CINE-WEEN: Elbee Defends A Remake – FRIGHT NIGHT (2011)

Over the years, remakes — especially horror remakes — have gained such a sour reputation that even the mere mention of the word is immediately followed by groans, sighs, and rolled eyes. Of course, the main problem with remakes is that we can’t help but compare them to the original works. The other problem is that hardly anything is capable of conquering that beast called nostalgia. We have endless discussions of “what’s wrong with the original?” and “is this even necessary?” with points and counterpoints so meticulous that the whole argument has become exhausting. But what if we took that element out? What if neither is “better”? In this series, my goal is to examine remakes as if they’re their own things entirely, and not waste time with comparisons. By doing so, hopefully I can encourage a broader appreciation for some of the more well-made remakes out there by spotlighting certain elements about them that maybe haven’t been considered. Welcome to Elbee Defends A Remake.

Today’s concentration is the 2011 version of Fright Night, by Craig Gillespie. Warning: I will be spoiling this all to hell.

I want to begin by talking about vampire stories in general, how they accomplish their goals, and what they mean to us. Vampire stories draw us in (much like the drawing of blood initiated by a set of fangs) and leave us mesmerized (much like the uncontrollable appeal of a vampire’s stare).  It’s not often we have a story element that serves as both form and function, is it? Vampires and their exploits captivate us, most likely because they signify a weird sense of freedom, helping us release ourselves from certain types of inhibitions we may have. I don’t necessarily want to get too far into the master-and-slave analogy which can also accompany that captivation, but vampire stories, as they sweep us up, give us permission to let go. Basically, when we give ourselves over to something (or someone), there’s a sort of blissfulness that goes along with not having to think for ourselves. It can be strangely romantic, and ironically, emancipating.

Throughout human history, vampires have represented many things in culture, from pre-science death and disease (since myths meant more than medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries, people needed a “logical” explanation for the horrors of consumption) to gothic romance and sexual expression (enter a creature that “fed” on young women, giving in to insatiable desire) to acknowledgment of “the other” (in modern lore, vampires often want to be integrated into, and accepted by, humanity). That longing for acceptance is probably what keeps vampire stories most relevant in today’s world, when so much importance is placed on searching for, and being true to, a personal identity. In our lifetime, we’ve had many stories that function in this way — hell, even Twilight falls into this category. So, it’s easy to see in 1985, when the original Fright Night ran in theaters, that the metaphor was there, not only with a subtextual emphasis on homosexual identity, but also in harkening back to the death and disease of yore with an allusion to the newly rampant AIDS epidemic. Along with other charms, this is what makes Fright Night 1985 special to many of us, and I can’t argue against that. But then again, I’m not trying to.

Although it is very different, Fright Night 2011 is no different in its comments on identity; the metaphor is still there, just flipped a little. In this Fright Night, rather than a veiled metaphor for homosexuality, vampires represent overt maleness. Not straying too far from themes of “the other,” this movie is about shrouding oneself in order to seem normal, fitting in with one’s peers, and the guilt associated with that. It is a film — yes, written by a woman — that cautions against “boys being boys,” and takes a look at male posturing and how the relationships (friendly, familial, and romantic) forged within that can wither and sometimes die. It’s about the importance of boys having good and true friendships with each other, which, in turn, helps them develop good and true relationships with everyone else, including women. This is what I find so remarkable about this movie, because in order to make great men, we have to nourish the intellectual and emotional growth of boys. And in a society where the majority of role models are still teaching boys it’s not okay to cry, it’s stories like this that become doubly important.

I mentioned a moment ago that this movie is written by a woman, which is significant not only for her previous credits, but for her perspective on a type of storytelling that’s been traditionally male. The writer is Marti Noxon, whose name you may recognize from her work in television on both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and if you do recognize her, you’ll know she’s a smart cookie (forgive me while I step on my soapbox a second here, but to be able to take the ideas of faux-feminist Joss Whedon, filter out the obvious bullshit, and turn them into something even remotely inspirational to young people is a feat). Her gender is significant to me because she’s written this movie with a male protagonist that seems truly authentic. It’s ironic, because often I complain about writers writing from the perspective of an opposite gender because of what I perceive at times to be a lack of authenticity, but Noxon writes a male experience here that seems downright lived-in, without pretension. This script is a woman getting into the minds of men, criticizing their interactions, and offering a reminder on how to build better relationships, instead of naively using her words only to cut those men down. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a case of “women do it better!” but the care Noxon used to develop her characters and provide them with nuance is certainly impressive, especially given the hardship of a writer tackling an experience that may not have been exactly personal to her. Anytime anyone can write grounded characters in a fantasy story is impressive, too, because normally the “fantasy” takes precedence over actual development. So again, kudos to you, Marti.

