The new Fright Night is like a desperately needed meal. Sure, it's just a burger and fries and a gallon of Coke, but it really hits the spot. The movie improves upon the original Fright Night, released in 1985, by an order of magnitude. It has smarter direction; a tighter, funnier script; and much better actors—chief among them Colin Farrell, who tucks into his lead role as if it were, well, a desperately needed meal.
Farrell plays Jerry, that most unwelcome of new acquaintances: the vampire who just moved in next door. Nobody takes much notice of Jerry's blacked-out windows, or the growing number of students who've begun failing to turn up at the local high school since he arrived on the scene. Jerry's a charmer, and with his wolfish good looks and tight jeans and body shirts, he's a shining hunk in the eyes of lonely Jane Brewster (Toni Collette), his new single-mom neighbor. However, Jane's son Charley (Anton Yelchin) gets an immediate weird vibe from Jerry, exacerbated by sudden screams in the night emanating from his house. Charley's girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) thinks he's being, you know, silly; but his dweeby pal Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is convinced he's right: Jerry is in fact a vampire. And Ed, a fantasy role-playing nerd, knows just what to do. Pulling out his ready-to-go vampire kit—a duffle bag filled with crucifixes, wooden stakes and whatnot—he tells Charley it's their job to put an end to this abomination. You knew this would have to happen, and you're naturally happy it will.
Screenwriter Marti Noxon—a veteran of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer series—has worked a clever change-up on the original film, relocating the action from an anonymous small town to a desert suburb of Las Vegas. This allowed her to adjust Peter Vincent, the story's quasi Van Helsing character, from a TV horror-movie host (memorably played by Roddy McDowall in the first picture) to a big-room stage illusionist (played by David Tennant) at the Hard Rock casino-hotel. Slot-feeding rubes flock to his elaborate show, with its drifting banks of fog and levitating devil-ladies, but Vincent has no use for real-life supernatural nonsense. So when Charley—having lost Ed to an unfortunate encounter with the object of their investigation—comes looking for help, Vincent is instantly dismissive. "Jerry?" he says. "Jerry the vampire?"
Director Craig Gillespie—hereby pardoned for his complicity in Lars and the Real Girl—has constructed some slick horror scenes, starting with an opening smash-and-grab vampire attack and proceeding through a tense bloodsucker showdown in a swimming pool to a mad chase down a lonesome desert highway (which occasions a cameo appearance by Chris Sarandon, who played Jerry in the original movie). This Fright Night is also, inevitably, in 3D; but Gillespie knows just how to use that now-rampant technology. No subtle "depth effects" are bothered with; instead we get the full complement of delirious cheese—blood spurting off the screen, burning cinders floating out before our eyes, and all manner of alarming items hurtling into our face. Excellent.
Anton Yelchin admirably sidesteps the teen-hero clichés that littered the first movie, and deftly underplays his funniest lines. Imogen Poots is also just right, rising above her character's trite teen-babe conception with a level-headed warmth and banishing all recollections of Amanda Bearse, the actress who massacred the part in the original. And David Tennant—an actor who looks as if he's been tied in knots and tossed in a corner—is ideally cast as the twitchy, absinthe-swilling Vincent.
Toni Collette isn't given a lot to do, and Mintz-Plasse's nebbishy bluster may be getting a little too familiar. But the movie's minor flaws are vaporized whenever Colin Farrell slinks onto the screen. The musty vampire tale may be shopworn, but Farrell charges it with a fresh comic enthusiasm, fighting back a fangy snarl while chatting up one of his intended victims and hissing in mild irritation at a stray shaft of sunlight as he carefully edges around it. The actor may be over-qualified for the part of Jerry, but he gives it his all. And when he looks down at Charley's oddly hued new shoes and says, "It takes a real man to wear puce," you know you're in the presence of a too-often-underrated master. To the role of what might otherwise have been a rote demon, he brings real bite.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.