In the wake of successful slasher series and gore-fests, the 1980s was filled with the kind of disposable horror that the genre has never fully recovered from. Tom Holland’s 1985 film Fright Night was fully cognisant of this, riffing on its contemporaries and harking back to a quainter time, when the creatures of the night wore a lot more pancake makeup. With vampires being so hot right now, and studios keen to take a juicy bite out of everything 1980s, Australian-born Lars and the Real Girl helmer Craig Gillespie sinks his teeth into this fun horror classic.
Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin, The Beaver) is a former geek who has managed to find himself a hot girlfriend in Amy (Imogen Poots, Jane Eyre) and a cool gang of friends at school. When his dweeby friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kick-Ass) tries to convince Charley that his new neighbour Jerry (Colin Farrell, Horrible Bosses) is a vampire, Charley is skeptical at first. Yet as the evidence mounts, Charley must convince his friends and Las Vegas magician/self-declared vampire expert Peter Vincent (David Tennant,TV’s Doctor Who) that there really is a fanged threat.
Fears of another disastrous remix that completely misses the mark are soon abated, not only because of the presence of the respectable Gillespie but of scribe Marti Noxon. Long before Edward was trying not to have sex with Bella, Noxon was responsible for penning some of the best episodes of the golden era of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rather than taking itself way too seriously, as all marketing would seem to imply, Noxon injects a much-needed dose of comedy back into horror, making the latest Fright Night a hilarious capsule from another era. The references are naturally updated: Brewster now has a perpetually hot girlfriend, rather than one who only gets sexy when fangy, and Peter Vincent has graduated from late-night schlock host to one of the biggest acts on the Vegas Strip. Yet the core spirit of the original film remains, and while it may not have as many of the highly quotable one-liners that Holland’s 1985 script did, this update brings with it a tremendous sense of anarchic fun.
Despite beginning in a typical high-school setting, Fright Night showcases an amazing ability to keep audiences off-guard, in disbelief and quite frequently in stitches. In the first act, the film has all the trappings of a predictable modern horror, but there is an air of the unhinged that belies the quiet suburban setting. This is especially true of Farrell’s Jerry the Vampire, who carries conversations past their point of comfort and is equal parts sleaze and beefcake. Yet from the moment that the truth behind Jerry’s motivations is uncovered, and in particular Tennant’s alcoholic magician is properly introduced, the film abandons any pretense of modern convention and lets loose its carefree attitude on unsuspecting audiences.
Yelchin, already familiar to audiences from another reboot (Star Trek), is destined for big things in the next few years, and the teenage horror film seems to be a rite of passage for a rising young star. Yelchin manages to avoid the major franchises and leap straight into this clever alternative, and the cast of talented people around him is indicative of the strength of the script. Balancing out Farrell’s psycho sleazebag, a mixture of male model and date rapist, is the cocksure and occasionally lucid Tennant, blending his famous portrayal of The Doctor with fellow countryman Russell Brand. The antithesis of Roddy McDowell’s original characterisation, Tennant is a presence even when he is not on screen and is a perfect piece of casting. When he is on screen, he’s scratching his crotch. It’s all gold.
Fright Night doesn’t pull any punches on the gore either, with an effective use of 3D to send blood and ash in the direction of the audience. There are, of course, a few gimmicky moments but Gillespie is careful not to overuse the trick. The special effects have naturally improved over the last quarter of a century, yet the makeup of the KNB EFX Group remains true to the original without losing sight of what made those vampires genuinely frightening. Coupled with Ramin Djawadi’s (TV’s Game of Thrones) eerily effective yet restrained score, Fright Night is a surprisingly classy package that is worth a repeat visit. While we can’t stop the tide of remakes, this film is a perfect example of how to revive a genre.
Fright Night is released in Australia on 15 September 2011 from Walt Disney Studios Australia and New Zealand.