Just when it seems that every other young Hollywood actor is donning vampire garb, along comes Colin Farrell to show ‘em how it’s done in “Fright Night,” a cleverly balanced mix of scares and laughs that is funnier and more terrifying than the 1985 original on which it’s based. The story’s shift from corn-fed Iowa to recession-plagued Vegas is an indicator of where “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” writer Marti Noxon’s screenplay is headed, but the pic’s timeliness is only one factor in a B.O. perf that should send chills down the spine of the weekend competition.Tom Holland’s original pic, best remembered for Chris Sarandon as the alluring vampire Jerry but hobbled by archness and overacting, was an early contributor to the mock-horror trend that finally tilted over into “Scream’s” spoofery. In every department, the redo reps an effort to rebalance the tone in a much edgier, scarier direction, while steering away from camp. In the casting alone, director Craig Gillespie’s production marks an improvement, bringing in top-flight thesps including Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Tennant and Toni Collette alongside Farrell’s vampire Jerry, a picture of sexual animalism that may end up on many a teen girl’s bedroom wall. Stuck in a suburban tract on Vegas’ fringes, high schooler Charley (Yelchin) lives with real-estate agent mom Jane (Collette) and has finally outlived his geeky years to attract boy magnet Amy (Poots), who genuinely adores Charley. In his shift from square to hip, though, Charley has left behind longtime pal Ed (Mintz-Plasse), who’s come to resent Charley and his growing resemblance to school jerks like Mark (Dave Franco) and Ben (Reid Ewing). At the same time, Charley hasn’t fully abandoned his geekdom (especially as played by Yelchin, capturing his transition from innocence to maturity), so when Ed fears a real vampire may be in their midst, the push-pull tension Charley feels is real and personal. This concern jibes with the presence of new next-door neighbor Jerry, whose front-yard dumpster and latenight activity draw Jane’s curiosity, as well as reports of killings in the area. Noxon has made some crucial improvements to Holland’s original story, particularly in making Charley the skeptic (he’s now too cool to believe in such boyhood nonsense) and Ed the true believer, who ironically ends up being one of Jerry’s early victims. While Mintz-Plasse fans may lament his fairly early departure (albeit with a mightily altered reappearance later), it all serves the movie’s dramatic purposes. Just as welcome is the change of having Jerry living single here, served by a minimalist suburban look (in production designer Richard Bridgland Fitzgerald’s smart work) that eliminates the easy cliches of vampire Gothic. The notion that vampires might be attracted to a city full of people who work night shifts only adds to Jerry’s terrifying credibility. The original pic’s notion that only famed vampire killer Peter Vincent (played by Roddy McDowall) could destroy Jerry is far more entertaining here with Vincent as a Vegas act, played by Tennant as a wasted Brit rocker in ultra-tight leather pants. Pic is distinguished by some strong individual sequences, such as a chase in an SUV down a highway, or the capper in Jerry’s fairly horrifying basement. Gillespie, a cable pro who recently helmed Collette in “The United States of Tara,” arranges some elegant, sharply drawn scenes and sequences that bring the characters, sometimes lost in this genre, into high relief. The cast, led by Yelchin, sets an early tone of emotional credibility that allows for the horror-comedy to reach its full potential. As in the original, Farrell’s Jerry is in his own world, casting a strong, swarthy spell, as in a scene at the threshold of Charley’s house that amounts to a film acting clinic. Pic’s tech team is just as unified, with gifted d.p. Javier Aguirresarobe accentuating the creepy possibilities of desert nights, and editor Tatiana S. Riegel keenly ramping up or turning down the tension as a scene merits. Once again, 3D brings little to the party: Only a few explosions and sudden bursts pay off optically, and the overall image is dimmed by the process, a chronic problem that, at the end of the day, makes 2D preferable.
Secondary Cast: Chris Sarandon.