Finally listening to the advice of his old friend Evil Ed, teenage boy Charley Brewster is convinced his new neighbor is a vampire. Charley enlists the help of celebrity vampire expert Peter Vincent, and they devise a plan to defeat the ancient malevolent creature, saving Charley’s girlfriend Amy from his clutches.

Let’s dive right in to those characters, starting with our main man here, the impetus of all our troubles, Jerry the Vampire. “Jerry.” That’s a name that strikes fear in the hearts of every man, isn’t it? The movie even acknowledges how laughable his name is two separate times: once when Ed and Charley are investigating their friend’s disappearance and Ed tells Charley he thinks his neighbor is a vampire (Charley barks, “That is a terrible vampire name. Jerry?”), and in a quick moment between Charley and Peter Vincent, where Peter is in disbelief of Charley’s story (Peter simply says, “Jerry? Jerry the Vampire?” in a mocking tone). I like those lines not only for the humor, but by drawing attention to how absurd of a name Jerry is for a vampire, he’s solidified as a character masking his real self for whatever benefit he sees fit. My point is, acknowledging the irony is not only a really fun touch, it’s useful.

 

Upon release, Colin Farrell received a lot of flack on the old IMDb message boards for his portrayal of Jerry the Vampire (it’s hard for some fans to accept the charms of anyone other than Chris Sarandon, I suppose), but, in actuality, his performance is one of the more phenomenal things about this version. I remember hearing people (outside of professional reviewers) calling Farrell out for bad acting, with his weird mannerisms and not sounding too sure of what he’s talking about at any given moment, but I’m here to argue those things are what makes his depiction so genius. Think about this: Farrell isn’t being a bad actor, he’s acting like a bad actor. Jerry is the bad actor. Jerry has lived for four hundred centuries, and in every one of them, he’s faced the challenge of having to blend in. He’s experienced changes in culture that we can only imagine, changes not only in progress or technology, but changes in how men behave. So he’s found himself here, now, in 2010s Las Vegas, and knows that if he’s going to go relatively unnoticed, he’s got to turn up the testosterone, turn up the bro-ness. One of the first interactions Charley has with Jerry is in the driveway, when Jerry notices Charley’s multi-strapped, oddly-colored sneakers. “You play ball,” he observes, “I’m always looking for a pick-up game.” When Charley affirms, Amy laughs, and his mom is quick to clarify, “Those are the collector tennis shoes. He’s obsessed. They sleep on sidewalks to get them.” Jerry smiles and says, “It takes a real man to wear, uh…puce.” The read I get on this scene is Jerry is passive aggressively trying to cut Charley down a bit for wearing fashionable basketball sneakers — or, at least, challenging his masculinity in a very small way — and it’s clear Charley feels that, too. Fearful of the insinuation that he’s a poser (in front of his girlfriend, no doubt!), Charley looks to the side and petitions, “I play, though.” It’s strange to me the little things we feel threatened by, stuff as inconsequential as a fashion choice (whether it be sneakers or band t-shirts or whatever else), and because of that, we’re compelled to use those things as insults. In this moment, Jerry thinks he has to prove that he knows what “real masculinity” is, i.e. sports, and Charley thinks he has to prove that he’s above purposely putting together a cool personal style. It may even be a moment of Jerry testing Charley to figure out who he’s up against, and just how far he has to push his masculine act.

Later, we see how far when Jerry comes to Charley’s door to ask for a favor (“I’ve got a girl coming over for a beer, and I’m all out of beer,” he hints) and when Charley refuses to invite him into the house, Jerry continues on with some creepy talk: “That girl tonight, she’s a handful. You know, women who look a certain way, they need to be…managed.” He goes on, “There’s a kind of neglect, it gives off a scent.” Snooping around in Ed’s bedroom earlier that day (Ed had been absent from school) caused Charley to become weary of Jerry, but this scene is where his full-on paranoia takes hold. In those words, Jerry has more or less given himself away to Charley,  revealing that he is most definitely not the harmless neighbor/nighttime construction worker he’s pretending to be. He’s a monster hiding in plain sight. Further, Jerry has now taken whatever his idea of masculinity is and turned it toxic; and the fact that he’s describing women in this way in order to intimidate Charley (after all, he does have a mom and a girlfriend to think of) makes it all the scarier.

