The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - 30 Days of Night

Full review behind the jump

30 Days of Night

: David Slade
: Screenplay by Steve Niles and Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson, based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
: Sam Raimi, Robert G. Tapert
: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, Mark Boone Junior, Mark Rendall

Not only does
30 Days of Night, a horror film based on the acclaimed graphic novel, undertake a bold mission to reclaim the fear factor of a classic movie monster, it has one of those premises so irresistible you can almost hear the resounding thwack of a thousand other writers smacking their thousand foreheads for not thinking of it first.

But a good idea only puts you on the stage. Under the care of rising British director David Slade (who broke out of the music video ranks with the small-budget thriller
Hard Candy), it succeeds on that stage by avoiding the trap so many modern horror films fall into, where characters are punished or exterminated for their vain hope of surviving. The fine line between mercilessness and nihilism is inked in black and red; this is a bleak and evil movie, sure, but it does care enough about its heroes to decide they deserve a fighting chance, and lets them be resourceful and resilient in spite of their human imperfections.

But the smallness of that hope is in its way more excruciating than no hope at all. Taunting us with that hope, this movie draws us into a fun house of terrors, inflicting an elegant progression of elemental frights with chilling precision. Most modern horror movies want to shock or disgust you, this one remembers that its mission is to scare.

The story unfolds in the small town of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost permanent habitat in America. As Al Pacino learned when he flew north to investigate a murder in Insomnia, the sun does funny things up in the Arctic, things like set for a full month in the wintertime. A small town, cut off from the outside world – for anything that didn’t like sunlight, this would be like a Spring Break destination. So when some pale strangers with long teeth show up on Main Street, it’s no surprise to hear their leader (Danny Huston) exclaim: “We should have come here ages ago…

But this is a movie smart enough to keep its monsters in reserve for a little while, to draw us into a shivering state as we watch ominous signs accumulate around Barrow and its Sheriff, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett). He’s used to being the weary, civilizing voice of order, which the townsfolk grudgingly appreciate – and they all feel bad about that falling-out between he and his wife (Melissa George). Hartnett, one of those actors who is threatening to finally become interesting as he ages out of his pretty boy phase, gains our sympathy quickly, so we’re praying that he puts the clues together when everyone’s cell phone is stolen and destroyed, the town’s dogs are murdered, and a jittery stranger (Ben Foster) appears in the diner, mumbling strange threats and requesting raw hamburger.

Every couple of years a moment comes where an actor really springs into the consciousness of moviegoers, through the happenstance meeting of their untapped talent and a couple of juicy characters to play. Late 2007 is the time for Ben Foster, who has served his time in the TV trenches (particularly a long arc on Six Feet Under) and was pretty to look at but forgettable as Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand. Now in the same autumn he’s made an unforgettable impression both as The Stranger in this picture, and as Russell Crowe’s devoted right-hand sociopath Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma. He has big, anguished eyes and a way of pinching his voice and working his jaw muscles to show a tormented inner life. I can only hope Hollywood finds more big-screen uses for him.

There’s no use being coy that what’s about to hit Barrow is a flock of vampires. What will surprise you is how confidently director Slade re-writes their contemporary image. The vampire has become a watered-down cocktail of goth sex appeal, more often than not these days they’re taking the hero’s role, pretty actors leaving the spray tanner at home and slapping on false teeth. But these vampires are scarcely human; still able to concoct insidious strategies, but ultimately slaves to their savage appetites. Their body language is purely animal when they pounce and seize; it says there’s nothing decadent or sensual about their motivation; just pitiless and insatiable hunger. I look at their black eyes and remember Robert Shaw’s great soliloquy in Jaws about the shark’s eyes, “a doll’s eyes”; lifeless until they catch sight of blood.

The townspeople have little choice but to try and gather in numbers, stay hidden, and survive the sunless month. This leads to a stretch in an attic that calls to mind The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as some dreadful choices as each character considers their own calculus of survival under the unbearable pressure of waiting. This is a movie that understands, like Night of the Living Dead maestro George Romero, that the human psyche can crack in infinitely-variable ways when facing a seemingly certain and terrible doom. That fills out a feature-length movie much more satisfyingly than monsters leaping from the shadows.

The lack of sunlight is a considerable visual challenge, as is the influence of the dreamlike Ben Templesmith artwork from the graphic novel. The movie ends up looking almost conventional, stepping out enough to be noticeable as a kind of vivid darkness, but not enough to be truly daring. It’s one of the picture’s few missed opportunities.

But what makes 30 Days of Night stand so notably above its genre compatriots is that while it is unsparing in how it spills blood, it essentially sympathizes with its characters. Just as people act boldly and nobly, people also make dumb, pointless, tragic mistakes, and neither carries any promise of longer survival. But that we understand why they’re doing what they’re doing is the first step towards us caring about any of what’s happening on-screen. That crucial step guarantees we’ll be around for the scares.


Post a Comment

<< Home