’s” pop culture references and believable wit.

-For those of you who have seen the original “Fright Night”: Chris Sarandon has a good cameo in the remake. See if you can find him.

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One thought on “Shot-For-Shot: Fright Night

  1. […] burns an imprint onto her forehead. That’s a trick that gets re-used in the 80s cult classic “Fright Night.” It’s always fun to see filmmakers acknowledge their […]

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