Monday, November 15, 2010

The Sequel Nobody Wanted

I remember when I saw the original 30 Days of Night in theaters. It was 2007.shortly after the film's release, when I was visiting my little sister in Philadelphia for her birthday. We were going to a drag show that night for her annual celebrations, but since she had the day off and nothing better to do, we trudged for about a half an hour through lousy rainy weather to see the new vampire flick by producers (and Evil Dead creators) Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert. With an intriguing cast including Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston and Ben Foster, Days looked like the kind of film I NEEDED to see. My sister wasn't as enthused, but agreed to go along to give it a shot. By the time the final credits had finished rolling, we were in agreement: It was a FAR better film than either of us expected. With a surprisingly strong performance from Hartnett (who was on his way out as a leading film actor) and good performances from the underrated George, character actor Huston, and the extremely talented Foster, not to mention amazing special effects and makeup, awe-inspiring cinematography, a unique setting and more gore than you can shake a from a hundred bloated corpses, and you can see why the film was so popular. Besides being based on the popular comic series of the same name, the film did a great job of putting vampires back in the position of being horror monsters, something Twilight and Vampire Diaries fans seem to forget ever happening. Of course, director David Slade would seemingly forget that same thing himself when he directed The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, but I digress. 30 Days of Night was a horse of a different color, blood red.

Hey, didn't you get killed off in Lost?
My fond memories of this time 3 years ago are pretty much the only reason I picked up 30 Days of Night: Dark Days. I certainly could have left it in the rental machine: I'd already picked out the previously-reviewed Human Centipede and Robin Hood, certainly more than enough for a short-term rental. Yet I couldn't help but be drawn in enough to take a shot with it. After all, while being a direct-to-DVD sequel to a quality film usually means that it's a steaming pile of unmentionables, there was always the chance that THIS film will be the one to break that particular mold. Hey, it could happen.

Remember kids, wear lots of sunblock!
None of the actors from the first film reprise their roles in the sequel, and so the role of Stella Oleson, one of the only survivors of the vampire attack on Barrow, Alaska, is played not by Melissa George but by Kiele Sanchez. That's right, Melissa George was replaced by Nikki of Lost's infamous couple Nikki and Paolo. Stella has left the rebuilt Barrow behind her, traveling the country trying to convince people that vampires exist and were the cause of the town's destruction, to try and prevent such events from occurring again. Naturally, this is met by ridicule and derision, and Stella also gets the attention of the vampire powers, who don't want humanity to become aware of their existence. Hunted by these bloodsuckers, Stella meets a group of survivors like her: amateur vampire hunters who recruit her to hunt down the vampire queen Lilith (Mia Kirshner) who directs all vampire activity and supposedly ordered the attack on Barrow that was the basis of the previous film.

Woah, if ALL undead looked like this...
Let me first say that everything that was original and interesting about the first film is gone in this sequel. The remote Alaskan town has been replaced by dull Los Angeles ghettos. The Vamps are still blood-covered and animalistic, but borrow more from designs like that of White Wolf a lot more than before, usually sporting a lot of leather. The literal 30 days of night that are traversed through the first film are gone, as half the film takes place during the day. And while we genuinely learned to care about characters like the estranged husband and wife Eben and Stella, here the characters we are introduced to have personalities of stone, with little to draw interest. The writing, along with the source material  is partially to blame, as the ideas are simply not enough to justify a new story in this universe. But the directing by first-timer Ben Ketai is so one-noted, I'd be surprised if he got any feature work in the near future. Ketai's vision is very straightforward, with no room for originality or sidetracks. The shots are closed and claustrophobic, with very little in the way of open ground. Even when a scene takes place out in the open, it still feels like a closed environment, with barely any clear speak of. The film  lacks the open world of the original film, instead choosing to be a closed-off creature of it's own making.

But see, he's a good guy! He hasn't tried to eat you yet!
The film also lacks the acting talent of the previous effort. To compare Kiele Sanchez to Melissa George would be unfair, as the Grey's Anatomy castoff is simply more talented than her Lost counterpart. Sanchez does end up with one of the film's better performances, but that's due more to default than anything else. She manages to handle intensity and stress-driven scenes fairly well, but doesn't get to do much more than that. Rhys Coiro meanwhile is dull and drab as Paul, one of the vampire hunters who recruits Stella. It might be more the way the character is written, but Coiro nevertheless never steps up to take more control, allowing the blah character design to run off without him. The same can be said for the other hunters Amber (Diora Baird) and Todd (Harold Perrineau). Baird is a so-called "tough girl" who berates Stella for not being tough enough but breaks down at the first sign of tension. Perrineau is just a dude, no reason to care about him in the slightest. Neither is very interesting or sympathetic, and so even if the performances had been redeemable, it wouldn't have mattered much. Ben Cotton is good in a small role as a "good guy" vampire, though what he is and how the character is portrayed has been done before. But the best of the cast is actually Mia Kirshner as Lilith, the vampire queen. Kirshner plays Lilith as a sensual creature, in almost rhythmic tune with the world around her (such as it is) and her penchant for taking blood from her victims in an almost carnal manner. She's has a relatively limited performance over the course of the film, but unlike many of her cast mates she actually takes advantage of the time she has to put on her best game face.

You're trying to be Cpl. Hicks. You, sir, are NOT Cpl. Hicks

And speaking of game faces, the makeup effects here are almost as good as in the original film. Different vamps are individually recognizable through discernible haircuts and outfits, but the classic make-up effects hold up well, with pale faces contrasted not only by black eyes but blood-splattered faces, fresh from their latest kills. Blood and gore are pretty well done, and wounds and throat rips are rendered fairly realistically. In the original movie, the blood clashed beautifully with the lily-white snow and was rendered beautifully. Here it's much more drab without the like comparison, and the blood itself isn't as "thick", actually kind of watered-down upon first viewing. Considering the blood is really the biggest reason to watch a film like this, it makes this the biggest disappointment.

Oh! Um... don't let me... disturb your dinner...
Okay, it wasn't TOO bad. But it sure as hell was bad. Based on the 30 Days of Night universe but not using any of it's unique concepts, Dark Days could have been renamed any old thing and nobody would have known the difference. I really shouldn't be too surprised; there's a reason direct-to-DVD films aren't too highly regarded, especially ones that are sequels to legitimate blockbusters. It had a tall order to stand up to, and when a mediocre cast, trite storyline and amateurish direction collaborate on a film like this, there's no good to come from it. I'm sure there must be SOME direct-to-DVD goodness out there, but I'm hesitant to give it another shot after this clunker. See the original instead.

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