It’s pretty perfect that the closing credits to Fright Night are set to Hugo’s version of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” Hugo, a half-Thai banjo-playing singer-songwriter from England, is admittedly as far as you can get from Jay-Z’s Brooklyn-spawned hip-hop, but he brings something to the song that wasn’t there the first time. It’s not about being better: It’s about doing something good with the tune, making a new recipe from the same basic ingredients. I say it’s perfectly used because Fright Night is a remake of a 1985 film, and the best remakes are like cover songs. They’re not out to displace the original, or even make you forget about it. They’re out to tell a very similar story and find the same kind of resonance around a theme achieved by the first film. In that way, Fright Night’s a success. Most of the characters are the same, but the beats have moved around, and the story’s received enough tweaking that it feels like its own entity. But the film also scores on its own merits. Director Craig Gillespie — whose erratic c.v. includes Lars and the Real Girl and Mr. Woodcock — does a fine job with some strong action and suspense sequences, and the script from Marti Noxon, though slow to start, eventually finds its footing. I don’t want to oversell the finished product, nor simply say it’s a good film simply for being confidently different from its predecessor. But it does have its moments, and it finds a decent balance between mayhem and humor without overstaying its welcome. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, even if it’s less than inspired.
What’s curious, though, is how long the film takes to actually get going. It’s not that the action doesn’t start right away; if anything, the viewer’s dropped right in the middle of the story and gently tugged along. Yet most of the first act feels like it never got a second pass. Charley (Anton Yelchin) is a high school senior in Las Vegas, and when we meet him he feels like a very typical movie version of a high school senior: hip without trying to be, effortlessly at ease with a few basic traits that could be called a personality, and a hell of a lot cooler than anyone you actually knew in 12th grade. Yet the next few beats have his mother, Jane (Toni Collette), and his girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), chiding him for being nervous all the time. At one point he’s even chided for “doing” his “nervous thing.” Now, it’s bad enough that the script decided to tell and not show, since it’s one one-thousandth as effective to call a character nervous as it is to show him actually being nervous. But on top of that, it’s inaccurate, as nothing Charley does remotely betrays him as neurotic or awkward, nor will anything he does throughout the movie. (Granted, he gets a little trembly around vampires, but that’s hardly unique.) Gillespie, Noxon, and everyone else didn’t even bother to get the broad details of their protagonist right, nevermind the cheap way they tried to set him up with nonexistent emotional crises. This is not a good sign, and it’s representative of the kind of slapdash, made-for-TV vibe that haunts much of the film. Yes, it has some good scenes and sequences, but they lose some of their effectiveness when you realize that the filmmakers care even less than you do about some of the characters on screen.
The story gets going when “Evil” Ed Thompson (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Charley’s former friend who remained a geek while Charley moved on, tells Charley that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a vampire. Ed’s got a whole theory about why kids have been disappearing from school, and he’s mapped out the locations of strange disappearances and tracked the locus to Charley’s neighbor. We aren’t given a whole lot of time for that to percolate: Ed makes the claim, Charley doesn’t believe him, Ed goes missing, and we’re off. It’s eventually up to Charley to investigate and stop Jerry, largely because the film settles into well-worn rhythms and it’s tough to fight. Granted, Noxon and Gillespie miss some great opportunities to actually play with the story and ramp up the tension by exploring some interesting plot possibilities — what if Jerry seems weird but turns out to have a reasonable excuse for his behavior? What if Charley just goes crazy from paranoia? Etc. — but when they get to the meat of the story, they still manage to have fun.
Charley learns soon enough that Jerry’s an actual vampire because Jerry, apparently not one for patience or mind games, comes out and tells him. The film becomes a series of chase sequences involving Charley, Amy, and Jane trying to survive Jerry’s onslaughts. For help, Charley eventually turns to Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a magician at a local casino who models himself after Criss Angel and whose act revolves around vampire and the occult. Just typing these sentences is robbing the film’s few solid moments of their energy, so I’m reluctant to even paint a basic picture of the plot, but you can probably see where this is going even if you haven’t seen the 1985 version.
Yet scattered throughout a pretty predictable film are some undeniably enjoyable moments. Charley is dumb enough to try sneaking into Jerry’s house early on, only to have Jerry return much sooner than expected, leading to a tense escape sequence that’s a lot longer and quieter than you’d expect from modern horror. And once she gets past the surprisingly ungainly opening act, Noxon’s able to open up a bit and work in some good one-liners while also keeping her characters bouncing from one fight to the next. There’s even a nod to Noxon’s work as a writer/producer on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” when Peter refers to Charley’s dwindling coterie as his “little Scooby gang,” though the joke also makes you realize that Noxon’s years working on a highly entertaining horror-comedy TV series seem to have deserted her for much of this movie. Yet the escalating fights and the final conflict, though oddly light on effective scares, are still fun to watch, like a pleasant middle-of-the-road action movie that asks nothing more than your attention and the brief suspension of disbelief.
Farrell’s the best part of the whole thing: He stalks the frame, takes himself just seriously enough to be creepy, and is the perfect blend of psychotic and charming. His physicality and energy are perfect for the role. Everyone else hits their marks and does what’s asked of them, no more or less, though Tennant has fun in a limited capacity. (He seems to have been encouraged to play the role as a Russell Brand imitation for the first 20 minutes on screen.) I admit I found it hard to focus on the performances sometimes because the screening I attended was in 3-D. The film was made this way on purpose, too, not converted after the fact, which makes its ugliness and muddy visuals even more irritating. Gillespie worked with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others, The Road, a couple of Twilight movies) and seems to have wanted a palette of gray-green and dirty black, yet the emotional composition is absolutely ruined by the horrible 3-D. Was no one paying attention? Did Gillespie and crew not remember that 3-D means losing major light in the projection process, or did they just not care? The device does nothing at all to the film except make it hard to watch. Scenes at dusk that try to take advantage of desert sunsets feel digital and tacky, like cheap memorabilia that uses lenticular printing that changes as you turn it in your hand. At best, it makes the film feel tired; at worst, it wrecks it entirely.
Fright Night isn’t out to reinvent horror — it’s barely out to reinvent its source material — yet despite its flaws and casual approach, it’s hard to hate. It occupies a rare middle ground, too good to dismiss out of hand but too weak to really celebrate. It achieves its modest goals and then fades out, as polished and forgettable as a pop song. Even covers have a shelf life.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.