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Fright Night

Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin, Toni Collete, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Tennant, Imogen Poots

(US DVD: 13 Dec 2011)

Genre fans are hard, maybe impossible to please. Most hard-core horror nerds, indeed nerds of all kinds, hold to a sacred iconography. Certain books, characters, TV series and films exist in an untouchable cultural space for them. If you try to remake, reboot or even transfer their beloved materials from one medium to another, prepare for massive backlash (here’s looking at you, Zack Snyder).


The original 1985 Fright Night represents a special case. It’s a beloved genre movie that nods to beloved genre movies, indeed that stakes (couldn’t help it, sorry) its premise on knowledge of the Universal Studios horror films, Hammer studios iterations of the major monsters and indeed the whole world of horror fandom.


In fact, its very title references the “lets say up late, eat popcorn and have a horror host introduce us to some scares” tradition. It’s a movie horror fans love because it’s a movie about horror fans and the meaning of their inner world, the bodies of knowledge only they can access.


Could director Craig Gillespie and writer extraordinaire Marti Noxon pull this off? Well, they made one of the best horror films in 2011, admittedly, not the best year ever for domestic horror films. They also created a genuinely satisfying reimagining of the original that will send fans rushing back to watch the original. In fact, they made what should be seen, but won’t be, as “the” vampire movie of the year.


And, in certain respects, I’m still disappointed.


This film includes some great moments, including a sight gag with a Century 21 Real Estate sign I refuse to ruin for you by explaining. In fact, the creature effects in general are wonderfully realized with very little of that CGI plastic look, even on Blu-ray. There’s a great exploding vampire moment and Colin Farrell’s own transformation from beefcake neighbor into raving nosferatu provides one of the key moments in reminding us that, as “Evil” Ed says, “vampires are not brooding and tormented” but are “like the shark from Jaws.”


Notably, the new Fright Night has much, much darker edges than the original. Effects are gorier, the seduction of Amy digs a bit deeper into teenage male angst and there are moments when the fun really does stop and this becomes a disturbing story about trying to fight and destroy a charming, homicidal, supernatural maniac.


There are also a lot of disappointments. We dislike our hero, Charlie Brewster, for the first half of the film. He’s not the nerd with the nerdy girlfriend as in the original. He’s the nerd who’s outgrown his nerditude to date the hot girl, Amy (Imogen Poots) who, by the way, remains intensely unlikeable almost throughout. Peter Vincent’s character has been transformed from horror host into a David Blaine meets Criss Angel: Mindfreak magician that’s also a vampire-hunting expert.


The last bit will throw those of you who loved the original performance of Roddy McDowall as the horror host/fake vampire hunter forced to become a real Van Helsing. I partially understand the decision to give this beloved character an update. Except that part of the conceit of the first Fright Night, indeed part of what it made it such a beloved film of monster fandom, had to do with the idea that the mythology of the genre made its otherwise hapless heroes the perfect monster hunters. Overall, a mistake. But maybe David Tennant’s performance will win you over. It almost won me over.


I loved the ”special features”. The best is a fake documentary on Peter Vincent that makes light of HBO’s “Sneak Peek” format and the overblown melodrama of every celebrity magician since Copperfield. It’s also the kind of special feature that shows the filmmaker’s are having fun and don’t take themselves too seriously, a trait that allowed them to make a dark film that blended in just the right amount and the right kind of comedy relief.


The “Making of” feature showcase this further as it’s presented as, and entitled, “How to Make a Funny Vampire Movie Guide”. Rather than a true “making of” feature, this short doc simply tells you all the elements that the filmmakers tried to mix together to create the new Fright Night. Its charming enough that you almost forget that you want to know more about the creature effects achievement of the film, a really important piece of why horror fans will like this movie and endure its missteps.


You’ll want to watch the deleted scenes with director’s commentary as most of these belonged in the final cut. A Lord of the Rings joke got trimmed, a scene that seemed important in establishing Charlie Brewster as a bona fide geek. Along the same lines, the special features give us the full version of a fan tribute film to the live-action Japanese tokusatsu tradition Charlie and Ed made before Charlie became “cool”. Luckily, Marti Noxon’s gags about Farscape conventions and Stretch Armstrong remained in the film.


OK, buts it’s still depressing. And here I’m maybe just simply being the nerd who can’t let go of his holy texts. The love letter to the horror genre that was the first Fright Night has become the satire of a genre that has been in the doldrums of late.  Screenwriter Marti Noxon takes a couple of well-aimed shots at Twilight, there’s a Dark Shadows reference by Charlie’s mom. One good werewolf mythos shout out. But that’s it, at least in the full cut.


This says not so much about this movie as what has become of the genre. Only a handful of horror movies received general release this year that are worth the loyal fan’s time. Meanwhile, the list of disappointments and desecrations of important franchises lengthens every weekend. Indie horror has been the only place to turn and Noxon, whip-smart when it comes to cultural references and tropes, knows that nods to those mostly unknown, mostly foreign language, films simply will not resonate.


And here’s another sad bit of news. This film didn’t do so well even though it’s probably the best horror flick in wide American release this year. Nevertheless, and despite its problems and regrettable decisions, you need to skip Breaking Dawn and stay home with this flick. That is, if you are a real fang-banger… or at least like your vampires with fangs. Maybe even watch it late, late in the night. And pop some popcorn.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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