Remaking a film falls under the old adage: “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”
Netflix reviews or more accurately, article comments are dotted with such phrases like: “the film is old” or “it’s dated.” Better yet, “it’s foreign.” All three signify a concern in American pop culture: a fixation on the superficial and a refusal to give anything deemed “old” a chance, largely by a generation that prides itself on ignorance and is unappreciative for the previous work done by others that affords it the indifference it treats anything deemed unworthy of its attention.
Horror is a breeding ground for remakes, but the focus of this article will be the 1985 horror hit “Fright Night.” The recent 3D remake of yet another 80’s horror film underscores not just the needless exercise in remaking films, but shows that audiences have become truly cynical in the product they pay for.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a remake if it is done for the right reasons: one being if the first film had incredible potential but not fully realized due to budget or even technological limitations. Even here the decision needs to be made carefully.
While there are dozens of examples, “Fright Night” best exemplifies the purpose of this article.
“But I liked the new “Fright Night“!” This is not about “liking” something. Everyone has their own taste and this is not what’s up for debate. One of principle pieces of this article is that while the original 1985 film endured all these years to become a remake, the remake itself will not be remembered with the affinity of the original. To be clear, I didn’t find the remake to be a “bad” movie, it simply was a needless one and there was no need to affix the title “Fright Night” to it. This is similar to the 1998 “Godzilla,” had they just given a different title, the issues could be more readily forgiven. The 1998 “Godzilla” was not Godzilla except in title only. It was more akin to “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.” The 2011 “Fright Night” was more like “Rear Window” with vampires and little else.
Why? Because the remake has nothing to say.
The posters themselves evoke not just two different films, but also tone and relevance. The left poster for the remake evokes “Twilight”, the angst-ridden youth on a mission with the androgynous vampire looming over. Brooding, dark and ultimately…style over substance. The 1985 poster brings to mind a bizarre carnival kind of feel, and oddly enough, a sense of fun. The clown-like vampire(ess) and the demonic shapes it takes on all flowing from the house across the street with the silhouette watching overall. Both represent two distinct times, but only one is true to the nature of its title.
Horror is one of the purest of genres. It works best when it is honest. It falls flat when it has an agenda.
This brings us to both “Fright Night” films.
Tom Holland’s beautifully written and directed 1985 film is a loving tribute to the era of old vampire films of Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi and in a wider sense every schlocky creature feature that entertained generations on Saturday afternoon “Creature feature” TV shows. He deftly handled the screenwriting for the 1983 “Psycho II,” easily one of the best sequels ever made, and deliciously realized in Holland’s brilliant script.
Holland’s “Fright Night” reminds us of the cheesy hosts of these shows all around America– hosts like Zacherley, Dr. Shock, Uncle Ted, Vampira and the list goes on. The closest thing to this since the 1980’s would be Elvira, Mistress of The Dark. These were folks who had day jobs, but once a week put on some monster makeup, stood on a badly lit local studio set and had fun with us during the commercial breaks of B movies.’
By the summer of 1985, those days were already in the rear-view mirror as the VCR and cable had pretty much wiped out the old time shows as people now chose their programming. The film’s success resurrected the vampire film. Literally, without “Fright Night” there would have been no “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or (and this would not have been a bad thing) no “Twilight” as well.
No one expected “Fright Night” to be a hit. It was tossed out in the dog days of August as an end of summer throwaway (after such films as “Back to the Future, Weird Science and Mad Max III” tore things up). Within a week “Fright Night” moved from the smallest to biggest houses in multiplexes. By that fall it was the number one horror film shown on college campuses around the United States. I know because I saw it at Penn State and Bloomsburg and talked with others who were catching it as college night fright flick. Why?
Because “Fright Night” was fun. It invoked a period of film long gone and was not so much a tribute to it as it was mourning its passing. This could be summed up in Peter Vincent’s rant to Charley Brewster outside the studio that just fired him.
“Apparently your generation doesn’t want to see vampire killers or vampires either! All they want are demented madmen running around in ski-masks hacking up young virgins!” — Peter Vincent, “Fright Night”
The second part of that quote could be amended today to include sparkling vampires, CGI monsters, zombies, sadistic doctors and inbred hillbillies. People who watch the 1985 film often say to me, “I don’t get it. It was dumb. It didn’t make sense.”
