With its exciting premise (a vampire siege upon an isolated town in Alaska, where the sun sets for thirty days), 30 DAYS OF NIGHT promises to deliver plenty of chills and thrills, but the promise too often goes unfulfilled. Although slick and entertaining, this eagerly anticipated film, based on the graphic novel of the same title, is a bit too typically modern in its use of rapid-fire editing and gory comic-book violence. In other words, it’s more action movie than horror. It’s cool, but seldom scary.
Things get off to a reasonably good start with glimpses of the town of Barrow shutting down in preparation for the long night. A few odd incidents hint at the growing storm on the horizon (the destruction of some cell phones, the death of some sled dogs), but the filmmakers seem scared of letting the build-up last too long, so they insert an early kill or two, to keep the restless audience from getting bored. These early scenes also neglects to truly convince us that Barrow will be totally isolated just because the sky will turn dark out for a month. Barrow has an airport but no airplanes apparently; a couple lines of dialogue tell us that a helicopter has been disabled, and we just have to assume that no spare parts are available.
This nagging neglect of the premise sends a ripple effect throughout the rest of the story, leaving us to wonder why the characters don’t get the hell out of dodge when the going gets rough. Surely, you think, there must be a snow plow, a snow mobile, or some kind of tractor that could carry the humans to safety across the snow, but the film just assumes that the characters have to stay put, no matter how helpless they are in the face of the vampire menace. In short, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT aspires to be little more than a movie-movie, where you’re supposed to enjoy the ride, without asking any questions.
Rather like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the story eventually turns into a depiction of a handful of human survivors barricading themselves into a house for protection, but this time the debate is whether to hide in an attic, instead of a cellar. Unlike NIGHT, the human drama never catches fire, because the terms of the debate are never clear. The characters argue about the best hiding place, but they never give us much reason to believe that any place is more or less safe, so we’re not really invested in the outcome of their decision. In any case, when they finally reach their supposedly safe haven in the third act, no sooner are the through the door than they are attacked by a vampire, leaving us to wonder why they even bothered.
It hardly helps that you can barely tell the characters apart – even as their numbers dwindle, the survivors remains a mostly faceless crowd, and the film can barely be bothered with keeping track of who is left alive or where they are. On more than one occasion, we follow Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) and/or Stella Oleson (Melissa George) on a dangerous trek to some new location, only to find that the others have arrived before them (presumably having taken a short cut). When the story is premised on the idea that stepping outside is an invitation to violent death, suspense is seriously undermined by the casual disregard for how half the characters managed to survive a supposedly dangerous excursion.
The film also falls down a bit in dealing with the 30-day time frame. Marlow (Danny Huston) exults early on that he and his vampire comrades should have taken advantage of Barrow’s extended night long ago, but he and his comrades seem to suck their way through almost the entire population in the first few hours of darkness, leaving us to wonder how they will sustain themselves for the rest of the month with so few remaining prospects. After that, if not for the subtitles telling you the number of days elapsed, you would think subsequent events occurred in a span of forty-eight hours or less. These 30 days really do seem to go by in hardly more than a single night.
The gore factor is pretty strong for a mainstream film, including a rip-roaring scene where a mechanized truck plows through vampires faster than a chainsaw through butter; the effect is hardly horrific, but it is exciting in a comic book way. Sometimes the bloodshed gets a bit silly – the vampires often seem more like blood spillers than blood drinkers, and you wonder why they waste so much precious food.
Nevertheless, the strong point of 30 DAYS OF NIGHT is its depiction of vampires as a ravenous pack of predators. Scenes of them attacking en masse may suggest a zombie flick, but these undead killers are intelligent and (at least in the case of Marlow) articulate; they hunt in groups like wolves, coordinating their attacks to bring down their victims. Although the performances of the supporting vampires sometimes suggests posing more than acting, Danny Huston (a character actor usually cast in intellectual or even prissy roles, as in CHILDREN OF MEN) is an utterly convincing standout as the alpha-vampire.
Every once in a while, director David Slade turns off the sound and fury long enough to deliver a dramatic body blow, as when one survivor reveals that he has been bitten and then begs to be killed before he goes from living to undead. Unlike similar scenes in George Romero’s zombie films, it would be too dangerous to wait until after he changes, so one of his friends has to behead him with an ax while he’s still alive. This delivers one of the few horror moments not of the “ain’t it cool” variety – more like “that’s messed up!”
In a somewhat similar vein, the ending deserves credit for an innovative and clever method of confronting the vampires – a great melodramatic moment of self-sacrifice that works as both a kick-ass final showdown and a two-hanky tear-jerker. It never hurts to save the best for last; even if 30 DAYS OF NIGHT stumbles around in the dark quite a bit, it does find its way to a rousing conclusion. Horror fans will love it, and the girl friends (assuming there are any) will, too.
“Marlow,” the name of the lead vampire, sounds like a nod to Barlow, the vampire from SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King. It is also the name of the narrator in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.
30 DAYS OF NIGHT (October 19, 2007). Directed by David Slade. Screenplay by Steve Niles and Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson, based on the graphic novel by Stee Niles and Ben Templesmith. Cast: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, Mark Boone Junior, Mark Rendall, Amber Sainsbury.
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