30 Days of Night… And 2 Hours of Same-Old
A member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. A contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education, he also blogs on pop culture at School Library Journal: http://blogs.slj.com/connect-the-pop/. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_GutierrezView all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
Just to be clear from the start, there’s an awful lot about 30 Days of Night that is fresh, self-assured and visually appealing. In fact, there’s so much that’s just flat-out well-done in this flick that it must be judged a disappointment not so much by its achievement relative to other movies in its genre or subgenre, but when compared to the high standards that it sets for itself and fails to live up to.
For those who are unfamiliar with its premise, 30 Days of Night is set in the arctic town of Barrow, Alaska, where residents must brace themselves annually for a month-long stretch of darkness. The twist is that during this particular year a pack of nomadic vampires descends on Barrow much like the tourists who overrun other Alaskan towns, except these guys don’t have the decency to return to their cruise ship when they outwear their welcome. Based on the comic by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, 30 Days has the kind of original springboard that most horror creators would kill for.
And at first director David Slade, making the most out of contributions from cinematographer Jo Willems, capitalizes on the strong foundation he has to work with. A series of stark landscapes, skyscapes, and seascapes paints a world that is bleak and cruel but also beautiful in its otherworldiness—admittedly, a pretty standard description of such an environment, but what’s interesting here is the parallel to the vampire archetype itself. Also, to their credit, Slade and Willems do a solid job of setting the ominous mood without being distractingly arty or gimmicky. Similarly, the introductions of the characters, although roughly following the standard structure of let’s-meet-and-greet-all-the-folks-we’ll-later-see-killed, is more deeply-felt than is usually the case in such movies. 30 Days apparently cares about its characters, and Slade does a nicely with the actors. In general, the script really works in these early stages, moving the story along efficiently and establishing relationships through smart, occasionally incisive, dialogue. You get the sense that the filmmakers have seen all the movies that you have and are determined to do something new, maybe even radically new, with the material. After all, you gotta love any movie that gets rid of all the cell phones by simply burning them, rather than relying on one of the quickest-spreading movie clichés in recent times: “Damn it, I still can’t a signal!”
Unfortunately, by the middle of the second act, I could no longer fight the sad realization that the film was in fact starting to fall back on all the clichés—dramatic, thematic, and generic—that it implicitly promised it would avoid. It’s a widely-accepted axiom that any horror movie or thriller is only as strong as its heavy, and the casting of Danny Huston as the lead bloodsucker is inspired. It’s hard not to like Huston in all his roles, with his mixture of world-weariness and thoughtful menace. Unfortunately, the script deprives him of the chance to play a memorable, thinking-person’s villain à la his role in The Proposition (2005). Instead, the movie highlights his physical posturing and guttural speech patterns as well as a series of increasingly tired aphorisms culled from the same Nietzschian phrasebook that so many bad guys seem to study.
Much has been made, by cast members and reviewers, of the notion that these vampires break with tradition since they lack Euro-stylings, the power of flight, and so on, and instead are more monstrous/feral in their behavior and overall look. And while their ferocity is well-presented (the close shots on splattering blood often seem to be in HD), in terms of appearance, I doubt they’ll strike seasoned horror fans as surprisingly innovative. What 30 Days does proffer in terms of originality is the vampires’ intelligence and a real-world grounding for their “lifestyle.
To be specific, after Huston and his horde have carefully prepared their hunting ground, they soon devolve into little better than mobile zombies with better vocabularies. Their smarts seem to evaporate like the last rays of sunlight. Just think about the fact that they have weeks to track down the pesky survivors, and they are fully fed, cloaked in round-the-clock darkness, and free of any outside threats. And yet they really don't do anything except wander the streets like a gang of outlaws in a wintry western. Why not burn down each possible home or hiding place systematically, or at least put guards at the locations that the humans are apt to raid for food? The point is, they have an entire month to smoke the humans out of hiding, but their one big idea consists of using “bait” to lure them outside—where they wait in plain sight for Hartnett’s sheriff character to spot them!
In short, I kept waiting for the brainy cat-and-mouse stuff to kick in and it never did. Instead, the movie descends into the same worn-out siege formulae we’ve all seen a thousand times, complete with debates about whether the group of survivors should stay put, move, etc. In addition, the script is not afraid to trot out vampire clichés such as the obligatory “heart-tugging” scene where a human undergoing transformation pleads to be killed before he becomes “one of them.” But that’s not all. The real-world aspect, which I expected to provide surprises galore, becomes laughable. In what’s meant to be a chilling articulation of “what’s at stake” here, a couple of characters comment on how the vampires will surely do the same thing to neighboring communities in the coming years if they’re not stopped in Barrow. However, the fact that the humans are so sure the vampires will simply rinse and repeat points to the ludicrousness of the plot as the thirty days drag on. Doesn’t anyone in those other towns, or the rest of the United States for that matter, notice that Barrow has apparently shut down for good? Don’t the hundreds of Barrow residents have social or familial contacts with anyone outside the boundaries of the town? For example, does the mail get delivered? That is, the story takes pains to show how Barrow cannot reach out to the rest of the world, but never explains why no one anywhere else would not attempt contact with Barrow over a month’s time.
To clarify, I’m not trying to denigrate the very premise/setting that I applauded earlier, but to point out that there are countless missed opportunities in this movie to throw the unexpected at the audience. Indeed, the simple rationale for why thrillers employ “ticking-clock” plots in the first place seems to have escaped the filmmakers. Typically the device is used to increase dramatic tension or outright suspense by showing that time is running out for the protagonists. However, as each week passes, the audience knows it’s the vampires who are in greater and greater peril—and yet they themselves don’t seem to care much. Worse still, while this hourglass-like pressure on the monsters might have been counterbalanced by the survivors running out of food, medical supplies or, most obvious of all, heat, the story seems not to notice the context for its own developments: the humans never seem to worry about such basic necessities, only about being quiet. In fact, the survivors’ biggest problem seems to be where to stage the next action set piece or when to engage in the next exchange of dialogue about sacrifice, lost love, the importance of family, and other explicitly “thematic” issues that are aimed, apparently, at the cross-over audience.
The bottom line is, yes, head out and see 30 Days of Night like the rest of America, but if you’re a horror fan, don’t go in with high expectations. While the superior editing, stunt work, production design and other elements make this an immanently watchable movie, it’s hardly the bold re-imagining of the vampire subgenre that it’s been touted to be.
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