Saturday, October 29, 2011

30 Days Of Night: Goodbye To Romance

It all started with ads for the conclusion for the last movie in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn. I know I'm not the audience for these movies, and I understand the mechanism behind their appeal, but there's still something about the sight of a chalk-skinned, feral-eyed vampire marrying his doe-eyed teen love and this being a cause for celebration instead of the hideous parody it should be that just makes something rear up in me and say "hang on right one fucking minute."  These are not vampires. These are what happens when you take the sexless appeal of the average boy band and graft it onto the baroque construction of the vampire as romantic figure popularized by intermittently Catholic bondage author Anne Rice.

"But Cliff", my nonexistent strawman says, "what about the original story Dracula by Bram Stoker? Wasn't he a romantic figure?"

I would argue not.

"But Cliff, didn't you see Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation? Gary Oldman was all kinds of tragic and romantic and yearning and shit in that movie. And he cut quite the dashing figure in his dove-gray suit and top hat."

I did indeed see it. In fact, it's one of the few vampire movies I like. But I'd suggest that Dracula was actually the ancient, draconian thing who meets with Jonathan Harker. Dracula had many forms, and the liberation from Victorian repression he represented was a raw, atavistic force, not some romantic ideal. It is my opinion that Dracula's appearance was more a function of cultural mores about gender and courtship than something about the character. That some people construct the idea of the vampire around the elegant, tragic figure Mina sees says more about them than it does about the vampire.

Me, I see the abomination, the thing that lives forever by drinking the blood of the living. And that's why Stephanie Meyer's ridiculous stories got me thinking about 30 Days Of Night.

Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost town in Alaska. It's so far north that it experiences a month-long sunset. It's a cold, flat place, a small American town in the middle of a white desert of snow and ice. The movie opens with residents of the town making their preparations for the long night. Some residents are headed to Anchorage, some are stocking up on supplies, some are shutting their businesses down. Departing residents say goodbye to spouses, vehicles get put into storage. There's no sense of sadness - this is just how life is and always has been out here.

Miles away, a lone figure departs a massive black ship, and begins a long walk across the ice floes toward Barrow.

Eben, the town's sheriff, is busy with all of the last-minute work of getting his community safe and ready, along with small-town sheriff business. As the sun is setting, he's faced with theft, vandalism, and a hostile, unruly drifter making trouble at the local diner. On the surface, it doesn't seem like anything too unusual, except that what's been stolen are all of the town's satellite phones (found burnt in a pile outside of town), what's been vandalized is a local pilot's helicopter, somebody's killed all of the sled dogs in the town kennel, and the drifter at the diner keeps asking for raw meat.

The vampires in this movie aren't romantic at all. They are bestial things, with the same dead-eyed implacability as a shark. They do not seduce their victims, they bring them to ground. They do not drink - they rip, tear, and bury their faces greedily into their victims. They communicate in growls, clicks, and shrieks, along with some harsh, guttural language left forgotten to the civilized world. Their hands are claws, their eyes are black, and they have the teeth of piranhas in mouths raw with blood. They have come to this place, in the middle of nowhere, to feed for thirty uninterrupted days.

This movie isn't so much a vampire movie as we are used to thinking of them - a few true, well-equipped believers at war with a society of blood-drinking sophisticates. This is a siege movie, in which Barrow's dwindling survivors scurry from lit place to lit place, gathering supplies and weapons, struggling as much among themselves as with the predators outside. Old grudges raise their heads, misgivings tear the group away from each other, and all the while, the vampires circle outside in the snow and the dark, waiting for the one mistake that will deliver their prey to them.

Besides the refreshingly merciless take on the genre, 30 Days Of Night is shot beautifully, in what is at times an almost painterly style. The movie is dominated by blues, whites, and grays, interrupted by the warmth of light - sunset, lamps, fire - and blood, from black to vivid red.  The trails left behind as the vampires drag their victims away look almost like brush strokes, and in some scenes, the light from a streetlamp falls in such a way that the entire enterprise almost feels like a stage set - as if Edward Hopper's Nighthawks at the Diner were repainted in the most desolate manner possible. The ship heralding the arrival of the vampires is a black, hulking ruin, blotting out a chunk of the horizon like darkness itself cutting through the ice. A woman pleads for her life with the vampire about to kill her, begging to God that she be spared. The vampire repeats "God?" and looks up to the heavens as if anticipating a response. When the silence ends, it is with the vampire telling the woman "No. No God." Our dreams are not being answered, there are no fairytales here, no brooding immortals who sparkle in sunlight, wedding the true love of their centuries. That's for little girls who have not yet been told the truth of the world. All there is here is blood and cold and indifferent silence speared by the screams of carnivorous things.

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