Fright Night is a great movie. Vampires, awesome actors, bloody deaths, cool special effects a splash of romance, what’s not to love? Oh, I should clarify, I’m talking about the 2011 remake, not the 1985 original. I could take or leave the original version but I break out my copy of the remake several times a year. To take it one step further, I submit that the remake is better than the original. Wait, wait, wait, don’t storm off yet. Hear me out.
For what it was at the time, the original, directed by Tom Holland, is fan-frakking-tastic, a tour-de-force of impressive special effects, black comedy blended with gross-out horror, and quirky against-type casting. But today it wilts under its relative lack of plot and internal logic inconsistencies. It’s not that Fright Night is a bad movie. With a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes it’s not even a so-bad-it’s-good movie, but I’d argue a lot of the love it gets today comes from our rose-tinted nostalgia at a campy cult classic.
If the new Fright Night, directed by Chris Gillespie, hadn’t come out smack dab in the middle of the dual crazes for sparkly vampire and sadistic torture porn, and had it not been hampered by 3D gimmicks, it probably would’ve gotten the credit it so richly deserves. All the fun stuff from the original is ported over into the remake, the acting is vastly improved, and where the original treated its premise with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to old school camp and little too much finger-wagging at 80s teen slashers, the remake takes its premise with the serious theatrics of a modern horror movie and a heaping helping of gallows humor. It’s got teen melodrama, sexy vampires, and mounting suspense.
Let’s take a moment and dig into the acting. Contrasting David Tennant and Roddy McDowall (Peter Vincent), Imogen Poots and Amanda Bearse (Amy Peterson), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Stephen Geoffreys (“Evil” Ed) is easier than comparing. This trio appears in both films, but the personalities and backstories are very different in each. Personally, I prefer the remake characters—they have actual motivations, albeit kinda silly ones, and don’t behave like caricatures—but to each their own on that front.
Between William Ragsdale and Anton Yelchin as Charley, Yelchin wins hands down. I mean, it’s no contest. Yelchin elevated everything he was in by simple virtue of his presence. He could act like nobody’s business and Hollywood is a lesser place without his sheer talent. He brings soul and heart to Charley and elevates him from some wide-eyed, frazzled kid to a young man ready to do what’s right even though he’s sure it’s going to get him killed. No shame against young Ragsdale, but he was no Yelchin.
The real work is between Colin Farrell and Chris Sarandon, who also makes a brief stop in the remake as new Jerry’s roadside snack. Sarandon’s Jerry doesn’t work as well without Billy as aide-de-camp (or secret lover, depending on how much homoerotic subtext you’re into), and he’s more creepy than terrifying. Sarandon!Jerry is that guy at the bar who insists on buying you a drink even though you’ve repeatedly said no. Farrell!Jerry is coiled yet smooth, with a cruel smile and a disconcertingly off cadence. He does these weird little swerves and animal-like head tilts that slip between the seams of his human mask.
Sarandon wanted to give his vampire some humanity to make him less frightening, but Farrell didn’t get that memo. His Jerry is an evil sonofabitch and enjoys the hell out of it. He toys with Charley, Amy, and Peter the way a cat does with a mouse, whereas Sarandon!Jerry is more like a bored rich dude with an uncomfortable interest in the goings-on of teenagers. Where Sarandon!Jerry imparts fear by being a chatty Cathy, Farrell!Jerry’s stillness and silence is chilling. He is chaos and sexuality and utter domination incarnate. Sarandon!Jerry is a bad dude; Farrell!Jerry is a goddamn nightmare. As Evil puts it: “He’s a real monster and he’s not brooding or lovesick or noble. He’s the fucking shark from Jaws. He kills, he feeds, and he doesn’t stop until everybody around him is dead.”
Neither movie has a plot that actually, you know, works. In the 1985 version, writer/director Tom Holland crafted some wonky story about how Amy looks like the reincarnation of Jerry’s dead ex and that’s why he goes after her. Or something. Billy is basically Renfield from Dracula, although that’s never explained. Nor is it explained how when he dies he turns into both green goo and gold sand simultaneously, but that’s nitpicking. The 2011 version swings too far in the other direction by giving everyone too much backstory. Jerry is a 400 year old vampire who lives in dirt and is turning random neighbors into a tribe. Peter’s family was murdered by Jerry back in jolly old England. *sigh* Hey writers, protip: not everything needs an origin story.
The remake also understands that it is a horror movie, where the original only occasionally remembers to be scary. Even when the latter circles back to genre terror, it bungles it by dwelling on it for way too long. Yes, it’s cool that the special effects dudes cut their teeth on Ghostbusters and had all these neat tricks to show off, but no amount of SFX can make a 2 minutes and 30 second long death scene exciting. For better or worse, the remake uses the almost entire classic horror dictionary. Farrell slinks around in the background like a sentient shadow, drawing out the fear in his victims and the audience by keeping them constantly in suspense. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Charley and Doris are trying to escape Jerry’s lair and are trapped at the bottom of the stairwell as he walks around the house. We know he knows they’re there and is toying with them—he already half-turned Doris and uses her to mess with Charley’s head—but they think they have one over on him. It’s a tense, silent scene but Jerry’s self-satisfied smirk, Doris’ trembling breath, and Charley’s nervous concentration says everything we need to know.
I think Jerry’s good humor in the original, while making him less evil also works against the tone of the genre. Not until he turns into a demon bat at the end does it ever feel like he even wants to kill Charley or Peter. Yet in the remake, the moment Jerry realizes Charley is intentionally not inviting him in is when he decides to kill him, and the rest of the movie is him moving Charley around like a pawn on a chessboard until he has him right where he wants him. Amy in the original is supposed to be Jerry’s love interest, but in the remake she’s both someone he wants in his tribe and a weapon to use against Charley. However, the new Amy is also brave and strong enough to defend herself against Jerry, where the old Amy is suckered in almost instantaneously.
I think what makes the remake work as well as it does is that it comes with the benefit of two decades of vampires suffusing pop culture. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Moonlight, The Vampire Diaries, Dracula, the Twilight books and movies, the Sookie Stackhouse books and TV show—and that’s not even a quarter of the vampire stuff clogging up our entertainment feeds. When Fright Night came out in the 1980s, it was part of a slew of supernatural horror films, but vamps weren’t exactly taken seriously as big bads. The new Fright Night owes a lot to Buffy, and not just because of Marti Noxon, writer of the 2011 Fright Night script and writer/producer on both Buffy and Angel. Charley is more than a little like Buffy and late-period Cordelia, and Angelus and Jerry would get along pretty well. Jerry is a vampire with strategy and wits to match his brute strength and vicious bite.
I wasn’t planning on writing 1,400 words about my love for the 2011 Fright Night, but here we are. Both Fright Nights feature predictable stories, charismatic acting, and just enough SFX to keep it interesting, but only the remake makes me all giddy inside. It’s not high cinema by any means, but it knows exactly what it is and how to make the most of its limitations. Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin’s performance are worth the price of admission. If you’ve never seen the original or the remake, congratulations, you now have plans for Halloween. And if you disliked the remake, maybe give it another try? Hell, that awesome car chase scene alone is worth rewatching.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.