Review: Fright Night 3D

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

One of my fondest memories of the ’80s was going to a sneak preview of a then-unknown little film called Fright Night and discovering a real gem, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting—while simultaneously dreading—the remake with Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin.

The good news is…it’s good!

The story has quite a few revisions, and most of them are well-judged. For those of you familiar with the original story (and I’m sure you all are), the action has been transferred from the “Leave it to Beaver”-style neighborhood to one of those creepy Poltergeist-style housing developments in the suburbs of Las Vegas. Even creepier is the fact that the collapse in the housing market has caused many families to vacate, leaving many of the homes dark and empty. Setting the story in Vegas also serves another purpose—since so many of the city’s residents work at night, a vampire could easily infiltrate the populace without notice. It’s a real suburban nightmare.

This Fright Night is much, much darker than the original. The 1985 version was a product of its times, almost a John Hughes horror movie enlivened by generous dollops of comedy before it turns serious in the third act, while the remake takes a grimmer, more cynical approach from the outset.

Yelchin’s Charley is far more complex than William Ragsdale’s original, and his relationship with Evil Ed is better realized. If you stopped to think about it, in the original, Charley’s friendship with Stephen Geoffrey’s super-geek didn’t really make any sense, but here Ed (played much more seriously by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is Charley’s ex-best friend, having been cast aside for the “cool kids” at school…and he really resents it.

Charley’s girlfriend Amy, here appealingly portrayed by Imogen Poots, is one of the aforementioned “cool kids” and is clearly out of his league, but she digs his nerdiness. And this Amy is anxious to go all the way with him, in a complete reversal of Amanda Bearse’s virginal version of the character. Plus—with apologies to Bearse—Poots looks more age-appropriate. Playing Charley’s Mom, Toni Collette has more to do than the earlier film’s Dorothy Fielding, finding herself at the receiving end of Jerry’s attacks, while Fielding remained oblivious throughout.

Farrell is the casting triumph in this one. He projects an animalistic sex appeal as Jerry, and the actor looks like he’s having a good time with the role. And Jerry is all alone in this one. There’s no Billy Cole to run interference for him, but this vampire doesn’t need a human sidekick. Whereas Chris Sarandon relied on old-fashioned suavity to lure his victims, Farrell is an instinctive, bloodthirsty animal, and he barely bothers to hide it.

Only one character—that of Peter Vincent—made me long for Roddy McDowall’s original portrayal. David Tennant (“Dr. Who”) plays Vincent as a Las Vegas performer, and instead of a horror movie TV show, “Fright Night” is now a gimmicky stage act inspired by Criss Angel, with a dollop of the unctuous Russell Brand thrown in. We only see a glimpse of Vincent’s act; the rest of the time, he’s drinking, whining and scratching his balls. The last-minute revelation of his past history with Jerry doesn’t resonate, and when Farrell delivers the iconic line, “Welcome to Fright Night…for real,” it’s a shame. It doesn’t totally ruin the film, but Tennant’s Vincent is an annoying lightweight compared to McDowall’s magnificent depiction.

Many other plot points and characters are reversed in the remake. Instead of Charley discovering that Jerry is a vampire, Ed is the one who finds out, and it isn’t until he mysteriously disappears that Charley begins to investigate. And this Jerry behaves more like a serial killer, having constructed a hidden passageway in his house containing a series of small rooms that he can lock his victims in and feed on them at his leisure. Ed’s transformation and climactic confrontation with Charley is an improvement, and there’s a gag involving a Century 21 “For Sale” sign (Charley’s mom is a realtor) that’s a gas.

As I mentioned earlier, the film is much darker, both figuratively and literally. Of course, the 3D format reduces the brightness, but even so this Fright Night has very few daytime scenes, and it actually worked for me, creating a kind of nightmare world where the night never ends. Few glimpses of the gaudy Vegas strip are seen. Most of the action takes place in Charley’s awful, semi-abandoned neighborhood and the dark outskirts of town. The darkness also serves to punctuate the 3D: there are some nice geysers of blood and bits of burning ember floating out of the picture.

As far as the effects go, I preferred the KNB EFX Group’s old-fashioned makeup used early on in the film, but when the vampire transformations become more extreme, the filmmakers resort to CGI, which just isn’t as…well, I can’t say realistic. How about organic? Sadly, one of those CGI effects is the reveal of Amy’s vagina dentata face, which isn’t nearly as fun as the original’s.

