Fright Night, opening tomorrow, is a bit of a revelation. You expect a schlocky low-budget remake of a 1980s cult horror comedy, and instead you get a fun, thrilling, character-driven summer movie. And much of the credit goes to scriptwriter Marti Noxon, former showrunner on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
We were lucky to interview Noxon a couple of times recently, and she told us about making vampires scary again. She also talked about Steven Spielberg's involvement in Fright Night, and the secrets of doing horror-comedy that doesn't fall flat. Spoilers ahead...
How to bring back scary psycho-killer vampires
Everybody involved with this film talked about bringing back the scarier side of vampires, says Noxon. "That was something that really appealed to me," she adds. "I loved Anne Rice when I was growing up, and obviously I wrote my fair share of the sympathetic vampire [on Buffy], but I was hungering for the more vicious predator... I really like a badass vampire. I like kind of the idea that they're just basically soulless hunters. So that was definitely the idea behind the Jerry character. There's no humanity to appeal to... We didn't lean into the idea that he's got a very romantic soul. Not this one. [laughs]"
And luckily, they wound up with a pretty terrifying-looking vampire, in Colin Farrell. He's "such a charismatic kind of [character.] He's got that kind of furrowed brow that always looks so worried," and you want to comfort him. "He kind of lures you in... like a venus flytrap."
Instead of being overtly campy, the movie has fun with the idea of a vampire, but in a slightly more knowing way. Twenty years on, everybody knows vampire lore already, so you need to have some "winks at the idea that we're all well steeped in this culture. And the guy's got to be smarter than your average vampire. He has a different cover in this movie than a lot of current vampire movies. He doesn't skulk around in a long duster looking pale and moody."
She also strongly objects to the idea of vampires walking around during the day, which is "not cool. I did this for a living, too, and dusk is okay with me." But not broad daylight, Noxon insists.
Noxon says that part of the appeal of a totally evil vampire in these troubled times is that it's an evil we can defeat outright — it's not an ambiguous evil, it's a clear-cut one. Getting to see something so evil get destroyed is "a nice respite from the things you can't actually solve."
The best predators are relentless
One of the striking things about Fright Night is that it doesn't draw out the uncertainty about vampires for too long. Pretty quickly in the film, we know there are vampires, and so does Anton Yelchin's character, Charlie. Noxon says this was a deliberate choice,
in part because you're not going to hide that ball for very long. We all know what the movie's about. And it was interesting, because it was one of the things that Mr. [Steven] Spielberg responded to in my draft is that we dispense with a lot of the "Having coffee and talking about whether this is actually going on" scenes, and just got right into it. And once the predator is on the loose, we don't actually take a lot of downbeats. It's just pretty relentless. Early on, we'd talked about the fact that we wanted the vampire to be like the shark from Jaws. And once you know there's a shark, you know there's a shark. [Laughs] So we just cut to the chase.
Why humor makes the horror scarier
One reason she was excited to take on this film was because she remembered "the deft balancing act they did between genuine funny parts and genuine scary parts. I love the kind of build-up of suspense you get from comedy horror, and I hadn't had a chance to write in that voice very much since Buffy. So it was super fun."
Adds Noxon: "What's really interesting about the kind of humor that I like to write is, it's very character-driven and it's meant to be throwaway. I don't really write jokes, you know?" She was lucky enough to have a director, Craig Gillespie, and a cast who really "got it," and managed to play the humor in an understated way that made it funnier. "Going to theaters and hearing people really be surprised by the fact that it was funny was really fun."
And one of the great things this film does, on several occasions, is yank the rug out from under the audience. There are a few jolting surprises that really do catch you off guard. Noxon says it's vitally important to try and do this, especially when you're working in a genre where "the tropes are so familiar." There was some debate among the production team, she adds, about whether it was okay to take a few liberties with vampire lore to make some surprises possible — and in the end, "you have to step back and say, 'Dude, none of this would really happen [anyway].'"
Steven Spielberg was heavily involved in this film
Noxon was surprised by how much of an interest Steven Spielberg took in this movie. "I was told that he just sometimes takes an interest in the smaller movies at Dreamworks, because they're just sort of fun for him, and a throwback to childhood favorites. He's just a mass consumer of pop culture." She says Spielberg "gave a lot of feedback, and worked with the director and came into the editing room and he was great. I was so shocked when I actually was summoned to meet the real him."
Among other things: Spielberg worked with director Craig Gillespie on the film's storyboards, and suggested a few shots in the film. "It's a tiny thing, but there's a great shot where they cut outside of the house, and you see a camera flash in the window, and for some reason it's really eerie. He would pitch stuff like that. You had these little moments that had this sort of Amblin touch." But at the same time, Spielberg was confident enough that he didn't feel the need to make changes just to put his mark on it, when stuff was already working.
The popular girl is not a shallow jerk for once
One of the cool things about Fright Night is that the high school politics are less simplistic than what a lot of other films portray. Charlie (Anton Yelchin) leaves behind his nerd friends to join the popular kids and start dating a hot popular girl named Amy (Imogen Poots). But instead of finding out that Amy is superficial and stupid, we actually discover she's much cooler than we realized — and she actually loves Charlie for being a nerd — even as Charlie learns to appreciate his nerd roots all over again.
We asked Noxon about that, and she says:
One of my favorite shows on TV was Freaks and Geeks, and I loved how [on that show], there were times when poele crossed enemy lines and it wasn't exactly what you expected. In truth, I think what I was trying to write about was sort of becoming a whole person, integrating all the parts of yourself. It's overly simplistic to say it's the story of a kid becoming a man. It's the story of the kid realizing he doesn't have to choose between the part of him that can run with the popular crowd, and the part of him that can quote the Prime Directive. And if he can do both of those things, he's actually going to be a much more whole — and lethal — person. Because in the end, a lot of his geek skills are what help him prevail. But it's also that he's become a stronger, braver person and having his girlfriend in his life has made him more confident. It's not all just one thing.
Why is Peter Vincent now a Vegas magician?
In the original Fright Night, Peter Vincent is a late-night television horror host, something which doesn't really exist any more. "We don't use media the same way anymore," says Noxon. "The world in which old horror movies were recycled again and again and again, with a cheesy vampire host or what have you. That's all gone by the wayside. We consume and then we move on." So one of the fun things about this project was "coming up with a modern-day equivalent."
And meanwhile, Noxon had already thought about setting a supernatural movie set in Las Vegas, because she'd been there helping out during the presidential campaign. "I spent a lot of time in the suburbs there, and I noticed every other house there is abandoned. This is a world where people sleep all day and work all night. There's a huge transient population. If I were a monster, I would totally move here." And then the producers approached her about Fright Night, "and it was like, 'Ooh, here it is.'"
And Noxon did some more research, and found out that Penn and Teller have a huge collection of occult objects, and are sort of mythbusters. "And that led to the idea of a guy who might know a lot about vampires and mythology and might be one of these Vegas magicians." This gave rise to the idea of Criss Angel-type magician character, played by David Tennant.
Noxon says she didn't write the part for Tennant specifically — she didn't know who would be playing the part, but she was delighted when she found out. "He's so good in the movie. There are a couple of scenes that he and Anton [Yelchin] improvised that are so funny. They could have just gone on for days. He's such a good, wonderful actor and he totally committed to it. He's really in it. They are a great team. I would not be sorry if I had the opportunity to write them again."