The rest of Jerry’s scenes range from horrific to pleading to out of control (at one point, Jerry tries to convince Charley’s mom that Charley has been “harassing” him, yelling to her through a closed door that “he’s sick, he’s deluded!” immediately followed by a crazy attempt to burn their house down when they won’t let him inside), and the ease with which Farrell shifts from relatively normal dude to desperate creature to outright monster (and back again) proves all his detractors wrong. By the way, all those negative-sounding traits mentioned above are associated primarily with men. We often perceive men as “in control,” so when they act out of control, we consider it a by-product of when they think the power they hold over other people is diminished. Jerry has worked so hard to retain his facade personality because it normally gets him what he wants (victims), so he literally cannot handle Charley interfering with his plans. So, that whole sequence of Jerry pulling up the house’s gas line, starting a fire, and then stalking the Brewster family on the highway when they run is basically one big, animalistic tantrum showcasing the horrific results of, in this case, a very controlling male monster who’s frustrated by having to pretend to be someone he’s not. So, is this movie saying vampires are immature babies? Sounds like it. Though, it’s probably more a commentary on how, when men let the traditional idea of manhood supercede what it is to be a strong, kind, emotionally well-balanced man, the results can be a disaster.

The other adult male in our story is Peter Vincent, a rude, pompous magician who’s turned his world-renowned “Fright Night” show into a regular gig in Las Vegas. Peter Vincent, here, is a send up of performers like Criss Angel, a sort of gothic badboy in the world of magic, and how he’s relevant to our story is he’s known as a “vampire expert.” Magic, of course, is based in untruth to begin with, so it makes perfect sense for this Peter Vincent to be a magician. If his stage persona comes off as egotistical, his real persona is more so; he’s become so disillusioned with his illusions it’s as if he’s grasping at straws to form real connections with people. And maybe he’s even given up on doing so. He tells Charley “People see what they want to see,” and he says it not exactly with disappointment, but as a fact.

Charley is visiting Peter disguised as a journalist writing an article on separating vampire myth from reality, and within minutes of their meeting, we can see Peter is the kind of guy who acts tough to mask his insecurities. Shortly after Charley approaches, an attractive young woman walks past the pair. Peter leans in closely to Charley and slyly says, “I fucked her,” for absolutely no reason. Charley’s reaction is what’s important in this scene, he briefly seems confused as to why Peter would tell him that, but doesn’t engage in congratulating him as Peter might have hoped. Considering our current zeitgeist with conversations about “locker room talk” and how “boys will be boys,” I feel like this tiny bit of dialogue reveals a lot about Peter’s character, someone who, again, is acting the way he thinks people (especially other males) expect him to. Peter has self-doubt, and he’s actually a coward at his core (evidenced by a scene later in which Evil Ed attacks Peter’s penthouse and Peter retreats to his panic room to leave Charley and Amy fending for themselves), but he’s got a nuance to him; a defeated kind of sadness coming through that makes me want to help the guy.

The reason Peter is so obsessed with vampires is that when he was a kid, his parents were killed by one. Later, that idea seemed so absurd to him he convinced himself that his childlike mind made it up. But, lo and behold, it was really true. And guess who that vampire was: that’s right, the formidable Jerry. So now not only is Peter validated in his obsession, he’s got an unbelievable reason to overcome his self-doubt and become the badass he purports to be on stage — if he decides to. In the final act, Charley goes to Peter for help defeating Jerry and saving Amy. “There will be no fighting, there will only be surviving…maybe,” he tells Charley. “The only reason I survived last time is that I had the sense to hide. If you want to be a dead hero, good for you. I’m out.” He continues, “You think I’m a coward. I’m not. I’m a realist.” But he’s so cynical that he doesn’t realize he’s only using his version of being a “realist” as justification for running away. Charley accuses him of abandoning people when they need help the most, which hits Peter hard (especially since, as he’s watching the cameras while inside the panic room, he sees his live-in girlfriend’s lifeless body laying on the ground, killed by Evil Ed). Off screen, Peter gains some courage (likely liquid courage), and joins Charley at Jerry’s house at exactly the right time. Jerry makes the fight personal by mocking Peter, saying “Welcome to Fright Night, for real!” as a sort of battle cry. So when Jerry inevitably takes a stake through the heart, not only is it a victory for Charley and Amy, it’s a way for Peter to get the ultimate closure from his parents’ death, and a way for him to search his soul, regain his confidence, and crawl out of his miserable alcoholic existence. I’m pretty sure I’d call that a success story.

