The terror of Jerry the vampire: “Fright Night”

October 17, 2013

You know Hollywood is deep in the Dead Horse Seas of creative bankruptcy when they remake a movie like 1985’s Fright Night. I mean, it’s not like the movie was any kind of a high water mark of ‘80s cinema. But it has a vampire in it, which you know tripped some producer’s cultural IFF, and, apparently while they were at it, someone said, “Hey why don’t we shoot this thing in 3D so we can squeeze a couple extra bucks out of the Twilight fans and goth kids who see this movie.” And yet, despite the eminently cynical calculations that borne it, the remake of Fright Night manages to be just as charming and understated as the original.

Anton Yelchin plays Charley Brewster, a high school senior, who has suddenly found himself living the high school dream: he’s popular, has a slammin’ girlfriend (Imogen Poots—never thought I’d type that name more than once), and well, what more do you really need? Sure, he doesn’t have a dad, but his mom is hot (she’s played by Toni Collette all filled with MILFy goodness). But Charley’s idyll is disrupted when a former friend of his named Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, really getting too filled-out to keep playing the nerd role) tries to enlist his aid in his quest to prove that Charley’s neighbor is responsible for all the disappearances lately.

Charley doesn’t believe him—who would—after all, the town is filled with people losing their homes and their jobs, or working nights on the strip. Besides, Charley soon meets his neighbor and he turns out to be a hunkaaay construction worker named Jerry Dandridge(Colin Farrell). Vampires, Charley reasons, are not named Jerry.

But when Ed disappears, Charley gets suspicious. And when he watches out his window as Jerry’s date with a local piece of eye-candy turns into something ominous, he realizes the truth: his neighbor is a vampire named Jerry, and Jerry kind of has the hots for his mom. Knowing he needs help, Charley reaches out to Criss Angel-like Vegas showman, Peter Vincent (David Tenant, aka the best Doctor Who ever). Well, Peter Vincent turns out to be a fraud and sort of a douchebag—at least initially—but events soon conspire to convince him to help Charley (and by “events” I mean “vampires attack.”) So, Charley must protect his mom and girlfriend from the increasingly-dangerous Jerry while relying on a dubious ally to help him destroy the vampire next door.

Which was pretty much the plot of the first one, too, except the kid’s ally was played by the significantly less awesome Roddy McDowell.

The original was notable for a couple things. One was introducing the world to a pre-Herman’s Head William Ragsdale (remember that show? Ever heard of it? You’re not missing much), and a pre-lesbian Amanda Bearse. Okay, neither one of those things is really notable per se. I just thought they were interesting to mention. No, what Fright Night did that was unique was to take vampires out their traditional settings and drop them in the middle of Reagan’s cloistered suburbia in all its banal glory. In this it was of a kind with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Blue Velvet in finding the dark side of the Promised Land that lie at the end of white flight. Of course, it wasn’t as good as either of those other two movies, but what hell. It was a fun premise that basically asked, what if they yuppie next door was a vampire?

The remake doesn’t eschew this premise, and indeed even trades on it as solidly as the original did. Where the original brought us to the suburbia of Reagan’s Morning in America, the current film takes us to a spiritually-empty landscape of a boom-time suburb in the desert outskirts of Las Vegas. Director Craig Gillespie perfectly and economically sets up this generation’s suburban nightmare with an overhead shot of a square plot of identical, bubble-era houses before cutting to a street-level view which shows all the realty signs in the front yards. Throughout the film much is made of the fact that this is a place people move away from, and not settle in.

Gillespie (and, I suspect, screenwriter and former Buffy scribe Marti Noxon), uses this setting for a bildungsroman of a sort, positing Charley on the cusp of manhood. And while Charley is hardly irresponsible, the movie makes clear he is ill-prepared for some of the harder truths of the adult world. Indeed, Jerry’s sexuality is nakedly predatory, and, in one scene he toys with Charley by telling him he needs to look out for his women. Farrell plays the scene beautifully, claiming to share some fatherly (or big-brotherly) advice while not even hiding his lasciviousness—Charley’s mom, he claims, “gives off a scent,” while his girlfriend is “ripe.” Against this all Charley can do is writhe impotently–a high school virgin in the presence of a sexual elder. And not only is Charley outclassed by his neighbor, but seems genuinely surprised when Peter Vincent turns out to be (mostly) all a sham. How anyone could watch his vegas show and buy him for a moment is a further testament to Charley’s teenaged naivete.

The filmmakers also make the interesting decision to keep the vampires out of context. Aside from a few tossed off lines, Jerry the Vampire is simply a force of nature, “the shark from Jaws,” as Ed describes him. There is no tortured history or elaborate back story. Jerry is just a blue-collar mope who likes to watch bad reality TV after a good meal (of a stripper). This vacuum falls nicely into line with the rest of the vibe given off by the ersatz neighborhood. The vampire has no lineage, because neither does anyone else. The neighborhood has no past, no history, no lore. There is no character to it. Charley’s rite of manhood takes place within this element: a cultural wasteland filled with garbage TV and homes newly built for buyers who now can’t afford them. It makes the urgency of his mission even more pressing as he’s forced to be the lone sign of integrity in a world where no one else has any.

Of course, the story’s subtexts wouldn’t work if the performances didn’t pop. Fortunately, Gilespie has some ringers at his disposal. Yelchin is rapidly becoming an amazing actor, rising to whatever challenge is thrown at him—whether it’s Mel Gibson’s estranged son in The Beaver or Ensign Chekov. Collete is good in anything and has been for the past decade, so no surprise there, and Poots brings a groundedness that makes even her underwritten character believable. Tenant is the real breakout, though. He jolts every scene he appears in, at first seeming to ape Russell Brand, but then settling into a performance that’s more complicated and enjoyable. He even manages to elicit laughs out of some fairly threadbare eBay jokes.

But it’s Farrell who is the real standout here. His Jerry isn’t freighted with the usual (non-Twilight-influenced) vampire lore, but is instead simply atavistic and dangerous with, as he puts it “400 years of survival instinct.” When Charley tangles with him, he can’t help but be dickish in an older brother type of way…provided your older brother killed strippers. Farrell could have simply phoned in this performance (it’s a summer vampire flick, after all, why break a sweat?), but instead turns in a remarkably complicated performance. He plays Jerry as a kind of null-space–a culmination of the spiritual emptiness that infuses the rest of the film. His Jerry the Vampire exists to do little more than eat and watch trash TV. Farrell seems to have distilled the darkest elements from the rancid contemporary male culture—the predatory sexuality, the sexual territoriality, the desire for immediate gratification—to bring a vivid banality to his vampire evil.

Of course nowadays vampires are all over suburbia—when they’re not glittering, they’re being staked by Buffy (though, unfortunately, not at the same time)—but holding the vampire super-saturation of pop culture against this movie isn’t very fair. Likewise, the bad decision to film a movie that mostly takes place at night in 3D, and thus ensure that many scenes are too dark to completely make out, is also one you can’t put on the shoulders of the creative team.

Fright Night may have been a calculated effort to part people with their money, but—much like Peter Vincent—turns out to have a great deal of heart beneath its mercenary exterior.

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