30 Days of Night (2007): adapted from the Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith comic book by Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie, and Brian Nelson; directed by David Slade; starring Josh Hartnett (Eben), Melissa George (Stella), and Danny Huston (Marlow the Lead Vampire): The Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith comic book had a great concept that would have been a lot greater had the comic book been set in, say, 1930 rather than the late 1990’s.
That concept is that vampires show up in Barrow, Alaska once the sun goes down for its annual 30-day night and slaughter all the inhabitants. Of course, the real Barrow, Alaska isn’t much more isolated when the sun goes down that it is when the sun’s up — daily flights continue, and people continue to phone and email their friends and family who are not in Barrow, Alaska. In 30 Days of Night, nightfall brings an end to flights, a mass exodus from Barrow, and apparently a complete lack of people outside Barrow who would wonder why no one has heard from Barrow for weeks.
It just doesn’t work in the movie or the comic once one thinks about it for, say, 30 seconds. But we’ll give the film-makers their curiously isolated Northern town and look at how the movie works with the concept.
Um, not that well. 30 Days of Night was shot in New Zealand, and it shows — only rarely does it seem plausible that these people are stranded in the dark and cold with angry vampires. The film-makers only rarely bother showing people’s breath, compounding the problem. Giant fires erupt, burning everything around them… but not melting any snow. And so on, and so forth.
Josh Hartnett and Melissa George, as the estranged couple who are also the only law enforcement that survives the vampire clan’s first wild night, are dutiful but that’s about it. The townspeople under siege by the vampires are a pretty bloodless lot (Heh heh!), leaving the viewer with no one to care about. The vampires themselves, led by a very good Danny Huston, are somewhat interesting. They speak an invented vampire language all the time, shriek a lot, and have facial prosthetics that make most of them unsettlingly resemble sharks.
The plot lurches from set-piece to set-piece, leaving one to wonder how we got to Day 29 by the end, or how the vampires failed to search that attic or that building for the preceding 28 days. We also have to endure a number of Mythbusters moments, including crude oil that ignites easily by having a match thrown into it and a sun rising in the North. Good times. Not recommended.
Roxanne: adapted by Steve Martin from the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand; directed by Fred Schepisi; starring Steve Martin (C.D. Bales), Daryl Hannah (Roxanne), Rick Rossovich (Chris), and Shelley Duvall (Dixie) (1987): Steve Martin’s charming, slapstick romantic comedy riffs on Cyrano de Bergerac, albeit with a much happier ending.
Martin plays C.D. Bales, the fire chief of a small mountain town in the state of Washington. He falls for Daryl Hannah’s astrophysicist, but she keeps him in the Friend Zone after falling for a dim-witted fireman in Martin’s company. Problems ensue. Fred Schepisi does a nice job with both the romantic and the slapstick elements, as does a fine assortment of supporting players. Martin’s nose prosthetic and stunt man both do a lot of heavy lifting. Recommended.
Jason and the Argonauts: written by Jan Read and Beverley Cross; directed by Don Chaffey and Ray Harryhausen; starring Todd Armstrong (Jason) and Nancy Kovack (Medea) (1963): Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion wizardry gives various scenes in this mythological adventure movie the quality of a dream — or a nightmare.
The actors may not be great, the plot may meander, but the film’s stop-motion/live-action integration achieves remarkable effects. It’s not that the creatures look realistic. It’s that they look just realistic enough while maintaining a look that also suggests their otherworldly nature within the narrative.
Jason and the Argonauts contains two of Harryhausen’s greatest achievements — the giant bronze ‘robot’ Talos and the great skeleton battle. We also get a nifty battle between Jason and the Hydra and a somewhat disappointing sequence involving Harpies, who never seem to be integrated as effectively as the other stop-motion creatures. Oh, well.
Jason and his crew of merry Greeks search for the Golden Fleece, Hercules screws up, and many great battles are had with monsters while the Greek gods help or hinder Jason in his quest. The battle between Jason and several reanimated skeletons occurs at the end of the film, and it really is a show-stopper. Highly recommended.
Freaks: written by Tod Robbins; directed by Tod Browning; starring Wallace Ford (Phroso), Leila Hyams (Venus), Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra), Henry Victor (Hercules), Harry Earles (Hans), Daisy Earles (Frieda), and Rose Dione (Madame Tetrallini) (1932): You really don’t watch Freaks for the acting or the writing or that static, early sound-era direction. You watch it because the disabilities and deformities are real, because the story has the crude power of a fable, and because Tod Browning does manage a couple of effective scenes in the dark and the rain, when he’s able to stage something that doesn’t require camera movement.
