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30 Days of Night Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
ImageTough, unflinching and fast-paced, “30 Days of Night” is one of the best vampire movies in years.  It’s also somewhat revisionist, as these vampires are especially bestial and lack all magical powers except speed and agility, though sunlight is still fatal to them.  And that’s behind the premise: it takes place in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point of North America, well above the Arctic Circle.  So once every year, just as the title says, there’s entire month during which the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon: 30 days of night.  A pack of vampires, led by Marlow (Danny Huston), recently learned this and arrive in Barrow at the onset of a month-long night. 

It’s a clever idea, the basis of the three-part graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith on which the movie is based.  Of course, there are some stumbling blocks: there simply aren’t very many people in Barrow (and lots of locals leave at the onset of the month-long night), hence not very many victims for what looks like quite a few vampires.  And what did the vampires plan to do at sunrise?  But the movie is entertaining enough you’ll probably think of the drawbacks/story glitches later. “30 Days of Night” was originally scheduled to be directed by Sam Raimi, but he and his partner Rob Tapert decided to produce the film instead, hiring David Slade to direct.  He’s only made one other feature, “Hard Candy,” but he’s clearly an assured, inventive director.  However, he doesn’t know how to present fast action; scenes with lots of action are just chaotic jumbles of impossible-to-follow brief images. 

Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) has the first line: “Strange.”  And strange it is: he and deputy Billy (Manu Bennett) have come upon a pile of burned cell phones.  Someone’s rounded up most of those in Barrow and destroyed them.  Not long after, all the sled dogs in town are mysteriously slaughtered.

As what looks like about half the town leaves on planes—there are no roads to Barrow—Josh’s estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) hurries to join them.  She’s a fire marshal, and has been checking the area for possible problems—but on the way to the airport, her SUV is accidentally damaged.  She’s stuck in Barrow for the dark month.

The screenplay by Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson quickly sketches in several townsfolk—most of whom will soon be vampire fodder.  Strange things continue to occur, and there’s a stranger—a STRANGE stranger (Ben Foster) Eben immediately tosses into a jail cell, who seems to know what’s going on, and to welcome it.  “That cold ain’t the weather,” he sneers, “that’s death approachin’.”  He’s icy himself, brutal and ferocious—he literally foams at the mouth.  He’s been terrifying Eben’s teenage brother Jake (Mark Rendell) and Jake’s grandmother (Elizabeth McRae), so Eben shackles him to the cell.  Then the phones go dead.  As do the lights—but being Barrow, there are gasoline-powered generators in many of the local buildings.

Meanwhile, out there in the darkness, the vampires have begun to gather.  (We never learn how they got to Barrow, though there’s an early shot of a large freighter offshore.)  These vampires have lots of fangs, not just the two Dracula was limited to.  They’re brutal, sadistic and cruel; it’s a long time since any of them were human.  And probably even longer since leader Marlow could look at a sunrise without charring.  He issues commands in a voice midway between a hiss and a growl, and in a language I didn’t recognize, though it sounded Slavic.  (Slade and Huston invented it at the beginning of production.)  He gives his minions free range to attack the remaining residents of Barrow, but cautions them not to allow their victims “to turn.”  After a few killings that mystify bystanders, the vampires rip loose in a mass attack seen from high above.  

Slade has desaturated the color—pale flesh tones, frigid-looking blues and greens, and of course red remain.  That high shot is shocking, unnerving, hard to watch—everyone, vampires and humans alike, are silhouettes against the pale snow, with humans soon reduced to immobile blotches of black, surrounded by dark red.  It’s an especially imaginative shot in a movie with plenty of them, and succinctly shows how powerless humans are against the savage, ravening vampires.  Marlow growls at one victim that there’s no God, no escape, no hope, only hunger and pain.  Then mutters to a minion, “We should have come here long ago.”

The human beings are slaughtered down to just a handful, led by Eben and Stella.  They’ve already had an encounter with a vampire that leaped onto the top of their SUV; this one is seen only as an unnaturally sharp-edged silhouette that slashes at the roof of the car.  The staging and editing are unusual; I’ve never seen another sequence quite like it.

Eben and Stella decide to put their knowledge of the area to use against the bloodthirsty invaders; “We live here for a reason,” she says, “—because nobody else can.”  The small group moves from one shelter to another as the days of night pass (there are occasional countdown titles: “Day 7,” “Day 18,” etc.).  The situation seems hopeless; they decide their assailants may be vampires, but long-time Barrow resident Beau (Mark Boone Junior) advises, “Just because something stopped Bela Lugosi doesn’t mean it can stop those things.”

As the terror continues, they discover to their horror that a few of the victims—their friends and neighbors—have become vampires.  Now they have to fight back AND keep from becoming one of the Undead themselves.

The movie is very intense; it’s rated R for a damned good reason—don’t let your younger kids watch “30 Days of Night” alone, as if it were one of those more harmless PG-13 horror movies of recent years.  This movie means business, and Slade goes about his work with a grim intensity—the movie is almost entirely devoid of humor.  (Though when things get outrageously horrible and someone remarks on it, the movie does generate a couple of bad laughs—but even this is rare.)

