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Well, after much anticipation by yours truly and what I thought was an exceptional marketing campaign, the vampire thriller 30 Days of Night finally opened this weekend to… well, acceptable numbers. It’s not launching Josh Hartnett back to the A list. Director David Hard Candy Slade is not the next Zach Snyder, as I had half expected. And it’s not reviving the horror genre or pushing it in some new direction.
Rather, it plays (both commercially and as a film) as a surprisingly by-the-books horror flick. Nothing wrong with that, but it seems to me they had the chance to do something special here, and the fact that they didn’t is reflected in the modest box office returns.For the record, Night brought in $15.9 million from 2,855 theatres for a $5.5k average. Brought in for a very reasonable $30 million (Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures, the production company behind the film, knows how to keep expenditures down; they made the surprise hit The Grudge for just $10 million), it should be modestly profitable in the same way Ghost House’s previous release, The Messengers was.
I was lucky enough to check out the premiere last week, but every time I sat down to tap out a review, it always came in around two paragraphs, because there just isn’t much to say about the film. So I’ll just drop my thoughts here, and you can do with them what you will. It basically plays like Dawn of the Dead, only with a few vampires instead of a lot of zombies. The plot sees our ship-of-fools cast trapped first in an attic, then a police station, and finally some sort of power plant while they wait for the sun to rise. In order to make their various treks through the snow, characters routinely sacrifice themselves to save the group; I kept waiting for them to come up with some other distraction besides running down the street begging the vamps to attack them. I also kept waiting for the bloodsuckers, who come into town with a remarkably intelligent plan, to stop falling for it.
There are a couple of exceptional elements, and first and foremost among them are the vampires. Danny Huston is the only name I recognize among them, although I didn’t recognize him at all until the credits rolled. But the faces they found for these eastern European vampires (doesn’t it seem like everything evil is Eastern European these days?) are just astonishingly frightening. Slade does a good job of capturing them in iconic poses, too. Howling with blood-soaked teeth against a raging fire. Ripping through the roof of a speeding truck while silhouetted against the moon. Their on-screen time, while all too short, is riveting.
Also, the script, by Steve Niles (who also wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based) and Stuart Collateral Beattie, makes the vampires sadistic in a way that Eli Roth could learn a thing or two from. The tortures they inflict on their victims isn’t just physical (the violence, while prominent, doesn’t come close to the level of ‘torture porn’), but also disturbingly psychological. After unsuccessfully attempting to use a surviving girl as bait to lure out survivors, she begs Huston’s main vampire, “Please, God.” Huston takes a chilling pause to look around, then returns his gaze to her and declares, “No God.” Most of the vampires sparse dialogue is spent trying to rob their victims of hope before killing them, and this makes them exceptionally chilling.
They also avoid two of the traps movies like this usually fall into. It’s easy to get bogged down in the rules behind vampire mythology. Can they enter a house if they haven’t been invited? What about garlic? Crosses? Running water? Night pretty much avoids all of these questions. The only weapons Hartnett and company have are sunlight and decapitation. There’s also the troubled relationship between Hartnett’s Sheriff Eben and Fire Marshall Stella, played by Melissa George. They’re on the verge of splitting up, until events force them back together. I kept waiting for their big heart-to-heart, in which we would learn what split them up, and how this experience has shown them how petty those things were, and now they really love each other and if they survive, things’ll be different. There’s a bit of that, but it’s mostly left vague and never gets too sentimental.
But for all this, the driving narrative is painfully predictable, the human performances acceptable at best, and the climax unspectacular. It’s a decent Halloween programmer with a few small things to recommend it. I expected more out of exec producer Sam Raimi and Ghost House, who have been flirting with great horror films but haven’t yet delivered one.