So far as I can tell, the longest restored version runs 64 minutes, lacking about 20 minutes of lost footage that were cut from the film after its first couple of weeks of release. The lost footage apparently deepened the horror while also making the ‘Freaks’ of the travelling carnival more sympathetic and the ‘normal’ people much less so. What’s left is still stunning, and surprisingly sympathetic in its treatment of the carnival grotesques who are simply trying to make a living in a world where the best they can hope for is life as a sideshow attraction.
Besides the unnerving night-time attack scene and the late-movie revelation of what revenge the carnival folk took on the homicidal trapeze artist, other scenes also achieve a sort of Grimm’s pastoral. A scene involving ‘pinheads’ and their protector playing in the woods near the village they’re visiting has a grace to it, and a grace note of kindness involving one of the townspeople’s treatment of the frolickers.
Only a coda added to the movie after its bowdlerization rings absolutely false. The rest is crude and powerful and impossible to imagine being made today. The horror of the movie begins as a contemplation of distortions of the human form and ends as a classic tale of horrific revenge in the manner of EC Comics or Poe’s “Hop-Frog.” The viewer’s identification moves inexorably towards that of the ‘Freaks,’ and away from those who would harm or kill or even just mock them. Highly recommended.
What We Do In The Shadows: written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi; starring Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonny Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stu Rutherford (Stu), Ben Fransham (Petyr), and Jackie van Beek (Jackie) (2014): Hilarious fake documentary from the people who brought you Flight of the Conchords centered on the exploits of four vampires rooming together in the Greater Wellington Area of New Zealand. There are jarring moments of violence throughout, but the movie overall is surprisingly genial in its portrayal of the vampires and their kith and kin.
One of the things that makes the movie so enjoyable is its rigorous attention to the details of living as a vampire, spun at most points for maximum hilarity. It’s hard to groom when you can’t see yourself in a mirror, for instance, and for a young vampire, learning to fly can be a real hassle. The vampires are aware of fictional constructions of their habits — they even crib one bit of hypnotic shenanigans from The Lost Boys, all the while mispronouncing ‘spaghetti’ as ‘basgetti.’
The laugh-out-loud moments are often truly gross — Dandy vamp Viago’s problems with tapping the vein of a victim lead to an awful lot of spurting blood, while new vamp Nick learns the hard way why vampires shouldn’t eat chips. Meanwhile, 8000-year-old Petyr lurks in the basement listening to his headphones and refusing to attend house meetings. But he’s a good listener!
I mean, really one wishes a ‘serious’ vampire movie would be this well-thought-out. The writers know their vampire mythology. But they also work some ridiculous changes on their sources, whether it’s through Vlad’s problems with shape-shifting or the eternal war between vampires and werewolves. What We Do In The Shadows is a sheer delight. Leave your reflection at the door. Highly recommended.
Blacula: written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig; directed by William Cain; starring William Marshall (Blacula/Mamuwalde), Vonetta McGee (Tina/Luva), Denise Nicholas (Michelle), Thalmus Rasulala (Dr. Gordon Thomas) and Gordon Pinsent (Lt. Jack Peters) (1972): Blacula may be a cheesy slice of 1970’s blaxploitation, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s also got a terrific performance in the title role by William Marshall, a stage actor otherwise best known in genre circles for playing computer genius Richard Daystrom in the original series Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer.”
Credit to the film-makers for actually working the name in the title into the film once, and then never referring to it again. Dracula dubs the African prince Mamuwalde ‘Blacula,’ because why not? Then he locks him in a casket for 200 years. An unambiguously gay duo of antique dealers buy that casket in 1972, ship it back to Los Angeles, and then make the colossal error of opening it.
Thankfully, intrepid police scientist Gordon Thomas and Canada’s own Gordon Pinsent are on hand to stop the vampire invasion of Los Angeles. Some pretty crazy and remarkable scenes occur along the way, including a completely bonkers vampire attack by an undead lady cabdriver and a warehouse battle that features a fortuitous crate of what appear to be explosive, vampire-killing light-bulbs.
Marshall invests Mamuwalde with about as much gravitas as can be expected under the circumstances. He’s certainly a far more sympathetic vampire than any Dracula up to the time of the movie. Blacula also throws in a reincarnation sub-plot that would later appear in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, among other subsequent movies. That sub-plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the original 1930’s The Mummy. Is this the first time that particular sub-plot has vectored into the vampire genre? I don’t know. There’s also a groovy soundtrack/score and a brief appearance by Elisha Cook Jr. as a coroner with a hook for a hand. Cool. Recommended.