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The Evil Next Door: 'Fright Night' and the Nasty Neighbor

No, in a film like Fright Night (or any number of 'ugly underneath' efforts), it's what you don't know that can hurt - or even kill - you...even though it was a mere few feet from your bedroom window.

Fright Night

Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin, Toni Collete, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Tennant, Imogen Poots
Distributor: Dreamworks
Rated: R
Release date: 2011-12-13

"He was a quiet man..."

It's a joke line that actually has a legitimate source. Back when TV was taking on real news event, not the faked forced politicizing of its current cultural trends, reporters would often find themselves confronting the neighbor's of a residential psychopath. Like victims of a tornado or other natural disaster, the stunned reaction was often believed to be "quality" journalism. Of course, the killer and the comment were always the same. It may have been kid's party clown/local businessman/boy rapist and killer John Wayne Gacy or the hermetical Momma's boy also known as Ed Gein, but when given the lens to speak their mind, most anyone could ever articulate is something akin to the aforementioned phrase. The comment would often serve a dual purpose - one of plausible deniability and the other of genuine shock. Indeed, most evidence of the evil next door goes unnoticed, barely brazen in either bloodshed or property line betrayal.

Yet when fiction comes along, all the signs are there - the leering looks, the closed curtains, the lack of social interaction or communal compliance. There is always someone who gets the hints, who knows the score and decides to settle it in favor of overriding justice. From the secret terrorist to the silent sadist, film and its novelized equivalent takes the concept of unexpected malevolence within one's seemingly safe frame of reference and reverts back to a simple cautionary case. A perfect example of this ideal is Fright Night. Originally conceived as a standard "vampire in the midst" macabre, it has since been remade into something akin to a post-modern, post-millennial treatise on underwater mortgages, single parenthood, and the precarious possibility of finding the 'right' wrong man.

In the excellent update (now available on Blu-ray and DVD), Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) can see that his mother (Toni Collette) is suffering. Alone since being abandoned by her husband/his dad, she's a woman still trying the tired single's scene. Having recently disposed of his geek reputation via dating the high school hottie Amy Peterson (Imogen Poots), Charlie sees nothing but success - even if his former best buddy "Evil" Ed Lee (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) sees conspiracies around every corner. With the local Las Vegas population disappearing at an alarming rate, many think the economy is to blame.

But Ed knows better. He suspects that the new man in town, a construction worker stud named Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell) is to blame. He believes he is a vampire, taking his victims from the surrounding suburbs. Charlie doesn't believe it, that is, until Jerry sets his sights on his mom and girlfriend. Hoping for some help in this battle with the potential/probable undead, our hero asks local magician/media star Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help. Turns out, there's not much anyone can do with a creature desperate to quell its thirst for blood. But Charlie has to try.

With its foreclosure subtext and abandoned building ambience, the new Fright Night uses its isolated contemporary creepshow settings to maximum effect. It presents Jerry as not only a monster, but a manipulative opportunist. Much more wicked than the way in which original neckbiter Chris Sarandon played him, he will do anything to avoid the mythos and get what he wants. If that means setting a house on fire, or prodding his victims with promises of sex, he will definitely sink that low. But even better, director Chris Gillespie decides to treat the arrival of a fiend on Charlie's friendly street as a nominal occurrence. In the modern world of staying out of other's business, the helpless screams of a bleeding woman go unnoticed - and uncared about.

In that way, Fright Night is the same as all evil next door entries. Something like the mad bomber thriller Arlington Road may try and take a heroic position about people in the line of fire, but the reveal is so arch that it often feels like an afterthought. Similarly, another offshoot of the approach is something like Mr. Brooks. Like a dumbed down Dexter, this Kevin Costner vehicle played the "normal everyman with a thirst for violence" angle to the hilt, if not to a hit. Even the recent Lucky McGee movie, The Woman, shows a strict fundamentalist father raising his kids like cattle while he keeps a feral girl he found in the woods locked up in his basement.

Sometime, the sins are based in reality and the he is in turn a she. The famous case of Gertrude Baniszewski became a mid-'60s scandal when it was discovered that the Indiana divorcee had directed local adolescents to and participated in the systematic torture, rape, and eventual murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens. The basis for two terribly exploitative films - the highly fictional The Girl Next Door (2007) and the equally tawdry if truer An American Crime. In each case, horrific things were happening in the midst of a calm, conservative community. In each case, authorities step in...and do nothing. And in each case, the lack of hope and the horrific treatment doled out by the Gertrude surrogate makes the notion of living next door to someone like this akin to acting as an accessory after the fact. It's a foul and fetid feeling.

At least Fright Night doesn't indulge in such too close to home sickness. Instead, it relegates Charlie into an absentee hero and then turns Jerry loose on all his 2010 cynicism and lingering fears. We then get to watch as the cat and mouse plays out in new and inventive ways - a freshness a remake should also strive to achieve. In the end, good may triumph over evil, but that's not necessarily the main message. No, in a film like Fright Night (or any number of 'ugly underneath' efforts), it's what you don't know that can hurt - or even kill - you...even though it was a mere few feet from your bedroom window.

When Blue Velevet's Jeffrey Beaumont walks through the sleepy streets of Lumberton and discovers the rotting remains of a severed human ear, the truth becomes more than self-evident. Something wicked hasn't just come to his tiny little world - it's arrived and ready to thrive. Such is the case with vampires in suburbia. You'll just never know when it may strike. Perhaps the quiet man next door knows. Ask him...if you dare.


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