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30 Days of Night Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    81

    30 Days of Night Review
    What follows is an extended version of the review I originally wrote for the cinema release of 30 Days Of Night, with added detail and opinion. A bit more, dare I say it, to get your teeth into!

    Hoping to inject some new blood into the tired and clichéd old vampire genre, comes David (Hard Candy) Slade's adaptation of the first of Steve Nile's celebrated series of graphic novels, 30 Days Of Night. Taking the why didn't we think of that before? concept of a tribe of feral neck-nibblers enjoying a Winter sojourn up in the frozen wastes of Alaska in order to chow down on the isolated inhabitants of the town of Barrow - a place where the sun goes down and doesn't come up again for a full month every year, thus enabling them a relatively safe banquet. Throw into the mix Josh Hartnett's beleaguered Sheriff Eben Oleson and his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), along with a gaggle of tough frontier folk and the scene is set for a sustained campaign of arterial redecorating and a desperate showdown between man and beast at the top of the world. One thing is for certain - it's going to be one helluva long night.

    Nile's books are tremendously grisly fun and contain a new bloodsucking mythology that has just been crying out for a cinematic treatment. In fact, the idea was originally mooted for the big screen before it found life on the printed page. Slade's previous filmic endeavour took the queasily controversial topics of paedophilia and reluctant castration and flung them in the audience's wincing faces ... so the combination would, on paper at least, seem to be a solidly nasty one made in Hell. The screenplay fashions domestic strife, extreme vandalism, community spirit, unbelievably ferocious bad guys and even a western-style ambience as the pioneering folks of Barrow do whatever it takes to survive the Apache-style raids of uber-vamp Marlow (Danny Huston) and his shark-fanged clan and remains accurate enough to the source to keep the fans happy. Its comic-book roots are very proudly worn upon its snow and blood-spattered sleeve.

    “Folks have a bad enough time in the dark without booze making it worse.”

    Booze is going to be the least of your worries, love. Believe me.

    After an awesomely eerie first act that builds up the creeping menace of something evil coming to town with a series of mysterious deeds being perpetrated by unknown parties - all the dogs in town have been slain, mobile phones stolen and burned, power-lines cut and vehicles sabotaged - the attack begins in earnest. Slade piles shock-cut after shock-cut as sundry personages are plucked from their cosy homesteads and hurled onto the vampires' buffet table, the film descending into a tense, though slightly confusing series of slayings and revelations. But whilst inarguably violent and packed with incident, he then makes a bit of a blunder with a sagging and lengthy middle section, which loses steam amid a welter of claret-spraying set-pieces simply because there is no sense of the clock ticking and the deadly wait for the sunrise. With the notion that survival is possible when light appears at the end of the tundra, we are cut off in narrative limbo if denied the impression of how much time is actually passing by. The odd cue card denoting which day we are viewing just doesn't add anything to the slow inexorable sense of bleary-eyed endurance. This is a film where hide and seek is the order of the day, but there is precious little nail-gnawing anxiety being wrought throughout long spells when days, and even weeks, seem to flit by in the blink of an eye. So Slade slips a gear in the engine of suspense which, in a story like this, is pretty much a fundamental error. Luckily, he escapes this trap by maintaining an offbeat edge that keeps your attention even as episodes begin to blur. Of course, you could argue that this is an intentional device. The passage of time without sunrise would become as weird and as hallucinogenic even for such hardened folks as these, given the circumstances of being trapped and having to keep quiet. Even so, Slade doesn't reveal the psychological pressure that this enforced isolation would exude upon the survivors with only the scantiest of flare-ups to spice their captivity up.

