I hoped you'd forgive me for not posting a "Hammer Horror" feature this Thursday last, because I knew what was coming. This weekend, Dreamworks Pictures released "Fright Night," a remake of the 1985 "cult classic" vampire film. What you might not have known (other than the mere fact the film was being released, which, the box office figures suggest, was a distinct possibility) was that I have an intense fascination for the original film.
"Fright Night," starring William Ragsdale, Roddy McDowall and Chris Sarandon, nearly scared this little kid to death way back when. In fact, I couldn't make it past the first scene where master vampire Jerry Dandridge "vamps out" to deliver a threatening warning in teenager Charley Brewster's bedroom. A year or so later, I happened upon a comic book adaptation of the film, which led to being able to sit through the whole movie. That in turn led to following the monthly Now Comics series throughout its 22-issue run (some of which was drawn by artists like Neil Vokes and Kevin West). And the rest is history, as I've long since gained a healthy appreciation of the horror genre in general and vampire films in particular.
So, yeah, I guess you could say I was mildly distressed to learn that Hollywood was relaunching the franchise (yes, "Fright Night Part II" came out in 1988!). That "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" alum Marti Noxon wrote the flick tempered my disgust a little, true. Then they said it was being filmed in 3-D? To use the same mocking tone as the original film's Stephen Geoffreys, "You're so cool, Brewster--I can't stand it!" That went double for the film's star vampire, Colin Farrell, who hadn't really been considered "cool" since the early 2000s.
However, since the film came out this weekend, and early reviews were generally positive (a stark contrast to most remakes), I decided to suck...it up and see what the fuss was about. Since I couldn't stop running the comparisons in my head, that's what you'll get here. Beware, there are SPOILERS here...
The original "Fright Night" as written and directed by Tom Holland was based upon the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Substitute a vampire for the wolf, and there it pretty much was. When nobody in his neighborhood believed that a vampire was in their midst, the boy--Charley Brewster--sought an aging actor with a reputation in old, Hammer Horror-style horror films as "The Great Vampire Killer" to help him, only to find the actor didn't really believe. As everyone around them faced the danger, the two men eventually came to terms, faced their fears, and killed the vampire.
In 2011, "Fright Night" has morphed into something quite different and yet quietly reverent to the source material under the direction of Craig Gillespie. While Charley's still a high school student, Peter Vincent, "The Great Vampire Killer," is now a showman on the Las Vegas Strip--a performance artist who hosts a nightly show--still called "Fright Night"--in which he play-acts battles against busty vampiresses. The broad strokes are still there, but the details? We'll get into those below, character by character.
In the original 1985 film, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is a "normal kid" with a girlfriend, Amy, and best friend "Evil" Ed Thompson. Over the course of the first reel or so, our hero starts to notice unusual things about the new guys moving in next door. He swears he sees them carry a coffin into the house. He sees a sexy blonde inquire about the home, and later that night hears a woman's scream right before the lights go out. And then he plays peek-a-boo and sees his neighbor bare his fangs and pierce a woman's throat just before the man sees him. This Charley Brewster is the instigator, and the narrative starts and ends with him. Over the course of the picture, you really get a feel for the "everyman" Charley is, and he definitely grows up from start to finish.
By contrast, 2011's Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a teenager who's trying to get away from what he sees as the errors of his past, exemplified by former best friend Ed Lee (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). While Ed is a geek (he wears glasses, so he must be one, right?), Charley has decided he's too cool for him, and stopped answering his calls so he can pay attention to his new girlfriend, Amy, the "hottest girl in school"™ It's Ed who involves him in the mystery of the guy next door, until finally he disappears and Charley takes it upon himself to use his friend's research to plot out the rest of the story. While the "new" Charley shows guts, he's really only following his friend's lead this time out. And that's where he falls short.
Advantage: "Fright Night" 1985. The original Charley is still so cool.
The earlier film's master vampire, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) is smooth, suave, and sexy. He goes to great lengths to keep up the facade that he's just another guy, playing along when "Evil" Ed and Amy invite Peter Vincent to his house to prove to young Charley that he's not a vampire. He initially charms Charley's mother in order to gain entry to his house, because no vampire can enter a residence before being invited by the proper owner first. Soon, however, he meets Charley's girlfriend Amy, who reminds him of a lost love, and his pursuit of her drives the action. Since Jerry cannot go out in daylight, he allows Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark), a not-quite-human companion, to do his dirty work (and be the basis of gay jokes involving Jerry). Make no mistake, though: this Jerry Dandridge is a wolf in sheep's clothing.
While Colin Farrell's Jerry Dandridge cannot transform into a bat or wolf like his predecessor, that doesn't mean he's any less of a meanie. Quite the opposite, in fact: he blatantly attacks others, building a cult of vampires buried under his house. The town is his prey, and he makes no illusions of "blending in." To get around that nasty little rule of having to be invited into a home first, he decides to literally smoke out Charley, his mother, and Amy by setting the house on fire! He's a shark, a "bad boy" who gets the ladies because he can. (And then he keeps them locked up, feeding on them for days.) The most humor is made from his name, because well, it's the least threatening thing about him.
