Fright Night (1985) (out of 4)
Directed By: Tom Holland
Starring: William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys, Jonathan Stark, Dorothy Fielding, Art Evans
Fright Night (2011) (out of 4)
Directed By: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Imogen Poots, David Tennant, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Toni Collette, Emily Montague, Sandra Vergara, Dave Franco, Reid Ewing
NOTE: Some slight spoilers ahead.
It’s interesting to see how the vampire-next-door horror/comedies Fright Night (1985) and Fright Night (2011), reflect the times in which they were made. The original Fright Night arrived smack in the middle of the 80s, a time where vampire films had been marginalized by slashers (even Roddy McDowall’s character Peter Vincent laments that young people “only want to see slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins”). But it clicked with audiences, even out-grossing Friday the 13th: A New Beginning that year. It’s not difficult to see why – viewing the film over 25 years later, I find that it still works, mostly due to the charm of its cast, it’s sexual undertones, and its old school effects. Dated, yes, but lots of fun.
One of the things I find amusing about 1985′s Fright Night is that it’s main character Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is such a screw-up. He’s a few seconds away from losing his virginity to his willing girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) and instead he becomes distracted by two men carrying what looks like a coffin outside his window. When he spies on his neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), Rear Window-style, he discovers that Jerry has fangs and demon-like hands, and that women who visit his house at night end up missing. Convinced that Jerry is a real-life vampire, he brings the cops to the house, but blabs about Jerry being part of the undead, expecting everybody to believe him. Naturally, nobody does, and soon Charley has Jerry’s complete attention. Charley seeks out horror TV host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) who doesn’t believe a word of it either, but when Amy and Charley’s weird-but-lovable friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) offer him money to help stage an “intervention”, Peter agrees to perform a fake vampire test at Jerry’s home, hoping to cure Charley of his delusions. But then Peter discovers, to his horror, that Jerry casts no reflection, and soon he has to make the choice of becoming a real vampire killer.
What really works about Fright Night is the casting. Ragsdale is good as the poor high school kid who sees danger all around but can’t get anybody to listen, but Sarandon, Bearse, Geoffreys, and McDowall are outstanding. Even Jonathan Stark as Billy Cole, Jerry’s “familiar”, adds a whimsical touch to his role – he kinda has this Kevin Bacon/Jim Carrey thing going on. Most of the humor of the film comes from Stephen Geoffreys, who hams it up pretty well as a vampire (to me, the funny part is that his “human” personality wasn’t that different). McDowall is very enjoyable (his character being named after Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, of course), and his professionalism and background as a character actor work really well here. In fact, Fright Night is basically a tribute to the old school, a throwback to the Hammer films (like Horror of Dracula and Scars of Dracula) and the early Bela Lugosi edition from 1931. The ending has plenty of action and icky, practical effects, which still work pretty well today. As for Sarandon, he plays Dandridge very suave and cool, a true yuppie bloodsucker. His scenes of seduction with Bearse are dripping with sexuality; she’s no match and basically gives herself to him. The image of blood trickling down Amy’s back as she moans in ecstasy drives home the idea that sensuality and sexuality are what make vampirism as attractive as it is repellant. Nobody’s going to want to join the undead legions if all they have to look forward to is blood drinking and coffins. Jerry is such a player that Charley really has no advantage – he gives Evil Ed an escape from persecution and a weapon to use against his bullies while fulfilling the virginal Amy’s fantasies of being deflowered by a tall, dark, and handsome stranger. Even if Charley wins the day, will Amy really want to trade down?
The 2011 remake of Fright Night has lots of surprises – the main one being how smart it is. It’s a genuinely good remake, something that is becoming increasingly difficult for Hollywood to do these days. The question on my mind was: how can the new film offer up versions of Jerry, Charley, Amy, Ed, and Peter Vincent that surpass the original? The answer is that it doesn’t try – instead, Fright Night 2011 reinvents them to a degree, keeping their essence but giving them 21st century backgrounds and sensibilities. For example, Peter Vincent (this time played by Doctor Who‘s David Tennant) is no longer a has-been horror actor but a successful, cocky show-business magician in the Antonio Restivo/Criss Angel/Russell Brand mold. Charley (Anton Yelchin) is a dweeb who has reinvented his image to hang with the cool kids – it helps land him his new girlfriend Amy, played by the beautiful Imogen Poots. Of course, this means disowning his best friend Ed (now played straight up nerd-style by the ever-entertaining Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has been tailing Charley’s new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) and has discovered his vampire nature. This time, it’s Charley who doesn’t believe, leading to Ed becoming one of Jerry’s first victims.
The new film’s masterstroke is to set the stage in a Las Vegas suburb. It’s a perfect location for a vampire – half the neighborhood contains abandoned homes (a nice reference to the housing crisis which has hurt Vegas much more than other cities); the other half houses residents who work the strip at night, which means they sleep by day (a great place for a bloodsucker to hide out). Colin Farrell plays Jerry Dandridge as a vaguely threatening, scruffy, silent blue-collar type, the kind of guy who kicks back with a beer in front of Real Housewives of New Jersey. The ladies love him but there’s something very creepy in his body language and the way he darts his eyes; something menacing in the way he speaks, even if it’s just a gruff “Hey, guy.” It’s more like living next door to a serial killer – Patrick Bateman without the money or business cards. There are three or four scenes that make clever use of the rule that says a vampire must be invited into your home before he can attack you. One scene is all dialogue and tension, revolving around a simple act where Charley has to hand a six-pack of Bud across the threshold to Jerry, standing just outside the door. Another well done scene finds Jerry uninvited in Charley’s house, so he improvises in a brilliant way. Finally, there’s a tense sequence involving the rescue of a neighbor (Emily Montague) that resolves itself in just the right manner.
While Tennant’s take on Peter Vincent can’t quite keep up with McDowall’s, he does his best at playing a lovable, self-absorbed asshole in a unique position to fight monsters. I found it clever that his back-story influenced his collection of various vampire-killing weapons, including a crucifixion nail (which amuses Evil Ed – “Old school! Nice!”). I liked how the remake developed certain plot points that the original dropped – like involving Charley’s mother (Toni Collette) in the action, and having the sense to have Charley face-off against Ed instead of Peter Vincent doing it. As far as effects go, they are over-reliant on CGI, which is passable as far as CGI goes but doesn’t have the same impact as the original (it’s 2011 and we still can’t get the technology to look right). Not a big deal in the end – the film still looks great, and the subtext is a bit clearer here also – Fright Night 2011 finds a fatherless Charley trying to assume the traditional male role as protector of the women in his life. There’s also a bit of irony in that Ed loses his friend to the cool crowd, and Charley loses his friends in the same manner. Both the updated Fright Night and the original aren’t particularly scary films, but they are certainly fun, know exactly what they are, and deliver precisely what is expected of them in smart ways.
- Bill Gordon
You can get both Fright Night 1985 and Fright Night 2011 on Blu-Ray, but the 1985 version is going to set you back a few dollars, since they only had a limited release (3000 copies) and that has now sold out. Fright Night 2011 is also available as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo.