by Jeff Meyers
Vampires in Alaska? Where the sun sets for a month at a time? It's such an ingenious premise it's amazing no one thought of it before. And for the first 20 minutes of 30 Days Of Night, director David Slade is really onto something. The atmosphere is thick with menace as Barrow, an Alaskan pipeline town, readies itself for four weeks of prolonged darkness and blizzards. Mysteriously, cell phones go missing, sled dogs are slain and all contact with the outside world is cut off as a ferocious pack of vampires prepares to turn the community of 150 into their personal feedlot.
But these vampires, led by Danny Huston's jaw-clacking Nosferatu, aren't Ann Rice-suave goth. They're brutally savage beasts that tear your throat out with gleeful abandon. Much as Danny Boyle reinvented the zombie flick in 28 Days Later, Slade envisions his children of the night as feral and fast moving, frantically upping the film's splatter quotient.
Unfortunately, screenwriters Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson never get any further than their promising setup. After 30 Days' ominous opening, the film devolves into an episodic succession of fights and chases, as a small group of survivors struggles to stay alive until the sun rises to save them. It's Assault on Precinct 13 meets the The Thing (Can we count the ways director John Carpenter has influenced genre films today?).
Slade creeps us out handily in the buildup to his attacks, letting his gaunt fiends lurk in the background just out of focus. But when the violence finally erupts, his jittery handheld camerawork makes it hard to track what's going on. In contrast, a brilliant overhead tracking shot of the town's residents getting brutally massacred delivers bone-deep chills.
Unfortunately, Slade's attempts to balance the film's quieter moments against its hardcore acts of bloodshed are undermined by poor scripting. The characters are undeveloped, the dialogue is banal and the plotting quickly falls into predictable redundancy. There's never a sense of consequence or moral dilemma, just events and revelations that pop up to carry the story.
Worse, Slade, who mastered the single locale of his debut, Hard Candy, now seems lost in big wide-open. Barrow's geography is never clearly established and so the constant need for survivors to run from one location to the next is arbitrary. More importantly, Slade flubs the film's most basic conceit: the passage of time. It's not enough to have your hero grow some stubble and flash a title card that reads, "Day 18," we should feel the emotional and physical weight of people forced to hide from relentless attackers for long periods of time. Despite the film's title, 30 days feels more like two and a half.
The cast, starring Josh Harnett, Melissa George, and an all-too brief Ben Foster, take their roles seriously; they struggle to give their paper-thin characters subtext and nuance. But this only undermines the B-movie's modest ambitions. Better to have played true to the genre's archetypes dependable law man, panicky teen, endangered love interest than try to create substance in a vacuum.
With Halloween fast approaching, audiences are looking for a few good scares, and on this count, 30 Days of Night marginally fits the bill. With their ferocious screeching and bloodstained fangs, Slade's pale ghouls make OK nightmare fodder. But if you're looking for more bite go out and rent the little known but brilliantly unconventional Near Dark.