Review: Fright Night
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Can I send the latter half of “Fright Night” back? It's nagging at me like a nibble to the jugular. This who-really-needs-it remake of the 1985 horror favorite is drastically split in two, to the extent that I can tell you precisely which cut marks the divide. The first half is an initially commonplace, yet growingly tack-sharp, piece of badass minimalism, its intermittent, well-conceived and very well-staged thrills peekaboo-ing amidst an unembellished backdrop of old-fashioned suburb dread. The second half is same old, same awful: a contemporary barrage of pandering crudeness, birdbrained comic relief, obvious twists and tacky excess. One need only look to the movie's setting for indication of its blight. “Fright Night” takes place in a spotless, boxy neighborhood just outside Las Vegas, then moves within the City of Sin, and it's as if all that electricity and greed infects the clean and clever narrative the film starts out with. A warning against the ills of urban society? Perhaps. But, more likely, it illustrates a response to studio complaints that this deft little resurrection wasn't daft enough for the rude-boy bracket.
Since I really can't recall the last time I saw a film so bisected, it's best I slice the review in half, too – good things first, bad and ugly second. Featuring the same characters from the Tom-Holland directed original, “Fright Night” kicks off as a ladder-climbing high school flick, with Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster, a geek getting his first taste of popularity thanks to a new coupling with Amy (Imogen Poots), a randy, sought-after blonde. Sadly, this means no more time for fanboy fun with ex-bestie Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a classic bully target who, by the way, knows via extensive research that Charley's new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a plasma-crazy vampire. “Jerry is a terrible vampire name,” Charley retorts when given this info. So it is. All the more reason why Charley's mom (Toni Collette) doesn't suspect a shred of crookedness, despite Jerry's strangely pasty complexion and animalistic sniffing at the air. For his own nosiness, Ed is swiftly turned into one of Jerry's ilk, in a backyard pool scene that, despite some goofy symbolism of a dropped cross falling toward the camera (loss of innocence – in 3D!), ably previews the sinking unrest to come.
Like a downgraded “Night of the Hunter” flecked with the nervy jolts of “Let the Right One In,” “Fright Night” starts to shape itself into a small gem of domestic terror in its earlier portions. Farrell is terrific as the neighborhood bloodsucker, his hunger-induced distraction and demonic facial tics offering glints of Heath Ledger's Joker. Serving blunt, comic conviction with lines like, “you're girlfriend's RIPE,” the underrated actor puts those dark eyes and eyebrows to work, and his bulked-up physique suits the character's hulking sexuality. There's really no question as to whether or not Jerry hails from Hell, so there's next to no time wasted on stalling skepticism. Once Charley sneaks inside Jerry's house, an unfinished mini-McMansion with blacked-out windows and freaky wall art, he gets all the proof he needs: the local stripper is locked up within a hidden hall of rooms, her neck still tender from Jerry's kiss of un-death. Tiptoeing around sheet-covered furniture while Jerry watches “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” Charley labors to smuggle the victim out of the house, and in the film's very best scene (spoiler alert!), we follow the pair outside only to realize it's daytime. Already one of the damned, the stripper violently and shockingly incinerates in the sunlight, while Charley processes his futile efforts and Jerry knowingly laughs indoors. It's a totally arresting moment, great for its isolated impact and representative of the first half's towering superiority.
From there, we get a gaseous invasion of the Brewer home that's nearly as gripping and abrupt, and a desert highway chase-and-scuffle that's at once fierce and offbeat and deliberately nostalgic (Jerry hitches a ride on the bottom of the Brewers' fleeing SUV, and the camera zooms in on his clawed hand as it punches up through the floor). I wish I could tell you that the film maintains this surprising quasi-sophistication, that it doesn't fail to truly explore its sex-as-sin implications and the death of youth religion (Charley's faith is questioned once as a script requirement, but nothing more), and that it doesn't alarmingly devolve after a fine, post-battle horizon shot of Jerry's injured arm healing up in the foreground (hence that pivotal, aforementioned cut). No such luck. “Fright Night” shifts its attention to grating elements like Peter Vincent, a Vegas headliner and supposed vampire expert played by “Doctor Who” star David Tennant in an appalling bit of Russell Brand mimicry. Piloting a Chris Angel-style sham of a magic show, Peter is a vapid Brit-rock stereotype whose leather, liquor and “f—k you, guvnah” one-liners mask deep-seated Nosferatu trauma. Let it be known that Farrell's devilish contribution brings ample levity and amusement to “Fright Night,” and that Tennant would be crowding things even if he weren't so excruciating to watch. Let it also be known that Mintz-Plasse's McLovin-ized return as the undead “Evil Ed” negates the good work the typecast player brings to the first act.
What in the hell is all this stock diversion doing in a seemingly simple after-dark thriller? I dare say “Twilight,” everyone's favorite new punchline (you can bet it's employed here), ultimately boasts more restraint than “Fright Night.” Director Craig Gillespie, who's presumably rehearsing for his forthcoming screen rendering of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” seems to go from maverick to marionette, succumbing to the same fireball producing forces who brilliantly hired “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” scribe Marti Noxon to pen the screenplay. By the time the film is in the throes of a third bloody showdown, complete with a whole new batch of vampires and phoned-in cracks about eBay-purchased weapons, even Jerry's position as top antagonist is stripped of power and clarity. We're left with just another noisy mainstream mess, and if there's any audacity to the later segments, it's in the closing song, a twangy cover of Jay-Z's “99 Problems.”