Review: Fright Night Achieves Fun

With only Lars and the Real Girl, maybe half of Mr. Woodcock and a handful of TV episodes to his name, I had underestimated Craig Gillespie. There was little to demonstrate his directorial chops for updating a particularly playful horror-comedy from 1985. And yet this is what I get for assuming that filmmakers never want to try new things: a remarkably confident remake that boasts its own pleasures more often than not.

No small credit goes to Buffy vet Marti Noxon for her screenplay. This Fright Night does away with a general fondness for bygone monster movies in favor of making a sexual predator out of its vampire next door. Whereas Chris Sarandon was more of a classically romantic creature of the night in the first film, Jerry (Colin Farrell) here is a greaser-handyman hybrid out to get his kicks. Charley (Anton Yelchin) discovers this sooner than before, despite ignoring the accurate crackpot warnings of estranged nerd friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and finds himself forced to protect his mother (Toni Collette) and girlfriend (Imogen Poots) against his voracious neighbor.

Charley’s actually a bit selfish this time around, and Ed a bit sad (not to mention far less aggravating). The lone male in a fatherless home, our hero initially acts out as a means of preserving his newfound social standing before realizing the very real threat that Jerry poses. He’s the jock that his girlfriend might go for, the stepfather he doesn’t want his mother to marry, and while Yelchin’s performance is a generally likeable one, it’s laced with insecurity throughout, thus making Farrell’s prowling antics all the more potent. He lurks at doorways, waiting to be invited in, knowing full well that he can find another way to an artery if he isn’t. Given his prolonged life span, Jerry seems content with the fight that Charley puts up, welcoming him to tussle with centuries of well-honed predatory instinct. Farrell has demonstrated no small amount of charisma before, but never has he put it to such wily effect.

Mintz-Plasse’s role, on the other hand, is defined by the resentment of Charley ignoring him after years of friendship. His arc is scantily established, but serves as a curiously platonic counterpoint to the insatiable lust that both Jerry and reluctant vampire hunter Peter Vincent demonstrate. Vincent’s character used to be a hokey TV host for the late-night horror shows, played wonderfully then by Roddy McDowall; now, he’s a Vegas showman with an interest in the occult, and David Tennant (Doctor Who) renders him as Criss Angel by way of Russell Brand. His character isn’t heroic this time around so much as he’s handy, and he serves as ready-made comic relief in a film that already manages to be pretty funny on its own.

In fact, the film takes a turn right around the time that Tennant shows up, a turn also marked by an extended, nigh dizzying sequence in and around a minivan that echoes similarly showy tricks used in War of the Worlds, Children of Men, and I Saw the Devil. The first half is laden with observations more clever than glib -- where better than Vegas for someone to be nocturnal and nondescript? -- and sequences more prone to being refreshingly patient, such as one in which a snooping Charley tries to free a trapped girl from Jerry’s home. The second half places an emphasis on action and CGI and feels more routine for it; even Ramin Djawadi’s amped-up score loses its personality by then.

That said, the film is still fun, playing with popular vampire lore and often trying something new at a time when familiar titles and trace jobs tend to suffice. It may not all connect thematically, or even logically (a house explodes in the suburbs to no apparent effect), but to its credit, Fright Night generally remains funnier and creepier than many films of its ilk.

Grade: B-