Fright Night; or, Masculinity That Won’t Die
11 Aug 2014
I finally got around to watching the Fright Night remake from back in 2011. While film critics were definitely divided at the time it came out (which is why, despite starring David Tennant, I didn’t see it), I think it’s pretty fantastic. Moreover, it’s portrayal of vampires fits in with a lot of stuff I’ve been reading and thinking about lately.
One thing that I find striking is the completely de-romanticized depiction Colin Farrell as the vampire. Rather than being a sexy but kind of dangerous predator (cf. Dracula or Polidori’s The Vampyre), Jerry in this version of Fright Night is just an apex predator, doing what he does (which is killing humans). One of the things that makes Jerry so much scarier is that he’s not another of these dapper and well-spoken psychopaths who are everywhere in film and television. Jerry’s vampirism is in no way cool or sensual. It’s the killing and feeding of the wolf or the shark. Because of this depiction of vampirism as instinctual behavior, the movie is way scarier than anything I’ve seen in a while.
Despite deliberately de-romanticizing the vampire (there are a number of references to Twilight to make sure viewers get it), Farrell’s vampire is still really, really sexualized in the film. Vampires have long been used to discuss anxieties about sexuality, but generally that anxiety is about female sexuality: in this film, its about anxieties surrounding male sexuality. Specifically, I think, Farrell’s vampire is depicted as a serial rapist: every time he feeds its as sexualized as in any other vampire film but it’s also shot through with tropes of violence and force.
This image of Colin Farrell as a just plain dangerous (not sexy-dangerous) and violent psychopath fits into the other element of the story, in which Anton Yelchin’s Charley struggles against teen-movie stereotypes. Charley is a former nerd now dating Imogen Poots’s Amy, an attractive women who everyone tells him is out of his league, while struggling to fit in with the alpha bros who make up the male portion of her friend group (alpha bros who ask him how he “got with that” when talking about Amy. Not “her” but “that”). Later Farrell’s Jerry mirrors this objectification, telling Charley that girls like Amy and the neighborhood go-go dancer Jerry has invited over to murder “need to be managed” by strong men.
Related to this thread in Fright Night, Jess Zimmerman’s “Men, Get On Board With Misandry” passed through my social media this morning. The essay outlines the turn toward misandry in contemporary feminism and qualifies what Zimmerman means when she makes jokes about killing all men on Twitter. The whole thing’s worth reading, but Zimmerman’s basic thesis is that the turn to misandry isn’t about actually, seriously killing all men, rather “Here’s what we do want to kill: the concept of masculinity. And you should want that, too.”
And this gets back to Fright Night. The film uses the vampire to raise the issue of an undead masculinity in need of a stake through the heart. How does someone like Yelchin’s Charley fit into a world that sees only sexually frustrated nerds and rapey, alpha bros (which, of course, are two sides of the same misogynist coin)? And, moreover, how do you deal with the ultimate personification of entitled, alpha bro psychopathy when he won’t and can’t die. As Jerry informs Charley during the final confrontation:
What were you thinking, Charley? That you were just going to walk in here with your little crossbow and put to bed 400 years of survival? No, Charley. Not likely.
My favorite moment in the film is when Charley’s realtor mother, played by Toni Collette, stabs Jerry in the back with one of the “For Sale” signs she carries around in their minivan. Of course, she misses his heart and he merely continues his rampage, but this moment connects the film to the 2008 housing market collapse that provides the film its setting and many of its plot points. You see, Jerry is so successful at feeding in this isolated tract of suburban homes in the desert outside of Las Vegas because so many people are leaving in the middle of the night, anyway (the first shot of the neighborhood juxtaposes stereotypical suburban life with a grove of “For Sale” signs sprouting ominously throughout). To my mind, this impaling via a symbol of collapsed economy captures the logic of the film: in a time of economic depression and rising joblessness, in which many a think piece was written about how this was a massive blow to masculine ideas of being a provider or whatever ideological construction you want, a violent, pernicious masculinity that has always existed is actually able to thrive.
This thriving of an undead, predatory masculinity is what I find so compelling about Fright Night. At a time when traditional images of men (as providers, as heads-of-households, etc.) are in decline, the violence that lurks at the core of and enables this more wholesome rhetorical image is in overdrive (which links to the rise of open carry “activists”, maybe?). As scary as Jerry is (and he’s, as I said, the first genuinely scary movie villain I’ve seen in a long time), Jerry’s ability to exploit systems of male privilege and assumptions of male violence is the true horror of the film. Everywhere, throughout the film, people are willing to overlook his feeding as “men being men” (“You bet I made her scream,” Jerry tells the police after Charley calls them to his house after he first feeds on the go-go dancer).
This normalizing of male violence relates to Zimmerman’s point about why misandry in feminism works for and appeals to so many men:
Part of the reason misandry jokes take off, and part of the reason men who see the patriarchy matrix are some of the most enthusiastic misandry jokers, is that men are encouraged and rewarded for behavior that is, on the face of it, downright awful. Once you see through that horrible joke that patriarchy is playing on you, individual men start hating men-as-a-group in the same way that feminists hate them — not a way that encourages automatic hostility towards members of the group, but a way where you want to see the group disbanded and its charter destroyed and cast to the winds and forgotten.
As Fright Night makes abundantly clear, normalized patterns of male sexual behavior in the 21st century are inherently predatory and psychopathic. Zimmerman continues, “Joking about misandry is a way of saying ‘guys, look what you’re supposed to be like,’” and that is the same thing that Farrell’s portrayal of Jerry does: do you want to be like this predator? This monster?
Fright Night is a really interesting misandrist retelling of a classic vampire story. I didn’t really have the space here to talk about David Tennant’s Midori-swilling vampire hunter (which was the whole reason I watched the movie, in the first place), but his various transformations throughout the film also highlights how this film is about negotiating with but ultimately coming to reject the idea that what passes as “normal” male behavior is often frighteningly violent and a form of socially sanctioned psychopathy.