Monday, May 14, 2012

Two Nights of Frights

There is a vampire film that is a textbook example of how to do a movie remake.

Last year’s version of the 1985 cult favorite Fright Night.

Technically, I should have written this when the film came out, but I missed the theatrical release due to exhaustion and being behind on something I was writing last August. (In other words, to keep an entry from being a week late, this post is almost a year late.  Time Management has never been my forte.)

Fright Night (2011) shows why and how to remake a movie. 

To those who look down upon all remakes – Remember, the Heston classics The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur were both new versions of older films.  The storytelling technology and environment had advanced sufficiently since their original, silent releases to warrant another go at those tales.

Similarly, with vampires moving to the forefront of pop culture again, the time was right to re-explore the idea: “What if a kid found out the new neighbor was a vampire?”

The Core Concept:

For a remake, figuring out what made the original successful, or at least memorable, is key.

 Quick, which Fright Night is this?

Charley Brewster lives with his divorced mom in a dull unassuming neighborhood.  Jerry Dandridge, a good looking single guy, moves in next door.  Charley learns that Jerry is a vampire, after an attack on a woman Jerry invited over, but no one believes him.   He goes to Peter Vincent for help, a famous, but fake vampire killer, who at first doesn’t believe him, then turns out to be a coward when he learns it’s all true.  Charley’s weird friend “Evil” Ed is turned by Jerry, who then sets his sights on Charley’s girlfriend Amy.  Amy is also turned, after being taken in a dance club.  With the help of Peter Vincent, who has found both courage and knowledge, Charley manages to defeat Jerry and save Amy.

And the answer is…YES. That is Fright Night. Veer too far away from the core concept of the movie, and it isn’t a remake, but becomes more of a rip off.

The Meta Concepts:

Obviously, a word for word and shot for shot remake would be pointless. (Yes, Psycho 1998, I’m looking at you.)  The idea is to take a concept that worked, and then look at it in new light by varying technology or storytelling ideas.

Here’s a strong example, the role of Peter Vincent.

1985- Peter Vincent is an overly theatrical horror movie host with a past of defeating vampires in movies.  He dismisses Charley as crazy, but then is convinced by actual evidence, brings his knowledge learned from past films to help. Eventually he overcomes his fears to become a real vampire killer in the mold of the Hammer Horror films Fright Night is based on, and a key part of Charley defeating Jerry.  Peter is played by Roddy McDowell, an excellent British actor known to fans of the genre through his world famous role in Planet of the Apes, playing against type as a coward and has been. (Although there were some quite Cornelius like double takes.)

2011: Peter Vincent is an overly theatrical magician with a past of defeating vampires in his stage act.  He dismisses Charley as crazy, but then is convinced by actual evidence, brings his knowledge learned from past research to help. Eventually he overcomes his fears to become a real vampire killer in the mold of the new school vampire films Fright Night is based on, and a key part of Charley defeating Jerry.  Peter is played by David Tennant, an excellent British actor known to fans of the genre through his world famous role in Doctor Who, playing against type as a foul mouthed alcoholic. (Although there was a quite Doctor like, “Weeeeeeell, maybe not the garlicky omelet…”
followed by a very UN-Doctor like, “How the &%*# should I know!?”)

The important parts of the concept remain, but are adapted to a new world, as these two intelligent men of science can confirm...

Similarly, just as the 1985 version had clear visual and thematic references to the Hammer Horror Draculas, the 2011 version includes references to the new school of vampire films that it is molded after.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“You took my arm”)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Vampire romance scene)

John Carpenter’s Vampires (Lair busting equipment and outfits)

A side note on a similarity to the final film listed, not really connected to anything thematically:
The producers of the 2011 version displayed an experienced knowledge of the genre by hiring the guys from KNB to do the special effects.  No one does blood and dismemberment like the old Evil Dead gang.

More importantly, Fright Night 2011 made fun of Twilight, establishing its credentials as a real vampire film very strongly.

Important References:

More important than cultural or thematic references, are call backs to the original film.  Again, there is a reason that a movie is chosen to be remade, and most likely it is due to the specific memories the original film has left with its viewers.  The trick is to work references to call back those memories into the storyline without making them seem artificial, forced, or out of place.

That’s the one area where The Producer’s on Broadway fell down.  Overall it was a brilliant love letter to the golden age of musical theater.  As amazing as Nathan Lane was, he is a very different kind of performer than Zero Mostel, and the lines that were distinctly Zero’s didn’t ring as true as the rest of the play. 

Fright Night managed to work in the key quotes from the original in ways that made them fit smoothly within the bounds of the new story and characters.

“You are so cool, Brewster”

“Welcome to Fright Night…for REAL!”

“You need to have faith”

Visual references were also included.  Jerry’s becoming more monstrous the angrier or hungrier he gets worked in the new version as well as the old.  Jerry’s eating apples was also carried on to the new version. 

I have no idea why a vampire would eat apples. Maybe biting into something else that’s red?  My sister thinks it’s to clean his fangs.  Whatever the reason, the visceral crunch was just as effective twenty six years later.

