Thursday, May 22, 2008

30 Days of Night (2007)

Vampire stories have been around for centuries. Dating as far back as the 1700s, tales of supernaturally-powered undead beings who imbibe blood for sustenance have become an indelible part of the horror genre and pop culture in general. But by the end of the twentieth century, it was harder and harder to find a truly scary vampire. Joss Whedon and Anne Rice turned them into brooding, brokenhearted, pseudo-Goth sissies with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Interview with the Vampire, movies like The Lost Boys and Dracula: Dead and Loving It made them comedians, and Wesley Snipes's Blade trilogy transformed them into no-holds-barred action stars. But no matter how they were depicted, they just weren't truly horrifying anymore.

That started to change in 2002, when writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templesmith created a comic book titled 30 Days of Night. Released by IDW Publishing, the three-issue miniseries was one of IDW's earliest and biggest hits. Its success sparked a handful of sequels and spinoffs, and actually led to a bidding war for the film rights. Sam Raimi came away the big winner, and with Columbia Pictures and Raimi's Ghost House Pictures handling the movie's production, the cinematic adaptation of 30 Days of Night serves notice that vampires are still monsters to be feared.

Welcome to Barrow, Alaska. The northernmost town in the United States, Barrow is preparing for the area's annual month without sunlight. And as part of this preparation, most of the townsfolk are heading south to sunnier climates. Only the bravest people — about 150 of them — choose to remain in Barrow. But while the majority of the town's small population are leaving, one person is doing quite the opposite. A mysterious stranger (Ben Foster) has arrived in Barrow, taunting town sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) with vague yet sinister warnings of a terrible evil whose coming is close at hand.

Little does Eben know just how correct the stranger is. Once the sun sets, Barrow is soon beset upon by a group of vicious, bloodthirsty vampires, whose leader (Danny Huston) has brought them to this isolated location for a month of sunlight-free feeding. They massacre the town, while Eben and his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) cobble together a small group of survivors and try to make it through the thirty days of night.

I'll admit that I'm not all that much of a vampire connoisseur. I've only seen a small handful of the hundreds of vampire movies that have been made over the years, and by the time I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, they'd already been cancelled. But my lack of familiarity with the world of undead bloodsuckers didn't stop me from seeing and loving 30 Days of Night. It's a movie that returns vampires back to being scary, like they should be. These are vampires who are monsters in the purest sense of the word. And after seeing the tortured, thoroughly emo vampires put forth by the aforementioned Joss Whedon and Anne Rice, it's refreshing to see vampires who'll rip your throat out without thinking twice about it. These vampires are not a complicated lot; they exist solely to drink blood and frighten audiences. And because of this straightforward way of handling its villains, 30 Days of Night is a success.

A lot of that success comes from the great direction by David Slade. For someone helming only his second feature film, Slade shows a real knack for how to handle things. His previous film, the very awesome Hard Candy, was all about building tension, and Slade continues that — with even more gusto — in his sophomore venture. The movie is chock full of suspense, which Slade effortlessly maintains throughout the movie. The moments of wild mayhem, such as the scene involving a vampire child, are also handled excellently. Meanwhile, Slade has teamed up with cinematographer Jo Willems to create a visually astounding movie, one whose color palate delicately balances between ultra-gloomy grays and splashes of blood red. The colors set the mood, something further established with Willems's great camerawork.

There are numerous scenes that are memorable, but the true standout scene is the initial massacre of Barrow. Viewing the action from overhead, we slowly move through the streets of Barrow as the legion of vampires drag people out of their homes in order to feast upon them. It's a terrifying scene, one that truly stands out as one of modern horror's scariest moments. With a lesser director, these scenes may not have been pulled off as well as they were. But in the hands of Slade, everything falls nicely into place. Though while the movie's visual atmosphere is great, it may not have been as tense had it not been for the music composed by Brian Reitzell. Well, to be completely honest, it isn't so much music as it is ambient sound, with a few string instruments and a piano thrown in for flavor. It's a very minimalist score, one that makes the movie better through its efforts.

