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Ten Word or Less Review: An 80’s horror remake that doesn’t stink.

I think nostalgia is getting the best of some people.  Having just recently just watched the original Fright Night from 1985 I wasn’t greatly impressed with it.  It was cheesy.  It was painfully idiotic in parts.  Its central character Charlie (William Ragsdale) was gratingly dumb.  Charlie’s obnoxious pal Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) just annoyed to no end with his high pitched shriek of a voice.  I really hate characters who yell their dialogue, passing it off as acting.  It salvaged itself as it moved along with some eye popping physical effects, Roddy McDowell hamming it up as a cowardly midnight movie host and a good dose of charming smarm from Chris Sarandon as Jerry the Vampire.  It was kind of neat to see a piece of 80’s horror I had completely missed, and I could maybe stand to watch it again with libation in hand, I thought its drawbacks were pretty glaring and obvious.  The new Fright Night has taken the old film, followed its premise, but mercifully ejected the thoughtless execution which plagued too much of the previous effort.  This apparently annoys some people.

Inhabiting the part of Charlie and ably anchoring the whole film is talented up and comer Anton Yelchin (Star Trek).  The lame spirit of William Ragsdale doesn’t hang around to be felt at all.  Not stuck playing a ridiculous caricature of a teenager, as is often the case of the horror genre, Yelchin gets to play Charlie as a believable and fleshed out  young adult.  An ex-nerd hiding his past from his newer hip friends, Charlie in this version feels like a semi-believable teen whose actions make sense and motivations are understandable.  At first the movie dares us to dislike him a bit, but Yelchin is turning into an instantly watchable screen presence in everything he does.  Ragsdale’s Charlie was just a blundering moron but when Yelchin’s Charlie begins to grasp the situation he’s up against, something he’s understandably skeptical of, he responds like a fairly intelligent person, not a gung ho idiot.  Also getting a remake make over is Charlie’s girlfriend Amy.  Original girlfriend Amanda Bearse seemed like a Scooby Doo mystery reject that projected all the sexuality of a spare tire.  The barely explained spiritual connection between her character and the vampire added zilch and has been exorcized in this version.  Young and gorgeous Imogen Poots, love that name, also gets to play against standard issue teenage type by being more than a sexually infused object of desire for Yelchin.  Her character gets some brains and doesn’t feel like a needless appendage for ogling.

The three semi iconic parts form the original, Evil Ed, Peter Vincent and Jerry the Vampire, are capably recreated here, but the original probably holds a minor edge.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Kick-Ass) gets to bring his special brand of pathetic and sad nerd to the part of Evil Ed.  Fans of the Ed part may be saddened to see the role drastically cut back for this remake but I’m a firm believer that Mintz-Plasse works better in contained doses.  I don’t miss that shrieking voice of the original Ed either but the part had a Hell of a payoff that the new version doesn’t achieve.  Dr. Who’s David Tennent steps into Roddy McDowell’s role of Peter Vincent.  If the original does surpass this remake in some clear cut ways this is one.  McDowell’s lowly horror show host was endearing and pathetic and he’s the kind of old school presence it is hard to dismiss out of hand.  Tennent is fine and the film works well with what they’ve come up with, a silly Vegas magician of sorts, but Tennent doesn’t charm the way McDowell did.  And then there’s Jerry.

Chris Sarandon was pretty much the acting backbone of the original.  He wonderfully inhabited the part of this brazenly sadistic and amused vampire.  Keeping the spirit of the part, but really making it his own is Colin Farrell.  Farrell is all sly grins, devious looks and devilish attitude.  He’s clearly having a hoot doing this.  Farrell is often cast as a humorless heavy but he does wink-wink smarm remarkably well.  The remake eventually starts to embrace the ridiculous regarding Jerry’s actions, no one seems to live in this Vegas suburb, but there are many small details to savor.   To compare the two is to compare apples to apples.  Both are great in the part and picking the better feels a little arbitrary.

When we get over all these particulars there are ultimately two definitive reasons why this new Fright Night stands taller than its source material.  First, it’s much more thought out and beholden to a sharper screenplay.  Second, director Craig Gillespie handles actors and action better than original helmer Tom Holland, a forgettable and witless director.  The original Fright Night was sabotaged in too many places by dim characters and clunky story, some of which seemed to be made up on the spot.  2011 version screenwriter Marti Nixon has laid out all the lumpy deficiencies of the original and ironed them out, making these characters live and breathe a bit and giving the scenario just a hint of credibility.  Director Gillespie knows he has a talented cast on hand, who clearly like the material, so he lets them do their thing.  A less patient director may have ruined things by cutting away crucial smaller moments.  The movie is patiently paced, avoids going drastically over the top too often and even embraces a small vibe of tragedy regarding Jerry’s victims.  Gillespie knows to hone in and focus on these details, the kinds of small things which make a scene, and by extension the movie, more memorable.

If the original holds one technical edge it’s in the effects realm.  The original’s physical effects were eye opening and creative.  1985 director Tom Holland knew his effects sequences would make or break his feature and for the most part he nailed them all.  The new version contains sparsely used but run of the mill CGI.  Nothing here tops Evil Ed’s demise from the original for sheer audacity.  A gore for broke sequence like that would have firmly locked in the newer Fright Night as the film to beat, no questions asked at all.

For some, acknowledging a remake is better than an original, especially one tied to engrained childhood fondness, is impossible.  “Nothing is better than this thing I saw when I was 10!  No matter how much you say so dammit!”  Nostalgia can be harder to kick than crack.  I’m not a person who clings to old memories with an iron fist.  If I did I’d still like Krull sans irony.  Old films can be creaky, silly and hopelessly dated products.  Sure, plenty of remakes stink, but they don’t stink strictly because they’re remakes.  Films can retain the magic which defines them and their timelessness, but only the shortsighted should reject out of hand the advantage of hindsight and new perspective.  Fright Night is a perfect example of how a half likeable but haphazardly executed film from one decade can be turned into a better, more enjoyable horror vehicle today.  If I never watch the old Fright Night again I will never feel the slightest twinge of regret.  I would feel a small amount of let down at not seeing this remake at least one more time.


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