Fright Night | Craig Gillespie, 2011
Fright Night is one of the biggest surprises of the year. I never saw the original, but based on the treatment that studios gave to remake of classic horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, and the recent bastardization of vampires that resulted from Stephanie Meyer’s”Twilight” I did not expect much. I’ve had various opportunities to watch the original, but to be honest, the whole “vampire next door” plot line didn’t really appeal to me. In fact, I would have never even given the remake a chance were I not in a state of obsession over “Doctor Who” and its players (or if it hadn’t been given to me as a present). But thankfully all my fears were put to rest from the first scene.
The movie starts with a view of a suburban street like any other at night. Then we cut to the interior of a house, and scan the area around the kitchen where a cute dog is seen. Then we hear a scream and see a teenager running out of a room. Some bombastic music plays during this, but its not distracting. He moves into what he imagines is the safest place in the house: his parents’s room. But even then, the first thing he sees is their lifeless bodies lying on the ground above puddles of their own blood. Scared and with the thing responsible for this close behind him, he does what any one would do during this, hide under the bed. And from then, we stay with him, until his time to go arrives.
The great thing about this scene is not what happens but how it is handled. Craig Gillespie relied on atmosphere rather than shock and gore to get a reaction out of an audience. The sight of an empty hallway, the dim lighting in the house, a dog aware that there is something happening in its house, a scream, the simple sight of two dead bodies, and a final struggle to survival with visual pomp and circumstance was far more effective than anything the music video directors that Michael Bay hires for his production company have ever done. And from that scene on, because it was so effective, the atmosphere remains, even in the lighter scenes. There is a feeling of threat all throughout that gave me chills down my spine every few minutes. Few horror movies have done that to me, and I love it when it happens.
But the credit for this not only belongs to Gillespie, who did an excellent job here, but also to his director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe. Aguirrosarobe, who had been working in Spain ever since the 70s is no stranger to horror. In fact, his first job in an American film was in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, one of the best films of the last decade, and another horror film that succeeds as a horror movie because of its atmosphere. What he does in Fright Night is similar to what he does in Amenabar’s film. He opts for smooth, slow, and steady camera movements, even in the most intense scenes. The scene where Charlie is trying to help one of Jerry’s victims is a great example of this (just watch it and see what I’m talking about, I don’t want to spoil it). Any other DP, under the guidance of a lesser director would have relied on hyper kinetic visuals and wobbly camera movements to try to inject a sense of realism, but Aguirresarobe is above that. In fact, he know that vampires are the stuff of nightmares and he decides to give it more of a dreamy atmosphere. He took advantage of the softness that digital cameras provide and used some really great lighting (seriously, the lighting is amazing) to make us feel like we were witnessing what could very well be our worst nightmare. His work here will definitely be in my top 10 for best achievements in cinematography.
Of course, the work that Gillespie and Aguirresarobe did would have been nearly wasted had the cast not been as perfect as it was. Anton Yelchin, an actor that I generally find annoying, gives a surprisingly authentic performance as Charlie, the former geek with a hot girlfriend whose neighbor is a vampire but remained ignorant of the fact until after his friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is killed, even after he tried to convince Charlie of the fact. I was most surprised of how he was able to convey fear in such a manner that it never looked as if he was acting. But the best performace of the film actually belongs to Collin Farrell as Jerry. His potrayal of Jerry is so malicious, but so full of joy. Jerry enjoys seeing Charlie struggle because he knows he is superior and Farrell takes this so seriously that you can’t help but actually feel scared because no one should have this much fun killing people. The rest of the cast is also great. Imogen Poots may seem like the token hot girlfriend, but when the time comes to get dirty, she kicks ass. Toni Collette is great as the mom, but she really has nothing to do other than being sassy in a few scenes, then being the worried mom. And finally David Tennant, who also looks like he’s having so much fun elevates the character from the crappy back story that the writers give him.
And so this brings me to the couple of problems that I have with the movie. The biggest one is the script. I mean, it’s fine for what it is, but there are a few things that stuck out. The aforementioned back story given to David Tennant’s Peter Vincent comes out of nowhere and really isn’t that big a plot point during the climax. And from time to time the dialogue is so clunky that had it been delivered by lesser actors it would have been laughable.
The other is more forgivable because it was expected from a 3D movie from a big studio. I watched this movie in 2D at home, and even then the greatness of the cinematography came through. But if there were a few complaint to be had about it is the things that are supposed to fly at you in 3D. If they wanted to have gimmicky 3D, fine they should have been constant and they should have been important things, not just CG blood or a bucket of paint breaking a glass door or something. Those moments were distracting. But like I said, I’m willing to forgive the filmmakers because it was expected.
Elsewhere, the film also excells. The sound design is amazing and adds a great deal to what goes on the screen, the sets built agains the backdrop of the Nevada desert add to the creepiness of the story. And I loved how all the crature effects were not entirely CG. They used practical makeup effects with a bit of help from computer generated images to great effect.
Fright Night may have its flaws, but thankfully just about everyone elevates the movie so that it is not defined by them. Yes, it may have been made to cash in the recent nostalgia trends and the success of Twilight but the care given to it by the director makes it stand out from the pack. It is not only the best of the horror remakes that have come out in the last few years (decade, maybe?), or the best popcorn movie of 2011, but it is one of the absolute best movies of the year.