Twenty years ago the phrase ‘3D cinema’ meant something a little different to what it does now. The whole experience was a kind of cult novelty; the flimsy paper glasses and screenings of decidedly B-level treasures like Comin’ At Ya!, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Spacehunter. Today 3D is synonymous with expense. Think of Avatar, how it raked in millions of dollars and employed countless specialised renderers to focus on just plants, dirt, eyes. Think of Disney favourite Tangled, how the technology to animate Rapunzel’s hair took ten years to develop. Think of how much you forked out for the last 3D ticket you bought, and how the preteen counter girl told you that the glasses were still $2.00 extra.
Craig Gillespie’s remake of 1985 classic Fright Night embodies both poles of this short 3D history, by treading that line between big budget special effects and schlock horror. It certainly checks off the teensploitation trifecta: Babes, Blood and Beasts. This is best captured by its spectacular title sequence, an impeccable work of CGI showing the words scrawled in seeping blood, hung in mid-air, sixty feet high over a desolate Nevada desert plain.
Las Vegas teen Charley (Anton Yelchin) has just managed to rope himself a beautiful girlfriend and a cool set of friends. Naturally, he’s trying to forget his days of filming backyard broom-handle fights in super villain costumes with his comic-con buddy Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). His perfect American locker-room experience runs aground when Jerry, a brooding stallion of a night-shift worker, moves in next door. As Ed is quick to point out, Jerry is a vampire, and needs to be staked before things start to go bump in the night. Before Charleys extra-cool single Mum (Toni Collette) has a chance to accuse her son of losing it, they are racing towards the penthouse pad of a leather-clad casino-magician and collector of occult artefacts called Peter Vincent (David Tennant), who might be their only chance to survive Jerry’s vehement but suave bloodlust.
Fright Night is another of the films being critiqued for over-use of 3D. It’s everywhere. Whilst every opportunity to make us feel arterial blood is flying towards our faces has been taken, generally to shrieks of delight, there are also scenes in which a dog, a classroom, or an apple on a table are given mind-boggling depth. Perhaps this is extraneous, and indeed it may be questionable to realise violence in such a gimmicky manner, but my feeling is that the pervading effect keeps us from paying too much attention to the intermittently questionable dialogue. It’s a highly enjoyable smokescreen. Besides, how many of us opened a pack of Lays hoping we’d won an ordinary Tazo and not a holographic one?
My foremost complaint about Fright Night is that it can’t seem to decide upon an appropriate level of self-awareness. It wavers. One moment it is a gore-fest in which we are asked to care about none of the victims, but simply to enjoy the liberally applied corn syrup and made-you-jump moments. Then suddenly we are ambushed by tracts of banal romantic dialogue between Charlie and Amy (Imogen Poots), the worst offenders. We are clearly meant to invest in their plight. Then all too sudden, that investment is made fun of by David Tennant or Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who seem to have had free reign to customise their roles into wildly comedic character studies. Tennant as a Jack Sparrow-cum-Chris Angel occult enthusiast and Mintz-Plasse (who you will recognise from Superbad and Kick-Ass) as well, the same character as always, a McLovin Mark II. This causes problems when the comic relief has to interact in a serious manner with the other characters. One scene inwhich Jerry persuades Ed to be bitten while the pair is waist deep in a pool felt like a clash of two incompatible worlds, creating a sort of mutant version of the similar romantic scene in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Fortunately, Colin Farrell is pitch perfect. His performance is stylish. He overplays the sex appeal, violence and solemnity in a way that really exemplifies the fun and charm of being a villain. He’s particularly scintillating in a scene in which he stands outside Charley’s doorway, sizing him up and making lewd comments about his girlfriend, at once threatening and jovial. I confess I may have swooned a little at this point and written “give Farrell’s eyebrows an Oscar” in my notes.
Part of the appeal of any vampire movie is the way it makes use of the astounding complexity of historical vampire folklore. There’s a lot of ground to cover when introducing your vampire: Is it invisible in mirrors? Does it balk at crosses or garlic, or walk in the daylight? Can it withstand contact with fire, holy water or silver, and how exactly do you kill it? Stake? Beheading? Unusually, Fright Night skips that exposition. In fact, we find out that Colin Farrell’s Jerry is a vampire so quickly that we are as in the dark about his ‘properties’ as Charlie is. Curiously we end up staring inquiringly at the vampire after each new weapon is tested, waiting for him to tell us whether we (Charley) were any good at attacking him.
Fright Night is first and foremost a gloriously gory monster-thriller, a kind of attack-scene stream of consciousness held together by heart-gripping shock tricks and the brutal massacre of many a gormless civilian. It’s clearly expensive. The locations are atmospheric and well-lit, the Las Vegas dusks providing the perfect amount of optical haziness to give us the jitters without losing sight of the action, and all under rolling cumulus straight out of a Hudson River School painting. The music is brilliant, especially a rendition of 99 Problems in the end credits. Having said this, Fright Night relies heavily on its more seasoned cast members, Collette, Farrell and Tennant, who have a wonderful grasp of the history of 80s' 3D horror films, and without whom it could have stumbled straight to DVD.
This is a film that harks back to that 19th Century understanding of entertainment, in which the freakish, grotesque, mildly pornographic or occult illusions were favourite attractions. Fright Night is tremendous at giving the people what they want: the appalling and the sexy, packaged so that it thrills, rather than genuinely terrifies.