“Oh, you’re so cool, Brewster!”
If you were above a certain age in the mid-’80s, you’ve likely either uttered that phrase or recall its ubiquity following the release of the original Fright Night, one of the sleeper successes of 1985. The line was so memorable not because of the words themselves, but the unique way in which actor Stephen Geoffreys (as “Evil” Ed Thompson) delivered them. The actor’s performance may not have been good, per se, but it was passionate and inspired and full of odd little quirks that stuck in the brain. The same could be said for the movie itself – no great work of cinema, but made with real dedication and heart.
Now we’ve got the inevitable remake, a visually slick product that boasts a bigger-name cast but lacks the soul and charm of its predecessor. I’m not one of these people who believes all remakes are automatically bad – hell, a precious few are actually better than the films that inspired them – but Fright Night 2011 is the sort of lackluster effort that helped create that perception in the first place. The original movie, which feels rather dated and clunky now, at least serves as a pleasant enough “turn-your-brain-off” diversion. The remake isn’t even able to manage that small feat.
While the premise remains the same, the setting has been moved to the desert suburbs of Las Vegas. In this version high school student Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a douchey status seeker, using his recently-developed romantic relationship with popular girl Amy (Imogen Poots) as a means to acquire newfound standing with the “cool kids”. Achieving this position unfortunately requires him to dump former best friend Ed Thompson (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a geeky eccentric obviously hurt by Charley’s rejection but clearly at pains not to show it.
These early scenes make a grave misstep in establishing Charley as a cruel teenage social-climber, arrogantly discarding a longtime friend so as to gain pull with a group of alpha-male bullies led by future frat boy degenerate Mark (Dave Franco). While this would be fine if Charley were given some sort of redeeming quality for the audience to latch onto, screenwriter Marti Noxon doesn’t provide us with one. As a result, once Charley realizes the fallacy of his ways later in the film it’s far too little, far too late, and performance-wise Yelchin isn’t able to overcome the fact that he’s been saddled with a whiny, unlikable character.
The real action begins, of course, once Charley’s vampiric next-door neighbor Jerry Dandrige (Colin Farrell) enters the picture. Initially found out by Ed, who tries to convince his disbelieving former friend that he’s sharing a fence with a monster, “Jerry 2.0″ is a sleek, relentless being, shorn of the tragic romantic backstory that ultimately dimensionalized Chris Sarandon’s version of the character in the original. It’s only when Ed disappears that Charley realizes the truth for himself and enlists the services of obnoxious, Midori-swilling Vegas magician Peter Vincent (played by former “Doctor Who” David Tennant), who possesses an impressive collection of occult artifacts in a gaudy top-floor penthouse he shares with curvaceous, no-nonsense lover/assistant/co-star Ginger (Sandra Vergara, Sofia’s younger sister).
Sadly, like the rest of the cast Tennant hasn’t been given much to work with here. Though there is an infinite amount of comedy to be mined from the idea of a flamboyant, pseudo-gothic Vegas illusionist in the Criss Angel mold, Noxon astoundingly never capitalizes on that opportunity. I can remember laughing just once at the character’s antics, and unsurprisingly it came not from Noxon’s script but thanks to Tennant’s improvisational abilities (as pointed out by director Craig Gillespie during my interview with him).
Make no mistake: every performer here is hobbled by both a useless script and limp direction by Gillespie, whose last film was the unbearably far-fetched (and unaccountably well-reviewed) Lars and the Real Girl from 2007. Farrell, a very good actor whose career thankfully seems to be getting back on track, doesn’t have much else to do but furrow his brow and pose seductively in doorways. As Charley’s mom, Toni Collette – an Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning actress who is superlative in essentially everything she does – has been handed an embarrassingly underwritten “stock mom” character that is a complete waste of her formidable talents. Meanwhile, Poots – who was quite good in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s excellent 28 Weeks Later – is oddly miscast, seeming to struggle at times with the American accent required for the part. As a result, her performance as the sexually-aggressive Amy (a reversal from the original movie) feels uncomfortably stilted.
What also feels stilted are the special effects, which rely so heavily on CGI that the grand finale looks like something copped from a video game. This will likely be the final straw for hardcore fans of the original, which boasted memorably top-notch makeup effects that were alternately frightening and just over-the-top enough to fit in nicely with the film’s campy tone. Sure, there is some of the practical stuff here, and it’s undeniably effective (you can thank the always-reliable KNB for that), but it ultimately takes a backseat to the phony-looking digital effects work in the movie’s final half. Gore-wise, the movie certainly justifies its R-rating, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before, believe me (ok, there is one exploding girl, but the moment is ruined due to its being rendered in shitty CGI).
So what’s good about it? Well, it looks nice – the cinematography is by Javier Aguirresarobe, who shot The Road and The Others, among other distinguished efforts – and there’s a reasonably stimulating car chase sequence about 2/3 of the way through. Also, if Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara gives you a boner, just wait’ll you get a load of her sister tramping around in high heels and lingerie.
Of course, I can’t possibly wrap up this review without mentioning the 3D cinematography, an artistically irrelevant gimmick that adds absolutely nothing to the scope of the film. Dreamworks and the creative team can go on spinning the decision any way they want – and believe me they’ve tried – but there’s no hiding the fact that Spielberg (who allegedly came up with the idea) & Co. simply desire an extra slice of your pocketbook. My advice? Don’t give them the satisfaction. If you have to see it, see it in 2D – unless, of course, you’re dying to have a freaking pebble come at you in three dimensions – and for god’s sake go to a matinee. Trust me: there are far better things you could be spending that extra couple of dollars on.