It’s been a little over a month since the sudden death of Anton Yelchin on 19 June, and only days since the US premiere of Star Trek Beyond, where the 27-year-old actor turned in what would be his last performance as engineering prodigy Pavel Chekov.
He had multiple projects in the works, including his pending directorial debut: Travis. Yelchin’s ability to move smoothly between genres was precocious. His eclectic filmography included horror (Green Room), supernatural (Odd Thomas), romance (Like Crazy), and Sci-Fi (Star Trek) among others.
In the days following his death, fans and collaborators alike stepped forward to offer their admiration and grief on Twitter and talk shows. His parents, to whom he was an only son, published a memorial thank-you regarding the industry’s outpour of support in this month’s Hollywood Reporter. When news of his death broke, my shallow thoughts weren’t with his friends and family; rather, I found myself clutching at the memory of his 2011 film Fright Night, a remake of the 1985 campy vampire thriller.
I like Fright Night (2011) a lot, that is to say I like like it, and hold it among my most-watched films. When asked on press day if he had any qualms signing on to a remake, Yelchin replied, “No. I read it and it was a good story and a good character arc.” Yet, as details surrounding Yelchin’s death and his unfinished projects continued to update, I found myself sulkily skimming the movie’s reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. The positive-leaning consensus begins, “It may not have been necessary to remake the 1985 cult classic…”
This confused me. Was the first Fright Night necessary? Is a film only good if its necessary? Is “necessary” in this context really shorthand for “unoriginal” or “redundant?”
Reading the pithy consensus, which nonetheless ends well (“smart, funny, and stylishly gory”), I felt a depth of feeling no one should from reading a Rotten Tomatoes consensus. I felt compelled to re-examine Fright Night; to take a bite out of it, if you will.
The original Fright Night, often referred to as a cult classic of the ’80s horror genre, marked the feature film debut of Tom Holland, the director (not to be confused with Tom Holland, the new Spider-Man). Holland later went on to co-write and direct the classic Child’s Play, the Stephen King adaptation Thinner, The Beast Within, Psycho 2, and a 1988 sequel to Fright Night. In an AV Club interview marking the original’s 30th anniversary, Holland described his debut as “a love letter to [horror] fans everywhere, because that was me.”
The film’s premise is simple enough: all-American, sexually-frustrated and academically-pressed Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) becomes convinced his new neighbor Jerry is a vampire, and sets out to end him. Supporting Charley through his dysfunction is his stalwart girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), and death-obsessed classmate “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys). It’s Geoffrey’s neurotic performance that creates some of the film’s most memorable moments; his line, “You’re so cool Brewster,” became a catchphrase.
Reluctantly joining in the fray is campy low-rent actor Peter Vincent (Emmy-winning British actor Roddy McDowall), the recently fired host of Charley’s favorite program, a supernatural TV special also called Fright Night. Vincent portrays a pompous vampire slayer on the show, although in reality, he’s frittering and isolated, armed with occult weapons but lacking the faith to use them. Vincent has the film’s second heroic arc, and McDowall, offers the film’s most nuanced performance. He graduates from non-believer and illusionist to the real deal, ultimately putting his life on the line to help Charley.
1985 vampire Jerry is played with smarm ‘n charm by screen and stage actor Chris Sarandon, known to most for his role as Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, and voicing Jack in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Sarandon’s Jerry is a smooth ‘80s-suburban-swinger-dad type, clad in turtlenecks, scarves, and large rings. He’s a traditionalist, sleeping in his basement coffin, sometimes turning into a bat, and murdering local women for blood. The crimes are reported in the local news, background broadcasts that help Charley put the pieces together. “Mom I don’t need hot cocoa, I didn’t have a nightmare,” Charley shouts after witnessing Jerry and his lackey stuff a body in their car, “they did kill a girl over there!”
Fright Night (1985) plays its hero’s inability to be seen as credible a bit too long, and largely for laughs. Charley foils his own 911 call by babbling on about vampires to the embarrassed officer’s chagrin, and he couldn’t be less transparent when literally recoiling from a first meeting with Jerry, whom his mother has invited into their home. Ed and Amy even enlist Peter Vincent to engineer a rigged “test” of Jerry’s vampire veracity — having him drink fake holy water — in an attempt to cure Charley of his delusion.
