Despite all of the sub-genres, all the crossovers and all the remakes, there are only two kinds of horror films, each defined within five minutes of its run time; 1) that which opens with a brutal slaying of a character unimportant to plot and whose death functions solely to remind the completely oblivious that the movie they are being fed is, in fact, of the horror kind and 2) that which opens with (gasp) a character important to plot who survives the 5 minute mark.
I care for no other proposal. Above all else those are the only two variants of horror films. If one were to aggregate the numbers, I would bet vaults of Scrouge McDuck gold coins that a film in that second category is predominantly more likely to be a better movie than one from first. There are exceptions to the rule, as always, but we’re talking historical evidence here, something few in the horror industry bother to pay attention to anymore. Even the heavyweights fall victim to this test-screening plague, but amid a market increasingly more consistent with style 1 openers, every now and then a style 2 pulls down the bill of its nondescript hat just enough to be able to sneak by unmolested.
30 Days of Night does not open with the brutal slaying of a character unimportant to plot. It opens with a wind torn man hiking through deep snow calmly and coolly towards the precipice of darkness. Already we as viewers know to be in the calculated hands of David Slade, a man coming off the viral success of Hard Candy with a box office budget and limitless vampire premise. Slade is confident in the story he is about to tell. He doesn’t need to rely on a random, in-your-face murder to hype the audience. And for that I thank him.
Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States, is on the verge of its annual month without sun. Sheriff Eben Oleson, Josh Hartnett, has to deal with a few acts of vandalism and caninecide before coming across the responsible Stranger, Foster, causing a row in the local diner. Now behind bars, the Stranger becomes a doomsday soothsayer, delighting in his, and now the viewer’s, secret knowledge that the town is about to be sieged by vampires.
The initial invasion of the town is, technically speaking, the most complicated scene in the entire movie, but Slade pulls it off without a hitch thanks to great choreography and the seamless intermingling of sweeping camera work and liquid editing. It is a stellar sequence, the precise kind average film goers are enthralled by without knowing exactly why. Parties more actively interested in the process of filmmaking, especially the genre bent, are sure to cite the invasion set piece as the remarkable feat it is. Independent of what party you subscribe to, though, seeing Barrow devoured for the first time is a mere taste of things to come.
I am actually more partial to the intimate struggles, particularly the silent raid on the grocery store and the first time Eben comes across someone he knew who has since turned. These smaller battles peppered throughout the 30 days are always the right level of intensity, often compressing the emotions of the characters and viewers to the same lows before releasing pressure through controlled bouts of levity.
As smooth as things go, however, there are complaints big and small. The biggest being that the script’s management of time leaves a lot to be desired. Were it not for periodic title cards and beard growth, there would be absolutely no way to tell the difference between day 1 and day 27. The characters, except for one or two, never really show symptoms of the high stress one would assume accompany being trapped in an attic for a week. Slade does a great job of showing these people pre-attack as being men and women conditioned to the life they live, but there isn’t much done to show the physical and emotional toll that vampires would surely place on them. This, for me, is the most disappointing aspect of the whole movie. It is the difference between having a mutual respect for their plight and devoutly caring about it.
The second complaint lies with the vampires. Not their look or performance as creatures, but their motivation as God awful harbingers of death. Aesthetically they are the right kind of monsters, but their role in the film (different than that of the source graphic novel) amounts to little more than, "Hey, they don’t have light for four weeks, lets go up there and feed." Sporadically they do something terrifying to or with the living, but other than that they just gorge on blood, which we have all seen countless times. I wanted to see what they were doing with their spare time. Vampires finally have the opportunity to live around the clock and they don’t do a damned thing. Unless this is an intentional commentary on the state of the vampire, subtly saying that an eternal life is really just soulless repetition – which I’m not ass enough to believe – then it is just plain boring; a missed opportunity.
Josh Hartnett, destined to be the point of contention with most people going in, isn’t quite ‘the man‘, but is perhaps the most ‘the man’ he’ll ever be outside of a Sin City cameo. His character, as a hero, is stale. When it comes time for his last grab for control, the want of the audience to see him completely lose his shit; curse and yell and do all the things badasses do in film, the script just doesn’t ante up. This may just be the one time I critique a film for not devolving into cliche. I admire that it kept Hartnett the reluctant hero, but the popcorn eater in me says otherwise.
Mellisa George, as Eben’s estranged wife Stella, has a glint in her eyes that shines even with all the blood and darkness, but unfortunately her character is only slightly less stale than her husband. The other survivors are more interesting than their higher billed counterparts, particularly Mark Boone Junior as the grizzled Beau and Nathaniel Lees as the power plant-type guy. Danny Huston kills it as the lead vampire, giving his most devilish performance since The Proposition. And, of course, Ben Foster brings the same scene stealing power he had by the sackful as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma.
Granted I’ve logged some issues that span the entire film, but do not let this dissuade anyone hesitant to check it out. 30 Days of Night is still a good movie. In fact, it may just be the good-est horror movie to hit theaters in 2007. A deliberately paced breed of high-gore with a standard of quality so deliciously red that viewers want more of it than is on offer. Watching 30 Days of Night is like finally going back to a great restaurant you haven’t been to in years, only to find out your favorite meal is in short supply that night. What you order instead is equally fulfilling, just not quite what those anxious taste buds thought they’d be getting, thus the pangs of longing.
I’d regret ending this review, though, without mentioning a writing sin far more painful than any of the poor passages of time or idle vampires. How do you have a movie about the eternal stalking and slaughtering an entire town of hundreds deep in Alaska without stopping for a second to show a vampire making a snow cone out of blood?
I’d of thought that was a no-brainer.