British director David Slade came from the bowels of a successful music video career to the attention of Hollywood after directing his first feature, Hard Candy in 2005. With a debut as strong as that taught and superbly acted two-hander, it would be safe to say there were many with an eye out for his follow up, and I was one of them. And intriguing it was when Slade's next film was revealed to be an Alaskan vampire horror flick, jumping on the 'based on a comic book' bandwagon, so 30 Days of Night seems quite a departure from his first feature...
We are greeted by a bleak, snow-bleached Alaskan landscape. A solitary figure cutting through the white, staggers upon the small town of Barrow, which is preparing for a month of perpetual night. Enter Sheriff Eban, played by Josh Hartnett, doing the last patrol before the descent of darkness and his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), who misses her last plane out of town and is forced to bunk down with the natives for the month. The scene is set when a malevolent and unknown force begins to sever power lines and cut the townsfolk off further from the outside world, leaving them vulnerable for attack. The figure seen walking to town is revealed to be a mad hick, crazily drawling threats in the way of dark prophecy (billed as 'The Stranger' and played by Ben Foster of Six Feet Under and 3:10 To Yuma). From here ensues the spiraling chaos of a vampiric feeding frenzy, set against the stark blizzard-battered Barrow with an increasingly dwindling population.
There have been differing opinions of 30 Days of Night since its release (October in the U.S, November over here), most of them pretty polemic, and many of them quite petty; in the real town of Barrow night falls for over 60 days and they actually aren't totally cut off from the outside world blah, blah, blah (have you heard of artistic license or suspension of disbelief?!). Much of the negative press I find unfairly cynical and largely dismissive of its quite remarkable reworking of the genre following a stagnant period of terrible vampire movies. What some narrow-minded reviewers have said to be a one dimensional portrayal of the bloodsuckers is largely the saving grace of the film. For a start the creatures themselves are stripped of any Anne Rice-esque gothic romanticism or charm. They are creatures devoid of all agenda save feeding and eliminating anything in their way. Aesthetically they are monstrous; sharp clawed finger nails, a whole mouthful of pointed teeth (unlike the usual solitary elongated canines) and eerily slanted almond shaped eyes. And this is their constant state, there is no transformation from human to vampire made popular by Buffy The Vampire Slayer. They are fast and brutal and move in packs like rabid dogs and shriek in a primal scream that chills to the bone. When Danny Huston turns up as the ringleader of the gruesome gang he lends a new dimension to their threat. As the intellectual of the group he is the first to speak in a language, spat out and crowed like some distorted phlegmy dialect of Klingon. Huston's character functions as the only vampire thinking beyond primitive urges, as he wishes to preserve the secrecy of his kind by making sure there are no survivors left in the town. It is his reason coupled with malevolence that elevates his character beyond the primal to a truly scary presence.
Besides the deconstruction of the vampire mythology, which is largely indebted to the original comic books, 30 Days has more in common with the zombie movie than the bloodsucking genre. A town descended upon by the undead and forced to hole up in various protected dwellings to hide from the antagonistic forces is more Night of the Living Dead than Dracula, and it's the combination of these two sub-genres that some find an unhappy marriage, yet I think it lends a claustrophobia to the narrative. If anything, it was this part of the film that could have taken it beyond its status as an above average horror if dealt with better
The most criticised aspect of the film has been the passage of time from the first night of darkness to the concluding sunrise, a criticism that I agree with on this occasion. Skipping handfuls of days here and there to just jump quickly to the next set piece is a disappointingly Hollywood device and passes up an easy opportunity to inject more threat and suspense into the film, not to mention a little more characterisation. An extra 10 or so minutes to the running time could have eliminated the disappointingly premature final sequence. The 21st century take on a love story which approaches the young couple of Eban and Stella not as two people who will get together but rather two people who have already split up is a favourably cynical slant, and for my money if there must be an obligatory romantic subplot this one is suitably downbeat.
The setting of the work is a cinematography wet dream, high contrast darks and lights, marrying form and content, with an added liberal douse of bloody scarlet explosions. The way Slade openly and proudly works is by digitally enhancing and manipulating colour, and much of this can be spotted in some sequences in this feature. It is now a widely used technique, although many directors conveniently neglect to mention its use due to the negative connotations it may have on a director. Slade was one of the first mainstream directors to credit the process on the opening titles for Hard Candy and although I neglected to notice if he did the same on this film (shame on me), the technique has been more widely used, and to good effect.
Slade's direction is generally solid throughout, save for the aforementioned handling of passing time. Personally I could have done without some of the overly shaky camerawork to facilitate close-up action scenes, but that seems standard for the music video generation of directors. This is a shame, as Hard Candy was pleasingly devoid of any such flashy practices. But I suppose when in Rome (or Hollywood) etc.
The acting is generally strong. Josh Hartnett
surprised me with a mature performance, probably his best,
showing that there's hope for him yet as a serious contender
to more meaty roles in the future, and Melissa George was
suitable enough as his gutsy estranged wife. Huston is great
as the ringleader of the bestial nosferatu, but the real
scene stealer is Ben Foster's wonderfully creepy hillbilly.
If you aren't impressed by the life this film has injected
into the vampire genre, or by Slade's masterly handle of
bleak aesthetics and heart-stopping jumps then at least
take solace in the fact that 30 Days has
provided yet another platform for Foster's capabilities
as an actor. Surely it can't be long until we see him in
a leading role?!