30 DAYS OF NIGHT (dir. David Slade)
Nothing is more aggravating -- from an audience/critic/film fan perspective -- than a good idea done half-assed. Religious allegories usually come up short because they are afraid to tackle the outright dogma dictated by the material, while up until recently, action films were addled by the technological limits placed on the writer/director’s logistical imagination. In the genre realm, sci-fi and horror suffer equally. Again, until CGI stepped up cinema’s visual game, realizing spacey, speculative ideas was all motion control and matte paintings. But in the realm of fright, something more sinister is stifling successful scares -- a real lack of vision on both sides of the camera. The re-vampire tale 30 Days of Night won’t be doing anything to change that anytime soon.
This is a failed fright flick that is so inspired by Stephen King that the famous horror scribe should consider suing. You’d have to be blind as a kind of you-know-what not to see it: the strangely evocative setting; the stranger who arrives with portents of doom; the sudden disappearance of most of the population; a group of survivors huddled together, narrative self-sacrifice just around the corner for most of them; a last act standoff involving human bravery and some manner of supernatural deus ex machine. If that rundown doesn’t remind you of The Stand, Storm of the Century, Desperation, The Mist, or several other of the Maine man’s macabres, you haven’t been paying attention to genre fiction the last 30 years. This isn’t a homage -- it’s downright literary heresy.
For the sake of clarity, here’s what happens. In the town of Barrow, Alaska, the sun disappears once a year for an entire month. The majority of the population takes off for more hospitable climes, leaving Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), a few of his deputies, and random individuals as caretakers of the one-horse burg. Through a standard storyline contrivance, Eben’s soon to be ex-wife misses her helicopter connection and winds up stuck in the city as well. Similarly, a series of freak incidents (cellphone bonfires, the death of all the sled dogs) has the remaining inhabitants a little unsettled. After he arrests the plot catalyst -- a creepy outsider spewing omens of evil -- some rather nasty neckbiters show up. For reasons that are explained but never fully fathomable, these creatures want to use the area as a foundation for future frights. It’s up to the soon to be survivors to rally together and save the day.
Don’t let those without a historical perspective in horror sell you otherwise -- there is NOTHING new about this abysmally dull movie. The monsters are all carved from the same post-modern Euro-trash idea of evil, speaking a strange Eastern Bloc version of Klingon to prove how peculiar they are. Our hero is a good hearted man whose been misunderstood by everyone around him -- including his wandering eye whore of a wife. The police station is manned by members of the Oleson family, including an all knowing granny and an apprentice hero adolescent brother, and the rest of Barrow is overloaded with quirky, shortcut backstory (loner, ex-con, secret yellowbelly) plot pawns. Put them on the cinematic equivalent of a Tru-Action Vibrating Football Game and watch them roam around randomly for 100 mind numbing minutes.
Granted, director David Slade, famed for helming music videos for the likes of Aphex Twin, Stone Temple Pilots, and Tori Amos, gives it the old film school try (though nothing here resembles the tripwire work he achieved with his Hitchcockian pedophilia thriller Hard Candy). There’s one particular shot, framed overhead and looking down at the town, that does a delightful job of following the blood-soaked melee between the vampires and their victims as it moves from building to building. There is also an excellent sequence where a snow plow takes on a collection of these throat tearing creeps. But for the most part, 30 Days of Night is extended scenes of dull dialogue that avoids anything remotely resembling context or clarity. Barrow itself seems locked in intriguing traditions and sunlight stifled rituals, but we learn little about such logistics.
Even worse, the characters are all cut from the same slab of uninteresting scary film sheetrock. Hartnett is supposed to be a good hearted, misunderstood figure, and his performance perfectly captures such a status. He is, without a doubt, the best thing about the movie. On the other hand, Melissa George misses the mark so many times as Stella Oleson that we keep waiting for the blood suckers to lock onto an artery and start sipping. She jumps from callous to conqueror -- sometimes in the same sentence. As for the rest of the cast, it’s a who’s THAT collection of semi-recognizable faces, most notably Ben Foster as the Renfield without a cause and Nathaniel Lees as the local power plant operator. As for the villains, 30 Days does want them to be more than dimensionless fear factors, but aside from their Goth gang with dental issues design, they’re just a joke. The only thing frightening about their sudden appearance is their utter lack of purpose. Aside from the spraying of blood and ersatz-eternal darkness, we have no idea why Barrow, and why now.
Sadly, Slade and his crew aren’t providing answers. All they can manage is a little telegraphed gore (when we see a massive garbage shredder during the opening set-up, we just know a bad guy is doing a header into those mechanical teeth) and some inconsistent character interaction. There is a last act decapitation that’s incredibly brutal, and the finale will satisfy those who like their fisticuffs nice and noxious, but when you can’t get excited about the overall offal being offered, you know your spook show is failing. It could be the fact that we could care less who lives and who dies. No one character leaves enough of an impression to earn our consideration. Even worse, the vampires are just plain dopey. When they start infighting and squabbling in their native tongue (and they can speak broken English, mind you), you just want to slap them.
Again, it all comes down to uneven execution and subject matter redundancy. Halfway through this supposed reinvention of the genre, you’ll be wondering when Pennywise the Clown will show up. Of course, if and when he does, Slade and his scripters won’t do much with him. While some can argue over the less than faithful adaptation from the original graphic novel source material and complain that Hollywood loves to rip the teeth out of any and all horror efforts, 30 Days of Night suffers from many more motion picture maladies other than merely getting lost in translation. A town trapped in endless night being overrun by vampires has a nice revisionist ring to it. It also sounds like an installment from Hammer’s Vault of Horror (“Midnight Mess”, anyone?). Whatever the case, any novelty is short lived and inconsequential. There’s more blight than night here.