Monday, August 22, 2011

Wendigo Meets FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)

Nostalgia for the 1980s suffered a double defeat this past weekend when remakes of Fright Night and Conan the Barbarian bombed at the box office. Of the two disasters, the failure of the Fright Night remake is probably more surprising. How could it fail, producers must have wondered, when vampires are more popular than ever and there was a newsworthy "vampire" crime in Texas to generate free publicity for the film on its opening weekend. Naysayers may have offered two words of warning from the beginning -- "Colin Farrell" -- but you can still understand why studio hacks thought they had a sure thing on their hands.

My friend Wendigo thought the remake might work, purely from a box-office standpoint, but he didn't entertain the thought for long. The more he thought about it, the more pessimistic he became. He felt the same way he did when Let Me In came out. Then, pitching a remake of an arthouse cult hit to a mass audience was doomed from the start. Now, the problem is that the Fright Night scenario is obsolete, at least for this generation. What's specifically obsolete is the concept of the lone, predatory master vampire, the representative of Evil who must be destroyed -- and must be destroyed with the power of goodness represented by the Cross. As Wendigo observes, Evil is out of fashion. It's been going out of fashion since Nixon's time, though it made something of a comeback in the Reagan era. Especially since the invasion of Iraq, "Evil" has been exposed, as far as many of us are concerned, as nothing but a label for those we want to destroy. Vampires are rarely seen as Evil now. Instead, they're the Other that must be respected for their difference and their need to find a niche in society alongside the rest of us. They're figures of identification for people who feel like Others or outsiders in modern society. To present a single vampire on screen and make him out to be an irredeemable villain who has to be destroyed is probably equivalent, for many people today, to showing them a hook-nosed Jew and advocating his extermination, or a white-lipped negro and advocating his enslavement. Not just a Fright Night remake but any movie that attempts a traditional Evil Master Vampire is probably doomed these days.

In some respects, the original Fright Night is dated in ways that might make it irreproducible. The producers seemed to think certain elements couldn't be translated intact. Wendigo suggests that the gay subtext that runs through the original dates Tom Holland's film, to the extent that it's all subtext. Jerry the vampire (Chris Sarandon) and his sidekick seem to give off a gay vibe despite Jerry's obvious appetite for women, while Jerry's invitation to Evil Ed could be read as an invitation to step out of the closet, though our knowledge that actor Stephen Geoffreys went on to do gay porn may color our perceptions.

The most obvious change that we can discern from a distance -- neither of us has seen the remake yet -- is the transformation of the Peter Vincent character from a TV horror host to some sort of Las Vegas magician. We hope they didn't do that because they thought there weren't horror hosts anymore. On my cable service I can watch Elvira, Svengoolie and Wolfman Mac on a weekly basis, so it's not as if Charlie, our hero (William Ragsdale), could not still be watching a "Fright Night" type program on weekends. What probably can't be reproduced is the idea that Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) was actually a star of horror films -- and in fact played himself, or took the character name of Peter Vincent as his own. Something very likely to be missing from the new Fright Night, despite its presumed appeal to Eighties Nostalgia, is the original's own nostalgia for an earlier era when horror hosts like Vincent flourished across the country. That quality might render Fright Night something less than an ideal subject for a nostalgic remake.

Of course, the main reason anyone would want to remake Fright Night is because it was a popular and successful film. For Wendigo, the original works as a rare blend of comedy, menace and effective plotting. In retrospect, he recognizes Holland's film as a milestone in the use of makeup and special effects for vampires. Until Fright Night, movie vampires were mostly pale imitations of the horrors you could read about in books. Following up on the pioneering work in recent werewolf films, Fright Night makes its vampires unprecedentedly grotesque and protean. They don't just turn into bats (and Jerry's bat effect is remarkably detailed and animated) but can change their facial features, their most human look being their most effective disguise. Wendigo cites Fright Night as the origin point of what's now commonly called the "grr face," the effect that coarsens a vampire's features, bares his fangs, flares his nostrils, and renders him an inhuman predator. The effect is more effective in this film because we get to see human characters undergo this transformation. But its emphasis on gruesome makeups doesn't come at the expense of Jerry's seductive powers. Chris Sarandon is as convincing as he needs to be when he's seducing Amanda Bearse or simply making friendly small talk with Charlie's mom. Fright Night isn't an advertisement for effects like From Dusk Til Dawn was, but it definitely sells the idea that a lot more can be done with the vampire than had ever been done before.

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Fright Night makes the most of the standard they-won't-believe-me scenario as Charlie desperately tries to convince people that he's seen a vampire attack through his bedroom window -- a Hitchcock homage, perhaps? It works as spectacle because, for one of the last times that Wendigo recalls, a vampire has his full repertoire of folkloric powers and can have them rendered fairly convincingly on screen. Modern movie vampires, by comparison, have a generic package of superpowers; they're strong and fast and that's about it. With the normalization of the vampire a lot of its magic has gone -- and a lot of the pathos of both the vampire and his victims. Jerry turns Ed and Amy into monsters and they suffer for it. Amy wears sexier clothes and her hair grows, but her grr-face is arguably the most monstrous of all. Meanwhile, in one of the film's most disturbingly memorable sequences, Ed dies in extended agony after Peter Vincent stakes his wolf-form. He slowly morphs back into a humanoid form, screaming all the while as the famous vampire killer watches in horror. Ed's apparently unredeemed demise puts Amy's future in jeopardy, but she benefits from the then-popular rule that allows her redemption if her "sire" can be killed in time. The effect of Ed's death is ruined, however, by an ending that teases Ed's survival and sets up a sequel in which Ed doesn't actually appear. Despite Jerry's seductive veneer, these scenes belie the myth of the romantic vampire -- and they clearly have no place in a 2011 vampire film.

