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Which Fright Has More Bite?

When I first saw the original Fright Night in 1985, I didn’t particularly like it. In the years since its theatrical release, I’ve never wanted to see it again. However, watching it recently in anticipation of the remake, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Except for the muddy, synthesized 80’s score, it holds up remarkably well, rarely showing its age. My newfound affection for this movie may have clouded my opinion of the remake. I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much. I can’t pinpoint any significant flaws with it, but there’s an overall charm or innocence that is missing; I didn’t really have “fun” watching it.

Fright Night (2011) is a fairly faithful adaptation of Fright Night (1985). The same major plot points exist; however, the remake plays around a little within each one. Both movies have three basic acts: 1) teenager discovers new next door neighbor is a vampire and is physically threatened by him, 2) teenager tries to convince friends to believe him and solicit help from supposed professional and 3) teenager faces vampire in climactic battle of good vs. evil (“Fright Night… for reeeal”). My guess is that whether or not you like the remake depends on how you feel about the liberties it takes within each act.

For example, in the opening moments of Fright Night (1985), Charlie Brewster’s suspicions are raised when he sees a coffin being moved into the house next door. The next night, he watches a beautiful woman enter, only to exit later inside a body bag. In the background, there are vague TV reports about women’s bodies popping up all over town. In Fright Night (2011), it is not Charlie whose suspicions are raised. It is his childhood friend “Evil” Ed who has noticed a strange pattern of missing students and families. Instead of Charlie trying to convince Ed that his neighbor is a vampire, it is Ed trying to convince Charlie. That’s a fundamental shift in not only the dynamics of the characters, but also in the structure of the story and (avoiding spoilers) how some of the details play out.

The second, perhaps more significant example of liberties taken, is the character of Peter Vincent. In 1985, he’s a likable, down-on-his-luck TV horror host played by Roddy McDowell; in 2011, he’s a despicable, drunken Las Vegas illusionist played by David Tennant (Doctor Who). Age differences aside, the characters and their stories are very different. McDowell adds a sweet element to the story; there’s a sympathetic feeling for him and his reluctant attempt to find redemption. Tennant doesn’t seem to be looking for redemption. In place of the theme of lost faith, the remake gives us a tangible plot point that serves as motivation for helping Charlie destroy the vampire.

I suppose the change in character can be credited to the times. I mean, are TV horror hosts still relevant? It makes sense to update Peter Vincent’s profession. But I’m not sure it makes sense to change his personality. And the remake misses an opportunity that the original brilliantly utilized to have Vincent comment on a post-Michael Myers/Jason/Freddy horror genre, “People don’t want to watch vampires anymore; they want demented killers running around in ski masks.”

The setting of the original Fright Night is a non-descript town. The setting of the remake is a postage stamp-sized suburb of Las Vegas. We know this because of the aerial view: it is literally a square of cookie cutter homes surrounded by nothing but desert. (This ‘burb seems to have no police or fire department, yet has regular trash pickup.) The update in setting is meant to provide anonymity for the vampire: because so many people work at night, no one will notice the blacked-out windows on his house. But instead of taking advantage of the location’s transients for his victims, the vampire defies logic by targeting local high school students and their families.

Perhaps this is just part of the arrogance of Jerry, the vampire. In both versions, he neither hides in the shadows nor fears being caught. If he feels threatened, he just kills the threat. Jerry in 1985 is played by Chris Sarandon; Jerry in 2011 is played by Colin Ferrell. There isn’t a noticeable difference between the two. Both are cocky ladies’ men who could probably seduce a woman even without his vampire stare. In a nod to the original, Sarandon has a cameo in the remake’s most exciting scene, a frantic and violent highway chase. (There were none of those in the original.)

What I like about both movies is that they feature unashamed, “old school” vampires. There is no attempt to cleverly or ironically redefine vampire lore. Instead of lines like, “Oh, that’s only in the movies; vampires can really walk in the daylight”, we get an honest (and funny) acknowledgment from Peter Vincent in the 1985 version that “so far, everything has been just like the movies”. And these vampires are true monsters, ranging from simple fang-bearers to more complex beasts with mouths exploding with teeth. They can be scary as well as sexy.

Overall, the acting in Fright Night (2011) is better than the original. Ferrell, Tennant, Anton Yelchin (Charlie), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Ed) and Imogen Poots (Amy) are great. And beefing up the character of Charlie’s mother is proven a genius idea by casting Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, The Sixth Sense). At times, the acting in Fright Night (1985) borders on excruciating. William Ragsdale (Charlie) and Amanda Bearse (Amy) are better actors when their mouths remain shut. Even McDowell seems a little lifeless, reacting more than acting. But it’s the 1985 performance of Stephen Geoffries that you’ll either love or hate: hilarious sidekick or annoying best friend? (I vote PAINFULLY-annoying best friend.)

The strengths of Fright Night (1985) definitely lie in the story and direction, both my Tom Holland (Child’s Play). The atmosphere and tone are perfect, the camera movements exciting, and the scares genuine. These are not the strengths of the remake. Nothing much is added creatively by director Craig Gillespie (Lars & the Real Girl) and besides the aforementioned changes, the screenplay by Buffy and Angel veteran Marti Noxon is surprisingly uninventive considering her pedigree.

Both are gory and “effects-friendly”, whether the practical effects of 1985 or the CGI of 2011. Oddly, the 2011 version has no bats or wolves, while the 1985 version has two spectacular transformation sequences. But the 2011 version does have more vampires. And, of course, in 2011 we get 3D. A couple of times, its use is effective, but most of the time the blood and guts jumping out at us are fuzzy and indistinct. (Final Destination 5 used 3D to more consistent advantage.)

All in all, I’m on the fence about recommending Fright Night (2011). If you’ve never seen the original, please watch this one first; you might enjoy it more than I did. THEN, you can watch the original to compare. However, if you have to choose between them, watch Fright Night (1985); it’s much better than you may have heard… or may remember.

REMAKE REWIND: Fright Night
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Fright Night (1985)
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