Screenwriter Marti Noxon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) made mostly good choices in updating the plot and characters while giving some affectionate nods to the original, and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) does a fine job providing many sequences of dread during which you find yourself scanning the dark perimeters of the screen, anxiously awaiting a 3D horror to come flying out at you.

Will it stand the test of time as well as Tom Holland’s original did? Probably not. The 1985 version will always be fondly remembered (and revisited) by the first home video generation, and it’s got an old-fashioned charm that welcomes repeat viewing more than the remake. Still, I recommend seeing this one in 3D for a fun, fang-filled evening.

Teen Vamps

I’m sure teenage girls all over America are beside themselves with excitement as they count down the last few hours before the release of Twilight: Eclipse and the return of the sparkly vampires. I’ve only seen part of the first one while waiting in a doctor’s office, and that was enough to tell me that these films were definitely not made for me. Hell, Kristen Stewart bites her lip more frequently than the vamps bite anything else!

But in the 80s, a pair of vampire movies featuring teenagers appeared on the screen, much like vampires themselves, as an unexpected and delightful surprise. And even though they had youthful casts, they were still rated R and delivered the nastiness and red stuff that one expects from a good post-Hammer vampire flick. They’ve also become generational classics.

NOTE: Spoilers follow, but if you haven’t seen the films I’m about to talk about, where have you been?

In 1985, I read in the newspaper that a local theater was going to hold a Saturday night sneak preview of a new horror film, the legendary Fright Night (1985). It was such a simpler time. I knew nothing about it. There were no TV spots, no cast interviews on Good Morning America, no dedicated Web site…just an awesome poster that convinced me that I had to be there.

Arriving at the theater to catch the last 15 minutes of St. Elmo’s Fire (which was enough), I spent the next couple of hours absolutely enthralled by what was happening on the screen. Fright Night seemed so unique—in one respect, it was a goofy teen movie, but on the other hand, it was a full-blooded horror film with surprising moments of darkness.

When we first meet high schooler Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), we see a a typical teenage nerd. He loves horror movies; he has fumbling make-out sessions with his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse); and his only friend seems to be the uber-geek “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys). But when the omnivorous Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) moves in next door with his live-in male “companion”, Charley discovers that he’s a bloodsucker when he accidentally sees him feeding on a local prostitute. No one will believe him, of course, so he turns to local horror TV host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) for help, believing that he’s an authentic vampire hunter and is the only one who can save him.
Sarandon is great as Dandridge. Majestic, campy and scary when he needs to be, he manages to seduce the entire cast, except for the one he wants most to bring under his spell—and that’s Charley. McDowall was born to play Vincent. His transformation from embittered, faded horror star to valiant vampire killer is master class, and he brings true pathos to Evil Ed’s death scene.

Bearse looks too old for the part from the get-go, but her later sexing-up and vampire makeover make you realize they needed an actor with more maturity for these scenes. Ragsdale hits the right notes, and Geoffreys is alternatively grating and funny as the spastic Evil—although his seduction by Dandridge and subsequent staking by Vincent—are uniquely moving and add a welcome note of melancholy.

Fox Television must have said, “Hey! Let’s get those kids from Fright Night!” because next thing you know, Bearse moved to the long-running “Married With Children” and Ragsdale starred in the shorter-lived “Herman’s Head.” Geoffreys went on to 976-EVIL, directed by the original Freddy Kreuger himself, Robert Englund, before setting off on a career in gay porn in the 1990s.

A 1988 sequel, with Ragsdale and McDowall reprising their roles, was not nearly as successful as the original. This time Charley is in college and finds himself seduced by Dandridge’s sister, Regine (Julie Carmen), who wants revenge for her brother’s death. There are a few unusual scenes in the film and Carmen is exotic, but it can’t compare to the original. McDowall was nominated for an Academy Award this time around (to make up for the fact he wasn’t nominated for the first one). I saw it at the drive-in during its brief theatrical run, and then it hit the video shelves.

1987 brought The Lost Boys, which introduced the formidable team of the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman). Dianne Wiest stars as Lucy (get it?), a recent divorcee who moves back home with her sons, Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Haim) to live with her cantankerous father (Barnard Hughes) in Santa Carla, a Santa Cruz-type coastal California town proclaimed by local residents to be the “murder capital of the world.” Lucy begins dating the owner of the local video store while Michael falls in with a gang of motorcycle toughs, led by David (Keifer Sutherland).

