October 22, 2007

30 Days of Night: Vampires are Scary Again!

I saw 30 Days of Night last night and my first gut reaction was of giving thanks. After so many years of Anne Rice-inspired sympathetic, foppish vampires, it was good to see the living dead turn scary again!

I must admit that I've never been a big fan of the way major film studios have portrayed vampires over the years. The vampires of legend aren't sexy, glamorous or sympathetic. They're nasty, stinky, animated corpses who slink from their tombs at night to rip the throats of the living and drink their blood, and for me that's what makes them fun. They aren't sad characters who only need to be loved to make everything alright, they're pure and brutal evil. They're something for heroes to destroy, a supernatural gauntlet hurled in the face of humanity. I think it all started going wrong for the movies when Tod Browning took major liberties with the work of Bram Stoker and made 1931's Dracula, casting Bela Lugosi as the rather suave count. That might have been a good thing for the box office take, and he surely made a fine film, but that's not what Stoker had in mind for Dracula and it certainly wasn't much in keeping with the nightmare stuff of legend. Dracula was supposed to be horrible in every way; he was supposed to be as much like a rat as a man. In fact, vampires are supposed to look at lot more like the villain of Nosferatu. They're supposed to be terrible beasts; it's not their canines that turn to fangs, it's their incisors that become like the gnawing teeth of rats. They bring with them the stench of decay and the plague. They don't want love, they want blood. They have no redeeming qualities, nothing like nobility and a sense of justice. They're animalistic, selfish, sadistic killers. Some of us like them that way!

Hollywood chose to use Browning's model, though, and for the next 75 years vampires got progressively sexier and less vicious. Johnny Depp's portrayal of a lovelorn count pining away in his castle in 1992's Dracula was the biggest stake through the heart of the fiend. Suddenly, the ladies were swooning for the undead. Kids dressed up in velvet and lace and bought prosthetic fangs and gathered in nightclubs to emulate their new hero. The emotion that became connected to vampires in popular culture wasn't fear anymore, it was sympathy. Even pity. To that, I can only say... blah.

I am thus greatly gladdened that 30 Days of Night has chosen the better path and resuscitated the vampire, restoring them to their rightful place in the pantheon of horror film. These are not foppish vampires who might prefer sipping their blood, pinkies extended, through a straw of finest Swarovski crystal. These are fiends who love the havoc they wreak. These are needle-toothed blood-spattering monsters who don't look like you, don't act like you, and don't speak the same language that you do. They have no sympathy, not even for each other. These are the undead sociopaths that cultures have dreamed up in their sweatiest nightmares for centuries. While not utterly traditional, this film has the right idea. It manages to bring the vampires of old into a modern context without making them pathetic anti-heroes. You won't come away feeling anything but horror at the monsters of 30 Days of Night.

There's more to the film, of course, than the portrayal of the villains. There's the story, which is very good in this case. In a nutshell, vampires have come to the northernmost town in America, Barrows, Alaska. There's an entire month during which the sun doesn't rise, making it the perfect place for the undead to go on the rampage 24 hours a day. The last few survivors must get through the long, long night any way they can, living like rats in hopes to be there for the next sunrise. The pacing is superb; we get a sense of suspense and panic as the survivors flee, hide and sometimes get picked off by the monsters. Along the way, the streets run with blood and there's a decapitation scene that is so brutal and bloody that anyone who doesn't feel just a little bit like turning away until it's all over should have their pulse checked. The imagery along the way borders from the confusion of high-speed conflict to the utterly nightmarish. There are moments that are archetypal in their emotional content; they'll haunt you. That's what good horror is supposed to do.

The acting is believable, too. OK, nobody is going to win a best actor Oscar for this flick, but Josh Hartnett does a great job as the protagonist and Melissa George is a very respectable leading lady in this outing. Ben Foster plays a suitably creepy and psychotic Renfield to Danny Huston's Dracula-on-steroids Marlow, the leader of the vampire pack. This Marlow character is perhaps the most awful vampire villain to hit the big screen in many years. Not only does he revel in the carnage he brings, he doesn't flinch from almost literally rolling around in joy in the blood of his victims, even taking the time at one point to use the gore of one snack as the most gruesome hair gel ever. He delivers lines of twisted, thoroughly evil vampire philosophy; he's a beast with a mind who knows that "What can be broken must be broken." Unlike Depp's Dracula, nobody will ever find anything nice to say about Marlow. There's not a shred of humanity in those cold, black eyes. No sympathy, no sadness, no mercy taints his horrible plans. Humanity is food at best, a plague at worst, and the only good use for a living human for Marlow is as bait for a trap to catch more of the same. There might be something alluring about the bite of the vampire when delivered by a foppish Count Dracula; nobody would ever want to be nipped on the neck by Marlow. These are not merely neat third-degree hickeys being doled out.

The ending of the movie is enough of a twist that I don't want to spoil it. Instead, horror fans who have despaired of seeing frightening vampires on the big screen need to go see this one. This time around, you won't be disappointed. I know I wasn't; the two hours run time flew by for me. When it's all over, you'll be ready for more. This is, in my opinion, the best vampire flick to come out of Hollywood in the last ten, and maybe twenty, years. Don't miss it on the big screen; the imagery in this one really won't play as well on the TV when it comes out on DVD.

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