Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review: "Fright Night" is a messy horror flick, but at least it's got David Tennant

Film Rating: C+

Fright Night is not a great movie.  Far from it.  But I’d like to start by recommending it as wholeheartedly as I possibly can – to a specific group of people, that is. 

If you’re a fan of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, books or movies, please stop reading this, drive to the nearest cinema, and watch Fright Night.  As a Twilight aficionado, chances are you have no bloody idea what an actual vampire is.  For all its faults, Fright Night does feature real vampires.  They’re 100% evil, thirst only for human blood, burn in the sunlight rather than sparkle, lack reflection, are susceptible to Holy Water, crosses, stakes, and the like, and don’t brood passionately with teenage girls.  In Fright Night, vampires are objects of horror, not lust, a treat teenagers reared on Twilight are certainly unfamiliar with.  I would normally recommend classics like the Bela Lugosi Dracula, modern reinterpretations such as Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles or Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or even the original Fright Night over this remake, but chances are that if you read Twilight, you won’t want to approach anything more than two or three years out of vogue.  So go see Fright Night: it’s all shiny and new and it’s even in 3D!  Watch it, revel in all the vampiric accuracy, and then, having learned what real vampires are like, go home and cheerfully shred your Twilight novels. 

Those of us more familiar with vampires and horror may want to think twice about checking out the new Fright Night.  It’s a decently fearsome experience, certainly a few rungs above most modern horror movies, but given the talent on-screen, and the film’s apparent willingness to go bat-shit crazy when called upon, the final product should be a lot more memorable.  More after the jump...

The remake shares the basic premise of the 1985 original film: a vampire named Jerry moves into the neighborhood and begins feasting on the local flesh; the only person aware of this is a teenager named Charley.  There is, however, a major difference right off the bat.  The original, as I understand it, focused on Charley investigating his new neighbor and gradually discovering Jerry’s vampiric ways, while his mother, girlfriend, and others doubt his discoveries.  The remake has none of this: when the film opens, Charley’s friend Ed has already done all the investigation, and simply tells Charley that Jerry is a vampire.  Once Charley sees this with his own eyes, we’re off to the races; there’s very little investigating or building suspense.

In theory, this doesn’t sound like a horrible narrative tactic – everyone in the theatre knows Jerry is a vampire, so why beat around the bush? – but in practice, the first act is a total train wreck.  If Charley isn’t the one investigating or discovering, then his importance in the early parts of the story is moot.  His friend Ed sort of drives the first act, and let me tell you…as played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Ed may go down in history as one of the supremely annoying screen characters.  I don’t think Plasse is an inherently unlikable performer – people still talk fondly of his turn as “McLovin’” in Superbad – but he is almost unbearably obnoxious here, indulging all of his worst, least amusing tendencies.  I understand that annoying characters can, on occasion, be funny, and I’m guessing that’s what Plasse and writer Marti Noxon were going for, but since (spoiler warning) Ed’s death at Jerry’s hands fuels Charley’s motivation for the rest of the movie, we should have some reason to like this character.  Instead, I felt like cheering when the bastard got his throat ripped out. 

Once we’re into the second act, and Ed is finally dead, things wildly improve.  A sequence wherein Charley breaks into Jerry’s house to rescue one of the vampire’s victims is effectively unnerving, and the action gets pleasingly insane once Jerry starts his full assault on Charley.  I don’t know if the film as a whole ever truly clicks, but Craig Gillespie’s direction is assured and inventive, and nearly every action or stealth sequence is staged expertly.  The climax, in particular, is a hell of a lot of fun.

But a director can only do so much; Gillespie may understand how to scare or thrill the audience, but the script, on the other hand, is a total mess that seems to misunderstand the fundamentals of horror, throwing out certain revelations too quick and letting others slide by without building tension.  Characterization, meanwhile, is either shoddy or downright weak.  On the shoddy side, we have vampire expert Peter Vincent, whose arc repeats itself in loops three or four times before finally sticking.  On the weak side, there’s protagonist Charley and his girlfriend Amy, both written as generically as possible; Anton Yelchin (who has proved on several occasions that he can do a lot more than asked of him here) and Imogen Poots (interesting name) both bring their A-Game, but they have very little to work with, and struggle to make anything out of their roles.  Non-existent is probably the best word to describe the characterization of Charley’s mother, who has absolutely nothing important to do from start to finish (despite being played by the talented Toni Collette). 

