Monday, March 7, 2016

Review: 30 Days of Night (2007)

30 Days of Night (2007)

Rated R for strong horror violence and language

Score: 3 out of 5

30 Days of Night is pure style over substance. It's based on a graphic novel that was itself adapted from an unsuccessful movie pitch, and there are two things that anybody who's read it remembers about it instantly: the premise, and the outstanding, creepy-ass artwork. The story's thin and not really the greatest (though it was expanded later on in sequels), but it's a fairly straightforward survival tale that's more about getting an emotion out of the reader than anything. The same is true of the film adaptation, which the comic's creators, writer Steve Niles (who co-wrote the screenplay) and artist Ben Templesmith, were both closely involved with. The story suffers from some pacing problems in its middle section and probably should've taken a bit more time to get straight into the action, but for fans of purely visceral horror, this is a feast for the eyes. It's a visually gorgeous, no-holds-barred horror flick that isn't exactly in the canon of great vampire films, but is still a cult classic in the making.

The premise here is one that seems so obvious on the surface that I'm surprised it took until the 2000s for somebody to come up with it. Every winter, thanks to the tilt of Earth's axis, the Arctic town of Barrow, Alaska is plunged into darkness as the sun fails to rise for thirty days. (In real life, it's actually closer to 65 days.) During the long winter night, most of the population becomes snowbirds in Anchorage, with only about a couple hundred staying behind to keep the oil pipeline and other necessary infrastructure up and running. When a gang of vampires learns about this isolated place where, during the winter, they can go on a month-long feeding frenzy, they leap at the opportunity, forcing a dwindling pool of townsfolk, led by sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) and his fire marshal ex-wife Stella (Melissa George), to band together and fight for survival.

This film is essentially a horror Western, albeit set in present-day Alaska (the "last frontier") instead of the Old West. The comparisons to Rio Bravo, the film that inspired so much of John Carpenter's body of work, are readily apparent, with a small pool of people in a remote frontier town fighting for survival against a band of outlaws (albeit with those outlaws instead being the undead). It's a story that works well with its simplicity and straightforwardness. And like so many great Westerns that exploited the breathtaking vistas of the western US, this film does the same with its Alaskan wilderness. The visuals are highly stylized, looking as if they'd been lifted straight from the pages of the comic. Barrow looks frozen and forbidding, such that it truly feels like these people aren't going anywhere and have no escape from the terror they're in. The night sky frequently looks like it's in the wee hours of the early morning rather than pitch black (a phenomenon known as polar twilight), taunting the survivors with the promise of a sunrise that is in fact quite distant, an effect accomplished with classic day-for-night shooting. The color red, appropriately, is the only one that punctuates the frozen wasteland. The vampires look like they could pass for humans, even fairly attractive ones in some cases, at first glance, until they open their mouths, at which point, between their mouthful of sharp fangs and their guttural language, they turn downright monstrous. And when they get down to business, it is messy, with several disgustingly gory shots on the part of both humans and vampires that are among the highlights of the film.

The film's qualities continue with the characters. Josh Hartnett and Melissa George make for a pair of good, rough-and-tumble protagonists who I could buy as being able to handle everything the night threw at them, the film adding a broken-off relationship between them that wasn't in the comic but which works surprisingly well here. The rest of the supporting cast also makes for a wide array of interesting characters, even if they didn't get much development save for a few. My favorite was probably Beau, a snowplow driver who uses that vehicle and others to score some great kills. (It was also a pleasant surprise to see that a large chunk of the supporting cast looked appropriately native, as befits the real-life town of Barrow, where Alaskan Natives make up over half the population. The film having been shot in New Zealand, they obviously weren't played by actual natives, but looking up the cast, I saw that they went and got Maori and Samoan actors for most of them, which is arguably the next best thing. The part that really stood out for me was how it didn't stand out: it was just treated as normal, the characters' heritage implied but never outright mentioned in the actual film.) The real standouts, though, were the vampires. Danny Huston leads the pack both literally and figuratively, creating a familiar-looking yet utterly alien monster in the form of Marlow, the chief of the vampire clan laying siege to the town. He gets most of the best lines as he cruelly taunts his victims before biting down into their necks. Dude was creepy. Special mention also goes to Ben Foster as the mysterious, weirdly-accented stranger who shows up in town just as the sun goes down, wreaking havoc and cutting off the townsfolk's means of calling for outside help, hoping to get turned into a vampire himself for his efforts.

On a storytelling level, though, the film really doesn't have much beyond its style and its solid cast to really elevate it. A problem I felt was that it seemed like the film played its hand too early, letting loose with all-out carnage just thirty minutes in and then slowing down for much of the running time until the climax. Leaving aside the logical issues (why would the vampires burn through their food supply so quickly and early, even though they know it's a month-long siege?), it robs the later sections of the film of their surprise and tension, as we've already seen what the vampires are truly capable of. The original comic had a subplot about vampire hunters trying to reach the town, but without it, there are long stretches here that just drag as the characters sit around hiding. The rapid-fire editing doesn't really help matters here, as while director David Slade tries to create some cabin-fever tension, it's constantly undercut at every opportunity. The slow parts shouldn't be cut together the same way as the action scenes! I'd have liked to have seen the second act revolve around the protagonists slowly realizing, over the course of the long polar night, that their town is under siege as growing numbers of people start disappearing, all while the stranger who knows what's going down taunts them from his jail cell, before finally going balls-out towards the end. (Some more character development also would've been nice, especially for the supporting cast, who are, barring a few notable exceptions, little more than ciphers otherwise.) The first act did a really good job at building tension, and it would've been better off if it kept that going. It's a strange problem to have with a film, that it gets to the "good stuff" too early as opposed to holding out for too long, but after the admittedly great scene of the vampires' initial rampage, the film seemed to run out of ideas for how to keep up the momentum.

The Bottom Line:

A flawed, but still unique and memorable vampire film. Perfect for getting creeped out to on a long, cold winter night.

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