Jerry Dandridge is a vampire. He kills people. Charley finds out, no one believes him and he gets Peter Vincent to help dispatch the vampire. What’s not to get? What they don’t get are all the nods to previous horror films BECAUSE THEY NEVER SAW THOSE FILMS and have no point of reference. For this new generation (I sound like Peter Vincent) the closest they come to clever referencing is “Scream.”
And you know why they didn’t see those horror films? Because they’re old. Therefore they don’t matter and couldn’t possibly be entertaining. How dare someone be asked to watch something more than two years old.
Here are some actual questions I got from people I recommended “Fright Night” to watch. All of these people are 25 years old and under.
Q: “So like why is this kid watching all these old movies and why does he like them so much?”
A: In the days before texting, IM, Xbox and Warcraft there were things called three channels, basic cable and imagination. People also watched old movies because Hollywood had not really caught on to the cynical idea of recycling the same stories with slicked up newer versions to fool you.
Q: The vampire seemed gay to me. Why was he dressed like some 80’s model?
A: And sparkling, feminine, shirtless underwear model vampires who are prettier than their female counterparts are any better? Throughout vampire lore, the vampire’s sexuality has always been a blur. Dracula hints at homosexuality as well, whether male or lesbian attraction. Vampires are dead from the waist down. Intercourse for them is feeding. The exchange of fluids for a vampire is a transfusion and this goes back to the earliest vampire tales.
Oh yeah, it also takes place in 1985, hence his 80’s fashion. Not to mention vampires are almost always fashion plates (except for those animalistic brutes like in 30 Days of Night or similar films).
Q: Why does the girl’s hair get suddenly long after she is bit and then back to normal when they kill the vampire?
A: In the old Hammer Film vampire movies like: Brides of Dracula, Dracula Prince of Darkness, Terror of Dracula, the female victims are usually sexually repressed, conservative British types who literally never let their hair down. They have boring fiancees and lead stuffy, boring lives.. Then along comes that sexy undead Count who shakes things up a little and does a little tooth sex romp on her neck and before you can say “Twilight” she’s liberated. This transformation was usually shown by an increase in the woman’s bust line and her hair was not only down, it seemed to gain inches in length overnight. It’s a stylistic thing, not a continuity error, and it became a hallmark of those old-time films. When the vampire was killed, things went back to normal. It’s intentional.
Q: What do you mean “Hammer” films? What’s that?
A: Hammer was and still is a British film studio which put out unique spins on old horror material and basically created a whole new sub genre in horror that was built around grand old actors like Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. Many consider Lee’s portrayal of Count Dracula superior to Bela Lugosi’s iconic count.
Roddy McDowell’s character, “Peter Vincent” is a a play on words from the old Hammer days. It’s a combination of “Peter Cushing” and “Vincent Price.” Of course if you never saw any of these films then you wouldn’t know that. PETER Cushing on the left. VINCENT Price on the right. Put ’em together and you get PETER VINCENT
There are plenty more but hopefully you got the point. The simple fact is that the 1985 “Fright Night” was meant to be a fun tribute for people who remembered a better time in their entertainment. Its tagline makes this point clear: “If You Love Being Scared It’ll Be the Night of Your Life.”
Roddy McDowell’s performance as Peter Vincent is nothing less than fantastic. From the deliberately bad grey stage hair coloring to his over the top “I am Peter Vincent, Vampire Killer!” (in a nod to Roman Polanski’s vampire misfire, “The Fearless Vampire Killers”) McDowell’s unique British accent, his meek yet dignified manner gives credence to his broken horror movie star. Vincent now has to slum on late night local cable, hosting his own films, having his face rubbed nightly into the fact that his best days are now behind him. He nails the cheesy acting in his own films and as a horror host and yet transforms into a genuine hero when forced to confront Jerry Dandridge, the real vampire.
Billy Ragsdale’s Charley Brewster is your average nice guy, but intentionally a little boring. He’s a direct nod to the Jonathan Harker style male lead of previous films who in the end has to man up and inject a little daring-do into his life to save his woman from the dangerous, yet exciting vampire.
Amanda Bearse, best known for going on to FOX’s “Married With Children” as Marcy Darcy, plays Ragsdale’s sexually repressed, uptight girlfriend, Amy. Again this is a nod to the style of woman mentioned above. She’s not so exciting herself until she’s bit and then becomes a hellcat of a vampire. The climactic scene in the basement has her trying to entice Charley with her new sexual prowess, sinfully asking him, “What’s the matter Charley? Don’t you want me anymore?” And for a moment, it looks like Charley does want her.