One of the most iconic images of the 1985 film was Amy’s oversized vampiric mouth, which appeared on the movie poster.  CGI enhancement added an extra level of movement to the fangditude in the new go round.

Finally, the ultra-mega bonus point earning reference goes to the use of 1985 Jerry, Chris Sarandon, as a hapless motorist who stumbles into the conflict.  Having original cast members show up in remakes is more than a sly wink to the fans…it’s a professional seal of approval that the spirit of the story is maintained.  (And extra points for listing his short lived character in the credits as “Jay Dee”…Check the vampire’s initials, boys and girls.)

Not Everything Worked:

It is not the eighties anymore. 

This is a good thing…on many levels. 

Things change over time, and unless the era is critical to the nature of the story (Peter Jackson’s King Kong being an excellent example of a remake that used period setting correctly.) some bits need to be left behind.

I don’t care how suave, dangerous and menacing an evil vampire lord is…if he’s coming at me while wearing a Member’s Only jacket while a Devo song plays, I ain’t scared.

As a side note (“Another one,” I hear you cry.) It’s amazing how Hollywood self-censorship has changed.  The original movie had almost no swearing, but did feature the 1980’s obligatory boob moments. (They are contained in non plot related scenes to be easily snipped for airings on USA Up all Night, to make a second 1980’s gratuitous boob reference.)  The remake has no nudity, but a near constant, creative barrage of dirty words. 

Honestly, though, look at it from a realistic point of view. (Which is the best way to look at movies about ancient, mystically powered, undead fiends…Yes, Dad, I know they’re all fictional.) 

When being chased by horrific creatures of the night, hell bent on drinking your blood and enslaving the human race to be their food source for all eternity:
Would you be more likely to issue forth a continuous stream of profanity?
Or get naked?

You’re damn right!

The new Fright Night kept the core concept and used references well, but also knew where to draw the line, and drop, or at least make fun of, items that didn’t work anymore…

Let’s face facts…Jerry IS a pretty lame name for a vampire.  Having it mentioned by the characters acknowledges this, and allows the name to remain unchanged without being distracting.

While lame in name, Jerry is supposed to be a centuries old, extremely powerful vampire.  This image was enhanced by several updates. 

Losing the Billy Cole character was definitely a good idea.  Jerry becomes much more formidable as a solo act that only needs a minimum amount of help from the newly turned Ed to be a threat for the majority of the movie.  The “I bet the new single hot guy in town is gay…oh look at his date I guess he’s not” gag worked just fine without the inclusion of Jerry’s live in carpenter-zombie-boy toy- green jelly man-whatever the hell he was.
Say goodbye Jerry.
Jerry’s main weakness in the 1985 outing was not sunlight, crosses, or a garlicky omelet…
It was being a dumbass.

For a guy who’s supposed to be concerned about his big secret getting out, 1985 Jerry does a seriously crappy job of hiding his undeadness from neighbors, passersby, and crowded dance clubs.  He chooses a neighborhood where his habits will stand out, and delays and dawdles way too much when he should be slaying people who’ve discovered what he is.

I know it’s because of the older film styles that the original is a tribute to, but the result is what I call “Phony Suspense.”

A generic example:

Melvin is the hero of the film, and he is trapped by the extremely powerful Banana Monster near the beginning of the movie.  Extending this scene in the hopes of being suspenseful slows the pace to a crawl and is pointless because either:
1)    Melvin will be killed, which he won’t or (to quote Richard Jeni) the movie will be over NOW.
2)    Melvin will escape, which he will for the same reason…

However, the more time and energy spent building up the suspense in the scene, the stupider and less threatening the Banana Monster looks when the loophole arises to save Melvin.

I fully expected the scene with Charley rescuing Doris in the 2011 film to be exactly that sort of phony suspense.    Man, was I wrong.
The climax of that scene was the first time I yelled out loud at a movie in a while. (Not counting ones that get comic book things wrong, of course.)  It also served as a much stronger and less provable warning to Charley than smashing the bejezzus out of his entire room after breaking his over medicated mother’s door was.

1985 Jerry banks on people not believing in vampires, completely forgetting that most of his behavior is also compatible with being a serial killer…which is still illegal in most states. 

The 2011 Jerry Dandridge is not only smart, but he has a plan, which isn’t connected to the spectacular coincidence that his neighbor’s girlfriend is an exact copy of the woman in a painting his gay-handy-undead roomie picked up at a garage sale somewhere.

New Jerry chose a location, a method and a living space to carry out his scheme that allowed him to fit in with the surroundings.  The methodical way he secretly increased his brood - in an area where people leave regularly, and not letting any of the new ones out except on specific missions –demonstrated the long term, big picture thinking one would obtain over a life of hundreds of years.  Therefore he appeared as a far more dangerous enemy.

His cunning showed up in short term improvisational thinking as well.  The scene involving being invited in to the Brewster home ramped up a great deal when everyone involved was more intelligent. In 1985, Jerry got invited in because Mrs. Brewster put absolutely no trust in her son, and more importantly, was a major league flake.  It may have been unnerving when Charley saw him in the living room, but not nearly as much conflict, drama and suspense as watching 2011 Jerry, thwarted by Mrs. Brewster (who gives her son the benefit of the doubt about the neighbor who does seem a little odd) work out an effective and explosive solution to his need to be invited in.

