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Movie Review: Fright Night Struggles to Nail the Horror-Comedy Balance

Colin Farrell threatens Anton Yelchin in Fright Night.

An R-rated horror-comedy with sharp fangs and a goofball soul, Fright Night cashes in on the coffin craze by spit-taking blood all over the Twilight franchise. The setting is, appropriately enough, a ghost-town subdivision outside housing-boom-busted Las Vegas, where a suspicious number of homes stand empty. Were the neighbors all foreclosed upon? Turns out, the bad guy isn’t the vampire squid Goldman Sachs. It’s the actual vampire next door.

Anton Yelchin, suddenly all grown up and leading-man handsome, plays Charley, the geek turned stud who, as soon as puberty hit, ditched his geeky bestie Ed
(Christopher Mintz-Plasse, stock nerd nonpareil) for the cool-kid table and his girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots). As it turns out, the dweeb detective has determined that a vampire is disappearing the neighbors — and he’s not the modish dreamy kind of bloodsucker. “Vampires aren’t brooding or lovesick or noble,” Ed rants, in one of many digs at Team Edward. “He’s the fucking shark from Jaws.”

The vampire is Jerry, a muscled-up stud who moves in next door looking like Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right, complete with cuff bracelet, scruff, henley tee, and dangling necklace. It’s actually Colin Farrell, whose every creepy leer at Charley’s mother (Toni Collette) screams MILF bloodlust. He's always either radiating smoldering menace or gawking like a crazy person, and often both. Jerry is a vampire who seems to be bored of cover-ups and politesse; now he’s just bloodthirsty and psycho. Sure, Farrell’s performance may not make much sense, but neither do centuries-old vampires living in Nevadan subdivisions. So he goes for it. At times, Farrell is as hilariously over-the-top as Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss. Though he may not turn into a bat, he raises and flaps his big bushy black eyebrows around so much it seems as if they might fly off his face.

Lars and the Real Girl’s Craig Gillespie brings to the project a casual touch with actors, so the gore is occasionally balanced by grace notes of actual human acting. The ever-more-impressive Yelchin makes the most of these opportunities, shrugging off lines with casual carelessness. He has a mature feel for playing against the grain, even as the action is raging, and he steps on his own punch lines just enough to temper their gimmickry. He’s immensely likable here; Poots, with much less to do, is a game accomplice.

The film is written by Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum Marti Nixon as a möbius script of endlessly looping meta-references to vampire lore and franchises. Even Doctor Who fans will be gratified to see David Tennant playing Peter Vincent, an absurd Criss Angel–style neo-Goth occult star with a collection of vintage vampire-slaying tools and the looks of Russell Brand’s dissipated cousin. The film isn’t a radical reconfiguration of vampire mythology; it’s a goofy, ridiculous monster-mash-up of your favorite vampire tunes. (Though, as in most cases these days, the 3-D is a completely dispensable rip-off.)

The film falters toward the end, as Gillespie begins to take the stakes a little too seriously and the jokes get lost in all the blood-sucking, stake-stabbing, and vampire-incinerating.
The best horror comedies (Shaun of the Dead, Dead Alive) tilt the balance toward comedy and become increasingly absurd, so that the lunacy of the comedy increases in tandem with the escalating violence, and the gasps and big laughs work in synch. In the end, Fright Night gets lost in special effects as it aims for a big final fight scene that’s merely ho-hum.

A film with so many absurd moments deserved a more outrageous finale than a basement battle royale. (I was hoping they’d be unleashed on the streets of Vegas, perhaps near the Luxor.) But the horror-comedy (or "thrill-omedy," in 1990 parlance) is as hard a genre to nail as vampires are to stake. A dumb-fun horror movie earns mocking laughter, and straight horror elicits nervous laughter, but the best horror-comedies can make you laugh and gasp and scream, all at the same time. With the help of a witty script and some fresh performances, Fright Night comes close: It’ll make you flinch and giggle, for sure, but it won’t leave you howling, either with laughter or surprise.

Photo: DreamWorks II Distribution Co.