BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When he learns that new neighbor Jerry Dandridge is actually a vampire, high school student Charlie Brewster tries to convince others to believe him, setting off a cat-and-mouse game that comes to involve egocentric stage magician Peter Vincent.
PROS: Good, endearing cast, with a standout performance from David Tennant; smooth, tongue-in-cheek direction by Craig Gillespie; occasionally clever screenplay by Marti Noxon; enjoyably cheesy 3-D effects in the manner of Friday the 13th: Part III; good deviation from the original about halfway through…
CONS: …but until that time perhaps too close to the original; clichéd relationship between two of the principals; and would somebody please give Christopher Mintz-Plasse a role other than the geeky high school student?!
Not much unexpected happens in Fright Night, director Craig Gillespie’s remake of the dubious 1985 classic. The only real surprise in its 106-minute running time (identical to the original) comes in its quality; while far more horror movies of its vintage promise greater remake potential, Fright Night pulls off the feat of being far more entertaining than this critic anticipated, and far better than most remakes released in the past two or three years (The Crazies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left, and Rob Zombie’s execrable Halloween). That it takes the movie half its running time to get out of its somnambulistic stupor, too closely wedded to the original, hinders it significantly, engaging only when it starts to deviate.
The remake changes Tom Holland’s original location from an anonymous suburb (which, for all we knew, could have been Shermer, Illinois) to Las Vegas, which, Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and his friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, playing basically the same character since McLovin in 2007’s Superbad) note, a vampire would find ideal because of its high transient population. A rise in student absences only sparks Ed’s belief that a vampire resides in his and Brewster’s subdivision. Brewster, for his part, wants little to do with the vampire shenanigans. Though friends with Ed for a long time, he now runs with a different, far more popular group, his high school social standing elevated by his girlfriend Amy Peterson (Imogen Poots). It’s a relationship which meets with his mother’s (Toni Collette) approval, when she can break away from conversation with their handsome new neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell).
And then Ed misses school. And Charlie finds enough evidence to convince him of Jerry’s nocturnal liquid diet…enough to keep him from inviting Jerry into his mother’s house (vampires not being allowed in one’s home unless invited), and then investigating when Jerry invites a young woman from Charlie’s neighborhood over one evening.
Gillespie handles these beats from Marti Noxon’s script well enough, though without much originality. As Charlie learns the truth about Jerry, however, one begins to wonder why all involved even bothered with a remake, since the relocation amounts to little more than a facelift. Even Charlie’s visit to popular Vegas stage illusionist Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for explanation on how to kill a vampire, while up to this point one of the movie’s highlights, holds a rote quality. Tennant, decked out in leather pants and fake tattoos, makes the scene work with an over-the-top performance light years distant from Roddy McDowell’s stuffy creature feature host in the original, but it only underscores the movie’s middling production. By the time Jerry knocks on the door to confront Charlie, and by the time Charlie urges his mother not to open the door, Fright Night‘s mediocre groove seems all but cut.
Until Jerry finds a way around an invitation inside the Brewster residence. At which point, the movie kicks into high gear, throwing away the template with which it initially worked and transforming into a cat-and-mouse chase. Fright Night‘s tone and energy change so much, in fact, that it seems like an entirely different, and far better, movie grafted to the first part. As Charlie and Amy seek refuge in Peter Vincent’s Vegas apartment, making use of his arsenal of vampire killing tools, one wonders why Gillespie felt compelled to start Fright Night so narcoleptically.
No matter. The second half of the movie saves it from its previously undead status, with Gillespie getting the most from his actors. Noxon, no longer bound by the earlier movie, lets Poots’s Amy show some brains the original character lacked. Farrell, as Jerry, shows the maniacal fun he should have been having since the first frame. Even Mintz-Plasse, rushed into the grave far too early, brings out Ed’s more diabolical side.
Still, the movie fumbles once or twice. Peter Vincent’s relationship to the underworld generates no surprise and steers Fright Night too close to cliché. And the climax–of course taking place in Jerry’s lair–spends too much time heaping shock after unsurprising shock on the unlikely vampire killers, eliciting unintended titters rather than knowing laughter. By then, however, we don’t mind, for while this Fright Night never rises to the level of its previous iteration, it already reminds us that life still beats in the vampire tale, and that real vampires don’t sparkle. You’re so cool, Brewster, for bringing it.