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Fright Night (2011)

Back in October 2005, Stephanie Meyer’s opus, “Twilight,” debuted and birthed its namesake franchise. The book’s uber-romanticized depiction of vampires quickly captured the hearts and allowance money of tween girls everywhere. This event not only led to the explosion of the Twilight franchise (which culminates next year with the second part of Breaking Dawn), but it also led to a resurgence of vampires as a whole.

Now that vampires who glitter in sunlight had become popular, storytellers around the world had been given the leverage to experiment with vampirism in fiction and see what else might be done with it. Thus, we got a tale of two bloodthirsty pre-adolescents with Let the Right One In (and its American remake), a moral and psychological deconstruction of vampires provided by the Korean Thirst, and vampires as an environmental allegory in Daybreakers. At the same time, there have been many works of fiction in recent years who prefer to keep it old-school, occasionally going so far as to state outright in so many words that Twilight is full of shit. The excellent “The Strain” trilogy of novels, written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, is one example.

The point being that like every pop culture phenomenon, Twilight created an equal and opposite reaction. So here’s the 2011 remake of Fright Night (I claim no familiarity with the original), which ends up being a little bit of both.

Our hero for tonight is Charley Brewster, played by Anton Yelchin. He’s a high-schooler with a newly-single mom, and a vampire just moved in next door. Nobody believes that the new neighbor is a bloodsucking freak, so the protagonist takes matters into his own hands. It’s a very simple premise, but the movie does a lot to build upon it. Foremost among these efforts was the choice to make the act of fighting vampires a metaphor for change.

Charley spent his entire childhood as a fantasy geek. It’s a stigma that’s followed him and his friends clear up to their high school years. Then suddenly, for reasons no one can seem to fathom, a gorgeous girl named Amy (Imogen Poots, who’d better take her husband’s surname when she marries) condescends to start going out with Charley. Suddenly, our young protagonist has been elevated out of the geek crowd and into the popular clique. The contrast between the two sides is made clear by “Evil” Ed (Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse), Charley’s now-former best friend who seemingly refuses to grow past age eight.

The protagonist is trying to grow into a more mature and respectable adult. Compare that to Jerry, our resident vampire played by Colin Farrell. Here’s a guy who relishes his eternal youth and beauty. He doesn’t have the need or desire — hell, he may not even have the capability — to mature past where he is right now. The metaphor isn’t applied to every character who becomes undead, and the metaphor is a lot more implicit than I’m making it out to be, but the subtext is there and it adds a subtle layer of emotional depth to the proceedings.

Speaking of depth, the movie shows self-awareness in several very entertaining ways. Take the horror aspect, for example. Most moviegoers — if only on a subconscious level — are familiar with how horror is treated in movies. We know what the score will do (either go silent or put on some low strings), we know when jump scares will usually come (either opening a closet or immediately after discovering the closet is empty, for example), and the movie uses these expectations against the audience in some very unexpected ways. My favorite example of this is during the scene when Charley breaks into Jerry’s house. We expect Jerry to do one thing, and the movie plays it as if he’s going to act accordingly, but then he does something else entirely.

Another favorite example is during the last scene of the movie. To put this as spoiler-free as I can, it’s become industry standard nowadays for horror films to go out on one last scare. Horror films always end with some terrifying thing to set up a sequel. You know it, I know it, and the movie knows it. What ultimately happens (no, I’m not telling what it is) is presented in such a way that it turns out to be one of the most bold, brilliant, satisfying endings I’ve ever seen in a horror film.

Additionally, the movie calls attention to itself in ways that let us know this film is not taking itself seriously. Within the first five minutes, for example, Charley and his mom are seen handling moving signs (their house is being put up for sale, which is another sign of this movie’s “change” theme, but I digress). In this case, the moving signs are basically wooden poles with a sharp point at the end. The movie doesn’t shove this point in our faces, nor does it have to. We know this is a vampire movie, we know what those wooden stakes are used for, and the movie is smart enough that it trusts us to see those stakes and remember them without making a big fuss over the matter.

Another one of my favorite examples comes at the third act turning point, in which our protagonist receives a device that miraculously does exactly what the plot needs. Why? Because it’s a vampire weapon and it was blessed by St. Michael, that’s why!

Then there’s the matter of vampirism itself. The “rules” of being a vampire are very traditional, so the movie comes up with various modern ways to express them. Vampires don’t have a reflection, for example, so they don’t appear in digital recordings either. Vampires can’t enter an occupied home without an invitation, so what if the vampire just blows up the house?

Also, the matter of romanticism in vampires is addressed in many ways. For one thing, the Twilight franchise is quite emphatically dissed. Anne Rice gets a mention, but only in passing (at least I think it was Anne Rice. Couldn’t quite make out the book cover). By and large, the romantic aspect of vampirism is utilized as it should be done: Entrapment. Jerry uses his charms and sexual overtures purely as a means to attract prey. Even worse — in true serial killer fashion — he uses those charms to keep from arousing any suspicion. But what’s really brilliant is in how the old-fashioned vampiric allure is fused with modern sensibility to create something ingeniously new: Vampire feeding as camouflage.

