Fright Night

by M.J. Hearle

It’s not often I go to the movies.

What with a fulltime job, writing after work, maintaining relationships with my friends, family and fiancée, I simply don’t have the opportunity. However, a few months ago I did manage to catch the big budget Hollywood remake of Fright Night. Now you might ask, why would this fellow who rarely makes it to the cinema waste his time with a schlocky horror flick? A remake no less! To which, I would answer – hey, I’m a shlocky horror kind of guy. Besides, I’m a huge fan of the 1985 original and I don’t necessarily have a bias against remakes (though this is being tested as Hollywood cannibalizes its back catalogue more and more frequently).

I first saw Fright Night on video when I was thirteen. The concept of a vampire moving in next door to a teenager nuts about horror films was tailor-made for teenager nuts about horror films. As a thirty-two year old the concept still works for me, which gives you an idea of just how much I’ve matured over the intervening years. I walked into the sequel expecting to be disappointed and… surprisingly, I wasn’t. Of the many horror remakes I’ve seen it’s certainly one of the better ones. Mainly because it doesn’t try to replicate the original. Sure it borrows the same basic plot outline but it takes that outline and pushes it into fresh territory, updating the film’s location from Anytown USA to Las Vegas, and offering fresh character and plot twists. This is a notable achievement. Most studios are content producing remakes that are little more than carbon copies of the originals with higher budgets. Unfortunately, not all of Fright Night 2010’s innovations are positive and as this isn’t a movie blog I’d like to hone in on some of the questionable story decisions made by the screenwriter Marti Noxon, rather than discuss the cast or direction.

The original movie benefited from an incredibly naturalistic tone. It took the question – What would you do if a vampire moved next door to you? – quite seriously. That’s not to say it was po-faced or dour, in fact the movie is frequently hilarious, but the supernatural aspects are grounded in a recognisable reality. The vampire Jerry, played by a suave Chris Sarandon, behaves precisely how you’d expect a vampire to behave in the modern age (this modern age being the 1980’s). Jerry isn’t some pale creep lurking in the shadows – he’s  good-looking, charming to his neighbours, agreeable almost to a fault. When Charlie discovers his secret Jerry doesn’t just kill him, but instead offers him a chance – ‘Forget about me, and I’ll forget about you.’ Of course, Charlie doesn’t (he rams a pencil through Jerry’s hand actually) but I always thought it was pretty cool of Jerry to at least try to give the poor kid a break.

What’s great about the vampire stuff in the movie is we’re given just a few tantalising hints about Jerry’s backstory, with the majority of it left to the viewers imagination. The vampire stuff plays by the rules – they can change into bats, mist or wolves, hate sunlight, crucifixes and pointy wooden sticks – with one lovely new addition, the concept that you need faith for a crucifix to work effectively on a vampire. The movie tells us that Jerry is a vampire and we believe it. This simplicity is key because one of the grievous missteps Fright Night 2010 makes is giving Jerry a convoluted backstory.

Jerry 2.0, played by an admittedly not bad Collin Farrell, can’t be just your normal run of the mill vampire. That’s far too quaint a notion for the new millenium. Our new Jerry has to have a backstory and a motive for doing what he does. Being a vampire and wanting to drink blood isn’t enough anymore. This new Jerry is actually the leader of a vampire tribe and has come to Charlie’s town for the express purpose of replenishing his tribe’s numbers. Yes, that’s write – vampire tribe. The remake also introduces magical wooden stakes that reverse half-vampires and other supernatural bric-a-brac. I can see how on paper these elements might have looked cool and creative but in execution they only serve in testing the viewers suspension of disbelief. A vampire living in the suburbs I can buy – vampire tribes, magic stakes and amulets? Not so much.

Arguably the concept of a vampire tribe is no sillier than your traditional vampire so what I think it comes down to is tone. Up until the whole ‘tribe’ mythology is introduced the remake succeeds as well as the original does in creating a recognisable reality for its characters to inhabit. It’s not heightened or stylized in any way. This could be the suburb you grew up in, the characters could easily mirror your own friends and family. Which is why it’s so frustrating that they decided to abruptly chuck out this skillfully constructed reality at the halfway mark in favour of a weird action/horror hybrid comic book tone. It’s jarring to say the least.

Screenwriter Marti Noxon’s previous credits included episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer which was an entirely brilliant show that often included outré notions like ‘vampire tribes’ and magic stakes. However, from the first episode Buffy established its tone as being comic booky and therefore could get away with the fantastic stuff. It never strove for realism so there was no viewer disconnect when convoluted supernatural lore was introduced. Somebody needed to sit Noxon down and explain to her that just because Fright Night and Buffy both include vampires the two properties should not be treated in the same way. Imagine if Blade suddenly showed up in Twilight and started kung fu fighting Edward. Actually that would be pretty cool but hopefully you get the point. Tone is important.

In the prologue of Winter’s Shadow one of my characters encounters a supernatural creature and is whisked away to another world. This event doesn’t have a huge bearing on the central story, in fact I could have exorcised it completely, but what it does (apart from being a cool opening sequence) is establish tone. It makes a promise to the reader that the story they have in their hands will include strange, magical and spooky stuff. Later, when Winter encounters Blake and learns about the Demori, The Dead Lands, Skivers etc the reader is hopefully more readily accepting of these supernatural elements because they’ve been primed for them. I don’t cheat the reader.

I wish the production team behind Fright Night (2010) had shown me similar consideration.

M. J.