Tuesday, December 20, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fright Night (2011)

Tom Holland's original Fright Night (1985) is one of my all-time favorite vampire movies.  Scary, sexy and funny-as-hell, the movie highlighted a number of terrific genre concepts. 

On the one hand, the  movie knowingly connected itself to the great tradition of Gothic vampire movies (as evidenced by the output of Hammer Studios in the 1950s - 1960s), both paying tribute to cinematic bloodsuckers of yesteryear and gently mocking them too. 

At the same time, the 1985 film played on the relatively new notion (in the eighties) that Americans -- so transient in the new age of cheap air travel -- could not always know or trust their neighbors in suburbia.  The man living next door could be sexually promiscuous, homosexual (gasp!)...or even an evil bloodsucker.

The Holland film really played lightly and beautifully with such thoughtful notions.  The vampire Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) posed a significant danger to the adolescent characters in the film, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse) and Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys).  Yet this danger did not arise merely from Dandridge's creature-of-the-night ways, but from the fact that he was explicitliy offering something "new" and "different" in Reagan's traditional, conventional, and uptight America. 

Jerry, a stylish  -- metrosexual? -- man moved into Charley's neighborhood with his live-in "friend," Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark), and director Tom Holland frequently positioned the two men together in the frame in poses of submission/domination suggesting the act of fellatio.   The idea wasn't merely that Jerry was homosexual, but sexually omnivorous, offering the young Amy and Ed membership into the tribe of adulthood through promises of physical and sensual pleasure.

In some situations, Jerry offered seduction (as is the case with Amy, who longed for her boyfriend, Charley, to be a "man" with her in the bedroom), and in other cases, Jerry offered something else: a new brand of companionship for someone who was bullied and treated as different.  Before turning Ed into a vampire, Jerry told him  "I know what it's like to be different.  They won't pick on you anymore.  Or beat you up.  I'll see to that." 

Dandridge's implicit promise to Ed was to make him belong somewhere, with someone, and not be the perpetual, derided outsider.  That promise was depicted in the original Fright Night within a sexual (in this case, homosexual) context, but Holland's visual and thematic approach added a layer of meaning and ambiguity to the film.  Dandridge was evil...and yet he also clearly felt love.  He wanted to make vampire brethren, and yet he also promised to protect Ed.  The film wasn't only a case of black and white, good and evil, vampire and human.  It was more layered than that.

Lest you think I'm reading too much into this 1985 horror film, I'll refer you to an interview I conducted with Fright Night editor Kent Beyda that appears in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).  Mr. Beyda stressed with me that the film's sexual overtones were "all very conscious." 

Furthermore, he added "It was all planned out.  When the kid [Ragsdale] is looking through his window at Chris Sarandon, his assistant goes down on his knees in front of Chris.  That was deliberate....He [Holland] wanted to explore that part of it [of vampirism] in addition to everything else.  The vampire myth is always very sexual and I think he wanted to go into every aspect of sexuality..."

Outside the film's Gothic overtones and sexual subtext, Fright Night also offered a criticism of the then-current slasher film movement, with vampire killer Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) lamenting that audiences were no longer interested in vampire films, only in masked killers hacking up young virgins. 

McDowall himself gave the film a solid grounding in heartfelt human emotions, portraying Vincent as a cowardly man who must summon all his strength (and faith) to defeat Jerry Dandridge.

Well, flash forward to 2011, and here we have a remake of Fright Night written by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and directed by Craig Gillespie. 

Where the original film saw itself as a point along the continuum of horror cinema (commenting on Hammer films and slasher films along the way), the only vampire title this movie can think to reference is Twilight (2008). 

Where the original film featured Gothic touches (mist-laden mansions, women in diaphanous gowns, a repulsion/attraction to Evil in the form of flamboyant Dandridge), this film more or less eschews the Gothic aesthetic and makes this modern incarnation of Jerry Dandridge a blunt serial killer vampire, one with a secret "dungeon" in his house, where he keeps his victims. 

Where the original film gave us a Peter Vincent with a lifetime of useful/useless experience as a B-movie, Hollywood "vampire killer" and reminded us of icons such as Peter Cushing or Vincent Price in the process, this movie gives us David Tennant as Peter Vincent, a relatively young man headlining a vampire show in Vegas.  Alarmingly, Peter Vincent has even been given a wholly unnecessary, "tragic" back story.  His parents were murdered by vampires, you see.  In fact, Jerry Dandridge is the very creature of the night who murdered them years ago, but Vincent has repressed that knowledge...until now.

Convenient how that all fits together, isn't it?

In the original film, Jerry spent much of his time attempting to seduce Amy.  In one of the original film's trademark moments, Jerry slow-danced with Amy in a crowded nightclub...and things got a little naughty.  In the new version, Jerry (Colin Farrell) has no time to romance Amy (Imogene Poots), and he doesn't dance with her at all.  Instead, he gets her "high" on his vamped-out blood -- a tiresome drug addiction allusion --  and carries her off to his Vegas dungeon as she slips into unconsciousness. 

No time for love, Dr. Jones.

The fact that the new Fright Night never attempts -- even a little -- to cast a romantic (or even particularly sexual...) spell fits in well with the somewhat perfunctory nature of the remake.  For example, you'll notice that every time a vampire burns up on screen, his ash embers are digitally imposed, and thus never touch down or alight upon a single character.  Nope, the ashes were added in post-production, with no thought at all to the fact that the burning ash should actually, you know, land on characters' clothes and skin, and thereby dirty them up. 

