Fright Night (2011)
When Craig Gillespie’s Fright Night debuted in August 2011, I have to admit that my cynicism regarding remakes was at its peak. With memories of the Elm Street remake still lingering alongside a handful of lackluster efforts (The Stepfather, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Sorority Row, etc.), I was probably too eager to just dismiss the Fright Night redux outright, especially since the long-gestating project seemed to just settle on a fairly straightforward remake approach following some more inventive pitches (including one by Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier). It was with this in mind (plus the fact that many people that I trust have vouched for it over the years) that I decided to give it another shot because this is truly a film I want to love, mostly because of its incredible cast.
Unfortunately, however, it looks like I have to stick to my guns with this one: Fright Night remains a bit of a disappointment, if only because it squanders so much of its potential. Where so many uninspiring remakes simply limp through their insipid motions, this one has signs of life pulsing throughout: Gillespie shoots the hell out of it, and the cast is positively magnetic, creating the impression that this Fright Night is capable of recapturing the sweltering, sexy energy of its predecessor, all while updating it with modern concerns and sensibilities.
The big hook here—well, besides “my neighbor is a vampire!”—involves the frayed relationship between Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Both were once shunned to the outer fringes of high school social life thanks to their nerdy preoccupations; Charley, however, has ascended the ranks, so much so that he’s landed a girlfriend in Amy Peterson (Imogen Poots) who would have been way out of his league only a few years ago. Poor Ed is trapped, though, a prisoner of his own terminal nerdiness, which has now led him to insisting that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell), is responsible for a rash of recent murders. Perhaps more improbably, Jerry is also a vampire. Naturally, Charley shrugs off both notions, dismissing them as the ravings of a loser seeking attention.
That’s a great hook, one that lays the groundwork for an interesting—if not incredibly timely—exploration of toxic masculinity and nerd culture. Charley Brewster coming across as a dick—and being urged on by his new alpha-bro friends (Dave Franco & Reid Ewing)—to his old friend is a clever inversion of the Fright Night premise (if not one that admittedly flies in the face of casting the eminently affable Yelchin in the role). In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Evil Ed himself should be the actual protagonist this time around, with his deranged quest to expose Dandridge dovetailing with his desires to be cool.
But instead, all of this is wasted by a half-baked script that haphazardly breezes through the expected Fright Night highlights: Charley’s growing realization that Jerry is a bloodsucker, his futile attempts to convince both Amy and his mother (Toni Collette, adding to the embarrassment of riches here) of this fact, and, finally, the vampire’s attempts to undermine his teenage neighbor by stealing his girl. What’s alarming about all of this is the sheer, reckless speed with which it happens: there’s very little sense of suspense about any of it, creating the impression that it’s all a formality. Farrell plays Jerry like an obvious weirdo from the jump, so it’s hardly surprising when he ditches the pretense of hiding his secret by literally blowing Charley’s entire goddamn house up about halfway through the movie.
In short, there’s very little seduction to this rendition of Fright Night: where the original is a genuinely moody, mesmerizing movie, this one takes more of a blunt force approach, effectively twisting this familiar story into more of an action movie, complete with a car chase and everything. This is Fright Night for the a modern sensibility that demands Jerry Dandridge fling a motorcycle through a car window, in the process kicking off a raucous, action-packed second half that finds Charley breezing through the final bit of expected lore: teaming up with Peter Vincent, here reimagined by David Tennant as a boozy lout of a stage magician who happens to be obsessed with the occult.
Oh, and he’s actually a self-fashioned vampire hunter with a tragic history that connects him to Jerry Dandridge, a turn of events that reflects Hollywood’s obsession with tying everything together at the risk of losing the thread. In straining to connect dots that don’t need connecting, the screenplay whiffs on a chance to really do something special with its characters, especially Ed, whose role is reduced to a glorified cameo here. After a fateful encounter with Jerry within the first 20 minutes, he’s only briefly heard from again when he randomly re-emerges long enough for Charley to dispatch him with little fanfare. It’s a mind-boggling decision: this Fright Night is very clearly looking to do one thing before it zigs and zags into a different direction altogether, seemingly so it can just conjure up some weak effects work for a climax that has Charley and Vincent plowing through various bloodsuckers.
Maybe it’s just fair to say Fright Night just isn’t my speed: it works well enough as a jaunty vampire movie, and it does its best to compensate for its script’s shortcomings with slick photography, a terrific, vintage-tinged orchestral score, and uniformly terrific performances. Farrell especially is an inspired choice as Jerry, who comes off as a wily fox in the henhouse from the moment he’s introduced. He’s more cartoonishly fiendish than his predecessor in Tom Holland’s film and serves as a perfect reflection of Gillespie’s approach: this is the balls out, fangs out rendition of Fright Night that has no time for seduction. To be fair, it’s more spirited than many remakes, which sometimes take on the tenor of a death march, with everyone involved just trudging along half-heartedly and checking off a list of expectations. Fright Night is somewhat guilty of this, but it at least has the courtesy to do it with a spring in its step in an effort to outrun its jagged, mechanical script. Ultimately, it’s unable to completely do so—after all, whether you slog or sprint, you’re still just going through the motions.
Friday the 13th (2009)
On the other hand, the Platinum Dunes stab of Friday the 13th has stood as an exemplary reboot. Indeed, out of the unholy triumvirate of slasher icons, Jason emerged practically unscathed, if not completely revitalized by his remake treatment. Where Rob Zombie’s Halloween was too extreme and PD’s own Elm Street remake was too safe and uninspired, Friday finds a nice middle ground. In doing so, it embraces a back-to-basics formula this franchise sorely needed after two decades of wandering through a gimmicky wilderness, with fans growing increasingly eager to see Jason simply return to his old Crystal Lake stomping grounds and murder teenagers in rousing fashion.