In other news, Tyler Perrry’s Why Did I Get Married (hereafter referred to as TP’s WDIGM) bucked the previous trend of Perry’s movies crashing in their second week dropping only 43% to $12 million for the weekend and a $38 million total. In the wake of this, Perry may have replaced Spike Lee as the most prominent African American director in mainstream Hollywood. Inexplicably, The Game Plan continues to hold up incredibly well, slipping just 26%, best in the top ten, to $8 million and a $69 million total. I’m out of things to say about this flick.
Michael Clayton help up predictably well, dropping 35% to $6.6 million and a $21 million total. Still, it added 76 theatres, and the $2.5k average after two weeks wide is troubling for Warner Bros. The incredibly stupid-looking sports spoof The Combacks (they fooled me with Date Movie, but never again) opened poorly in fifth place with $5.5 million from 2,812 theatres for a $1.9k average. All of these movies- Date Movie, Epic Movie, etc- are just fallout from the success of the Scary Movie franchise. They weren’t that funny to begin with, and seem to get worse with every incarnation. If Comebacks doesn’t put a stop to this, I’m holding the entire Wayans family responsible.
Poor Ben Affleck. He was raked over the critical and commercial coals a few years ago, mostly the result of chasing paychecks instead of good projects. But he’s done everything right in the wake of that, staying out of sight for a while, then reemerging with a critically hailed performance in indie drama Hollywoodland, which even nabbed him a Golden Globe nomination. He’s followed that up with a directorial debut that is almost universally admired, boasting a 93% positive rating on rottentomatoes.com, and it’s virtually ignored commercially. Gone Baby Gone opened in sixth place with $5.5 million from 1,713 theatres for a $3.2k average. Now this is an adult oriented thriller like Michael Clayton, and so is expected to show good legs rather than open big. But it will need a lot of good word of mouth to turn around that average, and I’m guessing Miramax is a little hesitant about adding lots of theatres. Between this and The Assassination of Jesse James, Baby star Casey Affleck (Ben’s little brother) should have emerged as a big star, but limited box office will probably keep him anchoring indie’s and doing character work in big features for a while. Too bad. Both performances are getting great notices.
We Own the Night continues to struggle, falling another 50% to $5.4 million and a $19.7 million total. Director James Gray was lucky to assemble that cast for just $21 million dollars, and black ink should be in the cards for the crime drama, but not much. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas got a re-release with the 3D treatment and fared pretty well, bringing in $5.3 million from just 564 screens for a surprising $9.4k average. I don’t remember this being a phenomenon in it’s original release ($64 million domestically), but it’s apparently had a very healthy shelf life, and enough new kids have found it to make it worth the re-release. Is The Corpse Bride up next, I wonder?
Political thriller Rendition opened very poorly in ninth place with $4 million from 2,250 theatres for a devastating $1.8k average. While not overtly about Iraq, Rendition does deal directly with the war on terror, and counts as another sign of impending doom for the glut of Iraq-war based films set to open in the next few months. Hopefully this won’t be the end for director Gavin Hood, who won a foreign language Oscar for his excellent Tsotsi, but it’s hard to squander the cast he assembled for Rendition, which includes Reese Witherspoon (might be in trouble; I hope this doesn’t lead to another Legally Blonde move), Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, and recent Oscar winner Alan Arkin. The Heartbreak Kid rounded out the top ten with $3.8 million, down 47%, for a $32 million total. I finally heard some good things about this from tvgasm’s own Nads, so maybe it is worth a look, if only for the Farrelly’s sake.
One last note. In spite of really outstanding notices for star Benicio Del Toro’s performance, Susanne Bier’s addiction drama Things We Lost in the Fire opened dismally in fifteenth place with $1.5 million from 1,142 screens for a $1.3k average. Halle Berry’s post-Oscar career slide continues. Man, you couldn’t pay me to put her in a movie right now.
And that about wraps it up for this week. Check back next week when Saw IV tries to dismember Dan in Real Life, and we get 83 year old Sidney Lumet’s highly-anticipated Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in limited release. See you then.