Monday, August 22, 2011

Fright Night (2011)

Might as well get used to it—remakes, like CGI effects, Photoshopped movie posters, and Michael Bay movies, are here to stay. Original ideas are obviously preferred, but in the meantime, you can always bet that some studio or other is in the process of reimagining Your Cherished Childhood Favourite Movie this very minute. Once you’ve accepted that fact, it makes it a lot easier to dole out praise when a remake is done right, like Craig Gillespie’s slick, witty Fright Night. The 2011 model retains the basic setup and tongue-in-cheek flavour of Tom Holland’s 1985 original (see my review here), while adding enough of its own flourishes to justify its existence.

This time out, Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) lives in a prefab suburb of Las Vegas, where he begins to suspect that his buff douche of a neighbour, Jerry Dandridge (Colin Farrell) is a bloodsucker. At first, Charley’s too busy having a girlfriend (Imogen Poots—think Scarlett Johansson’s little sister) for the first time in his life to listen to the theories of his cast-aside nerd pal Evil Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) when a surprising number of neighbours and classmates start disappearing. However, it’s not long before Charley is convinced that Jerry is a vampire, and his only recourse is to try and recruit Vegas-based occult stage performer Peter Vincent (former Doctor Who David Tennant) to help him slay his quite literal neighbour from hell.

Written by Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Marti Noxon, the new Fright Night is most definitely a post-Buffy vamp spin, with lots of rapid banter and modern flair. Setting the film just outside Las Vegas is an inspired touch—Jerry has his pick of a mostly-transient population that sleeps all day and is looking to party after sundown. Changing the character of Peter Vincent from a late-night horror host to a Vegas entertainer seemed like an awkward fit at first, but David Tennant sells it well, crossbreeding Criss Angel with Russell Brand for a refreshingly foulmouthed performance. Tennant’s Vincent is largely absent from much of the film’s advertising, but that’s a good thing—it’s better to discover the unexpected layers of this character within the movie rather than in a trailer. Anton Yelchin is a solid fit as Charley, bringing a lot more depth and personality to a character that was pretty one-dimensional in the 1985 original (sorry, William Ragsdale—not your fault, but the original Charley was a bit under-written). The real star of the show, though, is Colin Farrell, who, like Chris Sarandon before him, looks to be having the time of his life playing Jerry Dandridge. Farrell’s vamp is just as much at home lounging in an easy chair, drinking a beer and watching one of the Real Housewives spinoffs, as he is when he’s tearing the throat out of a stripper. He and Yelchin have a great antagonistic chemistry too—one highlight is an early scene where Jerry hovers, uninvited, outside the door to Charley’s kitchen, trying to tease out an invite that is not forthcoming any time soon. Craig Gillespie’s sure-footed direction maintains the suspense—especially in a claustrophobic night attack on the Brewster family minivan that recalls both Children Of Men and Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds—while maintaining the just-shy-of-comedic tone that this new Fright Night shares with its predecessor. And, even though the whole 3D gimmick is beyond tired, the effect works quite well in a number of scenes, especially when vampires explode in a shower of cindery sparks. If all remakes were pulled off this effectively…well, I’m sure I’d still complain about it (the trailer for the 2011 redo of The Thing had me gnashing my teeth before the movie started), but maybe a bit less so. In any event, though, Fright Night is that rare horror remake that may not be necessarily better than the original, but it still definitely doesn’t suck.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fright Night (1985)

The 1985 Fright Night is the kind of movie that was perfect for repeat cable viewing and multiple VHS rentals in the mid-Eighties. It appears to have been aimed squarely and expertly at the kids of the day (speaking from experience, it hit the target pretty much dead on). It’s scary, it’s funny, it’s gross, it’s titillating but not too titillating--I think there’s maybe one topless shot--and there’s exactly one f-bomb. It wants to scare you and make you laugh. Largely, this vamped-up riff on Rear Window succeeds at doing both.

Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) is an average suburban kid who suspects that his new neighbour, the inoffensively named Jerry Dandridge, might be a vampire. Charlie is so average, in fact, that he appears to have almost no personality whatsoever--his only motivations in life appear to be a) finally getting to home base with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse, best known from Married With Children), and b) exposing Jerry for the bloodsucker he is. Shortly after Jerry and his “live-in carpenter” Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) move in to the neighbourhood, reports of dead prostitutes start popping up in the nightly news—dead prostitutes last seen alive making out with a fanged Jerry across the way. An increasingly desperate Charlie recruits his weirdo pal Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) and faded horror movie star and late night shriek-show host Peter Vincent (Roddy MacDowall) to help him slay the vamp. Vincent is obviously skeptical at first, but when he realizes Jerry doesn’t cast a reflection in the mirror, he has to put his Hollywood vampire-killing skills to the test for real.

Fright Night was written and directed by Tom Holland, screenwriter of Psycho II and writer/director of Child’s Play, and it’s the best showcase for his particular mix of humour and horror. Holland layers in a bit of suburban homosexual dread—Billy is obviously Renfield to Jerry’s Dracula, but it’s strongly hinted that they might also be lovers. Certainly in the buttoned-down, Reagan-era suburbia of the film, the possibility that the new neighbours might be gay could be just as terrifying to Charlie as the possibility that they might be vampires. The effects by Richard Edlund (Raiders Of The Lost Ark) are delightfully gooey—the high points are Billy’s green-slime meltdown on the stairs, Vampire Amy’s freakishly toothsome maw, and Evil Ed’s transformation back from wolf to man. The latter is a surprisingly startling and unnerving sequence, in no small part due to the inspired sound design that mixes human and animal noises to squirmy effect. Chris Sarandon plays Jerry as a sinister, immortal dandy, and he appears to be having a blast with the role. Roddy MacDowall shines as Peter Vincent, alternately embittered and terrified (his movie-within-a-movie scenes are a treat too—watch as his onscreen alter ego brazenly wields a wooden stake with the pointy end facing the wrong way). However, it’s Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed who steals the show. He’s like a jittery, screechy-voiced, baby Jack Nicholson, all nervous laughter and twitchy tics. Fright Night is by no means a classic—the pacing near the conclusion is especially creaky, consisting of a lot of Charlie and Peter having to first run up, then down, then back up the stairs of Jerry’s house—but it’s a fun snapshot of the crest of the horror boom in the 1980s, right before endless slasher sequels starting sucking the fun out of the genre.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Finalest Destination

My buddy Mark Palermo was trying the other day to convince me that I should watch and review all of the movies in the Final Destination series, in preparation for the release of the newest installment, Final Destination 5, this weekend. He further tried to win me over by sending me this montage of all the death scenes from the series so far. Nice try, Mark, but I don't think I can go through with it. However, I do recommend following the above link if you want to see some context-free, mostly computer-generated, extreme brutality. You'd be surprised at how quickly you become desensitized to it.

I've only actually seen the first Final Destination, and I wasn't a big fan. I was sort of going with it for the first three-quarters of the movie or so, but by the end I was all out of love. I think my problem with the movie, and by extension, the franchise, is that the supposed villain of the series has no literal or figurative presence--it's the abstract concept of Death Itself, who really hates being thwarted and makes up for it with a series of increasingly unlikely and elaborate deathtraps. Sure, there may be a fun geekshow aspect to seeing just how the cast of characters meet their bloody demises, but it's not really scary--after all, how scary is it being chased around by an abstract concept, one only occasionally given voice by Tony Todd's perennially whispery undertaker character? It's sort of like David Cross's stand-up bit about how silly it is to wage a War on Terror; he maintains that you might as well wage a War on Jealousy. Similarly, it seems to me that the idea of being chased around by Death is about as scary, or likely, as being chased around by Jealousy.