Eventually everyone comes around, sort of. Ed gets turned by Jerry, lured by the promise of no longer being a powerless outsider, and Amy gets turned too, but only because Jerry’s obsessed with her virginal beauty. Peter Vincent and Charley come to her rescue in a third act marked by drippingly gruesome and campy special effects, as overseen by Richard Edlund (Poltergeist and Ghostbusters). The film ends with the vamp vanquished and Charley safe at home, getting cozy with Amy. Next door, the red eyes of “Evil” Ed glare ominously out of the abandoned mansion, promising Jerry’s revenge.
Fright Night (2011), directed by Craig Gillepsie (Lars and the Real Girl) begins with a night-time murder of an unknown teenage boy and his family in their spacious suburban home. We soon learn this is Adam, part of a threesome of childhood best friends who have since gone their separate ways. Charley Brewster (Yelchin), the only son to single realtor mom Jane (played, thank god, by Toni Collette), is dating the coolest girl in high school and on his way to being cool himself. “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz Plasse) is still stuck on the other side, a bitter outcast bullied by jocks.
Ed is obsessed with a recent spate of disappearances in town and convinced they are the work of Charley’s new neighbor Jerry, whom he and Adam had been following and are convinced is a vampire. Ed blackmails Charley with embarrassing home movies, forcing him to investigate Adam’s disappearance. But it’s only after Ed himself goes missing, that Charley realizes his ex-friend might have been on to something… and that he’s been a total jerk.
Like Geoffreys, Plasse serves up acidic comic relief while remaining tragic, and his enlarged role in the remake not only clarifies Ed’s “evil” motivations, but also makes Charley fuller and more dynamic. Charley’s inability to believe Ed, or save him, only ups the stakes for Amy’s soul later. And in a movie filled with vampires, it’s Charley who negotiates the real “turning:” from good friend to douchebag and back again.
Trying his best to keep his mother and girlfriend from the cold, undead truth, Charley journeys to Las Vegas to consult illusionist-showman Peter Vincent (a rollicking turn from David Tennant), who plays a vampire killer in a gaudy stage spectacle called Fright Night, and who compulsively collects occult artifacts and weapons. Unlike McDowall’s Vincent, Tennant’s Criss-Angel-Redux has built-in reasons for his odd career and habits (hint: it’s a dark secret in his past).
Things escalate quickly. Jerry blows up Charley and Jane’s house, chases them in his Ford Tahoe, and kidnaps Amy before his eventual evisceration by Charley and Vincent, aided by any vampire movie’s true MVP: natural sunlight.
Unlike Ragsdale’s Charley, whose half-hearted refrains of “I know this sounds crazy” are buried underneath his manic, unrestrained torrent of crazy, Yelchin’s Charley really does know how this sounds. He’s more cynical, sensible, and subtler. In a scene where Jerry comes over to borrow beer, Charley dangles the bottles just inside the door’s threshold, confirming that Jerry is indeed powerless to come in without invitation.
Yelchin’s performance as Charley is finely tuned and easy to dismiss as plain. We meet his character during a period of ambitious social transition, from dweeb-to-stud, and Yelchin must embody this conflict instantly while retaining likeability. He cannot overshadow the big bad, Jerry, but he has to defeat him. He cannot overshadow the big neutral, Peter Vincent, but he has to inspire him. It’s his elasticity, his ability to grow to heroic proportions but retain his human-boy shape that set Yelchin apart as a leading man.
Juxtaposing Charley’s balancing act in both films is the sheer boldness of the Jerrys. The vamps of Fright Night aren’t afraid to be themselves. One of the remake’s best lines occurs during an eerie open road night chase, wherein Jerry clings to the bottom of the Brewster’s van. As Jerry scratches at, then punches through the bottom of the car, Charley screams “That’s his fucked up vampire hand, now do you believe me?”
Colin Ferrell’s 2011 Jerry is a trashy-hot Vegas stepdad type, sporting dirty wife-beaters, six-pack-abs, and constantly engaging in dubious home-improvement projects. Rather than a drooping, ornate mansion, he chooses a sterile subdivision home in a secluded neighborhood, and then proceeds to renovate à la H. H. Holmes, turning it into a serial killer’s dream palace.
Former Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Marti Noxon’s clever script expands on this embedded threat of sexual violence, a theme that overlaps perfectly with Jerry’s ability to pass unnoticed even while criminally misbehaving. It’s no coincidence that most of his victims are beautiful women. At one-point Jerry tells Charley, “You know, women who look a certain way, they need to be managed.” Later he remarks that Amy is “ripe,” and that Charley’s mom Jane is “putting it out there.”