In case I haven’t said it already, this movie is set in sweet home Las Vegas. This is a place notorious for fun times and loose morals, so who’s going to pay any mind to some handsome guy necking a beautiful young woman? In fact, putting the movie in Vegas was a brilliant touch, because it’s depicted as the perfect place for a vampire. The city is always more active at night, so who’s going to notice a guy who sleeps during the day? The city is also surrounded by desert, so there’s the necessary excuse for why cell phone service doesn’t work. However, I think that the primary reason for setting the movie in Vegas was because of Peter Vincent.

I understand that in the original movie, Peter Vincent was a washed-up horror actor who had become the host of his own horror anthology TV show. Since horror anthology shows don’t really exist anymore, the filmmakers turned Peter into the closest thing they could think of: A magician with his own macabre stage show in a Vegas casino. Yet for some reason, that wasn’t enough for the filmmakers. They also wanted him to be a world-renowned expert on the occult, with a huge collection of monster-slaying memorabilia. If the character had been one of these things or the other, that would have been great. Hell, he could’ve been a world-famous magician who bought all that monster stuff just because he had the money to spend on it. Or maybe he could’ve had an “occult consultant” who advises for his show. Instead, Peter Vincent has an extremely convoluted characterization that gets far too much exposition for too little clarity.

And as long as I’m commenting on the negatives, I may as well talk about the visuals. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the visuals in this movie are solid. There’s a car chase scene in this movie that I thought was particularly great, because it was presented entirely from inside the protagonists’ car. I haven’t seen that done since Children of Men. However, the product placement can get pretty bad at times, and the CGI blood splatter looked outright terrible. Also, I saw this movie in 3D since that’s how the timing worked out, and I came to wish that I hadn’t. The 3D in this movie is limited pretty much entirely to hokey and gimmicky shots (blood spatters, hands reaching out, weapons flying toward the audience, etc.). The 3D effects weren’t nearly effective enough to enrich the movie as a whole, yet they were so ostentatious that I’m sure they would look just as terrible in 2D.

Having said that, the effects in this movie are otherwise surprisingly good. Vampires get killed off in some pretty spectacular ways, and there’s one shot of a vampire regeneration that floored me. Additionally, there are multiple times when the creature makeup can get pretty darn horrifying (in the good way, that is). But of course, our lead vampire isn’t scary because of all the effects.

Colin Farrell had a considerable dry spell through a huge part of his career, and God knows it wasn’t entirely undeserved. But what really amazes me is that in his most recent roles, Farrell hasn’t been trying to deny his past infamy or shy away from it. On the contrary, based on his slightly douchey (but essentially likeable) role in Crazy Heart and his recent part as a raging cokehead in Horrible Bosses, it seems like Farrell is actually building on his ill reputation of old and using it to enrich his roles. It’s a brilliant tactic that Farrell employs yet again in this movie.

This time, Farrell parlays his experience as a womanizer into a sleazy and swaggering sexual predator. But what really makes this character work is the confidence that Farrell brings to Jerry. Here’s a guy who’s cocky and full of himself because he really is every bit as powerful as he thinks he is. Furthermore, his opponents know far less about him than he does about them, and Jerry knows it. Basically put, this guy is an asshole in such a way that he’s legitimately dangerous, and also in a way that an audience loves to hate. What more could anyone ask of a villain?

Then there’s the matter of the love interest. I found myself extremely bored with Amy at first, because she started out as the very picture of a superficial bimbo. She had no personality to speak of, no goals other than going out with Charley, and no apparent motivation for doing so. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the character improves drastically. When push comes to shove, she admirably steps up to the plate and lays down some serious vampire hurt. She also provides her reasons for going out with Charley, in a scene that makes the character endearing without being saccharine while enriching the movie as a whole on an emotional level. This development from a cardboard cutout to a fleshed-out character is really quite remarkable, and a lot of that is due to a surprisingly good performance from relative newcomer Imogen Poots (really, as beautiful as she is, how can I take her seriously with a name like that?).

Still, the real surprise performance in this film came from Christopher Mintz-Plasse. I’ve seen him as McLovin, a total geek who wanted to be taken seriously despite the fact that he was out of his depth and didn’t know it. I’ve seen him as Chris D’Amico, a dork who became a superhero poser and later, a teenage supervillain. And now he’s playing Evil Ed, a case of arrested development who’s grown bitter and resentful because his friends have left him and the whole world treats him with disgust for being a geek. I wasn’t expecting such a solid performance from him, but with hindsight, it seems like his career has been progressing toward a role like this all along.

As for Anton Yelchin, I can only say that he has “everyman” down pat. His performance here was serviceable, enough to carry the movie and convey his character’s development, but nothing special beyond that. Likewise, Toni Collette turns in a performance that’s merely satisfactory, though her character is hindered by a sharp lack of anything to do and a forced absence through a huge part of the movie.

Last but not least is David Tennant in the role of Peter Vincent. This casting was a blessing, given how mishandled Peter’s characterization was, because Tennant’s sheer force of will is the only thing holding this character together until the third act. He does a wonderful Russell Brand impression through most of the movie, except that Tennant brings a level of heart and dormant intelligence that Brand just doesn’t have. Tennant may not always have much to work with, but he’s amazing to watch when the script gives him some breathing room.

Overall, Fright Night was very enjoyable. It’s a movie with that rare and perfect mix of comedy, horror and action. The performances are solid and the visuals are very good, though both have their share of hiccups. Go check this one out, but don’t go for the polarized lenses unless you like your 3D good and schlocky.

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