The most impressive effect in 30 Days of Night is Danny Huston’s haircut. Short, grim, and graying, it suggests not only that the vampire he plays, Marlow, is severe and self-important, but also that he pays particular attention to his personal grooming. It’s a peculiar, if not precisely charming, quality in a vicious bloodsucker.
Apart from Huston’s eerie hair, however, 30 Days of Night is surprisingly ordinary, even derivative. Partly this is a generic concern: it’s hard for horror movies to be new or groundbreaking anymore, even if they are based on a comic book series (this one by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, back in 2002). You can see the traces of such origins, in the sharp dark-and-light contrasts afforded by the premise, that Marlow and his crew of vampires have descended on a town in Alaska called Barrow, where in winter the sun goes down for an entire month, literalizing the title and providing the monsters stylish cover and lots of waking hours. But the panel-inspired compositions don’t sustain the film over its weak storyline, which has the Haircut pitted against the Sherriff, a solemn, quick-thinking, solid-values-bearing human named Eban (Josh Hartnett, who brings his usual limited emotional palette to the proceedings).
Like his hair, Marlow’s language — subtitled, guttural, vaguely Eastern Euro — — sharply differentiates him from the humans he’s hunting. They’re a rough-hewn, working class, slightly ragged bunch — good ol’ Americans versus Others, with Eban their spokesperson — often at a loss for actual survival options but never for pronouncements on family values. In other words, the movie revisits some very familiar themes and fears.
Eben’s own familiarity is made clear in his reluctance to be hero and his recent estrangement from his pretty wife Stella (Melissa George). She works for the local fire department, which allows that she is adept with weapons and level-headed (at least until she espies a lost human child late in the film, which sends her into paroxysms of maternal need and nurturing, endangering her fellow survivors but hinting at what she and Eban are missing, bundle-of-joy-wise). Lucky for Eban and Stella, sort of, the vampire invasion serves as the predictable marital wake-up call: they’re pressed to see they really do love each other, after all. It’s not quite “enough,” but it is probably “something.”
The crisis also reveals to Eban that he must be an upstanding and frankly kick-ass role model for his younger brother Jake (Mark Rendall), previously distracted by the whole law-and-order business into thinking Eban is only dull and joyless. He’s that and so much more. The unlucky part of the invasion, however, is that it sets up the humans for one-by-one picking off: they become standard slasher film fodder very quickly, and they don’t even get to have sex first.
Initially 152, the entire population of Barrow misses the early signs that something terrible is coming. A pile of burned sat and cell phones bodes ill (their communication with an outside world is cut off), the darkness (for some unknown reason) precludes planes from landing or taking off for a month, and a very strange Stranger (Ben Foster with blackened teeth), who arrives at the diner and demands a bowl of raw hamburger.
Eban puts a stop to such nonsense, with Stella’s help (her gun to the back of the Stranger’s head indicating her cool-under-pressureness), tosses the kid in jail, and then has to listen to him make menacing proclamations. “That cold ain’t the weather,” says the Stranger as the camera pulls out to indicate his ookiness, “That’s death approaching!” Part pathetic wannabe and part ultimate fanboy (“The undead, man!”), the Stranger has led the vampires to Barrow with a promise of easy feeding for the month. In turn, Marlow is not exactly grateful: in fact, he sees the Stranger for the dimwit toady he is, and doesn’t accede to the kid’s frequently expressed desire to join the vampire club.
The exclusivity of his club means that the humans have to wonder what they’re doing most of the time. After their first rampaging — a grotesque but not especially smart attack on a set of sled dogs as well as a more plainly motivated and very bloody assault on the crucial power station guardian — the vampires tend to hang out in places unknown, so the film can focus on the gang of frightened humans hiding out, Night of the Living Dead-style. The fact that the vampires can smell human blood comes up late, but by then you won’t be wondering why they’ve been unable to smell their prey in their hiding places (an attic, a general store), as much as you’ll be wondering when-oh-when it’s all going to end.
The humans, spending way too much stressful time together, bicker and fret, and make a series of mistakes. They watch each other be eaten, they complain about Eban’s lack of leadership, and still they turn to him for answers (he sports an asthma inhaler, which doesn’t provide any sort of expected plot turn, but does mark his All Important Vulnerability). They also find the wherewithal to fight back on occasion, deploying all manner of makeshift weapons, ranging from flares and axes to shotguns and sunlamps. The most elaborate of these — a tractor with a kind of giant chainsaw and metal treads good for driving over crunchy vampiric bodies — belongs to Beau (Mark Boone Junior), who roars and gestures with gusto.
As the days tick by (marked by captions so you can keep track), the vampires inexplicably leave the survivors alone for long stretches, so the humans can make poignant confessions and pledge to protect each other. The vampires, much like the humans, travel as a pack. Marlow and his apparent girlfriend Iris (Megan Franich) perform the more elaborate murders (as they rummage through one couple’s belongings, Marlow all but shakes his head and sighs: “The things they believe,” he sighs). But all tend to leap on their victims, chomping and gurgling while ripping flesh from necks and faces. Save for Marlow (whose specialness is apparently boundless), they all have digitally distorted faces — enlarged or misshapen noses, jutting jaws, huge scars and increasingly bloody and gaping mouths — again marking their strangeness and capacity for brutality (they consume humans and dogs with equal abandon). As usual, human self-sacrifice appears to be the most effective weapon against the vampires, who are selfish by definition, endlessly “thirsty.”
This much is a given, but 30 Days never presses beyond such obviousness. Eban announces early on that the Barrowites have an advantage over the vampires because the humans “know the town” and can take the cold. They live in Alaska “because no one else can,” whatever that means. But the movie never takes advantage of this detail, never suggests that vampires or humans who live in cold places have, for instance, emotional or cultural affiliations. Instead, it rests on a hackneyed “us and them” dynamic. Old news all around.