Fright Night (2011) and the Consequences of Abandonment
By S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.\
Warning! This review contains spoilers!
Though the setting for the short story, novel, or film may be the distant past, every generation retells and reinvents the vampire story to reflect current social issues and the particular fears of modern society. When venereal disease was running rampant through Victorian England, the vampire was an infectious monster that spread his contagion like deadly viruses or bacteria. In more recent times, movies such as Let Me In make the vampire story a commentary on child abuse. The Twilight movies use the vampire myth as a vehicle to promote sexual abstinence until marriage. The remake of the 1985 cult classic of the same title, Fright Night, while incorporating some of the traditional fears encountered in vampire films, analyzes our current obsession with issues of abandonment.
At first, I was skeptical about a remake of Fright Night. Since the first vampire film I ever saw was the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, I am partial to the gothic and Victorian settings. My favorites will always be the Hammer versions of the Dracula tale with Christopher Lee, but I can still find ample food for thought in the some of the more modern renderings. For those of you who may not remember the original Fright Night, the 1985 version was silly and campy, almost a spoof of the vampire genre. The vampire in that version, played by Chris Sarandon (who makes a cameo appearance in the current remake) is a handsome vampire style and class who lives in a house that one might expect to be the home of a vampire. In the 2011 version, the vampire (Jerry Dandridge), played by Colin Farrell, is pure evil. He is described as being neither “brooding” nor “noble,” but simply a killing machine. Those of you who remember my favorite daytime soap of all time, Dark Shadows, will recall that Barnabas Collins was a sad vampire who didn’t enjoy being a creature of the night. He was a good person at heart, but he was under a curse he hated and couldn’t control. Barnabas wanted to be cured of his vampirism. In the Twilight movies, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) plays a similar kind of vampire who regrets what he must do in order to survive. But Colin Farrell plays Fright Night’s vampire with no sense of regret or remorse. He is evil and loves the taste of blood and the suffering he inflicts. Hats off to Colin Farrell for portraying a vampire that we can hate—one that we really wanted to see get a stake through the heart!
In the 1985 version, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) is an aging, late-night TV horror host, a male version of Vampyra or Elvira, who claims to be an expert on vampires. In this 2011 version, Peter Vincent, played by David Tennant, is a Las Vegas magician who performs giant spectacles with vampire themes. He also claims to be an expert on vampires, but he has actually had contact with the real thing. As in the original version, Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) must team up with Peter Vincent to destroy the vampire.
It is around Charlie Brewster that the issues of abandonment are raised in this film. In most vampire films, the vampire represents evil. It is often referred to as a demon, or perhaps even an incarnation of the devil himself. As such, the vampire represents temptation, seduction, and danger. It is not uncommon for vampire films to discuss what makes people so vulnerable and susceptible to the vampire.
In many vampire movies, women are susceptible to the male vampires because of their nobility, wealth, and charm. In Frank Langella’s 1979 portrayal of Dracula, it was easy to believe that no woman could resist the charms of a vampire like that, and would even welcome the opportunity to be turned into an eternal blood-sucker. Colin Farrell’s Jerry is no Frank Langella or Chris Sarandon, but he is a 21st century hunk in a tee shirt and jeans. Women, including Charlie’s mother and girlfriend, are instantly smitten in their first encounter with him. In such stories, vampires represent the seductive, attractive, and alluring aspects of evil.
Another motif frequently encountered in vampire films is that skepticism makes one particularly vulnerable to vampire attacks. Like the devil, part of his deceitfulness is getting people to believe that he doesn’t really exist. Naturally, in a story that takes place in our own time, the vampire is not going to arrive with a cloak and cane. Furthermore, Jerry doesn’t live in a gothic castle in Transylvania or a Victorian mansion in London. He lives in one of those look-alike homes a few feet away from yours in the suburbs of Las Vegas. Furthermore, his name is “Jerry,” not Count Dracula or Count Yorga. The very name “Jerry” would automatically make people laugh if you told them that “Jerry” is a vampire. Since people are hesitant to believe in the existence of vampires, he often does great damage before people finally admit that their skepticism has cost the lives of many people and has endangered many others.