It doesn’t take long for David to reveal his gang’s true nature to Michael—they’re all vampires, and they want him to join in the bloody fun. At first Michael resists, but he is drawn to Star (Jami Gertz), a not fully transformed vamp they seem to be holding captive, and of course he starts making hormone-driven bad decisions. When he shows up floating outside Sam’s bedroom window, the younger brother enlists the aid of a pair of strange locals, the Frog brothers (Feldman and Jamison Newlander) to help rescue him.

Sutherland brings a feral intensity to his performance, and Patric is channeling Jim Morrison big time. To reinforce the similarity, “People Are Strange” is used on the soundtrack at the beginning of the film and there’s a Doors poster in the gang’s underground lair. Wiest provides appropriate normalcy to the proceedings, and Hughes is pretty hilarious as the crotchety grandpa.

But what’s the deal with Haim’s character? Is he a queen in training? At one point, he’s taking a bubble bath while singing the female part of a blues song in falsetto. You also see him wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Born to Shop” imprinted on it. He has a sexy pin-up of Rob Lowe in his bedroom, and his fashion sense…well, let’s just say he got into Jennifer BealsFlashdance wardrobe.

Nevertheless, it’s got effective humor, a good score, surprisingly nasty killings and a few nice twists to keep it moving. And the atmosphere is great. I love a boardwalk amusement park at night. It’s unavoidably creepy. The film was a huge hit, and the Coreys had a career for the next decade or so.

At the 2008 Comic-Con in San Diego, the long-awaited sequel, Lost Boys: The Tribe was being heavily promoted. I was thrilled to see that there was going to be a special midnight screening of the film right after the Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge. Feldman, reprising his role from the first film, was on hand to provide an introduction, and I was all set to see the long-awaited sequel to a great film.

Boy, was I ever disappointed. Essentially replaying the plot from the first film, except replacing the two brothers with an orphaned brother and sister (complete with incestuous overtones), it was lackluster and dismally acted. Sutherland’s half-brother, Angus, took the role of the head vampire, and he was just awful. I didn’t even stay until the ending. Hell, I even got a vampire makeover at the Warner Home Video booth earlier in the day, providing them with a free moving billboard at the convention! Hmph!

Now the remake of Fright Night has been announced for 2011 in 3D. The cast certainly sounds promising: Colin Farrell as Dandridge, Anton Yelchin as Charley, Toni Collette as Mom and “Dr. Who” David Tennant as Vincent. Superbad‘s Christopher Mintz-Plasse, an acquired taste to be sure, is set to play Evil Ed. It’s also going to be set in Las Vegas, so there may be some sparkly vampires around. Dreamworks in producing and Disney is releasing. All I can say is it better not be rated PG-13!

Smashing Birds

Now that’s I’ve gotten your attention, the topics of this post is not Avian abuse—rather the English actresses whose presence brightened (or darkened, if applicable) cult and horror films from the ’60s and ’70s. I’ve already discussed the great Barbara Steele and the tragic Lynne Frederick in previous posts, but here are a few of my other favorites.

1. Judy Geeson. Pert, blond—and made for the sex kitten roles she played in the 60s’—she got her big break playing Sidney Poitier’s infatuated student in 1967’s To Sir, With Love, and has worked in almost every genre since. She made English “naughties” like Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967) and Prudence and the Pill (1968) but her first appearance in our genre was playing Joan Crawford’s psycho daughter in the hilarious circus horror film Berserk!, previously discussed here.

Other genre appearances include 1972’s environmental horror Doomwatch for erstwhile Hammer competitor Tigon Pictures; the 1973 psycho thriller It Happened at Nightmare Inn for (directed by Eugenio Martin, who also helmed the wonderful 1972 Horror Express); and the sluggish Dominique (1978) with Cliff Robertson and Jean Simmons.

But in 1980 she answered the call of cult director Norman J. Warren and took the leading role in Inseminoid, an Alien ripoff that features Geeson, impregnated by a space creature, running insanely around a ship and killing the other crew members. It’s cheap and it’s tacky, and Geeson screams and wiggles her tongue around a lot. It also co-starred Stephanie Beacham, and both actress have distanced themselves from the film.

Here’s the trailer, to give you an idea of the level of filmmaking I’m talking about. Warning: there is some sleaziness.

In 1984 Geeson moved to Los Angeles and began doing guest spots on just about every popular television show, from “The A-Team” to “MacGyver” to “Mad About You” and “Charmed.” She most recently appeared in three episodes of “Gilmore Girls,” and has her own antique shop in Beverly Hills.