Next up is the screenplay, written by Stuart Beattie, Brian Nelson, and the original comic's writer, Steve Niles. Though there are some minor — and ultimately, inconsequential — differences from the source material, the script stays rather faithful to its inspiration. This faithfulness makes for a much different style of vampire movie, and for a much different style of vampire. Garlic, holy water, stakes, and religious iconography are nowhere to be found. Sharp weapons and sunlight prove to be the only defense against these razor-fanged bloodsuckers, and both are in extremely limited quantity. The vampires also have no interest in the propagation of their species, instead preferring to decapitate victims before they can transform into new members of the vampire race. Such originality allows for an aura of unpredictability, especially if you haven't read the comics. These vampires have a viciousness rarely seen nowadays, made much more frightening by the fact that the stereotypical vampire-fighting techniques aren't even referenced.

The script is also more profound than one might give it credit for. Beneath the movie's frightening surface is a moral dilemma: How do you defeat monsters with no soul without losing a piece of your own? The question is never explicitly stated, but this it's something that does seem to be following the character of Eben. Try as he might to protect the group of survivors, it becomes more and more apparent that a sacrifice might be needed, a sacrifice that would carry a heavy price. This subtle theme puts the movie on a different wavelength than much of its other cinematic brethren, something that helps it stand out amongst them.

Last but not least is the movie's cast, who all put forth strong performances. The small supporting cast — primarily Mark Boone Junior, Mark Rendall, and Manu Bennett — are all quite good. I especially thought Bennet was impressive as a survivor who completely loses his mind after the initial vampire attacks. Amongst the lead cast, Danny Huston and Ben Foster are tremendous in their villainous roles. Huston is believably frightening as the leader of the vampire clan, while Foster is convincing as the sleazy little weasel serving as the herald of impending doom. Matter of fact, Foster gives us probably the best performance in the movie. He's really creepy, and is almost worth the price of admission alone.

But that's not to take anything away from the rest of the cast or the two stars, Josh Hartnett and Melissa George. George is warm, likable, and endearing in a role that requires her to be all of those things. Hartnett, meanwhile, is a credible leading man here. Eben Oleson is not an action hero. He's not John McClane or Indiana Jones, he's just a regular guy. That can also be said of Hartnett, who isn't exactly who you'd call an action star. He plays the character realistically, with a confidence that he could survive, but also with an uncertainty that he actually can survive.

30 Days of Night is a horror movie unlike many of the others released nowadays. It has its fair share of violence and gore, but it also remembers to be scary. Many other horror movies forget that, whether they be teen-friendly PG-13 horror movies or R-rated torture porn. My only real complaint is that the perpetual darkness makes it hard to track the passage of time over the course of the movie. Outside of Hartnett's ever-growing five o'clock shadow, you can't really tell if two hours or two weeks have gone by. Maybe that could be intentional, though. Through the eyes of those trying to survive the vampire holocaust, the thirty days of night may start blending together like it does for us viewers. If that isn't the case... bummer. But never let it be said that 30 Days of Night is not an effective horror movie. Now if they could start making more vampire movies like this, that'd be super.

Final Rating: ****

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Vacancy (2007)

There are some questions that humankind just may never truly know the answers to. What is the meaning of life? Does God really exist? What purpose do the plastic caps on the tips of shoelaces serve? Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? And perhaps most importantly, how do those cheap roadside motels stay in business? We've all seen them, those sleazy, flophouse lodges that look so deserted that you'd be surprised if there were anybody there besides the poor fool stuck working the front desk.

Apparently, someone in Hollywood thinks they might be doing something to supplement their income. You would think that drugs would be the most obvious answer, but what if it were something much more sinister? That's the basic plot of Vacancy, a horror movie that's better than you'd expect, given its simple plot and very modest gross at the box office. So let's get started with the review, shall we?

Bickering couple David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale) are traveling the back roads of America when their car breaks down. Stranded in the middle of nowhere and in need of a place to spend the night, David and Amy are forced to hike more than a mile to a lonely motel isolated from the rest of the world. The desk clerk on duty, a creepy little weasel named Mason (Frank Whaley), insists on putting them up in the "honeymoon suite," going as far as to offer them a discounted rate on the room. David and Amy take him up on the offer, only to learn that their room is one of the most disgusting places on the face of the planet.

But because this is a horror movie, it's safe to assume that a filthy motel room will be the least of their worries. David starts going through the stack of unlabelled VHS tapes left in the room, finding not the pornography he was hoping for, but instead what initially appears to be homemade slasher movies. But after David and Amy realize that the movies were filmed in the very same room they've checked into, the ugly truth hits them: the tapes feature recordings of legitimate murders. That's when they discover the video cameras hidden throughout the room, quickly realizing what that means for them. So unless they want to become the stars of the motel's next snuff film, they'll have to find a way to escape the killers who are watching their every move.

