At a time when vampires pop up in such profusion on screens big and small alike, it was probably inevitable that “Fright Night,” which appeared in 1985 when they were much rarer, would be remade. What’s much less predictable is how well the remake has turned out. The new version is a top-notch mixture of horror and dark comedy that easily trumps the original, though for its time it was pretty good.
For young audiences the set-up might seem like a supernatural variant of “Disturbia” with the mass murderer a blood-sucker, but of course it actually came first. Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) comes to believe that his new next-door neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire, and before long he’s trying to save his mother (Toni Collette), girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and himself from getting the full fang treatment. In the process he enlists the help of celebrity vampire “expert” Peter Vincent (David Tennant).
That’s really all there is to the plot, which was fashioned a quarter-century ago by Tom Holland and is here substantially—and cleverly—altered by Marni Noxon, who’s no newcomer to this territory, having worked on Josh Whedon’s “Buffy” and “Angel” TV series. The setting is changed from the Midwest to a desolate housing development outside Las Vegas—a night-owl city where a four-hundred year old “child of the night,” as Dracula might call him, can flourish virtually unnoticed. (That idea isn’t new, of course. Noxon presumably lifted it from “The Night Stalker,” the classic telefilm that introduced Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak back in 1972.)
And Brewster is no longer your conventional nerd. He’s still rather geeky, but is moving to a higher school caste, accepted by the popular crowd and with a hot girlfriend. In “moving up,” though, he’s abandoned his old pals, and one of them, Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) threatens him with exposure of some embarrassing old videos until he helps investigate the disappearance of their old buddy Adam (Will Denton), with whom he’d been tracking down the vampire in their midst (and whom we see being dispatched, along with his parents, in a prologue that sets the picture’s edgy mood). Their searches in turn lead to Ed’s removal (temporary, as it turns out) and Charley’s conversion to the idea that Jerry is indeed a vampire. And that draws the guy’s attention to him and those close to him.
“Fright Night” could easily have been rebooted as camp, but Noxon wisely didn’t choose that route. There are laughs sprinkled throughout, but they’re often of the blackest kind, and the chuckles they earn are mostly of the nervous variety. Noxon’s vision is embraced by director Craig Gillespie, a veteran of cable television who shows himself well versed in the art of generating suspense and shocks through carefully choreographed and arranged shots. Of course, he’s aided by Javier Aguirresarobe’s atmospheric cinematography, Tatania S. Riegel’s crisp editing and Ramin D. Jawadi’s supportive score. (The film is in 3D, and on a few occasions the process is pandered to, not just in bloody spurts but via crucifixes, arrows or the bursts of exploded vampires thrust into your face. But overall the dimming of the images, as usual, makes the format a drawback.)
But perhaps the movie’s greatest strength is the casting. It isn’t often that you find a top-flight actress like Collette taking the thankless part of the young hero’s mother, but she runs with it. Poots is both luscious to look at and game in the action sequences. Mintz-Plasse puts the reptilian geekiness he employed in “Kick-Ass” to good use again. Yelchin’s natural diffidence makes him a fine successor to the original’s William Ragsdale. Dave Franco and Reid Ewing are a perfect campus doofus duo. And for fans, Chris Sarandon, the erstwhile vampire, makes an enjoyable unscheduled cameo.
But the stand-outs are definitely Tennant and Farrell. The former isn’t the arch fellow Roddy McDowell plays in the eighties, but a Russell Brand-style rocker who’s morphed into one of those Vegas style magicians. Seedy, profane and cowardly—though like McDowell he shows some mettle in the end—and engaged in a running domestic battle with his slutty assistant (Sandra Vergara), he’s a grossly funny caricature of the casino-show ethos. But even he’s overshadowed by Farrell, who draws a portrait of malevolent eccentricity that’s as unsettling as it is sleazily attractive. The performance is pure hamminess, but a succulent slice—a marvelous display of overplaying and underplaying, with the highly theatrical grins, scowls and menacing stares carefully modulated and impeccably timed for maximum effect. It’s a classic turn, horrific and hilarious all at once.
Of course, inevitably there are some miscalculations. The biggest is the super-sizing of the finale, which turns into kind of an overheated mess (and leads to an implausibly everything-is-fine coda). And some of the transformation sequences are cheesier that others. But overall this is a slam-bang popcorn movie that really delivers the goods, if you don’t mind the popcorn sprinkled with a little red sauce.