2. Pamela Franklin. Attractive and intelligent, Franklin specialized in precocious children and teenagers but managed to bridge the gap to adult roles as she matured. She made her startling debut in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), playing one of the possessed children. In 1965, she appeared as the teenage neighbor of a boy who thinks Bette Davis is trying to kill him in The Nanny.

In Our Mother’s House (1967), also for Jack Clayton, she played part of a family of children who, fearing being taken to the orphanage when their religious fanatic mother dies, bury her body in the back garden and carry on business as usual. This one’s awfully hard to see in the States; it sounds really intriguing to me. It also features Dirk Bogarde and Oliver!‘s Mark Lester. She was also in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), the film she’s probably best-remembered for.

1973 brought my favorite Franklin film: The Legend of Hell House. She and Roddy McDowall play a pair of mediums who are brought to what is referred to as the Mount Everest of haunted houses by a scientist hired to examine the place. Supernatural phenomena abounds, and her character gets treated really badly. She gets attacked by a cat, raped by a ghost and ends up crushed under a giant crucifix. It’s fun and creepy, and it really pushes its PG rating. I love the scene in which Gayle Hunnicut, all sweaty and supernaturally horned up, hits on McDowall. Read the following aloud and use the elipses for two-second pauses: “You…me…that girl…naked….drunk…biting!” There’s a bit of it in the trailer:

After Hell House, Franklin moved to Hollywood and began doing lots of television. She enrolled in Satan’s School for Girls (1973) and did so many guest spots that her CV reads like a history of American TV in the 70s. She did two films for Mr. B.I.G. himself, Bert I. Gordon, the misguided Necromancy (1972) and Food of the Gods (1976), her last theatrical feature.

I haven’t heard of her doing any guesting or convention appearances since she stopped working officially, so I guess she’s just happy in retirement.

3. Susan George. With her blond hair, full lips and full figure, George perfectly captured the look of the ideal “bird” of the ’60s and ’70s. I guess you could call her “earthy.” She played Lolita to Charles Bronson’s Humbert Humbert in Twinky (aka Lola) in 1969 and a babysitter in peril in 1971’s Fright.

That same year she made Die Screaming, Marianne! for notorious sexploitation/horror director Pete Walker as well as the controversial Straw Dogs for Sam Peckinpah. In Dogs, she plays the sexpot wife of milquetoast Dustin Hoffman, who exacts a violent revenge when she is gang raped by a gang of local toughs. The harrowing rape sequence is all the more squirm-inducing when she appears to begin enjoying it.

In America, her exploitation career began in earnest with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, also starring Peter Fonda, and A Small Town in Texas. Her crowning achievement, at least as far as Weird Movie Village goes, is 1975’s Mandingo, directed by Richard Fleischer. Based on the popular trash novel by Kyle Onstott (which I read at the tender age of 13!), it’s big studio (Paramount) slavery sexploitation at its most appalling. George plays Blanche, a supposedly virginal Southern belle who marries Hammond Maxwell (Perry King), son of a powerful plantation owner.

On their wedding night, Hammond discovers Blanche isn’t a virgin after all and rejects her. He turns to his slave, Ellen (Brenda Sykes), whom he’d already been in love with. In retaliation, Blanche begins bringing Hammond’s prize Mandingo “buck,” Mede (Ken Norton) upstairs for some heavy-duty sexing and becomes pregnant with his child. Hammond is forced to kill them all to preserve his reputation.

My God, it’s a sleazy film. It features graphic whippings and other tortures, “wenches” preparing themselves for devirginization by their “massas,” and young children, referred to as “saplings,” being used as footstools by the cast, including James Mason as Hammond’s father!

Here’s a scene where Blanche discovers Ellen’s true relationship with Hammond and metes out her punishment. This’ll give you a good idea of the sleaze factor.

It was hard to top such a career peak, and George made a few more genre films, including Tintorera, for Rene Cardona, Jr., Venom with Oliver Reed and Klaus Kinski, and the bizarre Japanese-American co-production, The House Where Evil Dwells with Doug McClure. Reportedly she also recorded an album with then-fling Jack Jones!

Today George raises horses along with her husband, Simon MacCorkindale, at their stud farm, Georgian Arabians.

Yes, there are certainly more smashing birds to be mentioned, but these are the first three that come to mind. I’ll continue this theme later. The Woman of Hammer Films definitely deserve a post of their own.