    A mate of mine simply cannot stand Josh Hartnett (and he is most certainly not alone, there) and found this the major stumbling block to seeing the movie. But, although I can often appreciate why the pretty-boy actor is sometimes viewed as being detrimental to a film's quality (naff turns in Sin City, The Black Dahlia etc), I still quite like him. And here, as Barrow's embittered Sheriff, he is undeniably far too young to be in such a position - but he possesses a downbeat and often grave demeanour that I found quite convincing. Indeed, his severe lack of humour is infectious as the entire rest of the cast prove intensely allergic to the yuk-yuks that would have wrecked the film had this been aimed at a PG-13 audience. Our introduction to Eben, as he and a deputy look out at a simply radiant sunset - the last they will see for a month, and for quite a few ... forever - is immediately scene and character-setting as a tremendously portentous look of dread clouds his eyes. You clearly get the feeling that more than just his marital split is concerning him, some deep-seated sense of foreboding registering sombrely across his face. But whereas the gravity of his situation in the likes of Black Hawk Down is tempered by sweaty resolve and belief in his own Ranger training, here, Hartnett is not allowed such luxuries and, as a consequence, has to dig a little deeper into the sheer desperate plight he and his dwindling company of refugees will soon be facing. A couple of scenes in particular reveal an intensity that I didn't expect in a comic-book horror movie, let alone from Josh Hartnett in a comic-book horror movie! Watch for the scene of a consented murder, framed a little like the distinctly non-consensual one in Spielberg's War Of The Worlds, and you'll see that Hartnett almost pulls it off with the necessary intensity and pathos. But there are definite moments when his deadly serious Sheriff comes close to emotional breakdown elsewhere, absconding with the traditional “hard-ass” stereotype that it would have been easy for Hartnett to assume and, for this, he deserves some credit.

    “Just 'cause the sun stops Bela Lugosi doesn't mean it can stop these things.”

    Melissa George, forever Angel from Home And Away as far as I'm concerned, is typically gorgeous, even in a super-padded parka as opposed to that skimpy bikini from Paradise Lost (aka Lost Turistas). However, she has the role, pivotal in the original book and first spin-off - and sort of alluded to in the film with a final lingering shot of steely determination in her eyes - that simply stinks of contrivance. That she was once patrolling the mean frontier streets of Barrow alongside her husband, and is now a pro-active fire marshal is stretching things a bit. If Hartnett is too young to be a credible sheriff, then how do you think George comes across? Exactly. But, once again, she is still surprisingly good value as a determined and hard-fighting character in a situation that has reversed and inverted everything that once mattered in the society of Barrow. The smugness is elbowed aside and that incredible pout is reined-in as she combats the bitter cold, an equally frosty relationship with her glum feller and, obviously, the frequent attacks from the hungry tourists. Despite their casting being hip and crowd-pleasing, both Hartnett and George do find something a little extra to bring to the party ... and there is a beautifully haunting denouement that manages to sum their relationship up in one bittersweet, and fatally sun-kissed moment.

    Elsewhere, the cast are solid, though little more. Some characters are barely sketched and, thus, don't really garner much sympathy. Chic Littlewood adds a touch of poignancy as one of the town elders who, after two thirds of the enforced escape and evasion through the long, long night, decides to make a desperate bid to walk on out in the direction of the next town. But it is Ben Foster's icily evil Stranger who makes the deepest mark. Last seen as Russell Crowe's curiously effeminate, but decidedly homicidal sidekick in 3.10 To Yuma (see separate review), Foster plays a sort of frontier scout for Marlow's pack, paving the way for their invasion in the hopes that, like Renfield in Dracula, he will be granted the powers of a vampire, himself. Although only slight - especially when squaring up to Hartnett - he has such a sly and cunning nature that his taunts to the bewildered Sheriff and his good, but unwitting companions crank up the unease remarkably well. “You can feel it,” he croaks. “That cold ain't the weather. That's death approaching.” So much depravity and evil emanates from him that you have to wonder why he didn't bag the role of the big bad boy. Although with his twisted Southern drawl, the sharp, guttural lingo of the vamps may not have sounded all that impressive issuing from his lips. Still, Foster becomes one of the most memorable things in the film.

    “The heads must be separated from the bodies. Do not turn them.”

