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CINEMA: The Horror, The Horror

30-days-of-night-poster.jpgTHIRTY DAYS OF NIGHT (2007, directed by David Slade, 113 minutes, U.S.)
EXHUMED FILMS 10th ANNIVERSARY 24- HOUR HORROR MARATHON! (Doors 11 a.m. TOMORROW, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., www.ihousephilly.org, $20 )

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s you could always count on the weekend before Halloween to deliver some disreputable horror film to our podunk local movie theater. The tiny South Jersey town I lived in was packed with churches and real controversy ensued over attending the flick. Pastors would howl against it from the altars, teachers (particularly the openly devout ones) would voice concern in the classrooms and my friend’s apprehensive parents would question me as to if my mother was letting me attend.

My parents did let me go, and when I told my friend’s parents this, I’d often see a look of sorrowful concern. What were those Buskirks doing, letting their kids run free like the rats at the river? Some sort of parental inertia let horror movies slip through the net; my parents weren’t particularly religious (“A little religion is okay but you don’t want to end up like Cousin Bobby” was the only religious direction I remember them offering) and I think by the time the fourth kid comes along parents just hope the older kids keep the youngest from falling out of the taller trees in the neighborhood.

Bereft of friends to see the movie with, thanks to their overprotective parents, I’d end up entering this den of vice alone to sit amongst the sinners and stare the devil in the face. Or so it felt to a pre-teen kid watching Sssssss (men turned into snakes), The Mutations (men turned into plants) or The Children (kids turned into zombies). I might as well have been in a bordello to those most pious in town. Recently a neighbor looked askance at some horror videos I was selling at a sidewalk sale, asking me why I watched horror films. Guess the thrill of those early forbidden screenings are as good an answer as any.

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So with Halloween weekend rising out of the pumpkin patch again and while they’re offering up Saw 4 in theaters today, the number one film in the nation this past week was an Alaskan-set vampire thriller, Thirty Days of Night. Based on a comic book (bad sign) but directed by David Slade of the indie hit Hard Candy (good sign), Thirty Days is one of the more serviceable resurrections the vampire myth in some time.

When we meet the Barrow, Alaska Sheriff Eben (Josh Hartnett), he is watching over the icy plains as the sun30-days-of-night.jpg goes down for the last time before the month’s darkness and we learn Eben’s wife Stella is leaving him to head south. With the population of the town dwindling to 152, a gang of 15 vampires, speaking in thick Slavic accents, descend on the town and lay siege with a military precision.

Looking over the dark and frozen Alaskan landscape, the lead vampire says “We should have come here ages ago…”. Similarly, the idea of the bloodsucking undead making like a smorgasbord in the long sunless winters of our 50th state is the sort of high-concept that should have been rolled out years ago. Thirty Days of Night throws a fresh coat of blood on the genre by ditching knowing angst of the Buffy TV show (which has launched a thousand junky straight-to-DVD teen goth Draculas) and hitching its indie relationship drama to the action of a good modern zombie film.

Add “western” to the equation too. At its heart, Thirty Days borrows from westerns like Hawks’ Rio Bravo, where the sheriff has to scare up a posse to confront whatever gang of cattle rapist is heading to town. I spend a couple of summers of my misspent youth up in Alaska and its connection with the Wild West was apparent. If the western was rooted in the idea of a community so isolated that The Law didn’t necessarily apply, Alaska (where they dismissively refer to the continental U.S. as “The Lower 48″) is the last place in the country to find such a frontier. Much of the film’s power comes from the glowing unearthly beauty of its unspoiled near-arctic terrain and the sense that this group of cowering TV dinners are far from any help.

vampire_bat_flying1.gifScreenwriter Steven Niles co-adapts his original comic book and producer, and Sam Raimi made a wise choice by going with a hot young indie director David Slade. Slade had been out there directing flashy and clever videos for groups like Stone Temple Pilots, yet he proved adept with actors in his feature debut Hard Candy. He’s filled this film with scene-stealers like 3:10 To Yuma’s Ben Foster and the young Ned Beattie-like Mark Boone Junior, just two of a batch of character actors who can bring any scene squirming to life.

And the vampires! Danny Huston plays their head, channeling some of the Huston family gravitas to make a truly intimidating figure of menace. These bloodsuckers, in the early scenes shown only as flashing teeth and claws, are half Russian gangster, half bored Euro-Trash clubgoers. Theirs is a messy job, and although they’re tastefully dressed, these are the rare vampires who always looking like butchers who forgot to wear their aprons.

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EXHUMED FILM 10th ANNIVERSARY 24-HOUR HORROR MOVIE MARATHON

Starting tomorrow at noon, local horror fans will begin a 24-hour camp-out at The International House, ashalloweenmummysepia.jpg Exhumed Film unspools thirteen films in honor of their tenth anniversary. Similar to Quentin Tarentino’s Austin “Q.T. Film Fest”, Exhumed is being impossibly tight-lipped about what is being screened (bastards!), trusting that their peerless reputation for presenting prints of the choicest horror weirdness will bring out their faithful crowd for a long night of torture in the hard seats of the I-House.

If you show up Saturday at noon you can get a schedule of the genres (if not the actual titles, i.e. “2:00pm Vampire Film”) and they are promising a mix of all-time Exhumed classics (maybe Dario Argento’s elegant flesh ripper Suspiria or the camera-abuse of Evil Dead 2?) with some rarities (my wish would be for the Lucas-affiliated zombie film Messiah of Evil or the asylum-set mystery Don’t Look In the Basement, two films known to be in the Exhumed library). As a true theater fanatic I have fond memories of falling asleep during triple-features and allowing the on-screen images and sound to merge and intersect with my semi-consciousness. With the mad act of projecting their evil tales for 24 hours Exhumed, can promise the pay-off horror fans all really desire: guaranteed nightmares.

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