In fact, all of Charley’s interactions with male characters begin and end with the intimation of aggression towards women. Dave Franco’s Jerk #1 smirks and shows off his sexts in the hallway; Ed blames Amy for Charley’s disavowal of him, calling her a “skank”; and Vincent points to his assistant Ginger and declares, “I fucked her.”
Compounding this threatening culture and its multiple meanings is the seeming willingness of bystanders to turn a glazed eye to women and girls in danger. After hearing his neighbor Doris scream during her “date” with Jerry, Charley calls the police to next-door. They don’t even go inside, but rather chat it up, laughing about presumed sexual prowess (“You bet she screamed”). And, in both films, Jerry entrances and seduces Amy on the floor of a crowded club, feeling her up while Charley looks on helplessly.
Both the undercurrent of Jerry’s violence and everyone’s general animosity towards women elicits a similar response. We, like Charley, can’t help but wonder is anyone paying attention?
Charley’s heroism stems from not engaging in this bloodthirsty misogyny, but also, ironically, by engaging with other, more valorous sexist stereotypes. While respect towards women is championed as being essential to good guy status, protecting women-who-can’t-protect-themselves is portrayed as essential to any viable (heroic) masculinity. The fact that these women aren’t necessarily more-or-less helpless than Charley is on display too; Amy holy-waters Jerry right in his pretty face, and Jane saves her son by putting a realtor’s sign through Jerry’s chest. Yet, Charley’s role as protector isn’t up for debate. He will not and cannot be his father, who left him and his mother, and he will not and cannot be “vampire slayer” Peter Vincent, whose escapades are, after all, an illusion.
While Fright Night (2011) seems more than willing to engage with Charley’s emasculation, it doesn’t touch Amy’s trauma. How does she feel about being turned into a vampire, slobbered over, felt up, and made to feed from her abuser’s flesh? No one cares, apparently. Actress Imogen Poots (28 Days Later) pushes the boundaries of her role as Amy, refusing to be relegated to being the cool girl, the virgin, or the nag. She exudes youth and spontaneity while harboring a secret practicality, unflinchingly aware of her own self-worth. It’s a total bummer the character is left unfinished — almost abandoned — halfway through.
So while Fright Night (2011) elucidates monster-genre sexism, it stops short of taking it to task.
The film’s casting is also completely white like the original (two club bouncers are black, but that’s it), bearing a uniform casting mold that is as unrealistic as it is indefensible. The remake’s only exception is the appearance of Columbian actress Sandra Vergara as Vincent’s lover and assistant, Ginger. Their vitriolic arguments liven up the increasingly dark second half of the film, though Vargara was questioned about her character’s proximity to the “spicy Latina” stereotype. Before we can learn more about Ginger, however, she’s brutally murdered by vampire Ed.
In fact, the remake totally fizzles out in the last five minutes with a pointless final scene. Charley beds Amy in Vincent’s penthouse. Everyone is sitcom-credits-happy. It’s the kind of ending that makes you demand another remake.
Despite its obvious shortcomings, I always have a great time watching Fright Night (2011). It’s wicked sharp and light on its feet. The seeming desolation of the Brewster’s Las Vegas suburb enclave provides an almost post-apocalyptic feel, and adapting Peter Vincent’s grainy TV special into a casino residency was a stroke of genius. The visual effects are certainly less distinctive and fun, but the reboot opts instead for drawn-out, sinister scares. There are Easter-eggs and shout-outs to the original abound, and Sarandon makes a great, gruesome cameo. It makes me weirdly nostalgic for Buffy, The Lost Boys, or even season one of MTV’s Teen Wolf, and it makes me weirdly nostalgic for Fright Night (1985).
I guess it will now make me nostalgic for Anton Yelchin, too.
Fright Night’s writer Marti Noxon had nothing but praise for the 22-year-old actor who stepped into Charley Brewster’s puce-colored high-tops. “I think he’s going to be huge,” she remarked in a 2011 interview with MTV, “He has such humanity. He’s so likeable. He’s a perfect Spielbergian hero, you know? He’s human-sized, and yet, he feels things so deeply and he makes you feel them too… Anton, first and foremost, he just really brought it.”