Our rambunctiously sex-positive culture doesn’t always like to hear this notion, but here it is: the capacity to provoke sexual desire is power, and power corrupts. At the start of Fright Night, the new comedy-horror film by director Craig Gillespie, Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) finds himself confronting precisely that dilemma.
Having hit his late teens, Charlie has gained a few inches, lost the baby fat, and escaped the scourge of acne. This has not escaped the ladies’ notice — the hot neighbor down the street is paying him compliments, and Amy (Imogen Poots), a leggie and attractive blond, has made a boyfriend out of him.
The price of this good fortune has been Charlie’s estrangement from his childhood friends Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Adam (Will Denton). The three boys were enthusiastic dorks, and Charlie clearly regards his past as a social danger best avoided. So when Adam disappears, and Ed tries to convince Charlie he’s fallen prey to a vampire, Ed’s resentment of Charlie’s abandonment is also at stake.
But then Ed also vanishes, and Charlie begins collecting evidence that Jerry (Colin Farrell), his new neighbor, is the vampire in question. To make matters worse, it’s soon apparent that Charlie’s single mother (Toni Collette) and Amy are rising to the top of Jerry’s feeding list.
Jerry embodies one possible endpoint for Charlie’s entrance into manhood: sexual prowess hewn to pure predation. Roguishly handsome and preternatural self-assured, Farrell has fun with the role, playing Jerry as a creature enthralled by sensation. He sniffs and glances about during conversation, simultaneously bored and amused by his interactions with humans. This leads to some squirm-inducing exchanges during which the two dance around the fact that Charlie knows Jerry is a vampire, Jerry knows that Charlie knows, yet neither actually acknowledges anything.
One pleasure of Fright Night is that requisite plot logistics, which could have dragged, are dealt with efficiently. Not only do Charlie and Jerry figure one another out early, but Amy and Charlie’s mother also get wise before the halfway point. This gives the film a fleetness of foot, thereby avoiding a lot of no-one-believes-the-hero nonsense, and allows it to get down to the vampire-killing business at hand.
Another relief: the film thinks highly of its female characters’ intelligence. Charlie’s mother may enjoy an initial flirtation with Jerry, but she is too perceptive to seriously consider him a possible mate. At a critical plot point, she chooses to trust her son’s insane-sounding warnings over Jerry’s attempt to play the wounded innocent. As for Amy, she proves herself kind, loyal, and smart enough to want Charlie because of his latent dorkiness rather than in spite of it. (She also turns out to be a formidable wielder of medieval weaponry).
Rounding out the cast is Peter Vincent (David Tennant), a Las Vegas magician and supposed vampire hunter who represents another possible path for Charlie. Upon encountering the vampires as a child, Vincent concluded he was no match for their prowess, and now hides his fear behind a raunchy, devil-may-care attitude – well-delivered on Tennant’s part — as well as an over-the-top stage persona. Inevitably, the task falls to Charlie to drag Vincent out of his self-loathing and back into some semblance of moral engagement.
In fact, Vegas itself becomes character in the film. As Charlie notes, the work available on the strip creates a city population that is both unusually transient and prone to nocturnal hours; circumstances well-suited to a vampire on the lamb). Charlie’s community – a fresh square of suburban development plunked down in the desert – has an eerie quality of artificiality and isolation. And, of course, the bacchanal of Vegas’ nightlife provides its own commentary on sexuality’s hazards. A dance floor, for example, becomes the kind of place a vampire could feed on a victim without a soul noticing.
Gillespie handles the direction ably enough, juggling horror and comedy without losing control of the tone. The film is well shot, with one especially good suspense sequence that lays out the unsettling logistics of Jerry’s feeding habits. A nighttime confrontation on the highway also gives creepy insight into vampire physiology.
If the film has a weakness, it’s the ending, which descends into action movie clichés. Also, the underlying moral ideas are only sort of reckoned with, so Charlie does not have a well-defined arc. Still, you could end an evening at the theater on worse notes, and the film invests enough in its characters that you actually give a damn about the proceedings.
Finally, the film’s score, by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, is highly recommended.