DreamWorks' FRIGHT NIGHT is a hideous exercise in motion picture manufacturing, a misshapen product bearing the bloat of too much development and too little inspiration. While the impulse to remake Tom Holland's 1985 cult classic was understandable (it's got a great premise and is relatively unknown to younger moviegoers), the execution here is bafflingly errant; the new film initially sets off in a different direction, but screenwriter Marti Noxon has, for whatever reason, elected to retain the five main characters from the original - even though two of them no longer serve a clear narrative purpose. And so you're stuck watching a movie that wastes a good chunk of its run time trying to build a case for the presence of two hopelessly superfluous characters, all the while ignoring the incredibly frightening and original villain it's created in Colin Farrell's Jerry Dandrige. I've never seen a film so hellbent on tripping itself up.
There are several good ideas drifting about in Noxon's screenplay, but they're all woefully underdeveloped. For starters, there's the idea to plop a vampire in the middle of suburban Las Vegas, a transient city where abrupt disappearances are practically expected. This throws an additional obstacle in Charley Brewster's (Anton Yelchin) way as he frantically tries to convince his single mother (Toni Collette) and very attractive girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) that their secretive new neighbor is a bloodsucker. And here's where the film immediately jumps the tracks: Charley first has to be convinced that Vegas has a vampire problem by his one-time best friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who's remained a nerd while Charley has grown out of his geekiness to become just a bland, girl-crazy teenager. And since Ed has to go missing for Charley to get suspicious, Noxon is forced to frantically pile on the exposition early so their confrontation later in the film - which comes out of nowhere - has resonance (and it's a credit to Yelchin's and Mintz-Plasse's performances that this moment isn't a complete throwaway). It's an embarrassment of riches for fans of endless backstory!
With the first act nearly complete, we're finally ready for this film's version of the opening scene from Holland's original (in which Charley rebuffs a frisky Amy to spy on Jerry*). Whereas Holland economically used that scene to set up his entire movie both narratively and thematically, it feels completely obligatory here; we're just waiting for Charley to figure out what we already know so the cat-and-mouse game with Jerry can get underway. And this needs to happen quickly, because if this iteration has anything going for it by this point, it's Farrell's portrayal of Jerry as an insatiable sexual predator.
Sure enough, the movie does spring menacingly to life when Jerry turns up on the Brewsters' doorstep, trying to talk his way into the house as Charley fetches him a six-pack. It's an innocuous scene that turns charged quickly. At first, Charley's just helping his caddish neighbor out with some spare brewskis for a soon-to-arrive lady caller. But as Jerry lingers at the threshold, unable to enter without an invitation, Charley quickly realizes his suspicions are spot-on. And Jerry, rather than play around, bluntly confirms his worst fears with an unabashedly vulgar threat to the two most important women in Charley's life. It's here that FRIGHT NIGHT '11 has a chance to become something bracingly original: no more laughs; this is now a fight to the death between a good kid and the douchebag next door who wants to turn his mother and girlfriend into whores/vampires.
So Charley does what you or I would do: he randomly seeks assistance from a big-time Vegas magician for whom he has zero affinity.
While David Tennant's viciously unflattering Russell Brand impersonation is entertaining for a minute or two, his preening and self-satisfied pontificating can't mask the character's irrelevance. Peter Vincent, master illusionist, knows the basics about killing vampires. Great. Everyone in this day and age knows the basics (and Charley, who was resourceful enough to look up picking a lock on his smartphone earlier in the film, should know where to get a quick refresher if necessary). Oh, and now Vincent needs to be convinced that there are actual vampires in Vegas. Ultimately, Noxon contrives a reason for Vincent to leap into the third-act fray to slay Jerry; unsurprisingly, it's as shoehorned as his character.
Between I AM NUMBER FOUR and FRIGHT NIGHT, Noxon's had a rough 2011, and this is hugely disappointing considering her superlative work on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and MAD MEN (for the latter, she wrote "The Hobo and the Gypsy", which remains one of the series' standout episodes). If I'm being charitable, I could view her ungainly FRIGHT NIGHT screenplay as a FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS-esque exercise: remake Tom Holland's movie sans the late-night horror-host hook while retaining the host character. But she's failed. Spectacularly. Peter Vincent just doesn't belong in this movie. And resolving his wedged-in arc only draws out the already distended third act (which, again, robs Farrell of valuable screen time).
The two best horror remakes of my lifetime are John Carpenter's THE THING and David Cronenberg's THE FLY, and they're both classics in their own right because they used an intriguing premise to explore themes of contemporary importance. FRIGHT NIGHT '11 is hazy on its premise (vampire moves into the neighborhood, which alarms protagonist's estranged best friend, who blackmails him before getting turned into a vampire himself, at which point protagonist is alarmed, etc.), so it never knows what, if anything, it wants to explore. Finally, it settles for being a big, CG-laden thrill ride, with set pieces that might've been exciting had someone bothered to finish them (the single-take minivan attack is a triumph if you enjoy watching actors being terrorized by pre-vis). And then there's the 3D, which is poorly matched to Javier Aguirresarobe's dusk/dawn lighting; you can't really afford to lose 35% of your brightness when you've shot a dimly-lit film**.
I'd be fine with FRIGHT NIGHT '11 if it was just a subtext-free, competently-plotted summer entertainment, but this plays like a C-student's copied-over-the-shoulder approximation of an A-student's heartfelt composition. It's an assimilation of Tom Holland's assimilation of Hitchcock and Hammer horror, and, as a result, fairly offensive when it only means to be forgettable.