DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)
Director: David Slade
Vampire stories have been around for centuries. Dating as far back as the 1700s, tales of supernaturally-powered undead beings who imbibe blood for sustenance have become an indelible part of the horror genre and pop culture in general. But by the end of the twentieth century, it was harder and harder to find a truly scary vampire. Joss Whedon and Anne Rice turned them into brooding, brokenhearted, pseudo-Goth sissies with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Interview with the Vampire, movies like The Lost Boys and Dracula: Dead and Loving It made them comedians, and Wesley Snipes's Blade trilogy transformed them into no-holds-barred action stars. But no matter how they were depicted, they just weren't truly horrifying anymore. But that started to change in 2002, when writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templesmith created a comic book titled 30 Days of Night. Released by IDW Publishing, the three-issue miniseries was one of IDW Publishing's earliest and biggest hits. Its success sparked a handful of sequels and spinoffs, and actually led to a bidding war for the film rights. Sam Raimi came away the big winner, and with Columbia Pictures and Raimi's Ghost House Pictures handling the movie's production, the cinematic adaptation of 30 Days of Night serves notice that vampires are still monsters to be feared.
Welcome to Barrow, Alaska. The northernmost town in the United States, Barrow's citizens is preparing for the area's annual month without sunlight. And as part of this preparation, most of the townsfolk are heading south to sunnier climates. Only the bravest people only about 150 of them choose to remain in Barrow. But while the majority of Barrow's small population are leaving, one person is doing quite the opposite. A mysterious stranger (Ben Foster) has arrived in Barrow, taunting town sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) with vague yet sinister warnings of a terrible evil whose coming is close at hand. Little does Eben know just how correct the stranger is. Once the sun sets, Barrow is soon beset upon by a group of vicious, bloodthirsty vampires, whose leader (Danny Huston) has brought them to this isolated location for a month of sunlight-free feeding. They massacre the town, while Eben and his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) cobble together a small group of survivors and try to make it through the thirty days of night.
I'll admit that I'm not all that much of a vampire connoisseur. I've only seen a small handful of the hundreds of vampire movies that have been made over the years, and by the time I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, they'd already been cancelled. But my lack of familiarity with the world of undead bloodsuckers didn't stop me from seeing and loving 30 Days of Night. It's a movie that returns vampires back to being scary, like they should be. These are vampires who are monsters in the purest sense of the word. And after seeing the tortured, thoroughly emo vampires put forth by the aforementioned Joss Whedon and Anne Rice, it's refreshing to see vampires who'll rip your throat out without thinking twice about it. These vampires are not a complicated lot; they exist solely to drink blood and frighten audiences. And because of this straightforward way of handling its villains, 30 Days of Night is a success.
A lot of that success comes from the great direction by David Slade. For someone helming only his second feature film, Slade shows a real knack for how to handle things. His previous film, the very awesome Hard Candy, was all about building tension, and Slade continues that with even more gusto in his sophomore venture. The movie is chock full of suspense, which Slade effortlessly maintains throughout the movie. The moments of wild mayhem, such as the scene involving a vampire child, are also handled excellently. Meanwhile, Slade has teamed up with cinematographer Jo Willems to create a visually astounding movie, one whose color palate delicately balances between ultra-gloomy grays and splashes of blood red. The colors set the mood, something further established with Willems's great camerawork. There are numerous scenes that are memorable, but the true standout scene is the massacre of Barrow. Viewing the action from overhead, we slowly move the streets of Barrow as the legion of vampires drag Barrow's citizens out of their homes in order to feast upon them. It's a terrifying scene, one that truly stands out as one of modern horror's scariest moments. With a lesser director, these scenes may not have been pulled off as well as they were. But in the hands of Slade, everything falls nicely into place. Though while the movie's visual atmosphere is great, it may not have been as tense had it not been for the music composed by Brian Reitzell. Well, to be completely honest, it isn't so much music as it is ambient sound, with a few string instruments and a piano thrown in for flavor. It's a very minimalist score, one that makes the movie better through its efforts.
Next up is the screenplay, written by Stuart Beattie, Brian Nelson, and the original comic's writer, Steve Niles. Though there are some minor and ultimately, inconsequential differences from the source material, the script stays rather faithful to its inspiration. This faithfulness makes for a much different style of vampire movie, and for a much different style of vampire. Garlic, holy water, stakes, and religious iconography are nowhere to be found. Sharp weapons and sunlight prove to be the only defense against these razor-fanged bloodsuckers, and both are in extremely limited quantity. The vampires also have no interest in the propagation of their species, instead preferring to decapitate victims before they can transform into new members of the vampire race. Such originality allows for an aura of unpredictability, especially if you haven't read the comics. These vampires have a viciousness rarely seen nowadays, made much more frightening by the fact that the stereotypical vampire-fighting techniques aren't even referenced.
The script is also more profound than one might give it credit for. Beneath the movie's frightening surface is a moral dilemma: How do you defeat monsters with no soul without losing a piece of your own? The question is never explicitly stated, but this it's something that does seem to be following the character of Eben. Try as he might to protect the group of survivors, it becomes more and more apparent that a sacrifice might be needed, a sacrifice that would carry a heavy price. This subtle theme puts the movie on a different wavelength than much of its other cinematic brethren, something that helps it stand out amongst them.
Last but not least is the movie's cast, who all put forth strong performances. The small supporting cast primarily Mark Boone Junior, Mark Rendall, and Manu Bennett are all quite good. I especially thought Bennet was impressive as a survivor who completely loses his mind after the initial vampire attacks. Amongst the lead cast, Danny Huston and Ben Foster are tremendous in their villainous roles. Huston is believably frightening as the leader of the vampire clan, while Foster is convincing as the sleazy little weasel serving as the herald of impending doom. Matter of fact, Foster gives us probably the best performance in the movie. He's really creepy, and is almost worth the price of admission alone. But that's not to take anything away from the rest of the cast or the two stars, Josh Hartnett and Melissa George. George is warm, likeable, and endearing in a role that requires her to be all of those things. Hartnett, meanwhile, is a credible leading man here. Eben Oleson is not an action hero. He's not John McClane or Indiana Jones, he's just a regular guy. That can also be said of Hartnett, who isn't exactly who you'd call an action star. He plays the character realistically, with a confidence that he could survive, but also with an uncertainty that he actually can survive.
30 Days of Night is a horror movie unlike many of the others released nowadays. It has its fair share of violence and gore, but it also remembers to be scary. Many other horror movies forget that, whether they be teen-friendly PG-13 horror movies or R-rated torture porn. My only real complaint is that the perpetual darkness makes it hard to track the passage of time over the course of the movie. Outside of Hartnett's ever-growing five o'clock shadow, you can't really tell if two hours or two weeks have gone by. Maybe that could be intentional, though. Through the eyes of those trying to survive the vampire holocaust, the thirty days of night may start blending together like it does for us viewers. If that isn't the case... bummer. But never let it be said that 30 Days of Night is not an effective horror movie. Now if they could start making more vampire movies like this, that'd be super.
Final Rating: ****