Friday, August 19, 2011

Fright Night: Bloody good fun

Fright Night (2011) • View trailer for Fright Night
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for gore, violence, profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.19.11

1985's Fright Night was a macabre delight: a smart blend of nerd humor and unexpectedly gory shocks, which made it a minor classic in the horror comedy sub-genre.

This one's better.
Fending off an angry vampire (Colin Farrell) with a cross only works if the
wielder truly believes in God's power ... and in this secular age, and
particularly in sin-laden Las Vegas, devout religious faith in hard to come
by. That's likely to be a problem...

I can cite several reasons for this sequel's success, starting with director Craig Gillespie's crisp pacing and Marti Noxon's slick script, cleverly adapted and updated from Tom Holland's 26-year-old storyline. But the true star of this version is, well, the star: Colin Farrell, who makes one of the best, baddest and most bodaciously bloody vampires the genre has spawned.

And mind you, we're talking a long history of fangsters.

Farrell isn't merely spooky; he's primal and feral in a way that suggests he might have been around long enough to give nightmares to our distant, cave-dwelling ancestors. His malevolent, mocking smile is chilling, and his best bit of physical business — amid numerous — is a tendency, at startling moments, to pause, sniff the air and (we know, with sick fear) register the presence of a nearby victim.

He radiates an aura of menace and tightly coiled power, even under apparently mild circumstances. We'd not be the slightest bit surprised if he seized two ends of a motorcycle, effortlessly lifted it off the ground and then ripped it in half.

But while Farrell deserves considerable praise, I don't want to short-shrift the rest of the cast. Everybody here does a great job, whether looking nervously out windows, dispensing mordant one-liners or fleeing for their lives. And, throughout, Gillespie never loses track of the all-important blend of comedy, tension and splattered viscera.

Indeed, Gillespie is a sneaky sod, just like this story's creature of darkness. This film has a deceptively mild first act, lulling us into a sense of false security, until a tension-laden sequence that climaxes with a ghastly surprise that's guaranteed to propel most of you from your seats. (Buy your tickets quickly, before too many twits spoil the surprises.)

Anton Yelchin, well remembered as Chekov from the recent Star Trek reboot, stars as Charley Brewster, an average high school teen who is trying to leave his nerd past behind. This is made difficult by the tag-along presence of his former best friend, Ed Thompson (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who hasn't outgrown his geek mannerisms ... much to the cruel delight of local thugs Mark (Dave Franco) and Ben (Reid Ewing).

Truth be told, Charley's trying to look cool on behalf of his too-good-to-be-true girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), one of the school's ultra-hotties. Charley can't quite grasp how he snagged such a babe, and he's not about to screw this up ... even if that means abandoning poor Ed.

But Ed isn't fading quietly into the woodwork; he badgers Charley into coming along for one last "mission," in an effort to determine what happened to one of their classmates. Kids — nay, entire families — have been mysteriously disappearing from their North Las Vegas neighborhood, and the pop culture-obsessed Ed believes he knows why: Clearly, a vampire has come to town.

Charley knows better. His divorced mother, Jane (Toni Collette), is a real estate agent; the depressed local economy and ill-advised location of their unfinished subdivision have prompted all sorts of families, burdened by underwater mortgages, to simply split. Often with no warning.

This is a rather clever touch on Noxon's part: very up to the minute. Even Davis has its share of long-empty houses now ... and who's to say what really happened to the former occupants?

Charley's mocking disbelief grows even stronger when Ed insists that his former friend's new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Farrell), is the vampire in question.

"A vampire named Jerry?" Charley scoffs, contemptuously.

Apparently so. Because our first glimpse of Jerry, as he helps Jane with a bit of yard repair, leaves absolutely no doubt. This scene is a perfect example of the uneasy mood Gillespie maintains throughout: Superficially, it looks harmless ... and yet it feels creepy. Jane is oblivious; Charley — now rattled by everything Ed has told him — begins to have his doubts; and we're dead certain.

Gillespie tops this unsettling first encounter with the next one, when Jerry pops over to borrow a six-pack of beer. Mindful of an essential bit of vampiric lore — that the undead cannot enter a home unless invited — Charley and Jerry perform an awkward little dance, the former trying not to reveal his growing suspicions, the latter knowing full well what's going on ... and willing to bide his time.

The psychological fencing doesn't last long; Gillespie and Noxon don't overextend the guessing game to the point where we start to question Charley's intelligence. (For one thing, Jerry's not the patient sort.) And once the story kicks into gear, it rips along from one great set-piece to the next ... although, for sheer, hilariously gruesome horror, nothing beats Jerry's early assault on the family car. While it's moving.

The cast eventually is augmented by local Las Vegas lounge magician/entertainer Peter Vincent (David Tennant, taking on the original's Roddy McDowall role), whose larger-than-life stage show is a dark forces mash-up of Criss Angel and Penn & Teller. Ed embraces the image wholeheartedly, and believes that Vincent really is a vampire hunter; Charley, eventually, is forced to hope that his former friend is right.

Tennant, immediately recognized as a recent Doctor Who, is a hoot 'n' holler as the reflexively profane Vincent, a wealthy, Midori-imbibing hedonist who surrounds himself with waspish, scantily clad tarts and glass cases filled with supernatural artifacts supposedly designed to dispatch foul creatures of myth and legend. Tennant chews up the scenery with Shakespearean gusto, much the way Jerry, ah, chews throats.

Yelchin, all grown up after his career-making appearance alongside Anthony Hopkins, in the 2001 adaptation of Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis, is the resourceful young hero we'd all love to be under such circumstances (God forbid!). Yelchin believably handles Charley's transformation from sneering skeptic to appalled believer, and he remains vulnerable and "small" enough to lend weight to Vincent's pragmatic put-down:

"Who's going to fight this? You?"

Mintz-Plasse, thanks to his previous work in Superbad and Kick-Ass, brings immediate genre cred simply by co-starring in this film, and he doesn't disappoint. Ed endures a particularly wide-ranging character arc, with Mintz-Plasse effectively exploiting his droll, put-upon persona every step of the way.

Collette, despite being saddled with the token "disbelieving adult" role, doesn't carry it too far. Jane isn't the sort of disposable, dumb parent who often populates such films; Collette gives her just enough sass and spunk to keep her interesting. And I like Jane's relationship with Amy ... as if even Charley's mother isn't quite sure how her son landed such a catch.

Poots, although inevitably dressed provocatively, is no mere babe; when push eventually comes to shove, she's got moves that would earn a satisfied nod from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the issue of Amy's attraction to the somewhat gangly and awkward Charley is handled nicely, with Poots persuasively selling her character's sincerity. We like Amy and Charley, and we like them together ... which makes this story's second and third acts even more exciting.

Best unexpected bit of stunt-casting: a brief but significant appearance by Chris Sarandon, who played Jerry in the 1985 original.

Although apparently designed for its 3D camerawork, Gillespie and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe failed to compensate for the medium's diminished lighting. Much of this film takes place after sunset, and the 3D glasses make dark scenes even darker. (You can see this easily, by flipping the glasses off an on during a dim sequence.) I'm not sure the effort was worthwhile, because the 3D effects are used sparingly ... although, in fairness, when they are used, you'll recoil from every gout of splattered blood and viscera.

The best horror comedies make us laugh, gasp and squirm in equal measure. If Shaun of the Dead is this subgenre's Citizen Kane, I've got to admit that Gillespie, Noxon and their enthusiastic cast get darn close with this remake of Fright Night. It's a ripping good ride that should scare up plenty of business during these fading summer months.

Keep the crosses and garlic handy...

No comments:

Post a Comment