Different Perspectives: Fright Night 2: New Blood (Review)

Let’s get this out of the way … Fright Night 2 has no reason to exist. Yawn.

There’s probably gonna be a lot of narrow-minded fans and critics telling you the film is “shit” or “a typical direct-to-video waste” and so on. We’ve all heart that crap before. It’s the boring mantra lazy journalists like to spin when they’re phoning in a review they didn’t have much interest in working on. Sometimes it’s true. And sometimes it isn’t. Trust me, I’ve been that guy. I was handed dozens of films over my years as a professional film critic that I had ABSOLUTELY no interest in reviewing, and my reviews were not always very kind to those films. That’s the nature of the business and it’s one of the reasons why I vacated the career. I wanted to talk about things I loved, not things I hated. I wanted to create and respect, not destroy.

With that in mind, the criticism that Fright Night 2 is a retread is valid, on some level. Hell, anger was my first knee-jerk reaction to the film after I saw the trailer. It didn’t look good. When I watched the film with my wife I even said to her, “Now, keep in mind, this will probably be really terrible.” Just take a look at the trailer (below) and you will see exactly what I mean.

The film is practically a beat-for-beat riff on Fright Night, with elements and ideas borrowed from the original sequel, Fright Night Part II, and the remake. As far as the story template goes, Fright Night 2: New Blood is creatively empty.

Yup .. and so was Evil Dead 2, and a plethora of other horror classics.

Retreads are not that uncommon in the horror genre. Just look at the Friday the 13th series. Virtually every film sports the same narrative template. People go into the woods. People are warned of their doom. People are killed by Jason. Someone survives. Rinse and repeat for about ten sequels.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t gems within that series (there are) and that doesn’t mean Fright Night 2: New Blood should be passed by simply because the story borrows from it’s big brothers and sister. Because, in truth, there’s A LOT to like about the film. You just have to get past what it is, and focus on what it’s trying to be.

For one, Fright Night 2 is mostly done with practical effects. No crappy CG vampires. No silly monster faces that look like cartoons. Nothing. This film was shot on the cheap, and the filmmakers do their best with practical effects and lighting. And they even have enough money in the budget to scrape together a fully vamped-out vampire monster at the end of the film. This is a big win for those of us who complain about too much CG in monster movies. Fright Night 2 had the balls to stick with the practical stuff (or the lack of money, perhaps) and it pays off. There’s a sonar hunting sequence in the film that’s seriously unnerving, not because of CG, but because of old school trickery, like stylish lighting, editing and shot composure. It all works, and it works well.

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In fact, the film is actually pretty scary at times. There’s a scene in which Charlie Brewster and co. end up stuck in a subway train with a rather powerful vampire. What works is that they can’t leave. They’re totally and completely trapped there with this horrific beast, who wants nothing more than to tear them apart. Again, that scene works like gangbusters because it is seriously inventive.

The story itself tries to actually have some surprise to it. On the surface, the Peter Vincent character (played here by Sean Powers) felt a bit flat, mostly because it seemed as though someone on the production didn’t even want to include him. And, to be honest, the way it was handled actually gave the film some suspense, albeit probably accidental. I wasn’t sure how Peter Vincent would factor into the finale (if at all) since he wasn’t as integral a character to the film as previous chapters.

By altering Peter Vincent, the filmmakers actually created tension. Most criticisms you might hear about his character won’t be guided in the right direction. Most will complain about what his character isn’t (a copy of the first iteration of Peter Vincent) while complaining about how the rest of the film is copying the first one. Oh, the irony of that.

Now, obviously, the film isn’t flawless and I could nitpick. Here are a few gripes: the cast isn’t all that great (sorry). The heroes come off a bit bland. I’m guessing it’s a mixture of bad character development mixed with limited availability to a wide range of actors (the film was shot in Romania). Also, Fright Night 2 could have very easily been a sequel to the remake with literally less than one hour of re-writing. Change a few plot details (maybe the vampires lured Charlie to Romania to kill him), alter Evil Ed so he’s someone new, and make Peter Vincent a reality star now who actively hunts vampires on a TV show because of what happened in the first film, and you’ve basically got a sequel instead of a retread.

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But there are more positives, like Jaime Murray, who kinda owns her role of Gerri Dandrige. Groan all you want about her playing a character who was not only male, but died in the last film. Sure. But Ms. Murray knocks it out of the park, giving us the film’s best vampire lead since the original role, played by Chris Sarandon. Murray is terrifying, seductive, sexy and foreboding. Her Jessica Biel-like chiseled features make her a great choice for the role — a combination of alluring and powerful. She really is good in the film, and almost worth the price of admission alone.

Then there’s Eduardo Rodriguez‘s sharp direction and Yaron Levy‘s equally effective cinematography. Fright Night 2 was clearly a cheap production, but Rodriguez and Levy give life to nearly every scene, taking full advantage of the film’s gothic Romanian architecture, while injecting a nice Italian sense of color to the film, with vivid reds, blues, greens and neons splashed across the screen. Again, whenever the story or characters fail this sequel, there’s something else about it that seems to overcome the obstacles.