So now I come to what I think is the crux of this movie: the friendship between Evil Ed and Charley. We see friendships like the one Ed and Charley share in movies sometimes, where childhood best buddies grow apart once they hit high school (Betty and Veronica in Heathers are probably the most prime example). It’s usually a case of one friend gaining more popularity than the other, leaving the other sad, lonely, and building resentment. This is what happened with Ed and Charley, who were bona fide dorks freshman year, spending their time together going to conventions, building LEGO models, and making LARPing videos. Sometime later, Charley found an “in” with the cool kids, and started dating a pretty, cool girl. And Ed remained…well, Ed. Dorky weirdo, Evil Ed. It’s not apparent that the two boys had a fight or a misunderstanding that led to their falling out, so we can only assume that Charley, who’s developing into a handsome, socially prominent young man, somehow decided Ed was a loser he didn’t want to hang out with (an especially terrible moment comes when Ed confronts Charley with “What the fuck happened to you? We were inseparable,” to which Charley responds, “Yeah well, you know when my life started to get better? When I stopped being friends with you.”). Ed is furious with Charley because he feels ignored, and even blackmails him with releasing their LARPing videos online if he doesn’t take his concerns about their other missing friend seriously. He’s also furious because Charley’s new friends make him feel small, letting all those feelings manifest as bitter animosity. Ed often sounds hateful to Charley, and when Jerry turns him into a vampire (making the moniker “Evil Ed” more true than anyone in their world would have thought), he uses the opportunity to come at Charley with his new malicious superpowers. He’s eager to get revenge on his former best friend, hungry to take the power back. Ed wants to prove his friendship was worth something – but also to show Charley that he’s chosen to let his fury take over, making him not care so much about the good parts of their past.

For Evil Vampire Ed, the high road pretty much isn’t an option anymore. So when Ed attacks and Charley is faced with killing his friend or dying himself, he elects to defend himself and fight. After a drawn out scuffle, Charley stakes Ed, and in a tearful moment, Ed realizes what his hate and resentment has made him — both a figurative and, now, literal monster — and, instead of continuing his wrath, Ed lets go. In that moment, Ed forgives Charley, regretfully telling his distraught friend that “it’s okay,” and dies. The tragedy and emotion in this scene wrenches my guts; it means so much to me because of the weight Ed’s death carries. Even though their friendship was functionally over at that time, there was still a possibility they could make peace and reunite. So when Charley is faced with having to literally put an end to it by killing Evil Ed, he realizes he never really wanted their friendship to be over in the first place. But now, he has no choice. It makes me think about what might have happened if Evil Ed hadn’t been turned into Actually Evil Ed, if the two boys would have reconciled and hung out again as they used to. Maybe Charley would’ve lost interest in the seemingly more shallow friendships he made with the popular kids and re-embraced his inner dork. Again, it shows how destructive putting up a front can be.

The demise of Charley and Ed’s friendship affected more than just themselves; it also put a small strain on Charley’s relationship with Amy. It’s common when something negative happens in our lives that we try to ignore or run away from the consequences of it, but what we might not always understand is a little self-awareness goes a long way. When we reflect and face the demons, so to speak, we’re able to assess situations and come to conclusions better, which helps us in our interactions with other people (especially loved ones). Instead of running away from the guilt of his role in a broken friendship, Charley meditates on it. He takes the blame, for sure, telling Amy, “Ed came to me, and I turned my back. He was my best friend.” Amy tries to comfort him with the justification of “people change,” but Charley still insists on fully acknowledging his wrongdoing (“Yeah, I changed into a dick.”). It’s Charley’s conscience talking, trying to make him feel culpable in Ed’s death, but there’s also a hint of vulnerability that I think helps Charley be more open with Amy. He admits the reason he abandoned his friendship with Ed was because he thought leaving his dorky past behind him would make Amy like him more. He’s being honest with himself, and honest with her, which is absolutely necessary for a balanced relationship. She encourages him to feel his feelings, but also to be himself, which again, is the theme I love most about this film. Amy says, “I knew you were a dweeb. You think I wanted some ‘dude’? I like you because you’re different.” It’s good that she’s so open and accepting as well, which is possibly the most important trait a partner can have.

