Monday, March 24, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: 30 Days of Night (2007)

Based on the comic-book series by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith, 30 Days of Night is a 2007 horror film produced by Ghost House: Sam Raimi's production company. And Sam Raimi's involvement with the film led to me to two conclusions about the quality of this movie, and also the potential of this movie.

But let's not jump the gun. 30 Days of Night is the harrowing and extremely gory story of Barrow, Alaska (population 152) which - every year - undergoes thirty days without sunlight. Alcohol is illegal during that month of darkness ("we have enough problems without people drinking in the dark..." says one local), and many of the residents who can't take the oppressive, unending night abandon town by plane, Anchorage-bound. They have to do so: the town of Barrow is isolated by 90 miles of snowy wasteland in all directions. The only effective way in or out is by sled dogs or by air. No trains, no cars, no motorboats...

As the film begins, it is the "last day of sun" and the "last sunset for a month." A creepy, Renfeld-esque stranger arrives in Barrow just as a string of strange events occur. Someone has been stealing and burning cell phones. The town's helicopter is sabotaged. And then...all the sled dogs are brutally murdered in their kennels. The sheriff of Barrow, played by likable but wooden Josh Hartnett, begins to suspect that his town is being set up for something more sinister than vandalism, but he has no idea what's really occurring: a terrorist attack by a crew of ravenous, super-strong vampires who hope to feast for thirty days.

The vampires begin feeding on the town's people the first night, after destroying the local infrastructure (including power and computer networks). The citizenry can't rally much of a defense, so Sheriff Eben (Hartnett) leads a band of motley survivors including his estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George) and his brother, Jake, into hiding. They cower in an attic for about seventeen days, then make for the general store to stock up during a "snow blind" blizzard. Then, finally, they attempt to hold out the rest of the month in the local power plant. But the vampires are on their trail, and on their backs, the whole time...

I have to admit, the concept of this film is utterly brilliant: one of the best horror movie premises I've seen in a very long time. Vampires at play - on the loose and unstoppable for thirty days of darkness - is a potent and trenchant nightmare. And I'm also predisposed to enjoy films about towns under siege. I deeply admire John Carpenter's The Fog (1980) and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). I love the idea of quarreling neighbors taking up arms to defend one another from an exterior menace. In the post 9/11 age, I think this metaphor is even more powerful. "Let's roll" and all.

And yet 30 Days of Night makes a series of infuriating missteps that severely compromise the great premise. Perhaps most importantly, the film devotes almost no significant screen time whatsoever to setting up the peculiar rhythms and rituals of the town of Barrow. The attack begins so early in the film that all we really know is that Barrow is dark and snowy, and that Josh Hartnett is sheriff. If the filmmakers spent some time developing the geography and locales and flavors of the town, the movie would have been much more powerful. The same goes for the characters here: very few townspeople are introduced successfully and even fewer prove memorable. The result is that when the attacks begin, we don't care in the slightest who we are losing to the vampires. For instance, three horny pipeline workers are attacked. The two men are bearded and interchangeable, and the woman is just a screamer. What are their names? How did they come to this job? why should we care about them? A critical aspect of generating terror in the cinema is empathy. We must like and identify with the people in danger, or else it's just a freak show: blood and guts but nothing else. That's certainly a valid criticism of 30 Days of Night. We hardly know the victims or anything about their lives so the attacks are just bloody spectacle.

The upshot of this is that when 30 Days of Night cuts to an absolutely glorious, absolutely beautifully staged shot of the carnage in Barrow, it has virtually no impact. The shot is staged from a helicopter a couple of hundred feet up, and the camera is pointed directly down, at an overhead angle. Because of the helicopter's height, we can see a vast swath of territory. We see the towns people running about madly, and vampires leaping on them and eating them. Crimson blood plumes dot the white snow: a powerful and disturbing image. But we are so far up in the sky; so far back from the action, that 30 Days of Night becomes even more distancing. The shot is staged adroitly, but it makes the action feel even more remote. We don't know who is being killed, and now we're watching from such a distance, we hardly care. A similar shot was utilized in the exquisite (and powerful) war film, Black Hawk Down (2001) several years back, but there it provided a powerful sense of scope, showing us outnumbered American soldiers surrounded and under attack from blocks and blocks of Somali enemies in a cityscape boiling over with rage. There the shot laid out the terrain for the battle and showed us the odds.

Here the shot is pretty but nothing else. No one behind the scenes ever thought to consider what the shot meant; or how it would be received, I guess. And that's disappointing.

And that one great but misguided shot led me to my contrary thoughts about this film. On the one hand, if the film had been directed by Sam Raimi, it would have felt far more visceral. He is a director who puts the audience smack dab in the middle of the action, so much so that it can be pretty grueling. I think that approach might have worked to make 30 Days of Night seem more involving. You want a movie like this to wring you by the neck and throttle you a bit. You want to be so involved and unnerved that you have no time to think of the implausibilities.

The contrary thought is that a very different, more realistic director like Stanley Kubrick (think The Shining...) could have excelled by taking the material in the opposite direction. If 30 Days of Night were more icy, more remote in all its scenes, it would have been a hell of a movie too. Something to make the blood in your veins run cold. A film without remorse or pity or humanity. With the snow and and grand vistas, an entirely minimal approach like this could have worked. It's counter-intuitive, but it could have worked.

