Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on October 18, 2007, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

It is one of the not insignificant achievements of 30 Days of Night that it makes screen vampires genuinely scary again. After many years of tragic heroes with fangs, and rapacious, generic undead that might as well be traditional zombies or fast-moving infected folks, the film version of Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s celebrated graphic novel presents a pack of vicious but socialized predators that truly seem to be stranded between the human and animal species. Using specific body movement and a guttural invented language, and assisted by fine, freaky special makeup by Gino Acevedo and the Weta Workshop team, Danny Huston (playing vampire leader Marlow) and his ghoul co-stars enact a band of bloodthirsty villains who justify revisiting a horror subgenre that has felt played-out in the hands of many others.

It helps that the movie has as source material that Niles/Templesmith comics series, which sets the action in Barrow, Alaska, a real-life town north of the Arctic Circle that is abandoned by the sun for a month every year. It is also, as the movie begins, departed by a large percentage of its citizenry for that period, leaving the small number left behind, led by Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), vulnerable to attack—particularly by creatures against whom daylight is a key weapon. As one of the vamps puts it, “We should have come here long ago.”

After the sun sets for the last time, and Eben starts investigating a series of crimes (burned cell phones, butchered sled dogs) designed to make it impossible to call or run for help, the stage seems set for a film-length feeding frenzy. But surprisingly, the vampires’ main attack on the helpless locals is dispensed with in minutes; indeed, it happens so abruptly that it almost feels like a reel has gone missing. The sequence does pay off in a remarkable, long overhead tracking shot that makes it clear director David Slade is as comfortable and skilled at large-scale mayhem as he proved to be with modest, interior terror in his feature debut, Hard Candy. Then, once most of the town’s population has been dispatched, 30 Days settles into a similar claustrophobic groove as Eben and a handful of survivors—including his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), whom an accident has stranded in Barrow—hide out in assorted buildings to wait out the prolonged darkness and try to determine a method by which their attackers might be defeated.

The screenplay by Niles himself, Stuart Beattie and Candy’s Brian Nelson comes up with a consistently varied series of setpieces in which the vampires either stalk their prey or leap at them and drag them off with lightning speed. Eschewing digitally created action for the more intense and visceral kind that involves physical FX, Slade also lets the blood splatter freely, emphasizing the beastliness of the ghouls and allowing for some grisly catharsis when the townspeople fight back and the fiends get theirs. There’s juice to the monsters’ performances, too, along with that of Ben Foster, who makes an edgy impression as a stranger who turns up in town just ahead of the invasion and offers not-terribly-sympathetic warnings of the carnage to come.

The rest of the humans, on the other hand, aren’t quite as vivid. The performances of Hartnett and George, their characters and the couple’s gradually defrosting relationship are functional enough as a frame on which to hang the scary stuff that’s the movie’s true raison d’etre, but they’re just moderately compelling on their own. Only at the end, when the ultimate life-or-death decision has to be made, do they achieve an emotional impact equal to the scares that have preceded it. Mark Boone Junior, who previously fought John Carpenter’s Vampires, has some fun moments as a snowplow-driving loner who gets to put his vehicle to good use, while Mark Rendall generates sufficient sympathy as Eben’s younger brother. There are tense moments involving the smaller supporting roles as they make survival choices and meet their inevitable ends, but in some cases the close-ups of folks we’ve barely been introduced to elicit only the thought, “Who was that again?”

The intensity of Slade’s filmmaking is enough to keep things rolling along right over such concerns, and producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert have backed him up with a solid production package. Shooting on the other side of the world from its Alaskan setting—Raimi and Tapert’s familiar New Zealand territory—the team gives Barrow a foreboding and singular sense of place, with the moody cinematography by Candy’s Jo Willems and Brian Reitzell’s alternately eerie and jumpy score doing a lot to enhance the chill in the town’s air. Their efforts create a perfect environment for 30 Days of Night to pump its fresh, warm blood into the vampire-film category.

Similar Posts