It's like the Nineties never happened! (Or the Noughties, come to that)
Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that very occasionally manages to guess the ending. This week, the very death of cinema as a creative undertaking is upon us, as all sources of new plots are finally exhausted and film-makers are forced to endlessly remake movies from the Eighties. Or possibly it could just be a coincidence.
The Hack, the Hacking and the Hackneyed
Anyone up for a spot of treading the jewelled thrones of the Earth under their sandalled feet? Well, someone obviously thinks there's some interest in that sort of thing, as they have knocked out a new movie based on Robert E Howard's invincibly buff troublemaker, entitled , as you'd expect , Conan the Barbarian. Directing this time around is Marcus Nispel and playing the Cimmerian himself is Jason Momoa.
Is this a remake of the 1981 movie starring His Arnieship or a whole new take on Howard's original stories? I don't think it makes much difference. Set in a mythical way-back-when, it all kicks off with Conan being born on the battlefield where his mother has declined to take maternity leave (from somewhere she has managed to find chain-mail maternity wear – look, if you're going to start asking awkward questions this early in the movie, I really wouldn't bother at all), skips forward through his astoundingly violent young manhood, then on to the destruction of his village and death of his father (Ron Perlman, possibly cast due to his playing Conan in an unfinished animated movie, but a good choice anyway) at the hands of a passing megalomaniac Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). This gentleman is intent on collecting plot coupons which will allow him to resurrect his wife, open the gates of hell, give him overlordship of the world as we know it, etc, etc – plot coupons being worth a bit more in days gone by.
Well, years go by, Conan grows up into the strapping form of Momoa, but remains intent on taking revenge against Zym when not being a reaver, buccaneer, freebooter, and all the other things on his CV. Zym, on the other hand, is still looking for coupons, the last one being the final descendant of an ancient bloodline: she is played by Rachel Nichols, her name is Tamara, and she is a monk. No, really, she states her career choice on a couple of occasions. Why is she a monk and not a nun? My money is on this being the result of a really thick-headed script and/or a suspicion that the audience might not be quite on-side with the idea of Conan getting it on with a nun. Whether they'll be happier with the idea of Conan getting it on with a monk I really doubt, but I'm absolutely certain this is a really thick-headed script.
So Conan ends up protecting Tamara from Zym and his nutty witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), with the aid of his old buddies Artus (Nonso Anozie) and Ela-Shan (Said Taghmoui) – hmm, my spellchecker has just gone off weeping. The names of characters and places just slide out of your head, anyway, but you always know what's going on as it's all straight out of the Big Book of Heroic Fantasy Cliches: Barbarian Warrior, Aristocratic Love-interest, Wisecracking Sidekick, Aspiring Despot, Insane Evil Girl Minion and so on. Swords get swung, body parts get chopped off, fake blood splashes in remarkable quantities, and, well, er, it's all very mechanical and rather familiar.
In fact, this is very much the direct descendant of any number of ropey, generic fantasy movies that got made in the Eighties and Nineties. There's nothing original about the characterisation or plot, and the world of the movie is drawn so vaguely that you really have nothing to engage with. Very occasionally the film has a moment of insanely over-the-top machismo, such as at the beginning, where Conan's mum, mortally wounded, gives herself a quick C-section in order to make sure he'll be okay , that elevates it to a level of camp absurdity that I found rather endearing, but all too often it continues to wallow in the realms of the predictable.
I'm not a great fan of heroic fantasy anyway, to be honest, especially in its American idiom: given the choice I'll take Elric over Conan any day. But I do have a certain fondness for Robert E Howard's original stories. Maybe Howard was a bit of a hack, but his stories have a robust honesty about them that I find rather appealing, and his setting is distinctive. I would say this movie is probably closer to Howard than the 1982 version, but only marginally so.
If nothing else, Jason Momoa looks the part as Conan (possibly – heresy ahoy! – even more than Schwarzenegger did), but all the performances here are forgettable (with the possible exception of McGowan, who's just plain bad). The script, as I mentioned, is thick-headed, and the direction nothing special. And yet I find it hard to actually dislike this film. It's not much cop, and yet it's still very far from being the worst film in this genre, and even those based on Howard's works. That's an indictment of the low standard of epic fantasy movies in general, I suppose: with a very few, very obvious exceptions, no literary genre has been as poorly served on the big screen as fantasy. Something tells me we shouldn't be surprised that Conan the Barbarian continues this trend – in any case, it certainly does.
