Fright Night (2011) was penned by former Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004) writer Marti Noxon. The revamped Fright Night turned out to be far from a lame cash-in bit of laziness from Hollywood, it had a genuinely fresh approach to the material (arguably all remakes try to do this, it’s just a lot of them fail for various creative and commercial reasons).
Tom Holland’s 1985 Hitchcock-inspired original is considered a cult movie, though it isn’t particularly one of horror cinema’s sacred cows. It starred William Ragsdale as the heroic lead, Chris Sarandon as the yuppy vampire who moves next door and Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent, a local network television presenter who hosts Fright Night, a series dedicated to old horror films. The remake keeps the basic setup, more or less, makes fan-pleasing references to the 1985 film (via dialogue and repetition of certain scenes), but Noxon’s screenplay is hinged on class conflict–fear based on the proletariat getting too close for comfort and an affable young man’s formative sexual and romantic experiences being encroached upon by misogynistic influences in the form of a vampire, friends at school, geek culture.
In the film, Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is essentially presented with a set of dilemmas surrounding masculine identity and his anxiety at the new-found position he’s attained in the eco system of high school. What kind of man will Charley become? He’s got a hot girlfriend, but he has the stink of being a former nerd over him, Evil Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) serving as a walking-talking reminder of his days as a comic-book dweeboid who dressed up in his backyard as Squid Boy and partook in sword fights with his pals. Fear of the past scares him more than any talk of vampires. Noxon’s script and Craig Gillespie’s direction sets this all up really well, as Charley must decide where he’s heading as a man. What’s interesting about Amy (Imogen Poots), is it turns out she’s quite into him being a nerd and doesn’t want him to change to fit in. Amy shows a great deal of warmth and strength of character; this isn’t a re-run of Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) and Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), from Buffy, where the cheerleader disgusts herself with a compulsion to slum it with a freak. The geek got the girl because the geek isn’t a dudebro wannabe or a jock asshole, even if Charley thinks he has to flirt with this image to get by.
So, Charley has moved from being a former nerd to being among the cool kids. He is unsure and insecure about this. He asks Amy to prom, only for her to respond that seniors do not attend the dance. ‘It’s not cool,’ she says, like her boyfriend is being a Silly Billy. As a faux pas, it’s allowed. It’s nothing too serious. Just before this moment, however, Charley’s new friend, Mark (Dave Franco), berates him for drinking a mochaccino. ‘Seriously, you can’t ride with the girls no more. Do you let them brush your hair?’ It’s a gentle ribbing, but underlines a serious point: Be a man, bro.
The best bits of the film occur in the opening 30 minutes, where it cleverly lays the groundwork for the vampire yarn to unfold with a riveting subtext attached. Noxon establishes Charley as a teenager fretting about being cool enough but also not being man enough. It’s a question most men will think about at some point in their lives, especially in high school if you move out of your initial social circle into something a bit more elite. It depicts male bonding and its accompanying language as inherently sexist and, at its absolute worst, misogynistic. ‘Did you find a frickin’ genie lamp? Make a sacrifice to the Hot Ass Gods? How do you get that?’ Charley’s bro asks, objectifying Amy as ‘that’. Charley engages, though, willing to play along, all in a bid to make him seem cool. ‘It’s just game, man. Rock solid game.’ Later, Evil Ed chides the bros, who have stolen Charley from him, for their misogyny, ‘Don’t you have bitches to go fuck?’ Only for the taunt to fall flat. ‘Yeah, I do, actually.’ Ed is angered with Charley for leaving him behind. There is perhaps a frisson of homoeroticism here, borrowed from its 1985 predecessor. Ed’s world is equally bros-only, but it doesn’t have the bird-dogging element of Charley’s new circle. It’s more about cosplay and making amateur movies, maintaining a childhood innocence, extending the period of growing up before lads begin to notice girls more and more and want to spend less and less time with their friends.
In Noxon’s Fright Night, Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell) is no longer a slick 1980s wine bar type, a version of discotheque Dracula all women find irresistible (though the nightclub scene from the original is included here). Noxon decided her version of Jerry would be a misogynistic construction worker, a killer masquerading as a blue-collar Joe, an outsider in a middle-class neighbourhood, a man with superficial charisma, a psychopath with no desire for human connection. Noxon described her Jerry as being like the shark from Jaws (1975). The fanged monstrosity operates on instinct, sees people as nothing but food (though, he is also building an army of underlings in his crypt-like basement). Evil Ed mentions the shark from Jaw when describing the attributes of the vampire. ‘He’s not brooding or lovesick, or noble. He’s the fucking shark from Jaws!’