Not only did screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift provide that, but they did so in a vague enough fashion that you could easily imagine this as a sort of ambiguous sequel: continuity has never been a strong point with this series, and fans have spent decades trying to reconcile (or ignore) contradictions, so it’s not at all impossible to see this as an entry landing somewhere between Freddy vs. Jason and Jason X. And if you don’t care to be burdened by continuity, you can treat it as a complete do-over, making it the best of both worlds. I’d say more updates should take this approach, but Friday the 13th is rather unique in this respect: it’s always been built on a sort of malleable campfire lore that makes it easy to tell and re-tell in perpetuity, and this movie embraces that (I mean, a literal campfire tale scene brings viewers up to speed about Jason).
Either way you slice it, Friday the 13th is something of a jukebox slasher, one that has the filmmakers loading up a quarter and having Jason play his greatest hits. He even breaks out his old burlap sack getup before acquiring (or re-acquiring) his signature hockey mask, as multiple groups of oblivious teens descend upon Crystal Lake, only to be systematically butchered by Mrs. Voorhees’s baby boy. Technically, a (somewhat controversial) subplot emerges when Jason kidnaps a girl (Amanda Righetti) bearing a striking resemblance to his mother, prompting her brother (Jared Padalecki) to mount a search. However, this doesn’t really hinder the otherwise lean plot, as Jason dispatches the cast early and often: this one doesn’t boast the franchise’s highest body count, but it is well-paced in terms of keeping the blood flowing. The kills themselves are a nice mix as well, scattering in genuinely mean stuff (like roasting a girl over a fire or slowly stabbing a guy into the neck) with clever gags (an arrow through the head out of nowhere is a highlight), resulting in an eclectic, unrelenting array of carnage.
From the first time I saw this one in theaters, I felt an overwhelming sensation that just about everyone involved really gets this franchise. It’s not even a backhanded compliment to say that Friday the 13th isn’t all that complicated, especially since several filmmakers did find a way to complicate it during the later sequels. As such, it was nice to see a group tackle Jason with the express purpose of just turning him loose and having fun while doing so. Tone and purpose are the two defining characteristics of Friday the 13th, a franchise that always set out to paint the walls red and have as much fun imaginable while doing so. This is not to say it doesn’t have the potential to be genuinely creepy or atmospheric (the first five or so certainly have their moments), but after 30+ years, the genie is very much out of the bottle here: this has definitively become a vehicle for Jason Voorhees to hack, slash, and bludgeon victims for 90 minutes, and this movie embraces that.
The cast of characters is well-balanced, full of perfectly nice people, lovable goofs, insatiable horndogs, and one outrageous prick in Travis Van Winkle’s Trent, who spends the entire movie practically inviting audiences to cheer his eventual death. There’s an argument to be made that the performances here are a bit overdone, with many of the characters coming across as splatter movie clichés, and that’s fair. However, I’d counter that maybe that’s the point: Friday the 13th feels like an antidote to the self-aware strain of slashers, as most of the characters gloriously (and recklessly) drink, smoke, and fuck themselves into oblivion. Most of them do only exist to die, but at least they leave an impression before doing so, and I would further argue that some of them are no less outrageous than previous favorites. No, I doubt anyone really acts like some of the characters here; however, I also doubt that anyone really acted exactly like Jimbo and Teddy, either, among others (and certainly nobody dances like Jimbo).
Besides that, who really comes to these things for the characters, anyway? This Friday nails the only one that really matters in Jason, portrayed here by Derek Mears as a sort of hybrid of previous interpretations. He occasionally mimics the robotic zombie tics made famous by Kane Hodder, but this is a largely feral—and quite human—Jason that strikes like a wild beast. Imagine Rambo crossbred with a territorial grizzly bear: cunning, savage, and, at times, actually scary in a way Jason rarely is. Watching him pick up his speed and break into a full sprint is a jarring image, and one that lets you know this Friday the 13th isn’t fucking around. There’s an immediacy to this movie—especially in the leaner, meaner theatrical cut—that reflects the urgency surrounding the entire endeavor of rebooting this franchise. “You wanted the best, you got the best,” it seems to announce before unleashing Jason and restoring him to his former glory.
Paradoxically, Friday the 13th is both self-aware, yet not all at once: it certainly knows what it’s expected of it and delivers it, but it does so with no pretense. This movie isn’t above the blood and breasts formula that’s defined this franchise throughout the years, proving that, sometimes, it’s perfectly fine to be formulaic—this is a case where fans really wanted to see Jason go through the motions again, and it’s a lively rendition, full of awesome splatter and already immortal character moments (well, if you could call “stupendous” breasts “characters”). It’s not a perfect one, mind you: director Marcus Nispel and DP Daniel Pearl splice in a little bit too much Texas Chainsaw DNA at some points, plus Steve Jablonksy’s score is a total non-entity that leaves you feeling like this one is just a few familiar Manfredini shrieks and stings away from being among the very best the franchise has to offer. Instead, it falls just a notch below, standing nearly a decade later as a fine update whose fresh coat of paint hasn’t weathered too much in the wake of an initial excitement that left us craving a follow-up that still hasn’t arrived.
Stay tuned throughout the year as Slashbacks revisits more titles reviewed during OTH’s first 10 years. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: