Saturday, August 20, 2011

Whatever Happened to Real Horror? -- Reflections on "Fright Night" (2011)

I remember the first time I saw The Omen. I was 16, staying up late, and watching a movie with one helluva scary kid on the cover of the VHS tape box. This was in 1993, some 17 years after the movie was first released.  After the movie was done, and Damien's mischievous final glance had faded to black, Jerry Goldsmith's sinister score had me so unnerved by its backward-looped Latin that I had to make sure every light was turned on as I made my way to my bedroom for an uneasy night's sleep.

Whatever happened to that sort of horror movie? The sort that had you uncomfortable just by looking at the cover of the DVD case?

A good horror movie is supposed to be frightening. The most artful go deeper, finding the root of real terror and pinching that nerve till it is virtually unbearable. There is a short list of horror films since the late 70s that qualify for that list -- Frailty, Martyrs, High Tension, The Descent, Audition, Let the Right One In. Most seem to fall into one of three camps: 1) Suspenseful, 2) Gory, 3) Campy. And while there is nothing wrong with any of those three categories, they have all the intensity of a fun Halloween evening in which none of the scares are real.

I say all of this to introduce Fright Night, a film buried deep in the summer season like a bastard child. This is a film that solidly falls into the third camp, yet for moments it taps into something a bit deeper. It has all the grace of a slap and tickle, but all the delights, too.

This is a fairly standard vampire film, and fans of the 1986 movie should already know the basic story. Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a 17-year old former geek who discovers his next door neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a vampire. Charley tries to protect his mother (Toni Collette) and his hot girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), from Jerry and enlists the help of Las Vegas showman/vampire expert Peter Vincent (David Tennant). The basic story is a retread of Dracula and countless other vampire tales. This is why it's camp, because we know what to expect. Director Craig Gillespie lets his film do a little winking from time to time, and gets the sort of meta-fictional laughs that Wes Craven's Scream 4 severely lacked earlier this year.

Surprisingly, though, Fright Night has some teeth under its traditional storyline. By taking its time in the first half-hour to let us get to know Charley through his dorky, loser best friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the movie explores the scary side of being a teenager. Ed is really hurting that Charley has left him behind to hang out with cooler kids and constantly reminds Charley of this transformation. Charley, the movie shows us, isn't that much different than Jerry the Vampire. He's just hurts his victims in different ways.

I'm not saying that Fright Night is a deep movie. By no means. It is simplistic for the most part, but the simple treatment of its coming-of-age themes makes them feel dangerous, even when we're laughing. This is most evident in an early scene between Jerry and Charley in which Jerry asks Charley if he can snag a six-pack of beer from the Brewster's fridge. In this simple exchange of alcohol, it becomes clear that Charley is far from being the man he needs to be as the only man in his father-less family. True terror originates from a feeling of helplessness, and Charley's helplessness provides one of Fright Night's scariest moments.

While Fright Night is still a campy vampire film, it makes a valiant effort to be something greater. In a summer where Scream 4, Final Destination 5 and Transformers 3 are the only "horror" films in theaters, its a relief to see someone making a legitimate horror movie. Hell, screenwriter Marti Noxon, even makes this clear from the start when Mintz-Plasse's Ed becomes offended that Charley would compare the sort of vampires in their neighborhood with those from the Twilight franchise. It's an announcement that anyone looking for pussy vamps can stay away -- only real monsters from here.

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