By Landon Evanson
If there’s one thing that’s to be understood with complete clarity, it’s that horror fans cradle the past to their collective chest with the intensity of a parent holding a newborn.
It’s borderline blasphemous to suggest that a new actor could possibly equal or surpass a performer who’d immortalized a character that they hold near and dear. Look no further than the vitriol spewed at Jackie Earle Haley for his turn as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) or even Derek Mears in 2009’s Friday the 13th reboot.
Say what you will about the films themselves (though I did rather enjoy the latest jaunt through Camp Crystal Lake), the only crimes Haley and Mears committed were that they weren’t Robert Englund or Kane Hodder.
Which brings us to another re-imagining fans scoffed at when its 2011 release date was announced, Fright Night.
Tom Holland’s classic tale of a high school boy’s discovery that a vampire was living next door is universally adored by horror fans everywhere, and for good reason. It was well written, charming and scary; and gifted us a pair of unforgettable characters, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) and Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall). All things 1985 aside, however, let’s talk about a personality who’s name was an homage to Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.
One needn’t look further than the Planet of the Apes movies to comprehend McDowall’s legendary status, but his turn as a has-been actor trying to eek out a living as the host of a late night horror television program has endeared him to genre aficionados for more than three decades. And ensured that any attempts at recreating that character would be a risky proposition.
But damned if David Tennant didn’t nail the role.
While both iterations of Vincent were burnouts, Tennant’s version wasn’t a B-Movie host, but rather the star of a stage attraction on the Las Vegas Strip. By shifting the tale from an idyllic suburban neighborhood to the isolation of cookie cutter homes on the outskirts of Sin City, the 2011 edition of Fright Night did a stellar job with modernization. What better place for a creature of the night to thrive than in relative isolation, where people worked all night and slept all day?
That said, Tennant’s character was not looking to survive financially. His show was successful and Vegas apartment swanky, so his reluctance to participate or later, believe, was not out of concern for his reputation or paying the bills, but from a desire to maintain the distance he’d established from a past that he’d wished never happened. Unlike McDowal’s Vincent, who came to the realization and wanted to deny and flee, Tennant knew full well that vampires existed, because it would turn out that Mr. Dandridge (Colin Farrell) himself had shattered Vincent’s childhood by taking his parents from him decades earlier.
No longer the quiet and respectful character that McDowall had portrayed, Tennant’s Vincent was a loud-mouthed buffoon whose sarcastic nature took nothing seriously and was more concerned with bragging about sexual exploits and downing Midori than helping young Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) solve his issue with the undead.
However, it was the dichotomy of Tennant’s humor and his reluctance to confront his past that created a character that, while a stark contrast to McDowall’s, was equally likable and believable, and in its own way, sympathetic.
Though Vincent had sent Charley packing with the accusation of his being a nut job, the visual evidence which Brewster had presented and left behind started to weigh on his conscience, which eventually won out. Tennant elected to ring Charley to offer his advice and a weapon, but nothing more. Of course, the best laid plans. Jerry and Evil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) made their way to Tennant’s abode and once again ripped a loved one (his girlfriend) from his grasp.
When the time came to nut up or shut up, Tennant was set to leave town, but not before he was called out by Charley, who’s father had abandoned he and his mother years before. “You just bail on people? I get it, my dad was like that. But I don’t want to live till tomorrow if you’re the kind of man I’m gonna be.”
Though it elicited no immediate reaction, that comment visibly wounded Tennant. And left him little choice but to ask himself the most important of questions – can you live with doing nothing?
Thinking he was alone in his quest to save abducted girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots), Charley was surprised when Tennant showed at the Dandridge residence. “I’m like a great first date. Get me drunk and I’ll try anything.”
Into the lair of Jerry’s basement they descended, where Tennant dropped some comedic gems about the perils of buying anti-vampire weaponry on eBay and an “Oh, that’s rough” as Dandridge tauntingly made out with Charley’s changed Amy before his very eyes.
Of course, in the end, and though executed by Charley, it was Tennant’s advice that “A vampire on fire is not thinking clearly” which saved the day.
As McDowall before him, Tennant’s Vincent was a burnout and cowardly, but when the dust settled, he was just as compelling. Rather than seeking professional peace, his demons were personal, so the sarcasm and derision and the drinking all made sense. Tennant simply felt guilty that he’d done nothing when Dandridge first came calling for his family. Though a child with “the good sense to hide,” he’d failed to act in an attempt to spare his parents’ fate and had drowned himself in self-loathing since. It may have taken some prodding, but once presented with a chance at redemption, Tennant wasn’t going to fall prey to the same mistake twice in a lifetime. Much like McDowall before him, it wasn’t until Tennant summoned the courage to face his fears, real and imagined, that he found his true self.
The Vincents took different paths, but ultimately arrived at the same destination. For as much as I love Roddy McDowall, and as sacrilegious as it seems, when it comes Peter Vincent’s travels between Point A and Point B, I’ll take David Tennant all day long.