Vacancy is an incredibly simplistic movie. It takes place in one small location, with only a tiny handful of characters to push things forward. That's the beauty of it, because Vacancy never tries to be anything more than what it is at its core. It doesn't utilize cheap "boo!" scares or gallons of blood and guts like a lot of horror movies nowadays, but instead seeks to frighten those who watch it by using old-school concepts like atmosphere and suspense. Such an approach sets Vacancy apart from other horror movies, and frankly, it's a better movie because of it.

A lot of that is thanks to director Nimród Antal. The movie has little plot or character development, which ultimately leads to a super-streamlined experience that allows Antal and veteran cinematographer Andrej Sekula to utilize every trick they can think of to scare the pants off their audience. The suspense builds and builds throughout the movie's surprisingly short running time, with Antal using Sekula's excitingly creepy camera angles and compositions to build a moody, claustrophobic atmosphere. The scene where unseen stalkers pound on the doors and walls of the motel room is some downright frightening stuff, for sure, and it's all thanks to the talents of Antal and Sekula. Of course, nearly every good horror movie uses music to further hammer home the frights, and Vacancy is no exception. Composer Paul Haslinger's understated music helps to contribute a constant feeling of dread in addition to the already eerie visuals.

I said in the previous paragraph that the movie is light on plot, character development, all that stuff. And that's true, as the script penned by Mark L. Smith has precious little of those things. But to make up for that, Smith gets us into the action quickly and doesn't let up until the end. The lead characters check into the hotel within the first fifteen minutes, and by the end of the movie's initial half-hour, all hell breaks loose. From there, it's frightening scene after frightening scene.

And though Smith has to resort to a few clichés, like masked killers and unresponsive cell phones, he doesn't fall into any of the horror genre's traps. The script offers very few predictable moments, never letting on just who will live and who will die. Nearly every moment is a surprise, which makes them all the more scary. Even the movie's off-putting abrupt ending works, because even though an epilogue would be accepted, we the viewer can live without it.

And let's not forget the cast, which is quite small. The two lead characters are by themselves for much of the movie, and both of their actors are up to task. Luke Wilson comes across as a likable jerk for the early part of the movie, before he steps up as the take-charge kind of guy you'd expect to see in a horror movie. He does a fine job in the role, though I must admit that I'm not used to seeing him in anything that isn't a comedy.

The other half of the movie's equation, Kate Beckinsale, also puts forth a good performance. Word is that Beckinsale was cast as a replacement for Sarah Jessica Parker, who was originally cast as the movie's female lead. That's a replacement I can get behind, because not only is Beckinsale easier on the eyes than Parker, but she's a better actress than Parker as well. Anyway, Beckinsale's character is kind of a bitch for a good portion of the movie, but she is still very good in the role. Even at her bitchiest, she still makes you care about the character. And even if you don't care for her in the movie, it'd still be fun to cheer for the killers. Watching movies like this and cheering for the killers is part of the fun, right?

Speaking of killers, Frank Whaley's part is a relatively modest one when compared to Wilson and Beckinsale's, but his work here is one of the creepiest horror movie performances in a while. He's downright unsettling when he really gets going, giving off the impression that he'd be what would happen if Ned Flanders from The Simpsons went absolutely insane. And though he's stuck in an incredibly thankless role, Ethan Embry is spooky as a mechanic the lead characters encounter at the beginning of the movie. Though he makes a more menacing contribution to the movie by the end of it, he only has one scene in which he gets to do any actual acting, making his role a glorified cameo more than anything else.

Vacancy clocks in at a brisk 85 minutes, allowing it to get in, have its way with the place, and make a run for it before wearing out its welcome. But it's such a tense, fast-paced experience, you almost don't want it to end. It's suspenseful and scary from start to finish, something quite a few horror movies nowadays can't say they are. It's a real downer that Vacancy didn't make more of a splash at the box office, because movies like this only come along once in a blue moon. The Pinewood Motel might not be the grand successor to the Bates Motel, but I'm sure it will work in a pinch.

Final Rating: ***½