Within the first 10 minutes of the new Fright Night, a remake of Tom Holland's classic 1985 vampire thriller, I was feeling genuinely uneasy. It plays along typical remake rules by keeping the names and general plot points of its progenitor, but things don't necessarily happen as you would expect. Or in the order you'd think. Instead, the filmmakers have come up with a movie that is reassuring to fans of the original, yet defiantly its own organism. Even better, the new film doesn't destroy the original for people who haven't seen it, as they won't go in knowing everything that happens.
A vampire saga updated to the era of mall hair and synth beats, the original Fright Night dressed up adolescent masculine crises — absentee fathers, sexual identity issues — in a cloak of creature-feature finery. For the new version, screenwriter Marti Noxon (of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame) digs deeply into the story's emotional strata, starting with the character of Charley (Anton Yelchin) a social-climbing teen who wants a regular life. He's got a trophy girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), a temperamental motorbike, and a frenemy named Evil Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who no longer fits into his plans to become popular. He's also got a new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell) — who, as Charley learns, is the reason so many local households keep disappearing under bloody circumstances.
As Chris Sarandon played him in the original, Jerry the vampire was a wet dream/nightmare of swaggering adult sexuality: threatening to Charley, irresistible to his girlfriend. Here, Colin Farrell has a blast in the role, charming suburban moms and seducing strippers while chowing down on the supporting cast (including a surprise cameo from an original cast member). Noxon and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) give him ample opportunities to mess with his young opponent's mind, developing an intriguingly perverse surrogate relationship between the two as Jerry zeroes in on Amy and Charley's mother (an underused but spry Toni Colette).
But if the original film was motivated by Charley's righteous fear and anger, this time around those attributes belong to Mintz-Plasse's Evil Ed — and the artist forever known as McLovin steps up and knocks it out of the park. He proves to be more sympathetic than Charley, who has sloughed off his previous commitments and connections to win the Hot Girl of His Dreams — and whose callousness (the perfect accessory for modern popularity) has put him at a remove. The shift in our sympathies from the blandly normal to the outcast shows that, far more than the original, the remake deals with issues affecting contemporary teens, and it speaks their language.
Unfortunately, part of the lingua franca is CGI, a visual cliché only exacerbated by the needless 3-D. (There are several interior shots that are done with all available light, simply drenched in unease, and the 3-D effect makes you feel like you're in one of those Italian sci-fi movies that's set underwater but filmed on dry, smoke-filled sets. That's not a knock on Javier Aguirresarobe, one of the best directors of photography in the business: He lights for the story, not for the gimmick.) Something that physically existed and was actually photographed is going to beat something engineered out of binary code every time — especially gore. There's some good splatter to be had in this new film, but take a look at the original's wolf transformation, or the grisly death of Dandridge's assistant. It's no wonder kids today are desensitized — everything is computer-generated, and nothing has any heft.
That includes Fright Night '11's spin on the original's most memorable scene — a vampire disco seduction in which every hormone in Amy's body springs to attention. (It's not the only time we miss the original Amy, Amanda Bearse, who gave a complex, realistic portrayal of the teenage libido as psychic battleground.) Granted, in the intervening 26 years, the only film to even come close in terms of disco seductions is Basic Instinct, but even that falls away in comparison to the original's eerie, carbonated blend of endorphins, Linn LM-1 synthclaps, burgeoning reincarnated sex energy and remarkable practical special effects — not to mention an electric collision between the casts of All My Children and Dog Day Afternoon. All the remake has to offer is Vegas trash and half-dubstep foolishness, a Rohypnol-fueled assault on the dancefloor rather than a pas de deux of weird orgone energy.
But that's the only serious disappointment in a project that could have gone horribly wrong. While it's hard to ask anyone to replace Roddy McDowell, the original's horror-host vampire slayer, David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor himself) does his damnedest — stuffing a tremendous amount of charisma and subtle gravitas into a pair of leather pants to battle the forces of evil. Best of all is the remake's brightest new contribution: a clever hellride of a sequence that journeys through three specific fears on its way to sudden catharsis. It does two things absolutely vital to an undead movie with a healthy sense of humor: It shows that vampires have abysmal taste in television, and it scares the shit out of the audience.