Another staple of vampire tales is that vampires cannot bear to look at, or be touched by, religious symbols and objects such as crosses, holy water, or relics that have been blessed. Some vampire stories emphasize that crosses do not repel vampires unless the person holding the cross has faith. In the original Fright Night, the vampire realizes that people have no real faith, so the cross is powerless. The ineffectiveness of religious symbols in the fight against evil is a good commentary on American and European Christianity where Christianity has been reduced to little more than a system of morality. People who have no faith in what Jesus accomplished on the cross often wear crosses simply as jewelry. People go to churches that treat the stories of the Bible as nothing more than metaphor, on the same par with legends and fairy tales. Though people may go to church, possess Bibles, and wear crosses, these things have lost their original meaning and have, consequently, lost their ability to give people strength to overcome evil. The church, the Bible, and the cross are useful in our fight against evil, but not if people only regard them only as quaint and pleasant remnants of a dead faith. If one does not really believe in the Christ of the cross, then the symbol of the cross has no power. In one scene of this version of Fright Night, Charlie confronts Jerry with a cross. Sounding like the exorcist, Charlie thrusts the cross in the vampire’s face and says, “The power of Christ repels you.” Jerry says, “Really?” At first, Jerry responds to the sight of the cross with typical vampire loathing, but then he tells Charlie, “That’s a big cross. But the question is, ‘Do you have faith?’” It becomes obvious that Charlie has no faith, for Jerry grasps the cross, and it explodes into flames. In many vampire films, those who fight the vampire undergo some crisis of faith, or some conversion experience which enables them to believe in God or Christ, resulting in the return of power to the symbolic weapons. In Fright Night, it doesn’t seem that Charlie ever has such a conversion to faith, but for some reason unexplained reason, holy water and a spike blessed by St. Michael are still effective.
In this version of Fright Night, while the seductiveness of evil, skepticism, and loss of faith, make one vulnerable to the attack of vampires, it is abandonment that puts the characters most at risk. Charlie Brewster is a victim of abandonment. He lives alone with his mother (Toni Collette), because his father has left them. When Charlie first begins to realize that Jerry is a vampire, Jerry starts to play on the fears and insecurities caused by the abandonment of his father. Jerry reminds Charlie of how his father neglected and deserted his family. Then, he reminds Charlie of the enormous responsibility that has been placed on him to protect his mother in the absence of her husband, since there are so many bad people in the world. He cynically asks Charlie if he really believes that he is up to that kind of challenge.
In one scene, Charlie runs inside a deserted house to seek shelter from the vampire. Since a vampire cannot enter into a house unless he is invited, Charlie thinks he is safe. Surprisingly, Jerry walks right into the house with no difficulty. Jerry looks at Charlie and says, “Abandoned.” In vampire lore, if a house is an abandoned dwelling, then no invitation to enter is necessary. When Jerry looks at Charlie and says, “Abandoned,” it is a reminder that not only is that house abandoned, but Charlie and his family have also been abandoned, making them particularly vulnerable to vampire attack.
Having no father to turn to in this moment of crisis, Charlie turns to the magician, Peter Vincent, only to be abandoned again by an older adult. When Charlie needs Peter’s help, Peter runs and hides. Later, when Charlie pleads with Peter to help him, Peter replies that he will give him advice but nothing more. When Peter tells Charlie if he fights the vampire, he will probably die, Charlie responds by saying that he would rather die than be the kind of man that Peter Vincent has become. For Charlie, Peter Vincent is someone like his father, a person who, out of selfishness and cowardice, abandons those who need him.
Charlie is also feeling guilty because he realizes that his best friend is a vampire because Charlie abandoned him. At his high school, Charlie could be described as someone who has recently become upwardly mobile. He used to be a geek, but now he dates one of the most beautiful girls in school and runs with the cool crowd. Until Charlie underwent this cool transformation, his best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is still the quintessential geek. Charlie is ashamed to be seen with his former friend in public. When Ed tries to enlist Charlie’s help to kill Jerry the vampire, Charlie abandons his friend. Ed, feeling this rejection of abandonment, is a prime target for the vampire. When Jerry corners Ed, he tells him, “You say you’re glad that you’re different. But how can you be in a place like this? These people…Even your best friend. You’re nothing to him now. You were born for this and you know it. It’s a gift.” When people have been rejected by those they love, they are susceptible to being turned to evil. Those who feel powerless and marginalized are easy prey for those who promise them strength and a sense of belonging. Ed succumbs to the vampire, and when he does, he lets go of the cross that he had been holding for protection. In the 3D version of Fright Night, the cross comes floating out of the screen and dances before your eyes. The imagery of Ed letting go of the cross, the symbol of ultimate goodness, in order to become evil, is a powerful image. It once again shows how people will abandon all that is good and embrace all that is evil when we abandon them.
Of all the film genres, I think that horror provides the best vehicle for understanding the fear and attraction of evil. I love the vampire tales for many reasons, but primarily for its ability to convey in so many ways the methods that we use to confront evil and the weaknesses we have that make us vulnerable to evil. In many ways, this generation could be called “the abandoned generation.” Our single parent families, our shallow friendships, and our willingness to reject others for the sake of popularity and social acceptability, make people vulnerable to the seductiveness of evil. How many young people feel abandoned today because their fathers left them, or never even bothered to marry their mothers and accept the responsibilities that come with fatherhood? How many young people abandon their moral religious and moral standard and turn to sexual relationships simply to have that feeling of love and acceptance? How many young people turn to the wrong kind of friends, even gangs, because they feel that they have been abandoned by those who should love and protect them? Fright Night reveals how abandonment exposes people to the danger of evil, and how those who have been abandoned may even welcome evil into their lives.