Though it is indeed a remake of a well-liked 80s movie, Fright Night feels much fresher than a lot of what has come down studio pikes this summer. Some of that comes from Marti Noxon's writing, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumna who, once she works through some twee tendencies in the movie's first act, does right by the movie's sassy and clever teen heroes. Some of it comes from director Craig Gillespie, who has made a film that's not really anything like his previous effort Lars and the Real Girl beyond its willingness to draw humor out of unlikely and downright bizarre situations. But the film's true gems are the performances from Colin Farrell, as the violent vampire-next-door, and David Tennant, as the Criss Angel-inspired Vegas magician who helps our hero Charley (Anton Yelchin) defeat his supernatural foe. Giving equally committed and charismatic but wildly different performances, Farrell and Tennant are the best reason to see a movie that's sometimes more trying than fun.
And because both actors don't really take over until midway through the film, the beginning of Fright Night is more of a slog, as we watch Charley get convinced by his former best friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) that neighbor Jerry really is a vampire, not just the helpful guy next door who's really into home repairs. It takes some time for Gillespie's direction and Noxon's too-clever writing to settle into a balance between horror and humor; an entire conversation takes place between Ed and Charley in a home where we've seen Jerry feed on the family that lived there, and while you wait for something horrible to lunge from every dark corner, the scene is played for uncomfortable laughs instead.
The first section of Fright Night is also when you must adjust to the 3D, which is actually not post-conversion but suffers more from dimness than any 3D movie I've seen. Being a movie about vampires, Fright Night largely takes place at night or dark rooms, and the added 3D glasses make it virtually impossible to make out what is happening onscreen. It's a mystifying mistake, by far the biggest one in a movie that goes on to feel so fleet and self-confident; in going for realism with the dark desert nights, Gillespie has squandered all the potential of the 3D format by making his action impossible to see.
But just when Fright Night starts to seem irrevocably shaky and misguided, Jerry goes on the attack against Charley, his mom (Toni Collette) and girlfriend (Imogen Poots), blowing up their house, chasing down the minivan on a motorcycle, and handily murdering an innocent bystander. From there Charley seeks the help of Tennant's Vegas magician fraud, and Fright Night turns into the vampire-hunting quest it should have been from the beginning, suddenly funny and scary in all the right places, carried by the aforementioned brilliant performances and a real sense of playing with the vampire genre. Tennant's Peter Vincent isn't just a magician but a vampire expert with the world's largest collection of anti-vampire weapons; if Chekhov said the gun put on the wall in the first act has to go off in the third, just wait until you see what happens when all those dormant vampire weapons come into play all at once.
Yelchin eventually finds his groove as the unlikely vampire hunter, though his character arc as a callow popularity-seeker never really shakes out. And when it comes time for Charley's final confrontation with Jerry, plus a handful of other friends and neighbors struck by a vampire bite, Yelchin is convincing as a man of action, even when slightly outshone by his partner-in-arms Tennant. The fun of Fright Night takes a little too long to get going, and it's really a shame about the bad misuse of 3D, but Gillespie and Noxon are clever enough, and have cast enough skilled actors, to make this Fright Night revisit worth the effort.