Thursday, November 01, 2007

Day of the (Un)Dead

30 Days of Night, Starring Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Screenplay by Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson, Directed by David Slade, Columbia Pictures, 2007

I haven’t been to a horror movie at the theater in approximately forever. Mostly this is because I just don’t watch that genre the way I did when I was fourteen, but it’s also because I don’t get out to the movies as much as I did pre-The Littlest Critic. If there’s something that is cinematographically beautiful or the kind of big-screen flick that would be diminished on my home TV, I’ll try to make a point, but usually if we end up at the theater it’s to watch crap like Underdog or Firehouse Dog or even gems like Ratatouille.

But when my coworkers asked me if I wanted to go see the new vampire flick 30 Days of Night, I figured, what the hell, why not? It’s Halloween time and I haven’t been to a scary movie etc. Plus, I have to admit that the concept for this one is pretty good.

Based on a 2003 graphic novel of the same name put out by IDW Publishing* the story focuses on the small town of Barrow, Alaska, where every winter, there are 30 days without sunlight. The only way in and out of this removed village is by plane. As the final day of sun approaches, about three-quarters of the town are scurrying about to get the heck out of Dodge. Around 150 residents stick around, those tasked with police duties, keeping the pipeline running, and providing essential services like power and water operational. Their families and some hard-bitten types also stick around.

Enter, naturally enough vampires. The one saving grace in all of vampire lore was that at least you were safe during the day. Not so here.

I’ll admit to not having read the original material, my interest in horror comics lasting only a few years longer than my interest in horror films (okay, closer to ten years …), but still, the idea was good enough to get me to the theater.

Director David Slade, yet another former music video craftsman making it big in Hollywood, uses the kind of quick motion camera work you’d expect, the kind of dizzying array of shots and angles that is either completely incomprehensible deliberately or because of my age and preference for the long held frame. This kind of thing can work well in a horror film action sequence as it can heighten the tension, putting you in the same position as the characters, unfocussed, stunned, unable to get your bearings, but here it often felt too fast to even give a sense of much more than Vampires Gonna Getcha!

I’m not a fan of lead Josh Hartnett whose style of acting seems to consist of a lot of what he assumes are thoughtful or penetrating stares, but in 30 Days of Night he was better than I’ve ever seen him. It’s faint praise of course, but there’s something to be said for a non-annoying lead. A bit young to be the sheriff of the town, Hartnett seems wearied by the one thing after another of his job — and this before even he comprehends the scope of what he’s being asked to do when the vampires show up. I kept hoping there’d be some back story as to what this raw youth was doing in the top law enforcement position, but it never arrived. My guess is naturally on marketing.

Melissa George, a young blond thin actress completely unbelievable as a fire marshal even at the most yoga-inspired stretch, plays his love interest, though their relationship here is often as glacially chilly as the landscape. Apparently George is Hartnett’s ex-wife and their interaction is laced with meaningful lacunae that are never entirely explained. We don’t learn why their marriage dissolved and there are only a few scenes of actual romance between them though George does manage to wear a number of form-fitting parkas that struck me as wildly unlikely to be practical or government issue.

The vampires themselves were a motley lot, the creepiest one harkening back to the original cinema undead Nosferatu. A number of the others seem to have wandered into the film off the set of any Marilyn Manson video, which is fitting enough. They also spoke another language, whether a real one or their own vampiric pidgin I couldn’t tell, though they gave off a kind of Russian vibe.

The leader of the vampire gang seemed a bit stout and wattle-necked for someone living thousands of years on blood and his leadership style struck me as odd to say the least. The vampires show up, kill everyone in town in a maddened orgy of attacks, blatant, out in the open, bloody right on the streets. Then near the end of the 30 days of night, he suddenly starts to think it might have been a bad idea to be so obvious and decides they need to burn Barrow to the ground for the sake of covering their tracks.

The actual thirty days (and to be accurate there is no town on earth that doesn’t get a little sunlight during the revolution around the sun, even the farthest north settlements get a few hours of twilight) don’t seem to really pass. I’m dubious how long a group of six people could last in a heatless attic subsisting on scavenged canned food and snuck potty breaks downstairs without cabin fever and hypothermia getting to them, let alone finally being sniffed out by the vampires. The seemingly crucial element of time doesn’t seem to have factored much into Slade’s direction apart from Hartnett’s increasing density of facial hair.

There are, though, some occasional creepy moments, some ghastly deaths by ax, and one high adrenaline scene in which some kind of backhoe/power saw is wielded as a weapon against the mob of the undead. While the film may be low on realism — hey it’s a Halloween released horror flick! — it does have the kind of shock-fun I recall from my teenage years. Plus, I’ll admit to finding the ending, Hartnett’s surprising moral choice, to be something rather original to the genre. If there was an honest fright in the film, it happened there, much more quietly than all the shrieking vampiric attacks set to technobeats.

Maybe Slade could learn a thing or two from that single scene.

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