By José Teodoro
Tom Holland’s Fright Night, a witty and engaging little sleeper about a high school student who discovers his new neighbour is a vampire and seeks to exterminate him in the face of the usual disbelieving authority figures, surprisingly became the highest-grossing horror movie of 1985. It was overlong, featured no major stars (unless one counts Roddy McDowall) and probably didn’t scare anybody, but it was playful and sly about genre conventions and vampire folklore before such such pop postmodernism became de rigueur. Having procured cult status with period fetishists as much as genre fans, it’s inevitable that Fright Night has been shuttled onto the studios’ seemingly endless remake/recycle assembly line, which has already revisited. Thankfully, Fright Night 2011, directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and scripted by Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer/producer Marti Noxon, defies the cynicism of its origins, retaining nearly everything that made the original engaging (save perhaps the endearingly modest production values and genuinely goofy-looking adolescents) and integrating some interesting new elements.
As with Holland’s film, the new Fright Night finds its footing not in its supernatural MacGuffin but in its underlying sexual tensions. Teenaged Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is mere moments away from losing his virginity with his girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) when he first glimpses his neighbour Jerry (Colin Farrell) up to some nasty business, preoccupying him to the point where he’s unable to perform and Amy understandably leaves in a huff. Even before it’s definitively revealed that Jerry is a vampire, it’s clear that he poses a threat to our hero: unlike Charlie, he’s handsome, muscular, exudes brooding confidence, and has his own car and bachelor pad. What’s more, he’s presented as a possible stepfather figure: Charlie’s real estate agent single-mom Jane (Toni Collette) clearly finds Jerry attractive—as does Amy, for that matter, who during the film’s last act briefly succumbs to his fanged seduction. Jerry undermines Charlie’s nascent sexual potency on all fronts, and, given the careful nature of the plot’s construction, Charlie cannot resume his induction into the ranks of the sexually experienced without first destroying Jerry. So Fright Night becomes the story of what Charlie has to do to get laid, and chief among his Oedipal rites of passage is that he has to prove he can kill.
The killing, of course, doesn’t come easy, and much of the fun emerges from Noxon’s casual yet coherent manipulation of the established rules of vampire-slaying. (The appearance of potential makeshift stakes in the very first scene, in which Jane loads freshly whittled “FOR SALE” yard signs into the back of her SUV, signals the film’s relaxed tone, while reminding us that this story is also to some extent about worries over property value.) Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe emphasizes the agoraphobia and sense of isolation inherent in the Nevada desert suburb setting with moody establishing shots and half-lit interiors, whose smokiness offers a subtle homage to Hollywood aesthetics of the ‘80s. But it’s the cast which makes the new Fright Night a significant upgrade on the original: Farrell’s tendency to twitch and squint his way through a scene is perfectly in keeping with Jerry’s otherness, while David Tennant’s reluctant vampire hunter Peter Vincent (now a Criss Angel-style Vegas showman instead of McDowall’s late-night TV host) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Charlie’s nerdish buddy-turned-bloodsucker perfectly embody Fright Night’s delicate tonal balance, which thrives on humour but takes its vampire business just seriously enough to keep from collapsing into camp.
The only major flaw of Fright Night is its lamentable 3-D, which oddly enough actually flattens out the background in the night scenes and makes the special effects bleary. If only that were the sole problem with the other major late-summer 3-D ’80s reboot, Conan the Barbarian, which strays much farther from its predecessor but proves only more dully generic in doing so. Epic yet economical, John Milius’ 1982 Conan remains a glorious entertainment that also stands as a bona fide film d’auteur. As much as the Milius-scripted Apocalypse Now (which features the same climactic beheading of a god-like leader), Conan, from its opening Nietzsche quote on, is a weirdly fascinating reflection of its author’s libertarian politics and general discomfort with gurus, ideologies, organizations and concentrations of power. The film also reflected Arnold Schwarzenegger’s idealized self-image as sui generis all-conquering superman (and ladies’ man). Whatever else one can say about Schwarzenegger, he is singular, and the sheer size of his body, ambition and vanity infused his career-defining role with an almost literally fantastic presence that probably can’t be replicated.
Which doesn’t keep serial re-maker Marcus Nispel, who has already disinterred The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) Friday the 13th (2009), from trying and largely failing, and not even failing in an especially interesting way. The new Conan first depicts its protagonist in utero, and soon after finds Conan’s dad (Ron Perlman, offering the closest thing to a soulful performance in the film) ripping the child from his dying mother’s womb. As mother takes her first and last glance at her only son, gives him a name and thence expires, dad holds the newborn aloft, groaning long and loudly as he does so, as though Conan already weighed as much as an NFL fullback. The scene is pleasing enough as a dumbly operatic prologue, but Conan’s origin story continues to be dragged out from there on, ending only with dad’s death and young Conan’s knowledge that he was unable to prevent it, instilling our hero with a guilty conscience that’s antithetical to the character’s pure warriorness. In general, the new Conan attempts to freight its characters, villain and love interest included, with far more psychology than its predecessor, yet the overall result is that they are all far less compelling, three-dimensional in the shallowest of ways.
Likewise, the new Conan is chock-full of action sequences (including an early bit that reveals Conan as, of all things, a Robin Hood/pirate figure) yet never gains momentum. It’s as tautological as a video game, which may explain why it more readily recalls Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) than any extant Conan incarnation. The story boils down to Conan (Baywatch veteran Jason Momoa) trying to avenge his father’s death while his adversary Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) tries to magically resurrect his slain wife with the aid of his magical daughter Marique (Rose McGowan, sans eyebrows and sporting fingernail blades; she’s actually pretty fun). The whole steel vs. sorcery theme is never developed, nor is the incestuous tension between Zym and Marique. It’s mostly just fights and fights and humdrum CGI and us in the audience wondering which of these big climaxes will be the last. Here’s hoping Nispel doesn’t get his hands on Mad Max. Or even Conan the Destroyer. In the meantime, brace yourself: needless updates of both Footloose and The Thing (itself, of course, a remake) are nearly upon us. But that is another story.