Monday, January 25, 2010

Wendigo Meets 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)

Once upon a time, the Other was an individual, an infiltrator from outside who threatened to subvert us from within with his or her seductive, decadent wiles and demonic charisma. Now, it seems, the Other is a collective, and we're less afraid (or secretly thrilled by the thought) of being conquered and enslaved by a master than of being overrun, overwhelmed, trampled, devoured. It's the difference between the vampire and the zombie, except when the vampires are more like zombies. While the romantic noble vampire occupies one end of the conceptual spectrum, at the other lurk the subhuman, the bestial, those for whom humans are no more than food.

That's what I was thinking when my friend Wendigo showed me David Slade's cinema adaptation of Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith's graphic novel. He'd read the book before he saw the movie, while to me the story was all new. Even before it was published, he was intrigued by the idea of thirty days without sun making the town of Barrow AK open season on humans for vampire tourists. Templesmith's art inspired him to think cinematically about the story before he'd even heard news of a movie being made. What he likes about it is that it's pure horror in which the vampires are pure monsters. To that extent the movie is more than faithful.

Barrow, before and during the 30 Days of Night.

While the graphic novel posits a vampire society in which the pack leader is answerable to a more powerful master, in the film the vampires operate on a purely pack level. None of them are given names, and they don't even speak a human language. Wendigo thinks this costs the film some of the comics' complexity, since the graphic novel portrays the invading vampires as rogues whose reckless rampage endangers the larger vampire community. But doing away with the vampire backstory makes the horror of the film story more stark and the use of vampire language enhances the sense of alien threat. Apart from the malice they express, these vampires may as well be zombies, but the kind of malice that zombies don't express is necessary for this film to work as a horror movie.

Danny Huston (center) and his vampire gang paint the town red. Below, despite a "no turning" rule for the occasion, even children get into the act.

It's when the film deals with the comics' human characters that it starts going wrong. The big change is in the relationship of Sheriff Eben (Josh Hartnett) and his wife Stella (Melissa George). In the graphic novel, Wendigo says, theirs is a deathless profound love, but the movie starts them off as the typical estranged couple (e.g. The Abyss)whose reconciliation is facilitated by crisis. And crisis is all it takes, because the script by Niles and two collaborators does next to nothing either to keep them bickering or to show their love rekindling. The writers seem to think it suffices to give Eben family to fight for, introducing two relatives in the movie (a grandmother and younger brother) who don't exist in the graphic novel and don't do much to justify their presence on screen. After establishing the grandmother's vulnerability, the movie never shows us her fate. But the real loss as far as Wendigo's concerned is with the main couple, because it's Eben's love for Stella that motivates him to take an extreme, soul-risking step to finally deal with the vampire menace. In the movie the main motivation seems to be to make possible a big fight scene at the end.

Ultimately, Slade's film is more action movie than horror film. At most, the situation inspires dread but the film doesn't seem to be out to scare us. It seems to exist in order to have large-scale action set pieces when the vampires run amok at first and the humans even the odds with technology later. As an action film, Wendigo felt it wasn't bad. As a gore film, despite some big moments that we've captured here he says the movie actually falls a little short of Templesmith's graphic effects.

Above, vampires can't stand up to modern machinery. Below, Huston bites the big one.

Wendigo suggests comparing 30 Days of Night with From Dusk Til Dawn to see what Slade's film gets right. 30 Days does a better job of portraying really menacing looking inhuman creatures than Rodriguez and Tarantino did with their rubber-suited wonders. Niles and Slade's vampires are pure predatory menace, less interested in making us like them than in annihilating us. They reminded me of Nazis in an odd way, which may just mean that 30 Days had tapped into a modern fear of genocide in which we are dehumanized by being seen simply as objects to be processed for destruction or things to be toyed with for perverse pleasure. As for Wendigo, he can't help judging it inferior to the graphic novel, but he's willing to recommend it as an action film and for vampire fans who appreciate the variety of forms the vampire takes today.

Here's the trailer as uploaded to YouTube by SeventhDirectorate:

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

I remember having traded for either the original miniseries or the trade paperback long before the movie came out. I wasn't impressed. I'm not surprised, either, that the producers decided to employ some creative license to deviate from Niles' original story. That happens way too often with comics adaptations, and usually for the wrong reasons.