Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fright Night (Craig Gillespie)

"He got me Charley! He bit me! You know what you're gonna have to do now, don't you? Kill me. Kill me, Charley, before I turn into a vampire, and give you a hickey!"

Trite Night

Remakes are funny things--sometimes they capture what made the original memorable in the first place; more often they don't, and instead lie there gasping like beached fish. Sometimes they improve on the original, adding something the original filmmakers never dreamed of; more often they hang lengthy, largely unnecessary extrapolations on the original storyline, seriously weighing it down.

Tom Holland's 1985 debut feature Fright Night was an oddly winning combination of cheesy makeup effects (vampires with extra-wide grins that fit a shark's maw's worth of razor teeth) and uncanny on-camera moments (Jerry Dandrige (an insouciant Chris Sarandon) looking at Charley Brewster (a sweet-faced William Ragsdale) from a distance and flashing him a grin). It had the conviction and passion of a filmmaker doing his first feature, throwing in everything he knows and read about and learned in the course of his relatively brief life; it also managed a clever postmodern spin on its material worthy of a more experienced filmmaker.

The original Night was a fairy-tale set in modern-day suburbia; Spielberg had directed E.T. and produced Poltergeist three years before, and Holland probably felt this many-times proven setting would serve yet another American fantasy-horror story well. The tale itself, though, is over two and a half thousand years old--Aesop's “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the eponymous character carefully recast as a modern American youth. Making him a horror fan made sense: he would be steeped in supernatural lore, would be familiar with all the classics (come to think of it, some of the cheaper effects in the movie--not to mention some of the more effective ones--seem to have been inspired by these pictures), would know all the stars and cult figures. And it's his very expertise on the subject that undermines his credibility--when he yells “vampire!” people roll their eyes and think: “too many late-night horror marathons.”

Implicit in the story is that old adage: be careful what you wish for. Charlie's lifestyle suggests that these creatures of the night are real to him, matter more to him than everyday, ordinary life, that nothing would be cooler than to meet such a creature. What Charlie wishes for with such intense fervor, Charlie ought to get--which he does, to his lasting regret.

That's the heart of the tale: a boy who learns the the value of credibility, of abandoning childish things to embrace adulthood, of growing up. Above and beyond all that, it's about the ineffable value of true belief, of faith in a power greater than your own. Not a bad subtext on which to build a movie that stays in memory longer than most people expect.

You don't get that in the remake. The characters are cannier, more sophisticated, more skeptical not just about vampire lore, but about life in general. In a key moment, the vampire (Colin Farrell) pleads to talk to Charley's mother (the always-a-sight-for-sore-eyes Toni Collette) and you can tell the filmmakers have made her smarter because she refuses--it's not vampires she's wary of (she still doesn't believe in them); it's the idea of meeting a stranger her son clearly disapproves of, is even scared of. She listens to her instincts better than most adults in these fairy tales usually do.

Which tears the fragile bubble right there. The original Charley spends a little more time trying to convince people as to the seriousness of his cause; with this remake screenwriter Marti Noxon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, a TV series not a little influenced by the original) short-circuits the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” storyline and has everyone concerned believing Charley, mainly because the Jerry in this version proceeds to chase their four wheel drive into the nearby Nevada desert, doing serious damage along the way.

Things happen a beat faster here, and I suppose Noxon (a smart, sassy writer who incidentally has an amazing singing voice) wanted it that way, partly to throw us off (a remake needn't be completely faithful to its source), partly because smarter characters need a smarter, more aggressive adversary to put up a credible opposition. What's lost, of course, is that sense of isolation you felt as one by one Jerry (the original) wins each member of Charley's family and friends over to his side. They are out to scare the living daylights out of you, the filmmakers seem to be saying; beguiling you with the retelling of a millennia-old fairy tale, that's not really on their agenda.

“You've got to have faith!” Dandridge declares to Charley, over and over again; it's practically the movie's official mantra. It also plays into the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” theme--the world doesn't trust Charley--why should it? He believes in childish things, refuses to put them away. At the same time Charley--do we need to point out which one we're talking about?--struggles with his lack of faith in those same childish things and in himself, so when he confronts Jerry alone he's in over his head. That struggle is dropped like so much roadkill in the new version; presumably it's too cheesy to mention too often, and besides they have an elaborate finale involving a darkened basement and dozens of sleeping vampires to stage and shoot. Set character and witty dialogue and sharp storytelling aside; it's time to bring in the special digital effects--in 3D, no less.

First published in Businessworld, 9.8.11

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