Saturday, October 27, 2007

Movies: Good night.

I think one can say, without fear of overstatement, that Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith's vampire horror mini-series 30 Days of Night is the single title most responsible for jump starting the revival of horror comics. Go into some comic book specialty store and, on any given month, you'll find a short stack of new horror titles, from Eisner-winning continuing series to re-launched anthology series to gore-splattered one shots and collections. Though this is a relatively recent phenomenon. When IDW, then a new publisher on the comic scene, ran with 30 Days of Night, there were so few horror titles out that you could be forgiven if you thought the entire genre had gone the way of the dodo.

Its place of the comic in genre history threatens to overshadow its genuine merits. Unlike other comic milestones, such as Contract with God or The Watchmen, 30 Days f Night isn't a revolutionary work. The slim (under 90 pages) but attractive book relied on straight-forward and tradition narrative techniques; featured a cast of characters that were fairly stock types; didn't push the boundaries of comic content; and had a phantasmagoric painted art style that is not the norm, but clearly owes much to pioneers like Dave McKean. But the value of 30 Days didn't rest on its revolutionary potential. Instead, what it did was show readers and the industry that well-done horror comics could still kick ass. It didn't need to be a great work of literature. It didn't need to fundamentally shift the way in which we thought of sequential art. It just needed to prove that the supposedly moribund horror genre still had some unlife in it.

And that's exactly what it did.

The premise of the comic was brilliantly simple: in Barrow, Alaska, where the sun vanishes for an entire month in winter, a group a vampires, no longer checked by the regular coming of the dawn, come to ravage the town. It's high concept perfection. Even on hearing it, you think, "Of freakin' course, why didn't anybody think of that before?" The plot is about as lean and mean as you can make. There is a slight detour involving the efforts of ancient vampires to keep the existence of vamps a secret and the efforts of a crew of folks from the Big Easy trying to blow the lid off the undead cover-up. But that's a slight intrusion on what is otherwise a straight out story of survival against impossible odds. Basically, it did what the writers of zombie tales quickly discovered was the key to crossover success: it was vampy story as disaster story.

David Slade's new adaptation, the film 30 Days of Night, is, I think, the best adaptation the comic could have hoped for. The protagonists of the comics were a husband and wife team of police officers in Barrow. The other residents of Barrow were basically there to get eaten or get saved. Slade's adaptation complicates the relationship of the central couple (played adequately by the wooden Josh Hartnett and the creepily skinny Melissa George – Melissa, sweetie, I thought it was a special effect or something; we're all worried about you) and adds a handful of fleshed out residents to serve as the holdout crew we'll follow through the assault. The adaptation also wisely cuts out the subplot involving ancient vamps and the vampire hunters. These subplots went nowhere in the original comic and aren't missed here. Trading them off for more time to flesh out the other victims of the assault is a smart choice.

Slade also works from a screenplay, partially created by Steve Niles, that decompresses the action. The original comic – partially due to the limitations of space, partially due to the artistic style of Templesmith (which is better at mood than action) – had a dream-like logic that didn't lend itself to action or suspense. Instead, it was like looking into a nightmare. The film expands on the conflict between the vamps and the humans, with several excellent action/horror set pieces, and manages to build up an entertaining amount of tension with regards to who will and will not make it at the end of the flick.

The film also expands on the role of the Renfield-like "Stranger": the human thrall of the vamps who heads into Barrow prior to the long night, prepping the town for invasion. The flick also more closely associates him with Renfield, making the ties between him and the character of the ur-vamp tale more explicit. In the comic, the Stranger shows up out of nowhere, makes some threats, and that's about it. Here, we see him arrive via ship (with the vamps, just like Renfield and Drac) and he makes his servile relationship clear.

Finally, though the film has some genuine shots of beauty, Slade is selective in his efforts to capture the look of Templesmith's art. He avoids the slavish visual loyalty one sees in many current comic adaptations. The vampires look very much like Templesmith's monsters. These are not suave, seducers. They have shark-like mouths, never bother to clean the gore of their animalistic feeding off of themselves, and dress like homeless Euro-trash. In one scene, the lead vamp actually slicks back his hair with the blood of a victim his ripped open. That's the sort weird rawness Templesmith brought to his vamps and it is captured here. But, for the most part, Slade eschews the dream-like surrealism of Templesmith's art. People will argue about this, but I think it is a smart move. What film can give us that comics can't is the sense of bodies moving through space. In film, a sense of space is crucial to creating tension and action. Recreating the look of the comics would have hobbled the film.

The chief problem with 30 Days of Night is that the film does not share the relationship to film horror that the original comic shared to the genre of horror comics. The original comic simply had to be good to instantly become the best horror comic on the market. The comic just had to prove that horror comics were still viable. But the film comes out on what might be the tail end of a long and remarkably creative horror flick boom. There's a way in which the film can't just be "good." To stick out, the film would have to be brilliant. Unfortunately, it isn't brilliant. 30 Days is a well-made, solid flick. It doesn't drag, it doesn't make you feel stupid for paying 10 smackers for your ticket, and you'll feel a couple of "holy moley" moments. That's nothing to sneeze at. That may be a modest success, but it is undeniably a success. But it can't recapture the eye-opening excitement of the original comic. That feeling was a product of the unique moment the comic was released. Even the comic, picked up now, can't recreate that experience.

3 comments:

Joe Pettit Jr. said...

I'd agree that the movie was good, not great. It was a solid piece of work that took the genre seriously.

The main reason the film never reached greatness was the vampires - not a memorable villain in the entire group. Getting rid of Vicente and turning Moriarty into a composite character was a serious mistake. It removed the dramatic tension that underlined the split between the older, more experienced vampires and the younger, hotheaded breed. By removing that tension, the flaw in the basic premise behind the story stands out starkly - namely, if the vampires wiped out most of the townspeople (their food source) in the first few days, what incentive did they have to stick around for the other 28 days? Were they just enjoying the constant darkness? Could they not have systematically hunted down the remaining ten people or did they just enjoy terrorizing the survivors? Didn't they get hungry again?

Anyway, great write-up of the film.

CRwM said...

Joe,

Thanks for swinging by. Sorry for the delayed response, but you're observation is a great one. I didn't think of that at the time, but you're right in pegging the vamps' characterizations as one of the things that stop the movie from making the leap from good to classic. Good eye.

cattleworks said...

Yo, you comic/film stud:

I finally saw this thing.
Some day I'll finally write something about it in my own blog and I've already commented on Mermaid Heather's.
Interesting post.

I never read the comic. I started, got distracted, then I heard the movie was coming out so I never returned to it.
My feelings toward the Templesmith art were love/hate.
You're not kidding when he says he established mood through his art, but, like Ashley Wood, sometimes you have NO idea what's going on in an image, which I find frustrating.
Tellingly, I think I like acknowledged comic artist genius Bill Sienkewicz earlier in his career when he was starting to experiment with things stylistically, but for the most part he used traditional visual storytelling. Those moments of experimentation were exciting, but then, as he embraced the experimentation, I found it distancing.

But, those are my hang-ups.

Although I liked the movie, I wish they had some more tense back and forth between the survivors.
My confidence in Sheriff Eben's abilities to formulate a plan were low enough that I didn't quite buy everybody sitting around from day 7to day 18, from day 18 to Day 27, etc.

And there must have been more than 10 survivors but it seems that way in the telling.

I saw on IMDb that there's a mini-series in development, too, which sounds promising, theoretically.

But, another good post, you.