Father Steve reviews the two film versions of the horror flick, "Fright Night." Read the review below.
My friend Carl Olson offered me a compliment in his erudite commentary (posted on the Ignatius Insight blog) regarding my recent review of the latest cinematic version of Conan the Barbarian. It seems that I have found my niche "writing good reviews of movies that aren't so good." I'll leave the masterpieces of film and the Oscar contenders to Father Barron. Give me what's left, and I’ll look for anything that might be worth my two cents.
Well here I go again.
Hollywood provides another example of its nostalgia for movies past in the remake of a sleeper hit from 1985- Fright Night (new version directed by Craig Gillespie with screenplay by Marti Noxom). This reboot is set in a post-real-estate-bust ghost town in the suburbs of Las Vegas and presents Colin Farrell as a convincingly creepy vampire next door neighbor to the hormonally charged teen, Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin). I’m not a vampire, but I am old enough to have seen the first version of this story in its theatrical release.
Fright Night 1985 is a tribute to the grade B and C horror flicks that were languishing on TV networks on sleepy Saturday afternoons or presented as filler for late night broadcasting. The best of these movies were the ones that featured vampires, which were of the variety that could still be dispatched with holy water, stakes and crucifixes. The slayers were undoubtedly heroic, and our sympathies were with the victims of vampirism, rather than with the undead (as it now seems to be the case). If there was a human attraction to a vampire, it was something to be regretted and prevented rather than an occasion for romantic adventures and destination weddings.
Roddy McDowell played a washed up and hopelessly typecast actor by the name of Peter Vincent (David Tennant fills his shoes in the new version) who had made his career with a Peter Cushing-esque slayer of the undead. Reduced to the host of a television show featuring horror movies, Vincent is approached by a frantic teenager named Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) who is absolutely convinced that his next door neighbor (Chris Sarandon) is a real, dead vampire. Prompted by the promise of a cash reward, Vincent politely presents Charlie's claims to the alleged vampire neighbor hoping that a calm conversation between two rational adults will dispel the boy’s fears. However, in the course of this meeting, Vincent inadvertently uncovers the truth that the alleged vampire really is everything that Charlie has described! Vincent then does what any sane man would do and runs as fast and as far away from Charlie's neighborhood as he can- revealing to a crestfallen Charlie that he is an actor pretending to be a vampire slayer- he has no expertise and experience with the real thing.
Luckily for Charlie, Peter Vincent is able to muster his courage and helps him defeat the vampire and save Charlie's girlfriend from the vampire's thrall.
It is the rapport between Vincent and Brewster that provides the film with its enduring charm and allows the story to transcend the superficial "coming of age" antics and sexual innuendo that the makers of the film likely deemed were necessary to attract its target audience. The story of Vincent and Brewster is about two people who, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, are compelled to regain their faith- both in religious terms and in terms of human relationships. Vincent becomes a paternal surrogate for Charlie, whose biological father has evidently left Charlie and his mother to fend for themselves, oblivious to the danger that lurks close to home. In fact, one of the most triumphant moments for Vincent is when, brandishing a cross, he demonstrates to the vampire that he has regained faith in its power- a moment that signals that the villain will most surely be defeated. I think that in its own pedestrian way this film was an imaginative commentary on the threatening state of affairs that unfolds when fathers are absent from their families and young people are forced to confront terrors that they are not equipped to handle on their own. What saves the day for Charlie is that someone like a father rises to the occasion and provides the direction and help that he needs at a moment of crisis. Given this spin, the 1985 version of Fright Night was signaling the cultural impact of divorce with the vampire as the symbol of the danger that was lurking in the shadows of broken families.
I wish that the new version had aspired to tell us this much.
If there is a cultural issue at stake in the new version of Fright Night, it is the banality of suburban ennui. The vexing issue for Charlie in this film is his identity as he integrates into new peer groups that insist that he leave old friends behind. The Peter Vincent character is remade into a Las Vegas illusionist, a kind of mash up of Siegfred, Roy and Chris Angel. Kudos goes to writer Marti Noxom (geeks will recognize the name as a frequent contributor to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series) for allowing the vampire in the film to correspond to more traditional templates. Crosses, stakes and holy water all work so that the humans in the film at least have a fighting chance. In fact, the weapon that ultimately does the vampire in is identified as "blessed by Saint Michael," whom Catholics will recognize as the angelic enemy of all things devilish, dark and dastardly.
Colin Farrell's portrayal of vampire Jerry Dandridge is the best thing in the new film. He is able to effectively communicate the understated menace of the nosferatu next door. His good looks are the ruse that he uses to attract his victims and his charisma the means by which he is able to evade detection. This is classic vampire territory and makes the character far more interesting than the romanticized charming superhero, fashion plate vampires of more recent cultural lore. Farrell's undead is a dangerous predator- and he is dangerous in the way that real human predators are, inasmuch as he seems, on the level of immediate appearance, the least likely suspect.
Unfortunately, Farrell's ability to communicate real terror through his acting skill is not trusted enough by the director who shields the actor's presence in CGI and 3-D effects. All this makes the film less, not more frightening. In this respect, Fright Night makes the mistake of most contemporary horror movies inasmuch as it confuses the effect of being startled with the effect of evoking real fear. A word to any future Hollywood directors and writers who might come across this post- being startled and being afraid are not the same thing. Startling someone is easy. Inspiring real fear is much more difficult. Choose the latter rather than the former- it makes for a much more memorable experience for your audience. Because of its failure to trust Farrell's acting chops, Fright Night breaks its promise and delivers a night at the movies that is not all that frightening.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.