As noted above, most of the characters got a boost in intelligence and effectiveness that added to the intensity of the conflict.  Technically, Mrs. Brewster would have been an improvement if she was able to find her butt with both hands and a flashlight, yet she advanced significantly beyond that. She was exceedingly functional in a crisis, as well as being more supportive of her son.  Giving Peter Vincent knowledge of real vampires also made the rivalry stronger; instead of having him luck out that cinematic methods for bloodsucker fighting actually worked.

Charley was not particularly bright in 1985 either, trying to convince the police that Jerry was a vampire…instead of the far easier to prove and establish that he was luring residents of a dull little suburban town to his house to be killed.  In 2011 he reports Jerry to the police, but NOT as a vampire, limiting that information to the expert, and his mom and Amy only when it becomes urgent.  New Charley and Peter also demonstrate more intelligence by also having their own plan to deal with Jerry. A superior plan to the 1985 version in that it was more complicated than Ray’s plan for the library ghost…”Get her!”

A Final Answer:

This answer has nothing to do with film making choices. 

Listen, if you’re expecting to gain closure and wisdom from a post about “How to remake a monster movie,” you need professional help.

The final answer is to those who ask:

“Did you not check the calendar, since you issued this very Halloween type post the day after Mother’s Day?”

And my answer is:

“Dude, have you met my mother?”

This is her laundry room.

This post about vampire films she really likes was prepared to soften the expected blow following Thursday's midnight premier of Dark Shadows, her favorite TV show updated through Tim Burton's, dark humor, quirky mannered, weird family relationships filter, with big budget special effects thrown in.

The worries, which were caused by the goofy trailers ,were mostly unfounded.  The film followed many of the rules above, with one major difference. 

Instead of changing details in order to maintain the tone of the original, it maintained, and further explored details to create a different tone. 

The Dark Shadows series was aired up to the early seventies, but was set in a semi-timeless modern but Gothic environment.  The new movie kept the Gothic mansion but set itself firmly amidst the pop culture and general world views of the early seventies.  Barnabas's reaction to the differences between his original time and the time of the story was then enhanced and expanded upon.  This added to the comedy, and the storyline as well. (Considering his adjustment to the new time in the series consisted of him saying,
"It's obvious since I look like this old portrait, I'm your relative from England."
and the whole Collins clan saying,
"Okey dokey!")

Because of the change, the film was less of a remake, and more of a tribute and good natured ribbing of both the original show, and the time period it aired in.  (The stamp of approval given by cast members of the original making a cameo carried extra importance due to the tone shift.) 

Fans of the TV series could see the humor in looking at aspects of the show which, in hindsight, should have had a larger effect on how everyone acted or reacted.  Those who didn't know the show could see the humor in the time period itself. (Let's face it, the early seventies were pretty goofy without any help from Burton.)

Though much was new, there were many sets, scenes and musical cues that hearkened back to the television version, albeit with enhanced visual and audio efforts. 
It also had probably the best video ever made for Alice Cooper's "Ballad of Dwight Frye," but that was more for me than Mom.

She ended up finding the new Dark Shadows mostly nostalgic and entertaining.  Of course she did huff and point out there were some things that were "obviously wrong, " but my sister and I didn't really have to restrain her.   (See, that's where I get it from.)

The movie turned out to be a good lead up to Mother's Day after all.  I left the Fright Night review in place as a bonus. (I couldn't waste a good vampire post)  Overall a positive holiday!

Just don't get her started on the change to Barnabas's cane head material just to allow them to do a cheap joke... 


Mom said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. Considering that I went to see Fright Night on my birthday and Dark Shadows for Mother's Day and you posted my laundry room, I would guess people will know I love vampires.
This was so well analyzed, it brought eveything back with vivid descriptions and comparisons. It deserves public praise and another Thank You instead of a late night email.

Jeff McGinley said...

You're welcome, and thanx for posting and the sompliments. Thanx for the Fright Night discs that made the post possible...oh yeah, thanx for that whole giving birth to me and raising me thing too, that made the post possible as well.

Brian said...

When I saw the trailer for the Dark Shadows remake the first thing I thought of was your mom! Glad she liked it. If in some future Father's Day Chris Nolan or better yet, Duncan Jones does a remake of 2001:A Space Odyssey, I'd want my kids to take me to that! :)

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx. The movie was definitely a nice homage to the old show, with some extra Tim Burtonyness throws in and a kick ass Alice Cooper mini concert. Good luck with your father's day dreams. Isn't Ridley Scott working on getting Harrison Ford for a Blade Runner sequel?

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Y'know, I feel like the "Lord Mark" comment is spam, but on the off chance of the coolness of actual vampires trying to advertise here, I think I'll leave this one.

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OK, this is officially getting weird. Any non vampires out there that know about this stuff feel like chiming in, its much appreciated.