These two films are interesting and relatively easy to compare because, while they follow the same plot, they are fundamentally different movies. The original Fright Night and the 2011 remake are about completely different things. Ultimately, that may end up working in their favor, allowing for a little breathing room and allowing both films to stand on their own. While the remake has a lot of great points of its own to make (and is at its best while doing so) much of what is left out from the original is simply a matter of not totally getting what that film was about in the first place. But at the same time, coming out in an entirely different era, there may not have been a lot it could do.
Either way, there’s plenty to look at and compare between the two films, from the themes, to the effects, to the characters themselves:
FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)
In many ways, Fright Night is a film ahead of its time. It was metafictional at least a decade before that became popular. Scream and the movies that followed it owe everything to Fright Night. It was about fans of vampire films and it broke down the conventions of vampire films. Charley and his best friend “Evil” Ed are avid fans of the show “Fright Night” which is a late-night horror host show that showcases old monster movies. The show is hosted by former horror movie star Peter Vincent, the supposed “great vampire killer.” In the meantime, a new neighbor has moved in next door to Charley and Charley has seen enough movies to put the pieces together that his neighbor Jerry is a vampire. The problem is, he can’t get anyone else to believe him.
Now, one of the really important things about Fright Night is that it never makes fun of the movies it references. It is made with complete respect for those films and while it updates the vampires to a new era, making them more human and more monstrous at the same time, it respects most of the traditional vampire conventions. All of the methods of killing vampires are at work here: stakes, sunlight, crosses, etc. And all of them work. In this movie, it’s up to the horror fan to actually save the life of his girlfriend, using his knowledge of the genre. When nobody will believe him, Charley turns to Peter Vincent himself. After all, Peter Vincent is the great vampire killer. He says so himself all the time.
But in actually, Peter Vincent is a washed up old star who is in many ways the embodiment of the movie’s point. He is a relic of a bygone era, clinging to his former fame, and unable to reimagine himself for a new generation. He’s gone from horror movie star to the host of a late-night spook show, and now he’s lost his job there as well. He’s not the great vampire killer, he’s just a scared, sad old man. Everyone believes he can be a hero except for him, and his journey toward actually becoming the great vampire killer is crucial to the film. The character is great and is, I think, one of the best roles of McDowall’s career.
Then there’s Evil Ed, Charley’s best friend. Evil is a massive horror movie fan and it’s clear that making friends does not come naturally to him and that Charley is probably his only friend. He is powerless and picked on, but nonetheless a spastic and overwhelming personality. Once he becomes a vampire, these traits are only heightened and he is completely unhinged. Like Lucy in Dracula, Evil is the only vampire fully turned by head vampire Jerry. In a reference to the classic Horror of Dracula, Evil Ed’s forehead (like Lucy’s) is marked with a cross.
The effects of Fright Night are the icing on the cake. They’re breathtaking. Even though Evil Ed’s death scenes feels like one of the longest deaths in horror history, the transformation he undergoes is incredible. Like the methods of killing vampires, all the general traits of vampires are here as well. They transform into wolves, into mist, and even into bats. And the creatures created for these transformations are scary and excellently designed. Not to mention the vampires themselves, who look perfectly normal, until they get hungry and sprout yellow eyes, claws, and whole mouthfuls of crooked razor teeth.
FRIGHT NIGHT (2011)
By August 2011, there had been plenty of meta horror movies. They had struck big in the late 1990’s, then re-emerged in the mid-2000’s and by this point had virtually run their course. They were over and done with. So when the remake of Fright Night came along, it kind of needed to do something different from the original if it wanted the audience to follow along. In this case, the movie is in some ways different enough just for adhering to classical vampires. In 2011, vampires weren’t the subjects of horror movies anymore, they were the subjects of romance novels. People had begun to stop associating vampires with horror at all.
That is actually one of the things that the remake of Fright Night plays on, portraying Jerry as more of a simple, straightforward predator. He is basically a supernaturally powered serial killer. He has all the charm necessary to lure in prey, but no actual capacity for any kind of real human emotion. And Colin Farrell actually plays these aspects of the character very well.
Charley Brewster is a similar character to the original, probably the most similar, but adapts to the story in that it is about some fairly different things. It’s Charley’s movie to carry and focuses on adolescent male masculinity. So much of the film is about this held-up idea of “becoming a man” and what the hell that even means. Charley has to look after his mother and his girlfriend, fails to look after his best friend and is forced to deal with concepts he has never really thought of before.
The major problem is that, when it comes down to it, if the movie is not about reflecting on traditional vampire movies and bringing them into the modern age, then there’s really no reason for vampires to be in the movie. This is especially obvious when it comes to the character of Peter Vincent. Now, considering that local horror movie hosts don’t exist anymore, that version of Peter Vincent couldn’t really be told. So this Peter is reimagined as a Criss Angel style Vegas magician and “master of the dark arts.” It’s very tricky because this Peter Vincent is both the most interesting character to watch and the most unnecessary character in the movie at the same time. Nobody being attacked by a vampire would consider going to a magician for help. And Peter’s nervous, scared attitude has to be different too. This time he’s not afraid of living up to his reputation as the great vampire killer. This time he’s afraid because he really does believe in vampires and this particular vampire murdered his parents, which is an awkwardly Batman direction to take the character in, but if you want to keep Peter Vincent in the movie, then I guess you had to think of something.
Evil Ed and Charley’s relationship is built on a lot more from the original film, but ultimately you wouldn’t know it. Ed really has two big scenes, and they mostly involved getting bitten and coming back as a vampire. While his specific development is limited, the original told us a lot more about the character while giving us a lot less information. The only characters that may actually be stronger in the remake are Charley’s mother, played by Toni Collette, and Amy, who is a stronger character until she isn’t.
The only major things that really bog down the fairly well written remake are the visual effects. The effects actually adhere in a similar fashion to the designs of the original movie, but are very different when they are created digitally. It’s a very weird balance. In the end, it mostly looks like a digital painting of a monster I’ve already seen. There’s rarely a time when the effects need to be anything other than practical, and yet practical effects are almost never used, and that brings down not only the visual quality but certainly the scare factor.
Fright Night and its remake both work well enough on their own, and compliment each other in some ways. There are enough elements that make each film recommendable, but for the most part you are probably going to get more out of the original, while the remake works fine as popcorn horror.