Noxon thought creatures of the night had gotten a bit soft and what they needed was a bit of rugged masculinity. Anne Rice’s influence over the genre had been prevalent, followed by Joss Whedon’s Angel (played by David Boreanaz) and then Stephenie Meyer’s creation, Edward Cullen (played by Robert Pattinson in the Twilight Saga). Vampires were enjoyable villains (Lestat), heroes trying to atone (Angel) or teen idols (Edward Cullen). Jerry sticks out from the crowd because he has none of these attributes. He’s the vampire who operates more like a serial killer, a collector of souls. When the sun goes down, he goes hunting.
The remake takes place in an isolated new-build community outside Las Vegas (though the film itself was shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico). Peter Vincent is now a David Copperfield-style magician with a keen interest in the occult, played amusingly by David Tennant, enjoying a residency at a casino with his vampire-themed stage show, Fright Night. His own backstory is tragic and involves a past run-in with Jerry, but mostly he’s in there to provide comic relief. Unfolding after the 2008 financial crash, there’s a noticeable mood of discontent and desolation in Jerry’s new neighbourhood, the life is being drained from it in more ways than one. The American dream has gone down the swanny (again). The place is cut off from the rest of town, making it a good feeding ground for a vampire. Director Craig Gillespie emphasises this with an introductory overhead shot of the desert and the cookie cutter houses, all uniform, all the same, the houses looking like pieces from a Monopoly board.
America pretends it doesn’t have a class system, but it does. In the neighbourhood, we glimpse ‘nice’ families mixing it up with people from lower social strata, but it isn’t presented as a classless ideal. Charley meets a neighbour, Doris (Emily Montague), on her drive. She’s a stripper in Vegas. They make small talk, but it’s clear the lad is eyeing her up, though she’s known him since he was a kid and calls him ‘Char-Char’. She walks back down the driveway, Charley ogling her butt, her jogging pants have the word ‘Lucky’ emblazoned across the butt area. His mum, Jane (Toni Colette), spots him. ‘Hey, kid, don’t leer at the neighbours.’ Charley replies, ‘She’s the one who put the word on her butt. I’m just reading it.’ This short exchange is the first introduction to the film’s predominant theme. Here, though, it is light-hearted, though hints that Charley is hanging around with the wrong crowd, whereas in the rest of Fright Night, it gets much darker, more potentially corrupting.
Jane is an estate agent who seems desperate to sell houses (what, in this economy?). ‘I’m trying to get people to move in, not join the legions leaving town,’ she laments, disgruntled at the mess in her new neighbour’s unkempt front yard. Charley shares this casual snobbery with Jane when Jerry moves next door. Jane complains about the skip in the front yard and when they initially meet their him, it’s readily apparent through Charley’s body language that he is immediately put off and intimidated by the working-class man’s earthy quality, his good looks – which the mother and girlfriend Amy pick up on, delivering a moment of the female gaze. It’s a mixture of class-based fascination and repulsion, at work. Here, Jerry – who they don’t know is a vampire – exudes that classic working joe image, sitting in stark contrast to the middle-class teenager with his plaid shirt, skinny jeans and expensive sneakers. Charley immediately feels inferior. ‘Jerry works night construction, on the Strip,’ Jane says, trying to sound nice about it.
The Las Vegas location change is clever, too. It’s a tourist hub, while there is a local population – who steer well clear of the strip and absolutely loathe to hear ‘It’s Vegas, baby!’ – so many people come and go, the transient nature of the place makes it a great town for a vampire to move about undetected. Charley initially brushes off his new neighbour’s nocturnal habits, by suggesting he’s just construction labourer working nights. Vegas is full of them. Plus, he says incredulously, ‘That’s a terrible name for a vampire. Jerry?’