Stephen Geoffries “Evil Ed” character is a correlation to Renfield and played at times for comic relief but then deadly pathos after Ed gives in and takes Jerry’s offer of eternal life. His confrontation with Vincent is classic, and plays the psycho vampire henchman well. He gets credit with one of the most famous lines of the film, “You’re so cool, Brewster!”
Chris Sarandon’s vampire, Jerry Dandridge is the stylish, updated vampire for the 80’s. His long, pleather grey trench coat stands in for Count Dracula’s flowing cape. His perma-waved hair and dark good looks are matched by a dark wit as he whistles “Strangers in the Night” as he invades Charley’s home and readies to kill him. Jerry has fun with the old vampire myths such as “A vampire can’t enter your home unless invited by the rightful owner.” When Charley comes downstairs to find his mother unwittingly invited a vampire into their home “for a couple of drinks”, Jerry responds with a line dripping with fun sarcasm, “What’s the matter Charley? Afraid I wouldn’t come over without being invited?” Another testament to the brilliance of the writing.
Sarandon’s vampire eats fresh fruit and takes time to dance seductively in a disco before absconding with Charley’s girl. He plays it right, going over the top when needed in scenes where Charley thrusts a cross in his face, and then subtle-cool when getting inside Peter Vincent’s head. All of this is deftly done by Tom Holland as director and screenwriter. It is clear Holland knows his horror but he never becomes cynical to betray it for the sake of a buck. He never forsakes his material or the respect for the genre. He treats it with affection and made “Fright Night” with passion and childhood fondness.
The same can not be said for the 2011 remake. I read the script a year before the film was released and knew it was in trouble only ten pages in.
The film is slick. It boasts top of the line CGI effects and has good performances, especially Colin Ferrell’s Jerry Dandridge. However the film is hollow and empty and underneath its slick package, it’s just an empty box.
This was a remake for the sake of a remake. Why call it “Fright Night?” Why not just make new character names and call it something else altogether? See that’s Cynema: you trade off the name brand recognition. You snag the old generation of fans who will hopefully ring their kids and yet you snag a new generation that has no friggin’ clue about the original because “it’s old” and yet see something they have no idea is connected to something else.
The remake is built with ignorance as a key component. Peter Vincent means nothing in this film. In the 2011 version he’s some sort of low rent Chris Angel and nothing more. His symbolism connects to nothing in the vampire genre: not literature or even previous films. Vincent is a plot device and nothing more.
Jerry Dandridge is still cool and sexy but this time around there is a nod to the torture porn genre as Dandridge keeps his victims prisoner in cells inside his suburban home where they are subjected to horrors beyond our imagination. Call me crazy, but keeping female victims prisoner in your suburban development home is not exactly the way to stay off the radar if you’re a vampire who fears exposure.
Evil Ed is now that sullen kid who many expect to “go Columbine” one day and is stripped of any significance to the vampire genre. And Charley is just Charley, a nice guy but a basic protagonist with little connection to the symbolism that spawned Ragsdale’s Charley Brewster. And Amy, this time around is just window dressing.
“Fright Night” 2011 had 3D thrown in as an extra gimmick in addition to the remake gimmick and while it garnered generally positive reviews, its boxoffice was less than stellar. There’s no connection with “Fright Night”, much like the audience it was targeted for. This new audience of filmgoers clamors for something new, but they really don’t want it. So a remake gives the illusion something is new but it really isn’t. Remakes are safe. They’re safe bets for a studio and they’re safe bets for an audience.
Q: So you thought the new “Fright Night” sucked and you hate remakes right?
A: Nope. I thought the new “Fright Night” was slick and well put together. However it was not really “Fright Night” except in name only. It brought nothing new, had no connection to the source material that spawned it and had nothing to say. It was a ten dollar distraction for a matinee and nothing more.
I don’t hate remakes. I dislike why most of them are made and I don’t like that most people are ignorant to the original material and the importance of cultural history to the original films. Remakes like the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, or the 2006 “King Kong” are different than remakes like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Fright Night” or even “Let Me In” because they were remade with respect for the original material and were projects made with passion and zeal.
The latter films were made to make a fast buck off a generation that doesn’t know better and doesn’t want to.
See the original 1985 “Fright Night” and be cool, Brewster.