Thursday, 1 September 2011

Vamping It Up: Fright Night review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: Craig Gillespie
Stars: Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette
Running Time: 106mins

Fright Night continues the summer's trend towards revived properties from the last three decades of the twentieth century, although at least has the good manners to make a concerted attempt at taking not just the name of its inspiration, but aiming for some of the spirit as well. Tom Holland's 1985 movie was an unexpected hit, perhaps riding on the coattails of Gremlins' similarly urban-based horror story. The remake doesn't have that good fortune: the original was too long ago and too cult to be expected to retain a devoted following today, Super 8 is the only movie this summer which has had the even vaguely related aim of being a revival of a particular form of 80s filmmaking, and Twilight's popularising of vampires has passed its zenith.

Regardless, even if it seems unlikely to repeat the hit status of the original, Craig Gillespie's remake deserves to find an audience of its own. It is a neatly constructed little thriller, all the more enjoyable for keeping its danger confined to a more personal level than the usual 'take over the world' spiel which tends to accompany this kind of supernatural material. Perfect? Not even close. What it does have is character, something which has been drastically lacking in a year of increasingly interchangeable comic book adaptations and blockbusters.
The concept is terrifically simple and immediately engaging. Charley, a fairly typical in-betweener type teenager with an unfathomably attractive girlfriend and geeky childhood bestie whom he finds deeply embarrassing, discovers that his neighbour is a vampire who wants to eat him and his family. Other than the interjection of a stage magician (fortuitously) turned vampire expert played by Tenth Doctor David Tennant, there isn't much more to it than that tiny synopsis would suggest.

That's a strength: as mentioned, summer movies have been far too keen to push for 'epic' status, sketching out global or intergalactic threats whilst forgetting about the importance of connecting with characters on a personal level. Fright Night is almost entirely personal: this is Charley's battle to become a man and defend the people he loves from the monster which would take it all away from him. The vampire, Jerry, shows little interest in anyone else once his sights have been set, presumably enticed by the unexpected levels of resistance he faces from the unremarkable schoolboy.

The movie doesn't take a breath before getting going either, with Charley's nerdy friend Ed (once again playing McLovin') blackmailing him into going on a vampire hunt almost immediately. Ed then joins the list of locals who have recently been disappearing - although oddly, no-one seems to either care or have noticed these absences - and Charley realises that not only was his friend not a paranoid fantasist, but his neighbour might really be a monster who is now aware that the inhabitants of the house next door know his secret. Cue the attack.

Colin Farrell plays the vampire, Jerry, and has a great deal of fun doing so. Farrell is one of those actors whose reputation has often overshadowed his work and convinced people that he's a far less accomplished actor than he is, with him having a history of being the best thing in a number of movies of varying quality. Though he is not an especially versatile actor in terms of range, like Fright Night he has a fair amount of screen presence and magnetism to compensate for such shortcomings. He hams it up as Jerry, constantly smacking his lips and giving deviously lustful stares to everyone - even poor Charley - surrounding him. He is every bit the wild animal in a dirty vest that a modern vampire should be, a hungry predator disguised in the shape of a dangerously attractive human.

Though the movie toys with vampire lore in such ways, it thankfully avoids trying to explain it or apply any scientific knowledge to it. Jerry is what the old vampires would have to become in order to fit in, finding the perfect location - a town just outside Las Vegas, where his sleazy allure and habits of sleeping during the day go unnoticed, the latter due to it being assumed that he works a night job on the strip - to start munching his way through the locals in the same way as Nosferatu did over a century ago. There is no glittering skin, machine gun crossbows or ninja priests here. The post-modern trappings (including an excellent use of a 'for sale' sign) might suggest otherwise, but this is a vampire movie which is all about the discovery that a decidedly unironic vampire exists. Jerry doesn't have time to wink at the camera when he is on one of his bloody killing sprees.

In the human roles, the three main players do the job they're expected to do, which is to be relatable figures for the audience to latch onto without taking anything away from Jerry's rightful position in the limelight. Anton Yelchin is affably dorky and out of his depth without going as far into nerdy uselessness as his friend Ed, while Toni Collette gives a spirited turn as his disbelieving mother. Imogen Poots is the typical girlfriend figure, who gets her moment of defiance but otherwise exists to be charming for ninety minutes and then require saving. She scores well above the required mark in gorgeousness and loveable-ness to pull it off.

The only character who has to compete with Jerry for grandstanding is stage magician Peter Vincent, the 'good' side of the supernatural world into which Charley and his family are thrown, surely named for the two horror legends and updated from the original movie to now be a stage magician. Tennant has fun in the role, swanning around in his long haired wig and goth outfitting, but never expands the character beyond the wounded showman he starts off as. The script doesn't give him much to work with, but the performance is too recognisably that he gave as The Doctor, only with added drinking and swearing. This will probably be all that is required to endear him to most fans, but while he gets his share of laughs, the character and his showboating struggle to have anywhere near the same impact as Farrell's Jerry, with whom he shares a slightly too convenient history.

Craig Gillespie keeps his movie consistently entertaining and compelling courtesy of that well-directed cast, as you might expect from someone whose origins come from character drama, but is not such a natural at delivering the scares and tension that the genre requires. It's a good thing that the movie mostly foregoes the usual 'jump' scares to attempt to build tension through Jerry's sustained attacks, but Gillespie's pacing is just slightly too slack and observational to deliver the Assault On Precinct 13 siege atmosphere he seems to be aiming for. There's also, as usual, the problem of 3D. Whether it was Gillespie's choice to use the format remains to be seen, but it darkens an already very dark movie and throws in all the things-coming-towards-the-screen shots (blood, roaring vampires, etc) which are irritating in 3D and distracting on a standard screen. I have never pretended to be a fan of the technology to begin with, and its obnoxious deployment here gave me no cause to reconsider.

It's an ill-fitting piece of flashiness on a movie whose primary appeal is its low-tech, small-scale scope, depending on the shock value of a vampire not aiming to devour humanity, just one family that we're encouraged to grow fond of. For everyone who enjoys vampire mythology and has been looking to see it brought into the modern day without resorting to winking revisionism, Fright Night fits the bill perfectly. It may not be scary enough or have any single defining strengths, but as a more personal take on the monster movie, it is consistently solid fun and offers something with a little more soul than the rest of this summer's blockbuster fare. [ 7 ]


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