Wednesday, October 13, 2010

30 Days of Night: Dark Days (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A major event among fans of the undead--especially those with a liking for graphic novels--remains the publication of 30 Days of Night, later made into a film of the same name.  In particular this work and its sequels were heralded for "making vampires scary again."  One can hardly argue.  Rather than anguished fallen angels, the creatures at the heart of these stories were the equivalent of sharks--hiding in the shadows and then grabbing those who strayed too far from safety.  The central plot idea--of the vampires enjoying a orgiastic feast in a small Alaska town that "enjoys" 30 days of night--added a nicely creepy Night of the Living Dead and/or The Thing feel which worked nicely.

Now a sequel to the first film has arrived on DVD.  Loosely based upon the actual sequel 30 Days of Night: Dark Days follows the efforts of survivor/widow Stella to deal with her grief.  At first she simply tries to tell the world.  As the film opens, she finds herself recruited by a small band of vampire hunters.

Melissa George does not reprise her role as Stella, that part being taken over by Kiele Sanchez.  The latter is a more obviously tough-looking person, which in a way shows what has gone wrong with this production.  Most folks might not realize how startling it was years ago when Jodie Foster got the part of Clarice in Silence of the Lambs, given that she was this tiny actress then best known for rather more feminine/victimized roles.  In hindsight, the choice was brilliant.  Not so here.  None of the actors are bad.  All do their jobs well.  But with one exception none of them shine, none rise above the material.   The best actors add nuance to their roles, and dive deep into whatever each character experiences moment by moment.  Only one member of the cast really managed to that here.  Rather they show the surface and maybe one layer underneath.

We'll get to the one exception in a moment.

The script doesn't help, showing as it does pretty much the same flaws.  Whereas the graphic novel didn't shy away from the really dark and disturbing stuff about our central characters, this movie does.  It is a subtle thing, but important.  Stella, our hero, is a ravaged soul.  We use clinical terms like trauma or distress to define what she endures, but in terms of the character herself her world has been shredded into bleeding strips.  Her husband gave his life to save her from an unearthly horror.  Her ability to cope with that fact (and all the details associated) has frayed Stella's mind.  She is taking insane risks.

She is not quite at the point where the movie's ending makes sense, however.  Comparisons to the source material aren't always fair, because we are talking about different media.  Books can be read at leisure, savoring each sentence and image.  Movies rush at you at 25 frames per second.  In this instance, though, doing so leads to exactly what doesn't work in the film.  The dramatic punch is pulled.

Dane is arguably one of the most interesting characters--a vampire who retains enough of his humanity to consciously help the hunters.  The graphic novel has him a stronger person than the movie.  Stella even likes him, to her surprise.  He says most vampires are "assholes" simply because most people are.  Not the route one can take in the films, because those who adapted it from the start went with an interesting route.  Their vampires truly are beasts, predators ruled by their instincts.  In both films this allows a certain formula for victory.  Successfully kill the Alpha of the pack, and the rest of them will simply not oppose you.  It comes across as instinct.  Dane in the film is a vampire in whom those instincts didn't quite "take" for some reason.  That makes sense, given the movie's mythology.  It makes Dane the vampire equivalent of a sociopath--he doesn't feel kinship with his fellow bloodsuckers so can go against the pack mentality.  Give credit where credit is due--that is a fascinating idea.

Unfortunately, the reason for having Dane there gets lost.

In the graphic novel Stella is not only surprised to find herself liking Dane, but is fascinated by him, eventually making love to him and is deeply upset when he's killed.  The film has her only ever tolerate him.  She beds another of the hunters, a more ordinary man rather like herself but maybe just a little bit emotionally healthier.

Okay but here is the kicker.  The movie keeps the graphic novel's ending.  Stella finds out there is a way to bring a vampire back.  She then goes back to Barrow Alaska, site of the terrible siege, and digs up her husband Eben.  He had made himself a vampire specifically to gain the power to save Stella and a few other survivors.  Then he watched the sun rise with her, saying he didn't ever want to not love her.  She watched him become a man-shaped cinder.  Now she does what it takes to resurrect him--and he immediately bites her throat.

A good ending.  Except that it wasn't set up.  Stella didn't go through the kinds of changes to lead her to do such a thing--a reckless act of desperate loneliness and hope, emerging from her experience with Dane.  Nor did the actress have the chops (and impressive they would have to have been) to carry that out on her own.

One actor in the ensemble did rise above the material.  Mia Kirshner plays Lilith, the undead Queen Bee.  As a bit of trivia, this marks Kirshner's third time essaying a vampire--previously on The Vampire Diaries and as a teenager for two episodes of Dracula: The Series.  These days she's probably best known for five years as the mercurial Jenny on The L Word, but in that and other roles she's revealed what a startlingly interesting and often fearless actress she can be.  She's tiny, yet dominates every scene in which she appears.  The weirdly sing-song voice, like a little girl almost playing with dolls, added to her creepiness and strangely enough to the sense of power conveyed.  Even more so her body language--regal and still and yet animalistic at the same time.  Imagine Graf Orlock from the silent classic Nosferatu but as a pretty woman.

Do I recommend the movie?  Depends on your mood.  None of the performances are bad (quite a step up for many direct-to-DVD productions).  Some are good.  One attains real quality.  The excitement of the basic story--the hunters trying to take out Lilith and so destroy her nest--is there, transposed in some interesting ways.  A few details are just cool, while at least horror itself remains intact.  Stella's journey through the bowels of that ship includes stuff one expected the studio to balk over, but evidently they didn't.  Lilith's unique method of feeding from a handsome young man was something I've never seen before--and was erotic in a skin-crawling kind of way.  But don't expect something with the emotional power of Let Me In or Shadow of the Vampire or even The Wolfman.


LM Preston said...

Oh thanks for giving this review. I've been waiting for this on DVD and now figure I better rent it with netflix first.

Elgart said...

I will definitely add this to my watch-list! Great review indeed!