Tuesday, July 13, 2010

30 Days of Night

I've never been  a huge fan of vampire movies; the Anne Rice vamps are too mopey, the Twilight ones are too teen-friendly.  Even when Hollywood went back to basics with Bram Stoker's Dracula and got the incredible Gary Oldman to play the title role, it was underwhelming and bizarrely oversexed.  Even the Blade movies, which succeed as action flicks, fail by making vampires stupid rave kids.  Don't even get me started on the Underworld trilogy.  The vampire, as a cinema monster, has lost its effect.  It is no longer the stuff of horror, but a metaphor for undying love.

And that's a steaming pile of crap.  Vampires should be scary.  They drink blood to live, ferchrissakes!  They are unnatural abominations that take joy in the pain they cause.  In 30 Days of Night, Hollywood finally got the vampire right.

Based on the comic book miniseries of the same name, this story takes place in Barrow, Alaska.  Barrow is so close to the Arctic Circle that the town has one month out of the year where the sun does not rise at all.  Hence the movie title.  Not surprisingly, many of the townsfolk leave for the month, because missing daylight can make people go a little crazy sometimes.  In fact, the town does not sell alcohol during that month to keep the troubles to a minimum.  A relative few remain behind, including the sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the surly town snowplow driver, Beau (Mark Boone Junior), and assorted townsfolk.  This year, Eben's estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George), also happens to get stuck in town after the annual exodus; a storm is heading toward Barrow, and she manages to wreck her car on the way to the last flight out of the area.  She's not the only visitor, either.  A strange, hoarse, dirty man (Ben Foster) appears on the first night, coincidentally the same night when all the town's cell phones have been stolen and burned,  and all the town's dogs have been killed.  This stranger is soon taken into custody by Eben and Stella for acting crazy in the town diner, but he just laughs at them, claiming that death is coming to Barrow.  The power goes out, so Eben and Stella investigate, only to find that the telecommunications/power center for the town has been sabotaged and the operator killed.

So far, the vampires haven't really been seen yet.  They are fast blurs in the shadows, and they are messy; you can tell where they have been because there's usually a headless corpse and a circle of blood-stained snow.  Then they attack, and you get your first look at them.  They speak a guttural foreign language, possibly an ancient one, so their dialogue has subtitles.  Their eyes are wide and entirely black.  They are pale, yes, but they are monstrous; their fingernails are claw-like, their noses elongated, and their teeth are all sharp.  These aren't the type of vampires that feed on you by leaving two fang marks behind, they tear out your whole throat.  There is no mistaking that these are vampires, and they have come to kill the residents of Barrow. 

Predictably, the human population in Barrow takes a swift nose dive after the vampires move in.  While there are two or three visually distinctive vamps, there is a clear leader, played by Danny Huston, that is commanding the rest.  Under his leadership, all communications have been lost, and all transportation has been disabled.  Still, a few survivors remain, including Eben and Stella.  They manage to sneak into a house that has a hidden attic, where they wait until they come up with a plan: the people of Barrow deliberately live there, so they know the cold like no others, and they can use that to their advantage and fight back.

As far as the acting goes, it's decent, with a couple of particularly awesome performances.  I found it noteworthy that I didn't dislike Josh Hartnett for a change.  Melissa George is okay, but not extraordinary.  This is probably the most heroic role I have seen Mark Boone Junior play; he usually is cast as a corrupt cop or a sleazeball.  Ben Foster once again takes a bit part and makes it memorable; you can argue that he overacts, but I love seeing him take boring roles and making them distinct characters.  Most of the vampires do little in the acting department, save tilt their heads and hiss.  Danny Huston, though, is terrifying.  He's basically the only vampire that speaks, and his makeup, combined with his inhuman mannerisms and his croaking voice, combine to make him the best vampire I can remember. 

I really liked the creative choices that director David Slade made with this film.  The first draft of the script was written by the comic's writer, Steve Niles; Slade made the choice to have his screenwriter from Hard Candy, Brian Nelson, do the rewrite.  Basically, they chose to make the script less over-the-top and more scary, and yet still remain basically true to the comic.  That is so smart, I wish they did this with all comic book movies: have a comic guy write the script that captures the feeling of the source comic books and have a screenwriter make changes so it works better on film.  It's a very simple concept that comic movies rarely follow.  And the vampire language?  That was totally a Slade/Nelson idea.  Visually, the film is surprisingly detail-oriented.  Beards grow with appropriate speed, chapped lips get worse over time, and the survivors look hungrier and dirtier as the film progresses.  The direction isn't flawless; the acting is only decent and the scenes where the survivors hide should have been claustrophobic.  Luckily, the sheer scariness of the vampires makes up for those not-quite-awesome attributes.

From a writing perspective, the story stays pretty true to the comic book.  There are some differences, but nothing major.  In fact, some of the changes are for the better, like the invention of the vampire language.  Still, the writing isn't great.  The plot is kind of predictable and there are some scenes that you just know will happen eventually, if you bother to think about it.  For instance, there has to be a scene where we get to see someone start to transform from human to vampire.  It's obvious, really, but the pace was brisk enough to keep me immersed in the moment, so I didn't think ahead.  That sort of pacing should be common in movies, but too often is overlooked, so I am grateful for its presence in this film.

The more I think about 30 Days of Night, the less impressed I am with it. I've seen it three or four times, and this happens every time I analyze it. It's not a bad movie, by any means. It just has a lot of things that aren't objectively great about it. But then I watch it again, and its awesomeness is renewed for me. There is something in this movie (probably scary vampires, if I had to guess) that satisfies me in a very basic way, and it is immune to any cliches or mediocre performances this film may contain. The important thing is that it has vampires, and they do not suck. And that makes me smile.

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