While other roles in his brilliant career to date will grab more attention, Colin Farrell’s take on the vampire should be up there with the big guns of the genre. It’s really unique and smart. The blankness of the creature pretending to be a man, his superficial charm, his using his handsomeness in exceedingly smug fashion, knowing he has an effect on women, that he spends his downtown sinking brewskis and watching trash television, he epitomises, in Charley’s eyes, a type of boorish blue-collar man you wouldn’t want for a neighbour because it reminds you every day of your own insecurities and failures at being ‘a real man’. He takes notice when Jerry is looking at Amy and how his girlfriend reacts to Jerry.
The initial scenes and interactions between Charley and Jer’ bristle with not only classic Hitchcock-style suspense, but the vampire teasing the kid about this perceived lack of manliness. In one interaction, upon seeing Charley’s sneakers, a pair of puce-coloured Nike’s, Jerry mocks the kid openly, while keeping a straight face, making it all sound like a compliment (when it’s the exact opposite). ‘It takes a real man to wear puce.’
Later on, Jer’ calls at the back door, asking Charley if he’s got any spare brews in the fridge. The vampire’s got a girl coming over and he’s run out. What’s crucial about the dynamics in this encounter is, preceding it, the teenager has watched a video presenting damning evidence against his neighbour. Evil Ed and Adam (their dead friend who first cottoned on to the vampire’s presence on their turf) recorded Jerry returning home, getting out of his car and walking into the house. Only, he doesn’t appear on camera, so it’s all very Invisible Man.
‘Hey, guy,’ Jerry says, appearing out of the blue at the kitchen door. ‘Could you do me a solid?’ It’s a fantastic piece of delicately displayed menace, Farrell leaning forward through the frame of the garden gate, his arms fixed on the posts, manspreading out, invading as much as the space as he can without getting too much into Charley’s grill. ‘Set me up. I’ll pay you back two times, a sixer for your mom and one for you. What do you say?’
Charley is nervous, Jerry stays by the back door and makes small talk. ‘Nice kitchen. Good cabinet work.’ Charley drops a beer, smashing the glass on the floor. Jerry is visibly excited, like it’s time to pounce and kill the kid, like it’s shark attack mode, but he can’t get in, of course, because vampires cannot gain access to a home without invitation. ‘Can I help you with that?’ he asks, but Charley, now scared, says no. Again, although Charley is safe from the vampire at the door, Jerry has spread himself out against the frame, a repeat of the image at the garden gate. He looks at Charley with a mix of suspicion and like a lucky seal that’s just escaped the clutches of his jaws. Another bit of a symbolism in this scene is captured through costume design. Charley is wearing a t-shirt with the image of a pigeon on the front. Jerry is the bird of prey and Charley the smaller bird.
When he hands over the brewskis, Jerry looks around and then switches back into bloke mode, offering advice on women and how to keep them in line. It’s the classic ‘treat them mean, keep them keen’ mentality, with a ghoulish twist. Jerry also uses it as a way to warn Charley to back off. It’s really a crucial scene and brilliantly played by Farrell and Yelchin, the film’s theme and suspense plot dovetailing beautifully in a moment full of electric tension achieved through performance, framing and editing.
‘This girl tonight, she’s a handful, you know. Women who look a certain way…’ He begins to laugh, like it’s a private joke or memory he’s remembering. ‘They need to be managed. It’s true,’ he continues, before becoming for a split second less rigid in pose and more friendly again. ‘Your dad ducked out on you, uh? Your mom didn’t exactly say, but there’s a kind of … neglect. It gives off a scent. If you don’t mind my saying, you’ve got a lot on your shoulders, for a kid. The two of you, alone, and your girl, Amy, she’s ripe. I bet there’s a line of guys dying to pluck that. Your mom, too. You don’t see it … maybe you do, but she’s putting it out. It’s on you to look out for them. You up for that, guy?’ Charley says he is up to the task, but Jerry isn’t playing anymore. ‘There’s a lot of bad people out there, Charley. Everyone’s got to look out for their own business. Thanks for the beers.’
Fright Night is a successful example of a remake charting its own course and benefitting from an excellent cast and a female perspective on the travails of male youth. With the vampire figure as a blue-collar man representing a middle-class suburbanite’s vision of an earthy masculinity, a sense of masculinity he finds seductive and terrifying at the same time, the film is sensitive, progressive, but also contains elements of the reactionary. Middle class men often feel inferior and resentful when meeting the workingman for any extended period of time, so in this regard Fright Night (2011) tilts towards being an anxiety dream, becoming a horror movie projection of fears and worries about measuring up and what it means to be a man.