Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fright Night (1985 and 2011 versions)

If you wanted to trace the popularity of the vampire in books, television, and movies in the last two decades, I would submit to you that it all started with two modest vampire films that were released in the mid-1980's. Both THE LOST BOYS (1987) and FRIGHT NIGHT (1985) strayed away from the familiar stuffy Victorian Count Dracula plot we had become accustomed to and sexed it up by placing vampires in today's society. I'm not declaring that vampire films set in the modern era hadn't been done already but both LOST BOYS and FRIGHT NIGHT had a great story, above average special effects and make-up, and a sense of humor about the subject matter that paved the way for recent successful vampire franchises like TWILIGHT and television's THE VAMPIRE DIARIES.

I was surprised earlier this year when I read that they were remaking FRIGHT NIGHT with Colin Farrell in the starring role.  All of a sudden, the horror films that came out when I was a teenager or in college are being remade already, as if horror films have become the new Shakespeare play, where a new generation of audience can become familiar with MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) or THE THING (1982) or THE HITCHER (1986) instead of OTHELLO or THE TAMING OF THE SHREW or HAMLET.

My love for the original FRIGHT NIGHT comes in three parts. First, I was a big vampires fan as a kid even dressing up as Dracula with my Mom's homemade cape for several Halloweens. The film also resonates to my childhood memories of late night horror television shows like Fright Night which Roddy McDowell's character Peter Vincent hosts in the original film.  For a young kid in Portland, Oregon, my Saturday nights were staying up for Sinister Cinema  hosted by Victor Ives on KATU-TV. Then, there is actor Roddy McDowell who I loved in the PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and subsequent APE sequels.

FRIGHT NIGHT is an extremely simple premise.  What if a vampire moved into the house next door? Writer/Director Tom Holland has said he wanted to do the classic Boy Who Cried Wolf story. The boy is Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale), a typical high school teenager who lives with his single mother Judy Brewster (Dorothy Fielding) in a modest suburban neighborhood. Charlie is a big fan of the late night horror show Fright Night hosted by famed vampire killer/B horror film actor Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell).

One night while trying to convince his girl friend Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse) to have sex with him up in his room, Charlie notices two men carrying a coffin outside his window. Tall, charming, and handsome, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) has bought the house next door along with roommate Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) with intentions of fixing it up. Charlie forgets about what he saw until two separate women he sees go into Dandrige's house turn up dead on the local television news later that week.

Charlie begins snooping around Dandrige's property, even having  a police detective (Art J. Harris) investigate but nothing turns up. Charlie finally meets his new neighbor when Mrs. Brewster invites Dandrige over.  Since a vampire can only enter a house invited, Dandrige returns later that evening to threaten Charlie to mind his own business or else. Since Mrs. Brewster , best friend "Evil" Ed Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys), and girl friend Amy don't believe him, Charlie turns to TV horror film host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) who has killed vampires, at least on TV, to help him.

Vincent, just fired from his TV horror show wants nothing to do with Charlie but reluctantly agrees to visit the so-called vampire Dandrige, after Amy offers to pay him.  Vincent hopes to prove to Charlie that vampires really don't exist except in the movies. At Dandrige's home, Vincent gives Jerry a fake vampire test which he passes. Hoping that Charlie will now believe that Jerry isn't a vampire, Vincent notices as they're leaving that Dandrige doesn't cast any reflection in Vincent's hand mirror.

Dandrige turns Charlie's friend Evil Ed into a vampire and sends him to kill Peter Vincent, who realizes that Dandridge is indeed a vampire. Vincent barely escapes with his life as he fends off Evil Ed with a crucifix.  Vampire Jerry pursues Amy, who reminds him of a former love.  Jerry bites Amy and takes her back to his house. Charlie and Vincent arm themselves with crucifixes and wooden stakes and enter Jerry's home in a final battle to kill the vampire Jerry Dandrige and rescue Amy from the bloodsucker's control.

Director Holland proves that a good vampire film doesn't always have to have an army of vampires to be entertaining. One good scary vampire will do. Jerry is an 80's version of Count Dracula. He dances in nightclubs, wears preppy clothes, and eats an apple a day when he's not drinking the blood of young women. His henchman Billy Cole is the equivalent of Dracula's servant Renfield, a human ally to guard Jerry's coffin during the day and assist with disposing of Jerry's victims. 

FRIGHT NIGHT revels in the vampire lore novelist Bram Stoker created and the Universal and Hammer Dracula films promulgated throughout the years. Crucifixes, bats, wooden stakes, and vampires not casting a reflection or turning into a wolf all play key parts in the film.  FRIGHT NIGHT clearly is a homage to past vampire and horror films and McDowell's character's name Peter Vincent might be a nod to Peter Cushing (who played the vampire killer Van Helsing several times) and horror film star Vincent Price.

FRIGHT NIGHT saves the best for last with some outstanding visual effects by Richard Edlund (GHOSTBUSTERS) that includes Jerry turning into a ferocious over-sized bat and Amy with a grotesque, elongated mouth full of fangs.  But some of the film's best scares are just Jerry and his long fingernails appearing outside a window, ready to grab Vincent. The original FRIGHT NIGHT does what all good horror films should do. It scares you and has fun doing it.