Although the movie was shot in New Zealan with fake snow (soap, Epsom salts, etc.), it’s very persuasive—we can believe these bundled-up people are nearly freezing to death, that the drifts of white are icy snow (the vampires are lightly dressed; one of the females is clad in a short skirt).  And production designer Paul Denham Austerberry has created a thoroughly authentic-looking Barrow, right down to the Wiley Post/Will Rogers Memorial Airport.  (One of the main streets is Rogers; he and Post were killed in a plane crash near Barrow.)  The interiors are also highly realistic; the filmmakers want us to believe in the reality of this isolated town so we’ll be more likely to believe the vampires who attack it.

The characters are exceptionally well drawn for a horror movie, although Eben is pretty much a standard hero—who (pointlessly) suffers from asthma.  We never learn why he and Stella separated, but it’s clear they still care for one another—especially under such, you could say, trying conditions.  There are no clichéd frontiersmen; even colorful Beau is very much like real guys who drift to the outer edges of civilization because they’re more comfortable where they have to interact with as few people as possible. It’s largely a standard small American town but without any frills at all—no Starbucks, no McDonalds.  Even though the movie is contemporary, Barrow feels like a town from the early 20th century: tough, self-reliant, isolated—it’s its own thing, and so are the people who live there.

Who are now fodder for vicious, blood-smeared monsters.

Somewhat unusually for such a dark movie—as the title says, the movie takes place almost entirely at night—“30 Days” looks great in Blu-ray’s high definition.  The details usually hidden on videos within shadows and dark areas are here as clear as they were in theatrical screenings.  It’s an uncommonly rich-looking film, and the extensive CGI work—mostly for landscapes—looks almost photo-realistic.  Even that impressive high angle shot is rendered almost entirely via CGI.

I need to update my Blu-ray player; it doesn’t provide access to the supplemental material on newer discs such as this one, so I cannot report on the extras here.  The commentary track was accessible via the “audio” button, but it’s not anything special.  Lead actors Josh Hartnett and Melissa George chat with producer Rob Tapert like old friends; we learn some mildly interesting background details—during a break in shooting, Hartnett’s schedule took him literally around the world, from New Zealand to Europe, then on to the U.S. and back to New Zealand—but it’s mostly just friends chatting.  It’s pleasant to listen to, but doesn’t really add much to the viewing experience.
The score by Brian Reitzell is occasionally imaginative, as behind the opening credits, and during an early vampire attack when the music itself is shredded into vanishing fragments.  At other times, it’s an atonal drone, so unpleasant you want it to end. 

Slade handles most of the movie very well, though as mentioned earlier, he badly botches fight scenes—there’s no impact if you can’t see what’s going on.  And he uses the brief shots/quick editing technique that’s now outdated, and rarely worked as intended in the first place.  He does bear down hard on the horror and terror inherent in the material, so much so that out of sheer exhaustion, those bad laughs do pop up toward the end.  The mood of the film is very serious, very threatening—it’s easy to imagine the vampires might prevail. 

The only routine element of the movie, actually, is the vampires themselves.  Bram Stoker had NO idea what he was doing when he wrote his book at the end of the 19th century, but the sons, daughters and other offspring of Count Dracula have populated—overpopulated—movies and TV shows since the early 1960s.  I’m weary of vampires.  I’m tired of bad vampires, I’m tired of funny vampires, I’m tired of good vampires.  I’m tired of revisionist vampires.  Enough already.  I wanted a stake to be driven through the heart of this particular fantasy-horror idea, at least for some time.

But “30 Days of Night” at least temporarily charges the vampire with power again.  Part of it lies with the vampires themselves—they’re anything but likeable, anything but romantic, anything but sexy; they’d sneer at Lestat then rip him to shreds; Blade wouldn’t stand a chance.  They’re grimy, bloody, tattered and ugly.

Danny Huston is especially effective, especially threatening.  Son of John, half-brother of Anjelica, he’s been almost everywhere, done almost everything in movies and other arts—he began as a painter, became director himself (“Mr. North”), but proved to simply not be very good in that capacity.  So he became an actor 1995—and has established himself as a versatile, talented character star, usually at his best when he’s a villain.  In “The Proposition,” he was a likeable Irish rogue so amoral he thinks nothing of rape and murder.  Here, he’s sunken so deeply into vampirism that his face scarcely looks human—it’s somehow both porcine and lupine, with heavy, slack cheeks, a mouth that’s almost always open (and often drooling).  He can talk, and does—but he’s an arrogant monster, one of the most thoroughly evil vampires in movie history.

Hartnett holds his own, even though Eben is not a complex character.  I’m unfamiliar with Melissa George, but she’s fine here—as is the entire (steadily shrinking) cast. 

With so damned many horror movies made in recent years, it’s a relief when something reasonably original and well made comes along.  It’s not one of those callous thrillers that glorify torture—the violence here is pretty strong, but usually it’s brief.  It makes its impact and the story moves on.  It’s too early to tell if David Slade is consistently talented, but at least he’s made a strong, interesting horror story that, unusually these days, is often pretty damned scary.

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