Gillespie and the actors cover for some of script’s flaws, but with such messy writing, Fright Night was doomed before it ever went in front of the camera.  I was shocked, when the credits rolled, to learn that Marti Noxon, of all people, wrote the screenplay.  Noxon was Joss Whedon’s number two on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and given what she did on that show, I think it’s safe to say that she knows how to build tension, organically inject humor into the proceedings, and keep the characters interesting.  What happened to her?

Oh well.  I didn’t see Fright Night actively seeking out competent writing (though I’d argue that should really be expected of any movie): I bought a ticket because the film features Colin Farrell as Jerry and David Tennant as vampire expert Peter Vincent, and there, Fright Night goes one for two.  Farrell can be a tremendous dramatic actor, but when he really lets himself go wild – see his insane performance as Bullseye in Daredevil for reference – he can also be remarkably fun.  Casting him as Jerry seemed like a stroke of genius, but everybody involved in bringing this character to life dropped the ball big time.  Farrell seems unsure of himself, confused about which direction to take the character; the way Gillespie’s direction seems to change its mind about Jerry every five minutes (is he sinister or comedic?) doesn’t do Farrell any favors, and the less I say about his dialogue, the better.  Jerry is creepy on occasion, but he’s never really funny or engaging or any of the things we expect a compelling villain to be, and Farrell doesn’t seem to be having a good time with the role.

David Tennant’s contributions are more in line with my expectations.  Because of Tennant’s iconic performance as the Doctor on the British sci-fi favorite Doctor Who, I’ll watch him in just about anything, and Tennant’s fans know that campy horror is right up his alley.  Truth be told, his performance is all over the map – he starts by doing an amusing Russell Brand impression, modulates into a drunken, misanthropic version of the Doctor, and finishes by doing a full-on reprisal of his iconic role – but he’s also wildly entertaining, and I had a big goofy grin on my face whenever he was on screen. 

This version of vampire expert Peter Vincent (reimagined as a Las Vegas occult magician, rather than a TV horror host) is by far the most interesting character in the movie, and not just because of Tennant’s manic acting; Vincent has a secret history with Jerry the vampire that gives him a hell of a lot more reason to want the blood-sucking bastard than Charley.  I’m a little disappointed that the filmmakers didn’t just do away with the premise of the original film altogether and tell a far more creative story about on an unstable British magician taking his vengeance on a vampire.  I say British, because in this hypothetical film, Vincent emigrating from England to hunt down Jerry in America would at least explain why Tennant uses a British accent in Las Vegas while the actor is natively Scottish. 

But I digress.  Originality is not the nature of Hollywood these days – that would be money, and if remaking a camp classic doesn’t seem greedy enough, the studio has been kind enough to charge us an extra five bucks for 3D.  Suffice it to say, I want that extra money back; Fright Night was clearly conceived, composed for, and shot in two-dimensions, and the addition of a third is ridiculously distracting.  Apart from some obnoxious pop-out effects added in post-production, all the depth looks very artificial, more akin to a diorama (layers of flat surfaces) than Avatar.  Keeping one eye closed makes the film look far more natural.  The dimming effect also rears its ugly head; in 3D, the dark and shadowy sequences (of which there are plenty) are more or less inscrutable. 

But when I could make out what was going on, I did have some fun with Fright Night, especially once the action moves to Las Vegas and Tennant gets involved.  Massive kudos go out to director Gillespie and the entire ensemble for putting in some extra effort, because the script does none of them any favors.  And it is honestly refreshing, in the year 2011, to see a movie that builds horror by following the long-established rules of vampiric lore, rather than rewriting those rules to create something baffling.  At the very least, it’s a hell of a lot better than Twilight (and yes, DreamWorks is free to take that last sentence as a pull-quote for DVD box). 

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