Advantage: Fright Night 1985. Close this time, but no cigar.
Amy Peterson (Amanda Bearse) is a typical eighties ingenue in the 1985 "Fright Night," acting chiefly as a prop. She's Charley's girlfriend, that's true, and we get that as a teenager, she's resistant to really wanting to "do it" with him. Her story really begins with Dandridge, who sees her as the reincarnation of a woman he knew centuries ago. In a lengthy sequence set in a nightclub, Dandridge romances her over the course of not one but two dances (the better to showcase the kick-ass soundtrack!) and absconds with her back to his house. Next thing you know, he dresses her in this teensy little dress, they make love, he bites her, and she transforms into a totally unrecognizable hottie who then gets a mouthful of ugly fangs. Makeup!!!
By contrast, 2011's updated Amy Peterson (Imogen Poots, a dead ringer for a young Kate Winslet) is the hottest thing in school and only a potential victim for Dandridge in the same way that everyone else in the town is. Okay, maybe she jumps to the front of the line because she's Charley's girlfriend. Still, this new Amy gets major bonus points for being an assertive female character. She gets along with Charley's mother, and she likes Charley precisely because he's geeky and not a jock. She also knows how to shoot a gun and she totally tosses the holy water. Do I really need to say more?
Advantage: Fright Night 2011. Sorry, Amanda!
"Evil" Ed Thompson (Stephen Geoffreys) knows there's no such thing as vampires, and he'd call you a fruitcake if you disagreed. Charley's best friend keeps him grounded in reality, or he tries to, even arranging the meeting with Peter Vincent and Dandridge to throw Charley off the scent. Perhaps it's that bit of initiative that makes the master vampire believe he's doing the right thing in offering his curse to young Ed. Geoffreys is delightfully over-the-top in his role, relishing the two chances he has to vamp it up onscreen. We may not have seen a sequel including Ed, but we did thrill to his adventures in the comic books for a while...
On the other hand, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as "Evil" Ed Lee (why'd they change his name from 'Thompson'?) gets killed early in the 2011 film, only to return in one scene in the middle of the film where Charley hands him his head. He...hey, wait, this is "McLovin" we're talking about, right? And "Crimson Mist" from Kick-Ass? Yeah, that's what I thought. 'Nuff said.
Advantage: Fright Night 1985. Thompson kicks the crud out of Lee.
Roddy McDowall perfectly plays the part of Peter Vincent, an aging horror movie actor. His name is a pseudonym created prior to his fame in "Hammer Horror" style movies in which he frequently played a vampire killer. In his later years he took a job as host of "Fright Night," a late night cable show where he introduced movies to his audience, most of which he starred in. He doesn't believe in vampires, but learns of their reality firsthand when he meets Dandridge. Thanks to Charley, the cowardly Mr. Vincent finds his own inner strength in battles against "Evil" Ed and Dandridge himself. During the film he quits the show because he has a "starring role in a major film," but reneges and is again the show's host at the end.
Updated for the 21st Century, David Tennant plays a Peter Vincent who has found fame as host of "Fright Night," a Las Vegas show wherein he acts the part of a vampire killer. In reality, his parents were killed by a vampire (bonus points if you can guess who); however, while he collects occult artifacts, his stage persona is only a facade and he remains deathly afraid of vampires. A bit of a bumbler, nonetheless he has enormous presence thanks to Tennant's inspired performance, evocative in some ways of McDowall. (And hey! The two are both Brits!) Charley ends up engaging him in the fight against Dandridge, and the duo make a nifty end run.
Advantage: Fright Night 1985. Sorry, David, but in spite of your charisma, you lose points for running into the panic room while Charley and Amy fought Dandridge and "Evil" Ed!
Overall, "Fright Night" 1985 is still the winnah and champeen by a 4-1 vote, but that isn't to say the new film isn't without its charms. Where the movies start in similar places, and even end there, the journeys are quite different. The earlier film is methodical in its approach, taking delight in several set pieces where director Holland plays up Dandridge wanting to keep his secrets. Meanwhile Gillespie's vampire is there to trash the neighborhood, and to hell with his secret once Charley tries unsuccessfully to escape with one of his victims. The former is a more traditional horror movie with some comedic aspects, while the latter frequently flirts with an all-out action movie aesthetic.
The new film isn't without its nods to the original. The new Jerry still likes to eat an apple a day to prevent tooth decay, and if you look closely, you should recognize Jerry's victim out on the highway.
The 3-D? Skip it--there's nothing to see here. Gillespie throws a few cutesy tricks at the camera--the aforementioned female victim's attempted escape is well-done--but it really isn't anything that overly enhances the experience.
If you enjoyed the original "Fright Night," you'll probably be like me and enjoy the new film, but find it's not a radical improvement over the first. If you've never seen the first film, you're in for an above-average comedy-horror event. (But then, go buy or rent the original film on the way home. Thank me later.)