30 DAYS OF NIGHT
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
With all of the good (to great) horror films already on this year's plate, it felt greedy to hope for yet another winner. I've gotta say, for a genre that many are categorizing as artistically dead (no pun intended), to have more than five solid horror titles in one year is no small feat. And whattya know, 30 Days of Night is another successful entry, and even attempts to realign the traditional vampire myth to true.
Gone are the languid, romantic bloodsuckers of the post-Anne Rice period. The creatures of the night in this film are still semi-hip Eurotrash, but retain enough of the ickiness first evidenced on the silver screen by Max Schreck's Nosferatu in the film of the same name. These guys look like they stink, and they don't even take the time to wipe off the excess blood from their crimsoned chins following multiple attacks.
While there are also plenty of nods to classic vampire films (Bela Lugosi is obviously namedropped), 30 Days of Night is actually an adaptation of a three-issue comics miniseries (by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith). Director David Slade (who previously helmed Hard Candy of all things!) steers clear of the 'digital set' paradigm instituted by Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder, but that doesn't make his film any less enthralling visually. It's a beautifully shot film, sporting an intentionally grimy, silver-boosted contrast and the grimly alluring imagery of abandoned domiciles and Alaska's harsh wilderness.
This particular Alaskan town is Barrow, which has been bestowed with the dubious honor of being located so far north that it loses the sun entirely for a thirty day period (it's the bloodsucking antithesis to Insomnia). It's a no-brainer concept for a vampire story, so much so that it's kind of amazing that nobody else has thought of it until now (Pitch Black doesn't count). This darkened period renders the place a ghost town, as most of its citizens pack up and leave before the madness-inducing shadow encroaches.
Unfortunately, Josh Hartnett's Sheriff Eben Oleson (Hartnett is reasonably good here, and you can see his eyes for once!) is obligated to stay behind with this empty shell of a village, enforcing whatever custodial lawgiving is needed with his deputy Billy (Manu Bennett). Eben's one of those tortured souls common in cinema, and in his case he laments the flailing demise of his marriage to Melissa George's Stella. Of course she just happens to be in town checking up on things (she's a state fire marshal) and unsurprisingly misses her flight out due to accidental circumstances (in a scene that plays against the grain for a horror film it's a shock moment, but is rendered naturally without an overly ham fisted sound effect accompaniment).
Eben's Grandmother is also around, as is his younger brother Jake (Mark Rendall of Charlie Bartlett), who bemoans the fact that there's nobody around to play old fashioned RPGs with him. There's also an uninvited guest in the form of Ben Foster's Renfield clone aptly named The Stranger - who approaches the town after escaping what appears to be a derelict, icebound ocean vessel. Shortly thereafter strange things begin happening, from the appearance of random mounds of immolated cell phones to the savage slaughtering of one local's pen of canines.
The vampires take their time in arriving, and at first their conversations in dead languages had me worried this was another product spawned from the world of tribal vampire clans as evidenced in the Blade series and the popular Vampire: The Masquerade role-playing system. I was much relieved to find that the screenplay (by original comics writer Steve Niles along with Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson) was merely trying to establish that these guys were legitimately old. Why expect monsters living on the fringes of society for eons to speak English as a first language?
I'm not a fan of most CGI facial manipulations, so the weasel-like visages of these people once fully 'vamped-out' took a little getting used to. What I did immediately enjoy, however, was the casting decision to place Danny Huston (The Constant Gardener, The Proposition) in the lead vampire role. This coup brought an element of class and legitimacy to the project, and he is truly a fascinating screen villain here. He would clearly be at home amongst the classic pre-Dracula undead from popular fiction, such as Varney the Vampire.
There are some traditional jump cuts as things dart in and out of dark spaces, but the film is established with a thick slathering of mood, from the unusual camera moves to the hauntingly sparse soundtrack. (I don't know if it's available on CD yet, but I would say Brian Reitzell's score should be an essential buy!) There are even some shots that would look at home in a Scorsese picture (an overhead pan of a street-based gunfight with the undead plays on top of blood-stained patches of snow, something akin to the opening brawl in Gangs of New York).
It also dabbles in the realm of the zombie survival film, for our heroes spend much of the titular thirty days holed up in attics and abandoned hidey holes, awaiting the arrival of sunshine and the end of this plague of bloodsuckers. There's a certain level detachment at play in some of these characters, but it helps to place one in their shoes, for they literally are detached from everything but intense cold and a waking nightmare. Some crumble under this onus (one man's mentally ill father routinely tries to escape from hiding), others welcome it (the tough talking redneck badass Beau, as played by Batman Begins' Mark Boone Junior).
There are also some interesting variations on vampire behavior, as the town's new masters attempt luring out any straggling survivors with all manner of psychological twists. Many of the film's true thrills come not from shocking face to face encounters, but from the barely noticeable figures of the undead crawling over rooftops in the distance behind our main characters.
I also appreciated that it resisted yet another reboot of the mythology just to create a new set of rules (as has been done so often over the past few decades), and instead essentially resets this particular monster's odometer to zero. Our heroes make many assumptions about what these creatures are and how they can be killed, but nobody truly knows if any of this lore gleaned from popular culture even works. There's even the question of whether or not sunlight will actually kill them.
Some have already hailed this film as the best vampire flick since Near Dark, and it certainly is the first in a long time to revisit the gritty underbelly of the undead glimpsed in that film. There are no scenes of a sexy Brad Pitt or Antonio Banderas waxing poetic over their unholy condition. In truth, in one of Huston's best scenes he replies in broken English to a victim's pleas for divine intervention with the chilling assertation God? No God. These guys are so cool they don't even want their victims turning to join their ranks. They're an elite squad of ancient walking corpses looking to enjoy this, their version of Disney Land, before sinking back into the mists only to attack again another day.
30 Days of Night is a welcome horror film that revitalizes the vampire genre while simultaneously evoking the mood of futility inherent in many of John Carpenter's best works (The Thing in particular). As dark as it is, this Western from Hell yields shot after shot of equally grim and gorgeous scenery. Count this as one instance of a genre outsider (director Slade) being able to add to the sum total instead of finding himself too squeamish to commit to a true horror film (see Walter Salles' tepid Dark Water remake - or better yet, don't). I'm also 'turning' into a huge fan of Ben Foster's thespian weirdness, so see it at least for his gonzo performance. On mood alone, this one is a stunner.