Fright Night is a nice little genre film. I was pleasantly surprised. It’s getting pretty good reviews, but you know how you can’t believe those people. You have to go see for yourself. So I did, and sure enough, they’ve smartly rejiggered the old 1985 movie Fright Night to fit Colin Farrell as the vampire, meaning you get to watch Colin Farrell doing what Colin Farrell reportedly does anyway, swagger around smiling while he picks out who he’s going to screw, bite, and suck next. Just loaded with verisimilitude, this movie.
It’s set in one of those terrible suburban developments outside Las Vegas, laid out on a square grid in the desert, where people are always moving in and out depending on how much the casinos are hiring or firing. Nobody notices “missing persons” much, and anybody who stays up all night and sleeps all day behind blacked-out windows is just showing good sense in Vegas. Farrell’s vampire, “Jerry,” is the perfect monster for such a featureless sun-baked hellscape, just what it deserves. No Prince of Darkness grandiosity here. Mostly he fits right in as a regular American jerk who drives a pick-up truck, drinks beer, spends a lot of time on DIY home-improvement projects, and enjoys Real Housewives of New Jersey on TV. Even his name, which gets joked about a lot in the film, is hopelessly unvampiric.
Early on, the most disturbing thing about him is that, in his low-down, wife-beater-shirt-wearing way, he’s so damn attractive. The whole community’s in a tizzy over it.
(There’s a respected drama about the phenomenon of the male sex bomb exploding a community, called Picnic, by William Inge; won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. It’s not necessarily more enlightening than this film. Just mentioning it.)
Anyway, watching Jerry’s moving-in process from next door is Charley (Anton Yelchin), a teenager who is, at first, mainly uneasy about the way his mother (Toni Collette) flirts with the new guy. Plus Jerry stares in an intense eye-to-eye way that is highly open to interpretation. Is Jerry overly friendly…weirdly hostile…rampantly bisexual…? Those eye-to-eye stares, they’re tricky.
Charley has made a recent bold move from total geek to socially successful high-schooler, acquiring a hot girlfriend (the impossibly named Imogen Poots) along the way, and ruthlessly ditching his two geek friends. He’s such a tool, in fact, that you look forward to his suffering and early death with bright anticipation.
One of his two geek friends is missing, and the other, the embittered beady-eyed Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, aka “McLovin” from Superbad), is stalking Charley at school, trying to convince him that Jerry is really a vampire preying on their wasteland subdivision. But because Ed is inclined to get overly invested in fantasy role-play anyway, and because Charley is a newly cool asshole, he won’t believe Ed.
Which leaves Ed at the mercy of Jerry. It’s the movie’s first real kill, and a great seduction scene. Farrell seems to relish the sheer unlikeliness of romancing a quaking little male nerd in spectacles played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Ed has jumped into a neighborhood swimming pool in his attempt to escape Jerry and stands there shivering and clutching his silver cross as Jerry wades in toward him. He coaxes Ed into compliance with a promise of geek paradise—he’ll never have to care about fitting in anymore, not with “these people”—“these people” said with such a beautiful, soft sneer, no geek could resist!
Crosses, by the way, don’t work against vampires in this film. It’s the boldest refusal of the ol’ power of the cross in a vampire movie since George Romero’s 1978 masterpiece, Martin. Though this movie still hedges—crosses don’t work because the people wielding them don’t have any real faith, Jerry says. But still, it’s refreshing when the vampire says to Charley, “That’s a pretty big cross you got there,” and grabs onto it.
Yeah, Fright Night‘s fairly bold about the homosexual as well as heterosexual come-ons, which lends a nice thematic coherence to the film. Since it’s about insecure, virginal teenage guys not at all sure what the hell they’re doing, I mean, and just as likely to swing one way as another. There are no adult males in the film with any screen time whatsoever to provide what we laughingly refer to as “role-models” as they figure out their sexuality—Charley’s dad deserted the family—and that leaves Jerry as cock of the walk in several interesting ways beyond merely making easy prey of the women in the neighborhood. For example, he also doles out creepy sex advice to Charley while hovering around Charley’s doorway trying to get an invitation inside, testing the persuasive power of acting like the more experienced friend or even the father figure.