Frankly, I don’t care if you watch Fright Night 2: New Blood or not. If you like the series, it’s well worth a look. But I wanted to defend the film against its growing league of unfortunate haters. I wanted to defend the film for being a creatively clever, occasionally very refreshing little engine that could. Fright Night 2 is making the very best of a bad situation. It’s visually appealing, there’s a great villain, a few solid set pieces and a few clever bits of makeup effects and gore. Sure, the story could be more original. It could actually have tired to be a sequel. And the characters (or actors portraying them) could have been better. But Fright Night 2: New Blood is among the very best direct-to-videos efforts I’ve seen (and I’ve seen A LOT), not because of the story, but because the film is daring to be different. It’s daring to be real cinema.

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The Blu-ray: The disc sports an unrated version of the film, an above-average transfer with terrific 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio. Bonus features include a commentary with director Eduardo Rodriguez and producers Alison Rosenzweig and Michael Gaeta, webisodes and a featurette.

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Top Ten Favorite Horror Films Part 1: The Classics

Time for some lists! And since Halloween is nearing, I thought I’d start with a series of Halloween Horror Lists detailing my favorite horror films, starting with … The Classics.

Every week in October I will offer a different list outlining my favorites (four lists total, no repeated films). I’ll also do a list for my favorite horror/thriller books. Feel free to sound off in the comments below with your own horror favorites!

Please be aware that I change my mind often. The ability to change one’s mind on any subject is paramount for our culture’s growth and development. With that in mind, don’t be surprised to see another version of this list next year, with totally different movies on it … what can I say, I absolutely love horror films. It’s hard to pick favorites.

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10) The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

It might not be a classic yet, but just you wait. Drew Goddard’s horror send-up is a delightfully fun, funny and freaky spin on the “evil cabin” horror subgenre. In many ways, it’s a better follow-up to the Evil Dead franchise than the somewhat thin remake of Evil Dead we got in 2013. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor.

9) Evil Dead 2 (1987)

The original Evil Dead scares me a bit more than Evil Dead 2, but the second film delivers that fine blend of horror and laughs, while solidifying the B-movie icon status for star Bruce Campbell, and setting up director Sam Raimi for one hell of a career.

8) Friday the 13th The Final Chapter (1984)

If you only watch one Friday the 13th film, let it be this one. It’s not a masterpiece in the writing department, but the colorful cast, and equally colorful gore, make this one the absolute highlight of the series.

7) An American Werewolf in London (1981)

A tragic, scary, funny outing about a man who slowly comes to realize that he’s a werewolf. Every beat is stunning, and the film rarely ceases to surprise. The makeup effects are staggering, too. Many horror fans go back and forth as to which werewolf film is the best: The Howling or American Werewolf, but this one tops it for me. Always has. Always will.

6) The Fly (1986)

David Cronenberg’s creepy creature-feature is easily one of the best monster movies ever made, rich with taught direction, clever characters and outstanding writing. I am completely invested in this feature from start to finish. Honorable mentions here: The Thing and Alien. Also classics. Perhaps I’ll include them on another list at some point. Best Horror Sci-fi, perhaps?

5) Halloween (1978)

I often credit Black Christmas as one of my favorite slashers, but let’s face it – John Carpenter’s Halloween is the true classic. It’s frightening. It gets under your skin. And it’s still really great more than 35 years later. You just can’t beat it.

4) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Gritty and fiendishly dreamy, A Nightmare on Elm Street feels like a soap opera that’s been invaded by a nefarious force of evil. Robert Englund is terrific as Freddy Krueger, and Wes Craven’s direction keeps things intense and scary as hell, even on repeat viewings.

3) The Exorcist (1974)

This is a freaky masterpiece of spiritual horror. I still recall watching it with my friends and family and feeling the room grow silent, cold and nervous as the priests performed the exorcism. To say The Exorcist is riveting cinema is a bit of an understatement. Now, I’m torn about which version to suggest watching. If I had to pick, I’d go theatrical cut first, followed by the altered Director’s Cut.

2) Jaws (1975)

To this day I am still terrified every single time Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) dips into the cage to go one-on-one against Steven Spielberg’s killer shark. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for this film, and I’m not alone. Jaws is often credited with inspiring more writing/filmmaking careers than pretty much any film ever made. It’s THAT good.

1) The Shining (1980)

Stephen King’s clever, but admittedly meandering book is tinkered and adapted into an absolute cinema masterpiece. It’s also one of the best horror films I’ve ever come across, and is mandatory viewing for any self-respecting fan of the genre. What Stanley Kubrick does, and says, with his frame is still studied to this day. Don’t believe me? Just check out Room 237. Note: there are two versions of this film available, a longer US cut and a shorter international version (or Director’s Cut, as it is sometimes called – it was Kubrick’s preferred cut). Both versions are terrific, but I tend to prefer Kubrick’s shorter Director’s Cut. The pacing and intensity is much tighter, but you can’t really feel the cuts at all.

Next week: My top ten favorite horror books!