Monday, August 22, 2011

Taking a Bite Out Of FRIGHT NIGHT


- Despite being pretty decent overall, the new FRIGHT NIGHT is one of those films that just makes you question so many things about the current state of Hollywood. It's a remake of an only marginally-beloved, cheesy 80's horror flick that has minimal name recognition, even among geeks. It's in 3D for no particularly good reason. And it comes to us at the tail-end of a summer that's been chock full of unnecessary remakes and unnecessary 3D.

Now, on the first point - why remake Fright Night? I think the fact that both this and Conan bombed on the same weekend sends a message, once and for all, that this perceived value of having a presold brand-name for a new movie means nothing in and of itself. Some ideas and characters, I'll admit, lend themselves to reinterpretation as the years go by. Some characters like Superman, Batman, James Bond - they're so iconic that it seems fitting that their adventures should be told, retold, and updated for each new generation. Even something like Conan - you've got the original source material - the Robert E. Howard books - from which to draw from, so that isn't a reboot so much as a new adaptation. That movie, I think, had plenty of other issues that kept it from being a box-office smash. But FRIGHT NIGHT? Was this a movie that anyone, ever, demanded to see remade? Was there any real point to retelling this story here and now? Was there any real creative or commercial reason to remake the original rather than to just COME UP WITH AN ORIGINAL STORY with an ORIGINAL title? I'd like to think that the creative team behind this new Fright Night had some great new vampire story in them, one not beholden to the tired plot of a cheesy 80's movie that was never even that great to begin with. Most people aren't idiots - they realize that this is a lazy, cynical style of filmmaking, and I think people responded to that with their dollars. I mean, tell me about a cool new horror-comedy movie with Colin Farell as the villain, and you know what? - I'm interested. Tell me that that movie is in fact a remake of Fright Night, and guess what? - I'm actually LESS interested. There's your presold branding for 'ya.

On the 3D ... I ended up seeing the movie in 3D, and it looked okay. But it never looked awesome. 3D should be an event ... an effect that's either really fun and over-the-top (Pirahna, Drive Angry), or else state-of-the-art and slick (Avatar, How To Train Your Dragon, Tron: Legacy, etc.). 3D should never just be "meh." It's not worth the extra ticket price, and again, audiences are responding to that. Shoot the movie in 3D, make the 3D awe-inspiring and immersive, or else DONT DO IT. Audiences know it's just a cash-grab. And too many movies this summer alone have come out with 3D despite not being shot in 3D and despite the 3D actually detracting from the picture quality. Again, Fright Night looked fine - the 3D didn't detract, but it also added a bare minimum of wow-factor.

So I think that FRIGHT NIGHT had a lot working against it from a box-office and from a public perception point of view. And ironically, the two things that probably hurt it were also the two things that the studio looked at as plusses. So studios -- STOP THINKING THIS WAY. And if you remake The Goonies in 3D, so help me I will be pissed off (yes, this movie is actually beloved). If you remake Harry and the Hendersons or Little Monsters ... no one will really care (and I say that as someone who really likes Harry and the Hendersons). They will bomb.

All that being said though, FRIGHT NIGHT is a pretty enjoyable romp. It's got some fun moments, and the cast largely does a good job. Colin Farell is really good as Jerry, the most casually antagonistic vampire in the history of vampires. Farell's facial expressions and super-laid-back demeanor all make Jerry a really fun - at times very funny - character, with a simmering vampire rage stewing beneath his slick, smooth-talking exterior. Christopher Mintz-Plasse brings some good comedy chops to the role of "Evil" Ed, with a tinge of darkness thrown in as well. And David Tennant is charismatic and occasionally funny as Peter Vincent, who in this version is no longer a creepy late-night TV horror host, but a Criss Angel-like illusionist who has an obsession with the occult.

What doesn't work as well in terms of casting? Anton Yelchin seems like a fine actor, but something felt off about his lead role in this film. He didn't quite feel believable as a former geek-turned-popular-kid, and throughout the whole movie, he seemed to be trying to put on a quasi-tough guy act that didn't really mesh with his character. Again, he seems like a really good actor, but his character just came off as pretty bland to me in this film. Imogen Poots, meanwhile, is the resident eye-candy for the guys. Maybe she can act, I don't know, but she isn't given much room to stretch here or much in the way of character. We're told she likes Yelchin despite his dweebiness, but why, exactly? Who knows. Finally, Toni Collette feels way overqualified to play "the mom." The movie actually sets thing up nicely, where Collette is positioned to help out her son fight off vampires. It could have been a cool twist - instead of mom as mere victim, how about a pretty kickass mom who's less June Cleaver and more Sarah Conner? But no, the movie ends up sidelining the capable Collette for the movie's third act, which is a shame.

Mostly, the movie is well-structured and evenly paced, although I think a couple of things kept the story from working as well as it should have. In the original, I think the fun conceit was that this old-timey horror host was believed to in fact be a legitimate vampire hunter - and then steps up to take on that role. It worked, in a cheesy, 80's, "what-the-hell-why-not" sort of way. Here, Peter Vincent feels very shoehorned into the plot, and the fact that he's both a stage magician and a source of legit supernatural know-how never quite gels to create a convincing - or particularly cool - character. And also - he's a loud-mouthed, wise-cracking, womanizing Brit. Again, this movie's version of Peter Vincent ends up just feeling too random to really make an impression, even though Tennant does his best to bring him to life. I also thought there were a few too many scenes of someone trying to convince someone else that there was, indeed, a vampire living next door. I get that it's logical that people would be doubtful about this, but come on - what fun is a vampire movie where half of it is spent with scenes where someone has to stammer on about how, "trust me, I know this sounds crazy, but this guy is a vampire!". To its credit, the movie doesn't keep *us* guessing for too long as to Jerry's true nature. We're clued in to his deal pretty quickly, thus we don't have to wait too long for the movie's dramatic stakes to be upped (pun very much intended).

Also to its credit, Fright Night is pretty good overall at delivering lots of fun scares and freak-outs. The movie gives us a number of fun hide-and-seek style scenes of Yelchin snooping around his neighbor's apartment. And, there are some pretty nifty chase scenes as well. Director Craig Gillespe really does seem to have a talent for creating a critical mass of tension and then surprising the audience with some unexpected craziness.

As for the humor, I do think the movie could have used a little more, well, fun. Give Mintz-Plasse some backstory to make him actually earn the nickname of "Evil" Ed. Have Toni Collette and Imogen Poots get more involved in the action. Give Colin Ferrell a little more opportunity to chew some scenery. The movie seemed a little torn between trying to be fun and serious. Somehow, 80's movies used to able to nail that tone of being silly while taking themselves seriously. More modern movies, always needing to give us that ironic wink of self-awareness, sometimes feel too concerned with being cool to just be weird and crazy.

FRIGHT NIGHT deserves credit for being way more fun, funny, and frightening than it had any right to be. It's an entertaining flick with a good cast, some chuckle-worthy moments, and some legit scares. To me though, the fact that this turned out to be a halfway-decent film still doesn't quite justify its existence. Because I know that this cast and this creative team could have done something better if tasked with bringing an original idea to life. The movie seems hamstrung by the need to emulate the original movie - nothing is really gained (not creatively, and clearly not commercially) from the connection.

My Grade: B

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