'I don't think vampires are frightening any more... we know the rules so well.' Christopher Frayling
Or, if you prefer a pithier quote from someone less respectable, how about 'Vampires have become Horror's equivalent of Star Trek,' from Kim Newman? These days I think a better comparison would be with McDonalds, and not on the grounds that both are questionable on dietary grounds. But they've both become vaguely disreputable, while remaining very popular and continuing to dish up more-or-less exactly the same fare.
Nevertheless, when launching a new vampire story into a fairly unforgiving marketplace, it helps to have an edge, even if that edge solely consists of being a remake. Which brings us to Craig Gillespie's version of Fright Night, the original of which hit our screens in 1985.
Former Buffy scribe Marti Noxon has relocated the story to Las Vegas, a smart move given it's a city where everyone's up all night as a matter of course and abnormal behaviour is, er, normal. Our protagonist is Charlie (Anton Yelchin, possibly best known for playing Chekov in the Star Trek re-do), a recovering geek living with his mum (Toni Collette, possibly best known for Muriel's Wedding) and doing improbably well with his beautiful girlfriend (Imogen Poots, possibly best known for 28 Weeks Later). However, his old friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, possibly best known for Kick-Ass) breaks surprising news to him - his new neighbour Jerry (Colin Farrell, possibly best known for his remarkable ubiquity over the last decade) is a bloodsucking undead predator!
As you'd expect, Charlie is initially very dubious about this but events convince him otherwise (one of his other neighbours goes on a date with Jerry then explodes when the sun comes up the next day, for one thing). Jerry does not take kindly to having his secret exposed and soon Charlie's loved ones are also in peril. In desperation, Charlie resorts to asking for help from Goth-styled stage magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant, best known for.… um… er… I expect it'll come to me), little suspecting that he is really about as much use in this situation as a rubber stake…
The original Fright Night was part of a slew of vampire movies that came out in the mid Eighties, appearing just after The Hunger but before The Lost Boys and Near Dark. I don't think it's as accomplished as any of those, but it did make a pile of money which is probably why it's been given the remake treatment. That said, elements from all of those movies make an appearance here, and the new film is tonally fairly different too. You could argue that this refers to Eighties horror in the same way the Eighties version was a homage to a still earlier era, I suppose , although the way the rewrite changes Peter Vincent from a fading movie actor to a magician sort of disconnects the gag that he's named in honour of two legends of horror. Hey ho.
Things get off to a slightly wobbly start due to the plot's demands that Charlie be simultaneously best friends with an enormous geek and possessor of an amazingly hot girlfriend, and the script does not negotiate this issue with tremendous deftness. It also seems for a while as if everything will degenerate into knowing self-referentiality and wearisome irony , though there are also some very neat moments, such as a scene where Charlie desperately tries to avoid inviting Jerry into his house without making it too obvious that he's onto him.
However, once the story picks up pace the film stops trying to be clever and actually becomes a rather engaging piece of knockabout schlock. Some showing-off from the director doesn't help, and the rather naturalistic atmosphere is slightly at odds with some of the excesses involved. But the performances are very good throughout. David Tennant resists the temptation to steal the entire movie (it was clearly a close thing) but is clearly having a lot of fun, while Colin Farrell manages to find a way of playing a vampire that isn't obviously influenced by anyone else.
It's actually a bit of a pleasure to find a vampire movie that's so resolutely old-school in its treatment of the beasts - as someone says, Jerry isn't lonely or tragic or heartbroken, he's the shark in Jaws! On the other hand, the movie's reading of the vampire myth isn't especially profound – apparently the vampire symbolises a cooler and richer older guy out to steal your girlfriend. Not much material there for Freud.
Anyway, while the new Fright Night isn't anything special, I would say the same was arguably true of the first one too. Nevertheless, it's a nicely put-together movie with lots of good performances and a solid understanding of the conventions of vampire movies. It's not actually scary in any but the most mechanical of ways, but it's frequently amusing and often very nearly thrilling. A good bet for a fun trip out, always assuming you like this sort of thing.