One of the many interesting changes that FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) director Craig Gillespie and writer Marti Noxon alter is the location of the film to the city that plays all night and sleeps during the day - Las Vegas. What better locale for a vampire to live and thrive in then Sin City. Even better, Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and his mother Jane (Toni Collette), a realtor, live in an island suburb on the desert outskirts of Las Vegas, one of those developments that got hit by the recent bad economic times with many houses foreclosed or empty.

This time, it's not Charlie who notices that a vampire is in their midst but Charlie's former best friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Evil Ed points out to Charlie that many of their classmates are not showing up to class anymore. Ed has noted that it's mostly kids in their neighborhood and has pinpointed the root cause as Charlie's handsome neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell). Charlie scoffs at Ed's accusations as Charlie is more into his new hot girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) then Ed's vampire conspiracy theories. But then Ed vanishes.

Charlie finds Ed's notes and surveillance video on Jerry. He spies on Jerry from his window as Jerry invites the beautiful neighbor Doris (Emily Montague) over for a beer. When Charlie hears a scream later that night and then Jerry drives off, Charlies sneaks into Jerry's house.  He finds Doris locked in a secret room behind Jerry's closet. Jerry returns and Charlie sees with his own eyes that Jerry is a vampire as he takes a bite out of Doris.

Charlie turns to Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a cross between illusionist Criss Angel and British actor Russell Brand, to help him. Vincent is the star of Fright Night, a horror themed illusion show at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Vincent claims to be an expert on vampires, even collecting supernatural weapons. He tells Charlie vampires don't exist and has him thrown out of his lavish suite.

Director Gillespie does a nice job in the beginning setting up the Charlie/Jerry showdown and the second half of the film delivers. Jerry drives Charlie, Mrs. Brewster, and Amy out of their house by pumping gas into their home and lighting a match, blowing up their home. The three flee into the desert at night only to be chased by Jerry in a truck. The three are able to escape temporarily from Jerry. Charlie and Amy return to see Vincent.  Vincent tells them what kind of vampire they're up against.  Evil Ed, now a vampire, shows up to kill Vincent, sent by Jerry. As Charlie and Vincent battle with Ed, Jerry grabs Amy, putting her under his spell and takes her back to his house. Charlie and Vincent arm themselves with Vincent's arsenal of vampire weapons and return to duel with Jerry and his collection of victims underneath Jerry's home.

The new FRIGHT NIGHT does an excellent job of paying homage to the original while adding enough new story points to make it more than just a copy cat remake.  Writer Moxon wrote for the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER television show and knows her vampire universe very well.  Fans of the original will appreciate Jerry snacking on an apple or Amy wearing a white dress in Jerry's subterranean lair when Charlie comes to rescue her and she greets him with her elongated set of fangs. The filmmakers even cast actor Chris Sarandon (the original Jerry) in a cameo as a poor driver who comes across the Brewsters and Amy battling Jerry at night on a deserted highway.

Colin Farrell plays Jerry as more of a working class predator and survivalist then Chris Sarandon's seductive Jerry. Farrell's Jerry is feral as he uses his sense of smell and hearing almost like an animal to find his victims or detect intruders. David Tennant's Peter Vincent is a bit sexier than Roddy McDowell's conservative Vincent. The new Vincent collects vampire and other supernatural weapons and we later discover that Vincent and Jerry have a history that goes back to Vincent's childhood when his parents were killed by a vampire.  Mrs. Brewster (Toni Collette) also has a bigger role in the new version. She flirts with Jerry at first but soon discovers that Charlie's fears regarding neighbor Jerry may be true. She's not going to let Jerry hurt her son and plays a big part in their escaping from Jerry during the highway chase.

One thing I realized after watching both FRIGHT NIGHT films is how brave the Charlie Brewster character is. Maybe because Brewster never had his father around to protect him and had to play that role for his mother and girlfriend, Brewster is not afraid to die to protect the women he loves from Jerry. I wasn't sure I was going to like Anton Yelchin as the new Charlie but he does an admirable job of playing a teenager emerging from his geek stage into a cooler guy stage. How many teenagers do you know who would wear a fire retardant suit and light themselves on fire to destroy a vampire ... and maybe himself as well?

Evil Ed, on the other hand, seems destined to become a vampire. Just like Jerry, Ed is an outcast, different.  Ed's teased at school, never really fitting in with the popular crowd. He doesn't have a girlfriend like Charlie. It makes sense that becoming a vampire is Ed's way of becoming cool. Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Ed adds yet another memorable fringe character he has played in films like SUPERBAD (2007) and ROLE MODELS (2008). Thankfully, he didn't imitate the original Evil Ed Stephen Geoffrey's obnoxious laugh.

As I finish this new FRIGHT NIGHT review, the film has been out for two weeks and surprisingly has not done very well at the box office despite getting pretty good reviews from critics. My hypothesis is that not enough parents of my generation have shown their kids the original FRIGHT NIGHT to prepare them for the remake.  I showed the original to my kids a few months ago and they enjoyed it as much as I did the first time. It's hard to believe its been 26 years since FRIGHT NIGHT was first released. The new FRIGHT NIGHT filmmakers may have a cult classic on their hands, they just may have to wait a few years for it to be discovered, much like the original FRIGHT NIGHT.

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