Charley spies on Jerry’s date with a neighborhood stripper, ostensibly because he now suspects Jerry is a vampire and wants proof, but pretty clearly also because he wants to see how it’s done, this whole alpha male thing. Charley’s own girlfriend is simultaneously trying to coax him into bed, but he’s too nervous and distracted to join her; he wants a tutorial first.
He gets more info than he bargains for when he creeps over to the vampire’s house and discovers that Jerry’s alpha-male-dom involves basic serial killer techniques like hidden windowless rooms where “dates” are held prisoner.
Hm! Not so helpful, after all, for a conventional, thin, pale, jittery teenager! Charley tries to help the stripper escape and winds up with a very pissed-off next-door-neighbor in Jerry.
Getting desperate, Charley goes to Peter Vincent (David Tennant of Dr. Who fame), a Las Vegas magician who advertises himself as a vampire-slayer and demonstrates his techniques in a spectacularly cheesy goth show on the strip. (Roddy McDowell played Peter Vincent as an aging ham actor in Fright Night 1985.) His interview with Charley after he comes offstage is very funny, as he strips off his long black wig and goatee and showy occult accouterments and reveals himself to be a sad chinless Brit complaining about how his tight leather pants give him a rash.
A kind of Russell Brand of the celebrity magic circuit, he doesn’t look like he’s any match for Jerry, even with all his ancient vampire-fighting weaponry bought on eBay. Peter Vincent’s approximation of the Vegas-degenerate lifestyle seems like another representation of bad-sexual-role-model; he isn’t even a happy degenerate.
So we head for the big showdown. I won’t tell you how it all turns out, you can guess. Nothing like defeating the forces of darkness to set one straight sexually in these kind of movies. Absolutely straight!
It’s not a perfectly crafted genre movie by any means; there are lots of messy things about it, though the flourishes that work make up for them. The pacing’s a little odd. It seems to rush forward to climactic points, as if build-up scenes had been cut out to achieve a zippier running time, but then the movie dawdles over some other scenes that don’t really require it. There must’ve been more to Toni Collette’s role as Charley’s mother than what remains in the final cut, because she has almost nothing to do and gets sidelined into a hospital-coma in a very puzzling way. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) doesn’t seem much invested in the CGI effects, which are pretty indifferent, limited to a few stretchy-demonic-vampire faces with double-rows of teeth, and staked-vampire contortions not achievable by the human body. I saw the film in 3-D, and that gets you occasional props thrown at your face but not much more.
But Gillespie is good with actors in general. He actually manages to get Anton Yelchin over the impossible character arc of rotten teen-tool to teen-purified-by-terror. (Yelchin looks several years too old to play a teen, but we’re used to that.) He really helps Farrell show unexpected range, especially at conveying menace. You wouldn’t automatically assume he had it in him. The humor part, sure—he’s always been great at that. (How many years have I been saying, Do comedy, Colin Farrell, it’ll be the saving of you?) And obviously, the sex-swagger is the basis of Farrell’s stardom, so he’s got that covered.
But he comes across so relentlessly as one of the lads, carrying the waft of the pub with him everywhere, and that’s such an undaunting, local-boyo vibe it wasn’t clear he could morph easily into horror. He does it, though, with every appearance of delight, and an intimate understanding of what it’s like to get everything you want from people without having to break a sweat, and to be intensely enraged if thwarted in the slightest. No doubt it helps to be a star when playing a vampire.
Farrell is now moving smoothly into Phase Two of contemporary stardom, by the way: becoming a Reformed Character. If you believe all the interviews he did to promote this film, he doesn’t do the epic drinking or drugging anymore. If he’s still making sex tapes, he’s gotten savvier about suppressing them. Now it’s all about Sobriety, Family, Humility, Choosing Roles Carefully, and Enjoying the Little Things. Yuh-huh. He hardly drinks human blood at all anymore, but when he does, he really appreciates the sacrifices regular people have to make.
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