Now I've done it. I've gone and hurt Death's feelings. If Final Destination taught me anything, it's that He/She is surprisingly sensitive. I may have just signed my own death warrant. But hey, if it makes Him/Her feel better, the movie does have a pretty cool teaser poster:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Dinner With Leatherface

Okay, so I didn't actually get to have dinner with Leatherface. I just really wanted to use that title. But this past Saturday, at the first annual Summer Fear event in Tatamagouche, NS, I did eat a hot dog across the room from Gunnar Hansen, the power tool enthusiast from Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Summer Fear is a new annual horror event that takes place in the Tatamagouche Grain Elevator, which has been converted into a sort-of community arts centre, and Mr. Hansen was the event's inaugural special guest. The hot dog cart parked outside the grain elevator filled the venue with the smell of cooking meat, which seemed appropriate, give the carnivorous tendencies of Mr. Hansen's alter ego. I drove up with my employer, Calum Johnston of Strange Adventures Comic Bookshop, to set up a vendor's table and get my TCM DVD signed. Some short movies were screened--Jason Eisener's Treevenge and Jason Shipley's Blood Shed, among others--along with the trailer for the upcoming feature The Corridor, and other assorted short films and trailers, and Mr. Hansen (a friendly, engaging, grandfatherly dude, but still a tall, imposing drink of water) hosted an hourlong Q and A where he shared funny anecdotes from the filming of the 1974 classic that made him a horror icon. He also revealed that he has agreed to a role in the forthcoming Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D, but he couldn't say what that role was just yet (other than the fact that he's not reprising his most famous role). There were even some fans in costumes, including a Michael Myers who just couldn't resist buying his little plush doppelganger from our table...

...and even a wannabe Leatherface.

Nice try, pal, but it's pretty tough to compete with the original!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET Artwork of Matthew Joseph Peak

I picked up a used Blu-Ray copy of the original Nightmare On Elm Street today, and while I was happy to usher this flick into my hallowed Three Format Club (meaning I owned it on VHS, DVD, and now Blu-Ray), I was pretty disappointed with the cover artwork. It’s just Freddy Krueger’s distinct silhouette against a red backdrop. My irritation at this lazy cover dovetailed nicely with a conversation I had with my buddy James (aka Signalnoise Studios) just the other night about the painted movie posters for the original Elm Street film series. I did a bit of digging today, and was shocked to find that, not only are the first five posters done by the same artist (based on the style of them, I’d always suspected this, but never actually bothered to confirm it until now), but that they are done by a fellow named Matthew Joseph Peak, who just happens to be the son of one of the all-time greatest movie poster artists, Bob Peak! Great talent really does run in the family, I guess. But don’t take my word for it, check out the original five posters below. I left off Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare because it was created by another artist (and the movie stinks), and I also didn’t include Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the 2010 Elm Street remake—neither of them belong to the original series, and neither of them have painted posters. Feast your eyes on these beauties, though…

It also turns out that the makers of the recent documentary Never Sleep Again, which focuses on the history of the original Elm Street series, contracted Peak to do a poster for their film--an immensely smart and classy move, I think, and the results speak for themselves:

I’m still reeling from the knowledge that the guy behind these incredible illustrations is the son of the artist who created some of the most exciting and influential movie posters ever (Apocalypse Now, Superman: The Movie, Excalibur…he even makes Every Which Way But Loose look epic!), but it makes perfect sense. Check out Matthew Joseph Peak’s website here, and check out the official Bob Peak website here. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the massive coffee table book of the elder Peak’s work being released this November—it’s available for pre-order on his site. I’ve already ordered mine, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

This is an old gripe of mine, but I miss painted movie posters like I would miss an amputated limb. Every trip to the movies is a little bit poorer without the work of guys like Struzan, Amsel, and Peak (junior and senior!) hanging on the walls of the theatre to excite your imagination. A painted poster used to be a key component in the marketing of a motion picture, and now it seems to be an afterthought that’s largely driven by a bunch of marketing guys trying to copy what worked for somebody else. Can you imagine anyone ever marketing Jaws without using John Berkey’s iconic artwork?