    I desperately wanted to love 30 Days Of Night, not just like it. The concept is rock steady and directly aimed at the jugular. I'm as fed up with the angst-ridden, broodingly romantic vision of vamps as the next horror fan and crave for them to return to their roots, the visceral, flesh-shredding ghoulish legend from Eastern Europe (of shambling, grisly cadavers that wouldn't know a cape from a coffin) that started the blood-sucking myth in the first place. And the uber-cool, gothic-chic vixens of Underworld have become a diluted, clichéd bore as well. But, despite that gloriously serious tone and some truly savage close encounters, Slade's adaptation undeniably sidelines its ghastly baddies into the usual, run-of-the-mill gang of monsters that have a penchant for standing around in a semi-circle just, well, looking sinister and hissing malevolently. Don't believe what other reviewers have been saying about this vampiric assault team - they are merely some leftover stragglers from the likes of 28 Days (or Weeks) Later and Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn Of The Dead. Yes, that vaguely alien, slanty-eyed look is quite striking, but there is nothing here in their supposed evolution that really sets them apart from other undeadsters that have been doing the rounds in recent years, Euro-trash suits notwithstanding. Plaudits have been liberally dished out to Danny Huston for his chilling portrayal of Marlow, the leader of the new-age vampires, but, even here, the film drops the ball. Just because he speaks in some fabulously fictional ancient vampirese and has some weirdly wonderful expressions in his pallid, blood-splashed facial repertoire does not make his toothy badass anything special in the history of the genre. In fact, there is one very serious detriment to his look that totally ruined any menace he could ever hold ... for me, at any rate. You see, in his greying, close-cropped hairdo and sporting that long black coat he is an absolute, ahem, deadringer for Neil Tennant, lead singer of The Pet Shop Boys. Right, now with that unfortunate fact in mind, you try and shuffle away the chuckles to make way for the shivers whenever he is onscreen - it won't be easy no matter how much blood he spills. And, believe it or not, he even sounds just like Tennant, as well ... as he will prove when you watch the special features! He was simply magnificent in the rarely seen but incredible Aussie oater The Proposition, but clucking and clicking with a voice like a Crawler from The Descent and strutting through the snow with little actual personality on display is something of a letdown. If his main nemesis is having such a terrible time, then you would think he would be whooping it up by contrast, but his overall severity rapidly becomes one-note and shallow, his demeanour more miserable than that of his trapped victims. And the other vamps in his elite bite-and-run squad fare no better. Barring the awesome, though heavily derivative little girl neck-chomper with an extremely direct way of getting through doors, there is only the big, bald oriental-looking geezer who comes anywhere near to eliciting a frisson of unease. Otherwise, they are a bland bunch at the best of times. Marlow's lupine-faced female companion may be visually striking but she winds up being as hollow and humdrum as the rest of them. Scenes of them all conversing - well, more just listening to Marlow, actually - gives them little to chew on and, come the end of the film, we are absolutely no nearer to understanding their organisation, their heritage or their wider intentions than we were at the start. They wind up being little more than a gore-slurping metaphor for an enemy invasion of the USA, which can, sadly, be patronising as well as intriguing.

    Although actually filmed in Auckland, New Zealand and featuring tons of pulverised paper to double as snow, the movie is, nonetheless very authentically cold. The snowdrifts, billowing winds and frosted buildings all paint an exquisitely tangible setting. In fact, even if you watched this in the summertime, it quite marvellously evokes the aura of the film's bleak and inhospitable back-of-beyond nightmare and effectively sends the chills up and down your spine in cahoots with the freezing imagery on screen. Slade knows this and is able to create some great images with his mocked-up town. Midway through the crisis, views down the main drive are horribly desolate and numbingly cold-looking, the occasionally monochromatic sheen of the film making Barrow truly come to resemble a windblown ghost town. The early shots of the Stranger making his way across the frozen wastes are brilliantly rendered - love the arresting image of a trapped ghost ship caught in the ice. By contrast, his gruesome scenes of bloodshed are riotously vibrant, gore and snow being a wonderful contrast. Indeed, Slade has a right old time of it once the carnage begins, with sizeable chunks torn from throats, heads lopped from bodies and, in one classic scene, a chainsaw-fronted snow-plough making deliriously short work of a mob of monstrous munchers. This type of thing was ushered in when George Romero first skimmed off the top of a zombie's noggin in Dawn Of The Dead like a spoon cleaving a boiled egg, and then Peter Jackson did the lawnmower twirl of death in Brain Dead, whilst 28 Weeks Later dipped a helicopter to slice 'n' dice the infected to loopy effect, but Slade can hold his creative head up high - unlike so many in those afore-mentioned scenes, eh? - with this sequence of cathartic payback. The beheading of another character will surely go down in history as one of the best and most unusual. Trust me, it is beautifully nasty and actually presents us with an image that has rarely been shown before. Those who have seen the early exploitation classic The Exterminator will know the bit when they see it. Another hideous sequence - when the feral pack surround and torment a helpless victim - is made all the more terrifying because of the frightful similarity it bears to so many savage street beatings that take place in our own towns and cities. Yet, perhaps, it is the quieter moments when we don't know exactly where the killers are lurking that the film is at its strongest. One early scene has the husband and wife team climb out of their 4x4 to scan down the highway with binoculars. Without us seeing what she has just witnessed coming towards them, Stella's demands that they get back in and drive away fast are irresistibly heart-pounding. The slow approach to a doorway that opens out onto the thickest wall of shadow you've ever seen is excellently shivery. Images of people edging around corners and slinking through the no-man's-land of the streets are taut and unpredictable. Slade does manage to imbue the film with a sense of anything goes during such skin-prickling moments. When his vamps can be lurking anywhere - up, down, on top or underneath - the edge-of-seat atmosphere is palpable. His use of CG-embellished speed is jolting, too. An early scene of human-snatching is marvellously done with almost subliminal savagery, aggressors and victim simply evaporating into the shadows with alarming nano-second rapidity.