Instead, 30 Days of Night is such a disappointment because it chooses neither approach and just kind of muddles through, right down the middle of the road. It fails to be visceral, and it fails at cerebral terror. It's just...gory.

Also, and I'm not certain if it's the fault of the premise or the execution, but the film really fails too many simple logic tests. Consider for example the level of planning that the vampires demonstrate in staging the assault on Barrow. They send an advanced agent, kill all the sled dogs (preventing an escape), and lock out and destroy communications (cell phones and computers). This reveals them to be a smart, resourceful and organized enemy, I'd say. Because Barrow is in the middle of nowhere, we must assume it takes the vampires some time to get there, even if they fly or turn into bats. So then, why are such clever vampires still hanging out in town on the cusp of the first sunrise in 30 days, to be killed? In the film, the surviving vampires just disappear into nowhere, and this strikes me as a violation of logic. If they could just appear in the town at random, why not adopt a blitzkrieg approach instead of slow sabotage? And conversely, if it took the vampires some time to get to the town, it should also take them time to get away from the town. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

I mean, what kind of idiot goes into an enemy terrain fully prepared for battle but with no coherent exit strategy for getting the troops home safely?

Oh, wait a minute...

Okay, leaving that behind for a moment, there are more problems. Assume you are a hungry vampire and you have thirty days to take out a population of 152. Wouldn't you - using the same meticulous approach you used to sabotage the town - go house by house in Barrow? Form a phalanx and take out one family at a time, until everyone was dead or eaten? The vampires in 30 Days of Night don't do that. They just attack randomly and don't go house by house, leaving their victims an opportunity to hide. It's a free-for-all, a food fight. And again, that doesn't seem consistent with the earlier organization.

I would happily gloss over these points if the film were more visceral and suspenseful. If it were so scary and so involving that I didn't have time to think about the faults of the premise. But unfortunately, the film is a bust in terms of logic. Long spells go by in which characters sit in the attic and we don't know what food they are eating or where they are going to the bathroom. And worse, we don't know where the vampires are and what they are doing, Just kicking back, I guess? Half a month goes by in a scene, and there's no sense of claustrophobia, discomfort, or any genuine human emotion.

It just seems to me that this movie turned the idea of 30 days into a curse instead of a blessing. It isn't 30 hours. It isn't 30 minutes. It's thirty days, and I know a movie can only be accountable for two hours of screen time, but it seems to me that in a movie called 30 Days of Night, you need to know how - specifically - your heroes survive that spell, and what the villains are doing during that spell. If you don't, there's no tension.

And 30 Days of Night is pretty devoid of tension. In part this is because by day seven or so virtually every human in Barrow is already dead. So tell me, would be vampire: would you hang around for another 20 days or so (and risk a sunrise) just to pick off a handful of survivors? Are the vampires smart or stupid? In 30 Days of Night, they are both, depending on the whimsy of the screenwriter.

30 Days of Night tries to make the claim that the townspeople know the "town" and know "the cold" and that is why they can fight back against the vampires. That's a line of dialogue from Hartnett, but it's a silly line, and he doesn't pull it off. Clint Eastwood - with ice water in his veins - could have pulled it off. I mean, these characters "know the cold?" Really? Then why do they wear parkas and live in heated houses? Why do all the womenfolk fly to Anchorage? And why don't the vampires know the cold? They apparently spend the thirty days of night on rooftops looking for stragglers. Seems to me, they're pretty acquainted with low temperatures (and they seemed to have crossed into our country from a northern ocean...again, cold.)

The only really positive thing I can say about 30 Days of Night is that at least it isn't a remake. I was really looking forward to this movie. The premise alone should have guaranteed a winner. Bummer.

2 comments:

  1. joey_bishop_jr.2:20 AM

    I have to agree with most of this review, John. I wanted to liek this movie a lot more than I did. The one thing that leapt out at me was the issue about being able to hide in a house that long without being found, especially when certain things happen to draw attention to where the survivors are holed up!!!

    Some more major flaws- one, how does the mythology of these vampires work? Where did they come from? The little girl vamp- was she a villager who turned, and if so, where did the strange tattoo come from? How did the familiar come to travel with them?

    And just from another angle- the vamps are just as interchangeable...SPOILER ALERT....


    when teh one vamp gets shredded, it looks liek he comes back at teh end. Was it him, or another one who looks a lot like him? They spend so little time with either group of characters, I couldn't even tell who was who, let alone care about them. And that had to be the most rushed, illogical, STUPID ending to a final fight that I have ever seen. I almost laughed, thinking "They can't be serious, can they?" And then got mad when i saw that they were indeed serious....that's how the fight ended. Have mercy!

    This was such a wasted concept.

    This'll learn me to buy a DVD sight unseen taht I wasn't 100% sure I wanted. Anybody wanna buy my copy?

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  2. It is true, the logic is bad. The premise might have been wasted by the execution.
    The webisodes are certainly superior in that mythology is answered and the actions of the hunted and the hunters....well..make sense.

    HOWEVER, in this time of teen-anst pussy vampires like we seen in films like 'Twilight'. Socially integrated vampires like 'Perfect Creatures', and morally conscious vampires like in 'Blade'. I am just happy that we have vampires that kill without conscious or empathy, so yes, I liked it, moreso for what it was not, than what it was.

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