30 Days Of Night first published by EyeforFilm
Since their very first on-screen appearance, cinematic vampires have proven surprisingly flexible when it comes to their own prescribed conventions. Count Orlok in Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) may have been drawn directly from the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but in FW Murnau’s film neither garlic nor crosses nor stakes play any part in deterring the undead, and the vampire’s curse is never transmitted to his victims. Cut to 85 years later, and it would seem that bloodsuckers are still every bit as resistant to playing by the rules – or as one character in David Slade’s 30 Days Of Night puts it: “Just ‘cos it stops Bela Lugosi, doesn’t mean it’ll stop them.”
Based on the graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, Slade’s film features vampires who hunt in vicious packs, issue blood-curdling shrieks like banshees, are unperturbed by religious paraphernalia, and are killed only by ultraviolet light or decapitation. So Barrow, Alaska’s northernmost community, cut off from the rest of the world each winter for a month of sunless twilight, seems perfect pickings for these predators. After sending a minion (Ben Foster) ahead to cripple the town’s communications and transport, they move in for 30 days of relatively trouble-free feeding.
If you miss the names of the townsfolk introduced in the opening, pre-sundown scenes, do not worry – for Barrow’s population, already down to 152 owing to the departure of many to warmer climes for the winter, will be further reduced to a small band of survivors by the end of night one, and even their low number will continue to dwindle as the film progresses. Key players appear to be town sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), his younger brother Jake (Mark Rendall), grandma Helen (Elizabeth Munson) and shaggy loner Beau Brower (Mark Boone Jr) – but death, or worse, comes so fast and furious in this film that it is anyone’s guess who will make it through the long night to sunrise.
Given its central premise of vampires who exploit the sun’s seasonal absence from the snowy north, 30 Days Of Night will inevitably invite comparison to Anders Banke’s Frostbite (2006) – but it might just as fruitfully be compared to John Carpenter’s siege-based thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), or to the same director’s snowbound survivalist horror The Thing (1982), or to Uwe Boll’s vampire/western crossover BloodRayne II: Deliverance (2007). Unlike Banke, Slade plays his horror grimly straight, leaving little room for laughs. His otherworldly vampires, led by the suited Marlow (Danny Huston, almost philosophical in his sadism), treat killing as a sort of necessary sport and, in a neat inversion of the pestilential bloodsucker from Nosferatu, consider humans to be the “plague”. As fast and ferocious as the zombies in Zack Snyder‘s Dawn Of The Dead remake (2004), but considerably more calculating, these nightwalkers are, frankly, terrifying.
Both groups, of course, are alike in their desire to survive, but only one has anything resembling compunction. Time and again, it is the locals’ humanity and their personal ties to each other which both define who they are, and threaten to be their undoing, when faced with a foe whose only allegiance is to insatiable hunger. Eben and company’s best hope is to find somewhere safe and well hidden to dig in for the month, or else to channel some animal cunning and savagery of their own against so efficiently murderous an opposition.
Slade first grabbed the public by the throat with Hard Candy (2005), a paedophilia-themed revenge flick whose viciousness concealed darker ambiguities, set for the most part in and around a single suburban home with just two characters inside – or perhaps only one. This film is set on a much broader canvas – a whole town and its population – but it is no less claustrophobic for that.
Slade likes to shoot his characters in close-up, focussing more on their terrified, uncomprehending reactions than on the feeding frenzy unfolding around them. Scenes of (mostly futile) human resistance are shown in joltingly fragmented, scatter-gun form, or are merely heard as ‘noises off’ on the soundtrack. This oblique approach to the portrayal of a massacre imports horror of its own, as viewers find themselves restricted to the confused, panicky perspective of people who are afraid equally of looking and of being seen, while an early exception to this principle of restraint leaves little doubt of the terrors awaiting outside: a sequence in which the chaos in the town’s central strip, all frenetic skirmishes, burning cars and pools of red forming against the white snow, is presented in stunning, harrowing aerial panorama.
Once the human characters have been whittled down to a hard core of survivors, 30 Days Of Night does lose its way a little. We are made all too aware in the beginning that any encounter with the undead visitors will spell almost certain death, so that a constant tension keeps the film in its grip. After a while, though, the vampires’ relative absence will have some viewers wondering just what could be keeping such effective killers off the street – or why, when they do eventually show up, they seem so much slower than before. Perhaps they just ate too much.
Still, 30 Days Of Night sends an icy blast of fresh air into the moribund genre – not because its ideas are particularly original (they are not), but because its combination of solid acting, trim writing, economic editing, sure-handed direction and Brian Reitzell’s chilling score make it a vampire film of unusually grave conviction, way too cold for camp.
strap: David Slade’s vampire siege flick is way too cool for camp, sending an icy blast of fresh air into a moribund genre
© Anton Bitel