'Fright Night': Cheeky and Creepy
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
This particular horror fan was not overly impressed with the original "Fright Night" back in 1985. It had an amusing premise, to be sure, in which a real vampire bamboozles his teenage would-be nemesis by playing on and defying the ostensible rules of fictional vampire lore. (In its way, it was a significant precursor to "Scream.") But despite the undervalued Chris Sarandon really, um, sinking his teeth into the role of vampire-next-door, the film's execution -- it was the directorial debut of its writer, Tom Holland -- was largely on the flat side. I recall the picture often playing as a rather outré episode of "Murder, She Wrote," or something, an impression no doubt bolstered by Roddy McDowall's presence in the film as a showbiz vampire hunter. Nothing against "Murder, She Wrote," mind you. Just not my idea of a model for a horror film.
But what do I know? My research prior to seeing this seemingly improbable remake reveals that "Fright Night" was a formative experience in the viewing lives of horror fans a generation (perhaps even two!) younger than myself. These are strange times, when the specter of potential sacrilege looms over the updating of what so many had considered so inconsequential a film. Going in unencumbered by such considerations/assumptions, I was pretty pleasantly surprised by this version. This "Fright Night" is directed by Craig Gillespie (whose own quasi-outré indie near-hit, "Lars and the Real Girl," was preceded by a long stint of making commercials) and stars Anton Yelchin (the new Chekov, speaking of remakes) as Charley the teen vampire hunter, Imogen Poots as his toothsome girlfriend, and Colin Farrell in a less conventionally suave iteration of the Sarandon vampire role. It's exhilaratingly fast, nastily witty, and replete with both suspense set pieces that take the time they need to get under your skin and unashamed-to-be-completely-blatant shocks and 3-D effects. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"-alumna and screenwriter here Marti Noxon (who, oddly enough, was also responsible for penning this year's from-hunger "I Am Number Four") cleverly locates the action in a suburb of Vegas, where nocturnal workers who black out their windows to sleep during the day aren't all that odd, and makes the showbiz vampire hunter a Criss Angel/David Copperfield-style cheeseball strip illusionist. (The tetchy but eventually valuable sot is hilariously incarnated by David Tennant, the latter-day Doctor Who.)
Farrell, whose comedic chops helped him almost walk away with the decidedly mixed "Horrible Bosses" earlier this summer, really goes to town as the oddly pale, hunky and loutishly charming Jerry (and yes, it is oft remarked as to what a goofy name for a vampire that is), a bloodsucker who likes nothing more than to suck down a cold Bud and check out a little "Real Housewives" on the tube after a long night drawing blood. He's hilariously cocky, and while he flouts some of the vampire "rules," he's still hemmed in by the most basic. One of the film's best scenes has him standing in Charley's doorway, waiting for that legendary invitation inside, bantering with his teen would-be host, while Charley, still not yet sure if this guy's a vampire or if he himself is going crazy, keeps stalling him at the threshold.
Most of the rest of the film's delights are not as subtle or deliberately paced, but they're real. The teen component of the picture is plucked from a sub-John Hughes sphere and delivered squarely into the realm of "Superbad" and its like, with the sublimely dweeby Christopher Mintz-Plasse bringing a great charge to the apparently legendary role of Ed, or "Evil Ed," the nerd friend that the evolving Charley has left behind (to date girls and stuff) and who gets back at Charley for his spurning by ...
Well, if you've seen the original, you know how, and if you haven't, I won't spoil it. This "Fright Night" isn't a horror movie game-changer, but it delivers its knowingly unrefined thrills in a smart, engaging and not unpleasantly ruthless way, and never lets its cheekiness get in the way of its creepiness. Well done, and much better than acceptable for a seat-rest-grabbing night at the movies.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.