Review by Matt Barone (@mbarone)

Horror fans typically hate remakes of the genre’s most beloved classics and cult favorites for good reason: The majority of Hollywood’s “scary” reboots are embarrassments. Every so often, a quality one emerges and momentarily restores collective faith in audiences; in 1982, John Carpenter revisited the 1951 sci-fi flick The Thing From Another World and amplified both the visual effects and filmmaking prowess to deliver the masterful The Thing; similarly, Zack Snyder’s 2004 take on George A. Romero’s zombie jewel Dawn Of The Dead and French splatter champ Alexandre Aja’s ’06 revitalization of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes took the original properties in new, exciting directions without losing their essences.

Those are the exceptions, though. Usually, uninspired directors preoccupied with cashing paychecks step in to drain the creative life-force out of a Fangoria loyalist’s cherished flicks. Just watch the recent re-dos of The Hitcher, Friday The 13th, and A Nightmare On Elm Street—all produced under Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes imprint, mind you—to witness how lazily folks can eviscerate a strong property’s energy and thrills and churn out lifeless hack-jobs.

For the better part of 2011, cynics who grew up loving 1985’s vampire romp Fright Night have been impatiently waiting to attack. Not the most obvious film to remake, writer-director Tom Holland’s horror-comedy charmed viewers with its consistently funny script, ability to effectively present exaggerated gore in clever ways, and still maintain the old-school, Bram Stoker-generated rules of vamp mythology (avoid sunlight, need invites, no reflections).

The good news: Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Marti Noxon picked up on those qualities in Holland’s original, as well. And the result is an improved version of Fright Night, a slick and vibrant success that’s richer in characterization and more grounded in reality—well, as much as a story about an undead bloodsucker can feel authentic.

Gillespie, whose previous credits include the non-horror film Lars And The Real Girl and Showtime’s gore-free United States Of Tara, shows a fine knack for carefully timed humor, spreading solid one-liners and nifty sight gags out across a landscape of effects-heavy sequences and sporadic moments of legit suspense. Much of the credit also goes to Noxon, a Buffy The Vampire Slayer veteran who brings a good amount of Buffy’s snappy sensibilities to Fright Night. With equal importance, the performances are unvaryingly strong; Colin Farrell chews through scenery with sharp fangs as the antagonistic, suave, and predatory vampire, Scottish actor David Tennant (best known for Britain’s long-running Dr. Who) supplies constant levity, and Anton Yelchin makes for a believable everyman teen bewildered by extreme circumstances.

It’s not perfect, but Fright Night is something more celebratory: far better than anticipated, in addition to being a surprisingly efficient contribution to Hollywood’s late-August dumping ground for not-quite blockbusters.

Fright Night Follows The All-Too-Often Neglected Blueprint For Horror Remakes; I.E. The Use Of Actual Brain Power

The best thing about Noxon’s script is its willingness to flesh out actual characters, not simply regurgitate the original film’s one-note plot-movers. The main guy is still named Charley Brewster (Yelchin); here, though, he’s a high school kid with a back-story, not merely wide-eyed and reactionary. In Gillespie’s film, Charley is a former geek who’s somehow landed one of his school’s hottest girls (Imogen Poots, who gives her love interest archetype sufficient wit and depth); in turn, he’s hanging out with the cool kids and abandoning his once-best friend, Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

 
Fright Night's horror bits are fully thought-out, and the comedy is actually funny without diminishing the film’s overall dependency on thrills.
 

Charley is fed up with Ed’s immaturity, a feeling of resentment sparked by Ed’s claims that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Farrell), is a vampire. After his four-eyed pal goes missing, Charley launches a half-assed investigation and learns firsthand that Jerry’s is in fact a creature of the night, but not some kind of pussy-footed Bill Compton type—he’s a cold-hearted harbinger of death. Unable to fight Jerry by himself, the combative teen seeks assistance from Peter Vincent (Tennant), a Las Vegas showman whose occultist, vampire-slaying stage show is turning into a washed-up lark. Vincent’s a knockoff Van Helsing, and he knows it. But he and Charley hunt Jerry down nonetheless.

The premise largely parallels that of Holland’s ’85 film; where it differs is in its subtle yet necessary improvements. Here, Jerry’s home looks like every other Las Vegas suburban pad, not like original Jerry’s (Chris Sarandon, who pops up in a well-timed cameo), which had an out-of-place Gothic interior a la Tod Browning’s central location in 1931’s Dracula. And the characters, aside from Jerry (who was equally memorable under Sarandon’s control), are much less hokey, namely Mintz-Plasse’s Ed, who, twenty-six years ago, bounced around scenes with a Domino’s Pizza Noid-like, maniacal lunacy.

Gillespie, for his part, knows his way around anxiety; a sequence in which Charley breaks into Jerry’s home to rescue a buxom, hot blonde neighbor is a tightly paced cat-and-mouse game with sharp breaks in tension (a Real Housewives joke) and a jolting payoff. That’s a key component to why Fright Night works so well: Its horror bits are fully thought-out (the climax in a basement-pit full of vamps offers several fresh ideas), and the comedy is actually funny without diminishing the film’s overall dependency on thrills.

When A Movie’s As Pleasurable As Fright Night, Nitpicks Fall By The Wayside

Fright Night isn’t all spades. The decision to randomly give Tennant’s Vincent character a vengeful motivation is perfunctory at best, especially since it’s only mentioned once and plays no real part in the climactic action. And, at first, Tennant’s performance veers dangerously close to obvious Russell Brand imitation, but he quickly settles into his own agreeable groove. Farrell, meanwhile, is perfectly cast and hits the right notes of slithery charisma, yet he’s only given a handful of set-pieces in which to flex his chops; the film’s centerpiece, an energetically shot car chase sequence, is the Irish actor’s one big chance to creep it out, and he scores. Fright Night could have used more of its kind, though.

The overall product is so much fun, though, that’s it’s tough to let such qualms deter from one’s enjoyment. Gillespie’s unexpectedly triumphant remake is unpretentious and well-intentioned, with fine acting, good humor, and deft horror elements at its core. Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger should envy Jerry.

Review by Matt Barone (@mbarone)