    “I'm done playing with this one. You wanna play with me now?”

    But there is a sense that an exciting opportunity has been missed here. Slade keeps the tone right - deliciously cold, dark and dreadful - but drops the ball with the copious action. Too often, the big moments arrive with gusto but don't quite manage to maintain the momentum they began with. Eben's sacrificial sortie for the UV lamp in grandma's secret “pot” garden is allowed to peter out when it should have been pure adrenal overdrive. Likewise the initially balls-out, go-for-broke chainsaw sequence which, whilst still mightily effective clumsily undermines the limb-severing frenzy with an aftermath that just doesn't fit. And let's not forget the blistering vampo-et-vampo smackdown when, all of a sudden, it seems that the guy with his hood up and putting the boot in can actually be the hero for once! But what starts out as a darkly challenging sequence that has us seated ringside at the most ungodly scrap this side of The Pit, degenerates into a clumsy, pace-bereft melee that hits the generic button when it should have aimed for myth. Brian Reitzell's score has moments of true eeriness but can't help resorting to some all-too familiar pounding bass and thrashing guitars when things are getting down and dirty. Much more effective was the synthesized ambience and jarring stingers (brought about by a collection of truly unusual instruments) that underscores most of the proceedings and, had he kept to such a blanketing of sampled disquiet and disturbing electro-pulses, a real John Carpenter-vibe might have been achieved. Cinematography from Jo Willems is good and contains some fantastic sunlit vistas across the frozen landscape that bookend the movie. Shots of huddled groups of survivors scampering through the snowy streets are quite anxiously framed and immersive, too and it is reassuring that the movie looks vibrant and alive even when visibility is low and shadows festoon the frame. Kudos goes to the terrific overhead shot that takes in the terrible carnage taking place on the streets like footage of the horrific mob violence around the downed Black Hawks in Somalia filmed by the helpless support choppers. And it is with scenes such as this that Slade's movie reveals its true powers.

    So, all in all, 30 Days Of Night is an agreeable enough experience, provided you like your movies drenched in blood and have a nice warm bed to settle into afterwards. Although sweet dreams may still elude you. Overall, Slade's movie gets a strong 7 out of 10 from me. Whilst there are issues with the meandering middle act, the film strikes such a satisfyingly grim tone from the very first frame that true horror fans should find the experience refreshingly unsanitised. There is evidence here that a cinematic franchise would not necessarily be a bad thing, but don't go thinking that this is something new to the genre as a whole. The first two Blade instalments were a wild and clever evolution - I didn't enjoy the third outing at all, however - with Del Toro's part II actually featuring vamps even more frightening and savage than those seen here, but there is enough material to be explored in the backgrounds of these new nocturnal ravagers to fuel another movie or two, so don't be surprised if the sun goes down at the multiplex again sometime. Fast, atmospheric and giddily gory. Just a pity they had Neil Tennant fronting the Vamps and that Ben Foster couldn't have been employed more comprehensively. Still, this is unashamedly recommended for blood-seekers everywhere.