Vamprisim in theory (above) and practice (below)

The other element of the story Wendigo likes is its treatment of faith. Fright Night is no religious tract; faith for its purposes means strength of character and, above all, authenticity. This is illustrated in the different results of cross-wielding. At all times, it's easier to turn a neophyte like Ed or Amy with a cross than it is to turn Jerry. That raises the intriguing possibility that a vampire can build up some resistance to holy symbols with experience. But authenticity and sincerity also count, as demonstrated by Peter and Charlie's attacks on Jerry. Having just burned Ed with a cross, Peter swaggeringly confronts the master and hams it up, announcing, "Back, spawn of Satan!" -- and fails completely. But Charlie has better results a moment later. Wendigo explains that, even though Peter is now convinced of the power of the cross, he still doesn't believe in the gravity of the situation or in himself, while Charlie has been convinced of the horror all along and has never swayed from his commitment to Jerry's destruction. Later, Peter will appear to have better luck using his cross on Jerry, and he's noticeably more modest while brandishing his device. The sun is also just starting to rise, so you can credit his success to timing, or to some sort of redeeming self-realization that carries past the crisis to restart his career. He somehow gets his "Fright Night" hosting job back, apparently by finally compromising with changing times and showing creature features like Octaman rather than his moldy old gothic star vehicles. What the lesson is to that I'm not certain, but you probably won't have to worry about it in the remake.

Fright Night may well have saved the vampire movie. There was a time when John Landis couldn't get a vampire comedy made, while werewolves briefly ruled the supernatural-horror roost and slashers dominated the overall genre. Without Fright Night, there probably wouldn't have been a Lost Boys -- not that some of you would have missed it -- and the evolution of the movie vampire may have taken much longer to get going. Holland's movie is probably the best vampire comedy ever (unless you count Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein), and definitely Wendigo's favorite, for the main reason that the comedy never comes at the vampire's expense, and the vampire is never made a clown. Like all successful horror comedies, Fright Night is funny when it wants to be and horrible when it needs to be. It might be true of the remake, too, regardless of whether the public accepts it. We won't know until the DVD comes out -- unless some intrepid reader cares to share.

So just for fun, let's look at the remake trailer, as uploaded to YouTube by NitRamVids. I notice no Peter Vincent at all here; not a good sign....


Kev D. said...

Further proof that, for the most part, remakes are a bad idea, and that someone should go and stop The Thing remake from happening.

RVChris said...

Kev: Actually its a prequel to Carpenter's The Thing, which is much worse.

Also I think the best 80s vampire movie is Near Dark.

Super said...

Wendigo, if you haven't already, give Fright Night a whirl at the theater.

Let me start by saying I am a BIG, BIG fan of the original. It was a special movie from my late childhood and I had many, many repeat viewing on Encore before picking up my gritty VHS tape. When I switched to DVD, the Fright Night bare bones entry was one of my first purchases. I can still watch this movie and it takes me back to happy days, plus it's an awesome movie (I also happen to love the old Hammer movies) and Chris Sarandon walks the rare line of being both monstrous and seductive.

And with all of that said...I loved the remake. I am also thoroughly depressed it has done so poorly at the box office. Many of your comments stand, and it's a surprise that the Fright Night works despite them. There are elements from the original, but it's mixed up enough to be its own movie. There is modern commentary that pulls in how neighbors do not know each other any more to the housing crisis. Colin Farrell is a JERK, and he employs this to great effect in his different version of Jerry Dandridge. Here is a vampire obviously disgusted by the cattle of humanity. He enjoys toying with people and is not afraid to come out into the open. His realism and down-to-earth manner (even in doing terrible things) is incredibly disarming. Again, I don't much care for Farrell, but somehow he took that disdain and used it as a strength in his role.

Charlie is Charlie. Ragsdale was alright in the original and he is at least equaled by Yelchin. I'd argue that the new Evil Ed is better than Geoffreys somewhat grating version. Indeed, the (broken) friendship between Charlie and Ed (something only hinted at in the original) is a point of improvement on the original. Amy is Amy and I don't mind that she's actually hot in this version. :)

That leaves Peter Vincent, who I was most worried about. How can you top McDowell? How can you match that fun horror host vibe? Tenant doesn't try, but gives an incredibly fun performance. He's not down and out and one month from the street. His problem is the opposite. He's been successful and now lives a shallow and ultimately empty life, behind which he hides from any real feelings or relationships. Tenant communicates all of that while being fun to watch.

If you can treat it as its own movie, Fright Night is one of the better times I've had at the theater recently. I won't knock it just because it's a remake, but will say it was a good film. I fully understand the skepticism, but recommend giving it a chance.

Super said...

Ha, and that should be Tennant! :)