But you know, for a movie about the negativity surrounding pretending to be something you’re not and shrouding yourself to feel “normal,” Jerry as a vampire isn’t a mystery to figure out; there aren’t any qualms about it. We’re not along for some suspenseful discovery of Jerry’s undead-ness, we’re simply there to believe it when it’s presented. I like that no-nonsense approach, though; it does help the film flow better, plus it helps us understand that this isn’t really Jerry’s story so much as it is Charley’s. I guess that’s something that makes this film differ from the norm of classical monster stories; the monster here isn’t trying to prove his humanity, he’s trying to fool humanity into thinking he’s one of them. So, maybe Jerry’s not “pretending” so much after all? Regardless, the point here is that Charley has learned the consequences of masking his true self in order to fit in or be cool, and that lesson has come at a great cost. In the end, Charley and Amy have a blissful relationship, and Peter Vincent has even found some peace, so definitely the moral here is cherish what we have, cherish who we are, and don’t burden ourselves with trying to maintain an appearance. It’s a call for us to help show our boys the freedom in not hiding their emotions and how embracing their sensitivities can lead to happiness. It’s a film that prioritizes taking the time to build strong relationships, because as we all should know, no man is an island.

Probably a reason this Fright Night is often dismissed is it seems hokey in its direction at times; the trendy 3-D gimmick likely doesn’t help that. But aside from some silly special effects (Jerry’s demise is, admittedly, a chuckler), there’s really not that much to complain about visually. Director Craig Gillespie was known most in film circles at the time for 2007’s indie dramedy Lars and the Real Girl and the mainstream comedy Mr. Woodcock (also 2007), so it might’ve seemed weird when he took this job. But sometimes it’s best for a director to have an array of genres under his or her belt (ahem, Gore Verbinski); just like how sometimes experiencing all kinds of work can help us hone in on what our specialties are (later, in 2017, Gillespie earned his acclaim with his work on the quirky biographical film I, Tonya). So yeah, maybe the cinematography of Fright Night 2011 doesn’t one hundred percent stand out as striking, maybe it doesn’t seem expressly spooky-ooky every step of the way, but also, maybe it doesn’t really need that.

And it would be negligent of me not to mention the genuine performances that came out of this picture; Toni Collette always turns out a good show, even if her role is essentially support. Imogen Poots is sweet and pure as Amy, and I really buy that she’s enamored with Charley (something that, okay, I’ll admit I can’t say about Amanda Bearse in the 1985 version). Our Peter Vincent is the wickedly charming David Tennant, even though he’s a total cad in this (he’s also got some of the best lines, like “Don’t expect me to join your little Scooby Gang,” which is even funnier given Marti Noxon’s background. You Buffy fans get me *wink*). Christopher Mintz-Plasse does a great job as the paranoid and forsaken Evil Ed; it’s so easy to feel for the guy. Plus, his delivery of the iconic line “You’re so cool, Brewster!” brings new meaning to the entire film. And I’ve already praised Colin Farrell, who I definitely think delivers on the complexities of his character. So that leaves us with our Charley Brewster, the late Anton Yelchin, who always brought a sense of realness and intensity to every role he took. To me, Charley Brewster on the page may seem like a generic teenage boy, but Yelchin sincerely brings out his singularity by showing an array of emotion: his pain, skepticism, bravery, hopefulness. Simply, Yelchin makes Charley Brewster more dynamic than I had even imagined he could be.

A final thought: this film is unique because it points out that even vampire movies sometimes pretend to be what they’re not. While I wouldn’t go as far as to call it “meta,” Fright Night 2011 subverts what we’d normally expect out of a vampire movie. It tones down the gothicness and the classical romantic aspects which typically go along with those stories, and basically looks in a mirror and says, “get real.” In an early scene, Charley tries to dismiss Ed’s claims about Jerry by saying, “You read way too much Twilight.” Ed retorts, “That’s fiction! This is real. He’s not brooding, or lovesick, or noble. He’s the fucking shark from Jaws.” This movie is telling us to have fun with fantasy, but when it comes down to it, we need to be able to distinguish between our perceptions on how the world works and how the world really works. We’ve been talking about masking and hiding this entire time, and it’s so very apparent to me this film encourages us not to be afraid of who we really are. And it does so in such a cool, nonchalant way (most likely thanks to Ms. Noxon). I know Fright Night 1985 means a lot to a lot of people, and, in that, I don’t think this film is ever going to top that for them. But really, all I’m asking is that the naysayers give it another chance. Clearly, there’s more depth to it than anyone might have thought.

Elbee

Elbee grew up in Tennessee, but please don't hold that against her. She (mostly) lost her Southern accent by taking a radio job in high school -- a career that, for some reason, she didn't pursue. However, she's still living the dream by hosting and appearing on podcasts, and by writing lengthy articles on movies that may or may not deserve it. She now lives in South Texas ("basically Mexico") where she's discovered the bliss of chamoyadas and Hot Cheetos with cheese.
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