Love ’em or hate ’em, horror remakes often mean big money at the box office. And while some cynical genre loyalists may detest the very idea of them, on occasion they actually manage to surprise us. John Carpenter’s The Thing weathered initial indifference to emerge a true horror classic at least on par with The Thing from Another World, and in addition to being arguably his one and only genuinely good movie as a director, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead even caused some exasperated George A. Romero loyalists to eat a little crow (even without the smart social commentary that helped the original to transcend its genre roots).
Featuring a screenplay by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) and directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), this frightfully fun take on the beloved ’80s horror comedy gem is the perfect example of a remake done right. By staying true to the characters and offbeat tone of the original yet altering the details just enough to make the story feel fresh and slightly unpredictable, Noxon and Gillespie prove that not all remakes have to be pale imitations of their predecessors, and they keep us laughing even -- or especially -- when we’re totally creeped out.
After years of climbing to reach the top of the social ladder, high school senior Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) finally rules the roost. Just as Charley ditches his childhood best pal, "Evil" Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and starts dating Amy (Imogen Poots), the most popular girl in their class, however, a handsome new face appears in the neighborhood. It belongs to Charley's new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), an outwardly amiable guy with a quick smile and a sharp wit. But when Ed vanishes without a trace and Charley sees a side of Jerry that everyone else seems to miss, the nouveau popular teen becomes convinced that the nice-guy act is a cover for something truly sinister. Unable to convince his mother (Toni Collette) that Jerry is a genuine bloodsucker, Charley turns to ostentatious, often-drunk Las Vegas magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant) to help exterminate the demon before he drinks the entire neighborhood dry.
To a certain extent, you have to feel sorry for writers and directors of remakes; if they stick too closely to the original, fans will accuse them of coasting on autopilot, and if they veer too far from the formula, some are sure to cry sacrilege. By having Noxon bring her own talents in blending humor with horror, the producers of this Fright Night smartly hit that sweet spot right in the middle. She also displays a real flair for giving the familiar characters a bit more depth. In the original film we got the distinct impression that Charley Brewster was growing exasperated by the childish antics of his old pal Ed. Here, screenwriter Noxon expands on that to explore the shifting dynamics of youthful friendships at a point in life where popularity can seem like the most important thing in the world. And she doesn’t just pay lip service to that concept, but takes the time to follow through on it once the action gets under way -- her experience working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer properly armed her with a talent for blending genres, as well as illuminating insight into the teenage mindset.
Meanwhile, the most obvious example of tinkering -- the transformation of horror host Peter Vincent into a showy, Criss Angel-style Las Vegas magician -- works surprisingly well. As in the original movie, we’re first presented with a character that exudes bravura and then the layers of illusion are skillfully peeled away. By finding a way to modernize the character yet retain his cowardly essence and fascination with the occult, Noxon manages to reinvent Vincent while simultaneously opening the gates for an exciting new set piece in his opulent Las Vegas suite. But that scene is just one of many in a remake that’s full of surprises. A bravura high-speed battle between Charley, his mother, and Amy on a lonely stretch of desert road is remarkable on multiple levels: in addition to displaying Gillespie’s impressive skills as a visual stylist, it also offers our first look at Jerry in full, frightening vampire mode, and cements the film’s morbidly humorous tone with a surprise cameo and a staking gone oddly awry.
Of course, anyone who’s seen the original Fright Night knows that the character of Jerry is central to the movie’s success, and as the undead charmer, Farrell truly knocks it out of the cemetery. His smooth-talking bloodsucker is the kind of hunky bachelor whose move into a quiet neighborhood would have suburban soccer moms swooning, and it’s a testament to Farrell’s performance that even after we’ve seen his true face, we still can’t help but be slightly enamored with the guy. Much like Tennant, his comic timing here is impeccable. Likewise, Yelchin’s multi-textured portrayal of Charley presents the audience with a conflict that goes beyond the supernatural and into the even more terrifying realm of confused adolescence; Mintz-Plasse’s Ed ups the ante of the conflict; and Poots effectively proves that not all pretty high school girls are necessarily looking for what most guys would assume.
It’s a foregone conclusion that not everyone is going to like this horror remake, simply based on the concept alone. Add to that a few cheats near the climax that feel a bit contrived, and some will write it off entirely. But approach this Fright Night with an open mind, and odds are you’ll find exactly what you walked into the theater looking for -- that rare example of a horror remake that doesn’t bite.