In this sense, the new film also lacks the visceral, messy, organic feel of the original, which added a moral ambiguity to the act of killing vampires.  There was a scene in the original during which Vincent staked Evil Ed (as a wolf) and then had to watch, seemingly for minutes, as the boy went through an agonizing, horrible death.  McDowall's labored reaction shots might it plain that what he was witnessing was horrible...the monstrous death of a young man.  There was sympathy there, in other words. 

There's no such dimension to the vampire deaths or the vampire terror in this 2011 remake.  Indeed, the creatures of the night are even self cleaning as they die, and the heroes never really get very dirty or have to confront what killing vampires means in terms of morality.

Perhaps unwisely, the film also chooses to recycle some of the memorable dialogue from the first film: "You're so cool, Brewster," for one.  But the worst line reading goes to Colin Farrell, who says "Welcome to Fright Night for real..." with such half-heartedness that your heart just sinks.  Chris Sarandon's full-throated recitation of that line in the original encompassed humor first, then soul-chilling menace.  Farrell rattles it off so quickly and lamely, it would have been better left omitted all together. 

And so considering Fright Night, we must once come to a debate about the nature of remakes in general.  Should remakes offer only a variation on a theme? Or should they tell the same story, with the same meaning, that the original depicted? 

Honestly, I wish I had a good answer to that question. I try to take remakes on a case-by-case basis, liking some and disliking others based on individual merits. 

When we consider how often Hamlet has been adapted,  for instance, we can  recognize that, in all cases, the meaning of Shakespeare's words -- his intent -- remains.  Individual visions may feature more action (think Mel Gibson) or less action, but the "heart" of the drama universally remains intact.  This new Fright Night observes the surface qualities of the original cult film, but doesn't tread nearly as deeply into the underlying thematic content.  The heart of the original isn't successfully transplanted.

However, this Fright Night does a very good job of crafting a modern day "world" around Jerry even while eschewing so many organic qualities of the original.  For instance, it's nothing less than an inspiration that the new film is set in post-Recession Las Vegas.  Here, as the movie points out, a vampire can operate freely because of all the foreclosures and a constantly moving population.  And because people work at night and sleep in the day in Vegas, the nocturnal vampire doesn't stand out or draw attention to himself.  The first scenes in the film reveal a tract neighborhood in the middle of the desert where "For Sale" signs are all over the place, evidence of the economic disaster.  Here, a vampire like Jerry can have a field day.  This isn't a neighborhood, it's a killing field.

I also very much enjoyed the moment wherein Charley's Mom (Toni Collette) staked Jerry with the sharp end of a For Sale sign, another Recession-Age updating of Fright Night's original context, a composition which suggests that Jerry lives by the sword (or the "for sale" sign...) and dies by the sword too. 

The film also features one terrific jolt moment, which I don't want to spoil, but which involves the spontaneous combustion of a character you may not realize, initially, is even a vampire. 

Colin Farrell, wearing a dirty wife-beater undershirt, is relatively effective as the scent-obsessed Jerry in the portions of the film that don't require him to reach for theatrical grandiosity (like the "Welcome to Fright Night" line), and David Tennant is very amusing indeed as the new Peter Vincent, even if he doesn't engage the human heart like McDowall did, instead only tickling the funny bone.  Both men give serviceable performances, and Anton Yelchin does a nice job anchoring the picture.  No one here is incompetent.
The real question remains this: Should a new Fright Night be more than just an amusing thrill ride?  In remaking the film, has the original meaning and subtext been sacrificed?  More personally, do you seek merely a good time at the movies, or a good time plus some (not too heavy) social commentary?  Isn't the latter always preferable?  Wouldn't you always rather get both?  I know I would. 

The original Fright Night featured a great thematic conceit about "dangerous" adult sexuality, and then used specific visual compositions -- the very tenets of film grammar -- to reflect and express that content.  The new version of the material pays dialogue lip service to the vicissitudes of adolescence (Charley wonders if he is growing up only into a "dick") but it doesn't back up those words with expressive, meaningful visuals.  Accordingly, the remake automatically functions in one less dimension than the 1985 original did.

Bottom line: if you just want a roller coaster ride, the new Fright Night (2011) isn't an embarrassment, and in fact, it's kind of fun.

But the original Fright Night is a roller coaster ride too, and as added measure it was actually about real life matters too.  And the form of the original film expressed that content beautifully. Even today, the first Fright Night possesses a vision about what it means to be a teenager, or an outsider, attempting to navigate treacherous adulthood.  The new movie observes the specifics of the post-Recession world, but doesn't connect the milieu to anything meaningful about the characters or their journey.

Thus the Fright Night remake is a lot like that digital vampire ash it showcases so frequently: showy and glowy but ultimately leaving no trace it was ever there, or meant anything at all. 

Dust to dust.

2 comments:

  1. The original FRIGHT NIGHT remains one of the iconic films of the 80s. Nothing is going to replace it. That said (and I can't believe I'm saying this), but I really, really enjoyed the 2011 remake. Colin Farrell (good to see him back from rehab) and David Tennant have some fun in this with their characters and that made it a joy to watch. Moving the story to Las Vegas, with its representative economy gone bad, I thought hit the mark, as well. Kudos to Marti Noxon for playing it hip and yet fun-loving. Nice cameo, too, from Chris Sarandon. Fine review, John. Thanks.

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  2. Hi Michael,

    I think you and my lovely wife are simpatico on this one. You both really liked it, and I understand way. I couldn't successfully get the original out of my head enough to enjoy this one fully. There were moments that were a lot of fun, however. I don't disagree with anything you said. I guess I was still kind of looking for greatness and meaning, and not just a good time.

    best,
    John

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