Now in theaters!
Josh Hartnett as Eben Oleson
Melissa George as Stella Oleson
Danny Huston as Marlow
Ben Foster as The Stranger
Mark Boone Junior as Beau Brower
Mark Rendall as Jake Oleson
Amber Sainsbury as Denise
Manu Bennett as Billy Kitka
Megan Franich as Iris
Joel Tobeck as Doug Hertz
Elizabeth Hawthorne as Lucy Ikos
Nathaniel Lees as Carter Davies
Craig Hall as Wilson Bulosan
Chic Littlewood as Issac Bulosan
Peter Feeney as John Riis
Directed by David Slade
Dismal days. That’s not a cheap, unimaginative slant towards David Slade’s masterful adaptation of the Steve Niles-penned graphic novel, but a summation of the Hollywood horror scene to date in 2007. Not enough highs, far too many lows. The same could be applied to the lethargic, underperforming vampire genre. In the last decade, sexual metaphors have taken the backseat to iPod-listening “slayers” and Bloodsucker du Soleil action set pieces. The creep factor, the mystery, the ferocity that has surrounded some of the best contributions to the cinematic vampire pantheon (“Near Dark,” “Fright Night”) were bled dry by want of mixing and mashing genre conventions like Play-Doh (see: “Blade,” “Underworld,” “Bordello of Blood” – yes, I brought up the Dennis Miller movie). It occurred to no one, but Niles, it appears, that what the toothy bastards needed were not guns. They needed to be taken back to the basics. They needed to be made scary again. And apparently what they needed was a fella like Slade to help ’em out, too.
On the page, Niles’ tale is one of admirable, original simplicity reinforced by illustrator Ben Templesmith’s dreamlike washes of violence set against the chilly environs of Barrow, Alaska. On the screen, it’s utterly breathtaking to behold. Thoughtful compositions permeated by dread, sorrow and blood. “30 Days of Night” isn’t a cheerful movie. In fact, it’s pretty f**kin’ bleak. You seek hope? There’s none here. Not when you’re dealing with threatening themes of genocide versus family and love. Not when you’ve got humans holing up in attics while, outside, a squad of killers is systematically slaughtering everyone.
Judicious fans of the three-part comic book mini-series will not mind the tweaks here and there to this otherwise faithful interpretation. Mostly, any changes made were for the better, but the core remains the same: As the sun sets, not scheduled to rise over the aforementioned Barrow again for thirty days, a tribe of resourceful vampires take advantage of this UV-deprived haven, intent on making its residents their Hometown Buffet. Struggling to hold together the survivors following a mass butchery – memorably shot from a chaotic bird’s eye view – are Eben and Stella, a couple on the fritz who are each willing to risk their own lives to save each other, and above all, their family.
Cold, hungry and frightened, they attempt to wait it out while the vamps…well, they sorta do their thing – and this is where the story deviation comes into play. In the graphic novel, chief baddie Marlow is low on the totem pole compared to Vicente, a regal Nosferatu-esque bloodsucker who enters into the invasion late in the game and is none too pleased with Marlow’s actions. This power struggle gets the boot in lieu of streamlining the vampires’ motivations. As they say, the less we know, the scarier it is and removing any hints that these creatures come from some sort of organized society replete with heiarchy is a plus. Imbuing them with slightly more feral qualities doesn’t make them any less crafty either. Next to leaping on and tearing into their prey’s neck like sharks, these vamps are prone to sending out a mewing, beaten victims to roam Barrow’s desolate streets to seek help in some wicked attempt to draw others out of hiding. It’s pretty certain from this point on: They’re not leaving until everyone is dead. And that doesn’t leave room for much error in Eben and Stella efforts to stay alive as they inch closer to sunrise.
Coming off of “Hard Candy,” a slow-burn thriller punctuated by terrific artistry and performances, Slade applies many of the same principles to “30 Days of Night” that made his directorial debut so alarming. He lets scenes breathe when the drama asks for it – not afraid to linger on intense close-ups (the opening shot of Ben Foster’s Renfield-inspired “The Stranger” comes to mind) or bend to the power of unforgiving silence. That’s not to say he doesn’t rip loose either. Scenes featuring a mobile ice cutter or one of the best decapitations ever set to film prove Slade is a dangerous, dangerous filmmaker. He understands horror needs to be violent and uncompromising, but he also understands it doesn’t have to be “gore all of the time” either (although there’s a significant amount to roll around in). There’s a potency to his visual language that’s utterly striking and with the help of Brian Reitzell’s score – an incredibly driving and eerie bit of work in its own right – scenes sometimes featuring very little action have the power to paralyze, be it Stella’s first glimpse of impending trouble seen through her binoculars or a private head-lopping that occurs behind closed doors.
Hartnett and George don’t have nearly enough moments to make us believe in their chemistry; separately, however, their respective strengths shine, the former dipping into welcome bouts of vulnerability that humanize his sometimes dry delivery. Keeping track of the supporting cast of survivors can be a chore; that becomes less of a problem as the ranks diminish though. As for the vamps, Danny Huston and his crazy-eyed followers are a vicious lot. I’m not exactly keen to their bird-like shrieks, but these suckers, still, brandish a high level of menace. Then, of course, there’s Foster with his rotting teeth, piercing gaze and frog-ish voice – an unsettling portrait of a man suffering to see how the other half lives. He’s a show-stealer and I’d love to know what the story is with the smoldering ocean vessel he’s staring at during the opening of the film.
Playing with a larger scope, Slade’s sophomore effort is an absolute success. There’s nothing in “30 Days of Night” that truly tops that scene in “Hard Candy” (you know what I’m talkin’ about, fellas), yet this is a different beast presenting different gut-cramping fears to prickle the hairs on the back of your neck. Having seen the film twice now, I was afraid the second go-round wouldn’t have the same effect on me as the first screening I attended. Shit, was I wrong. “30 Days of Night” still holds strong and I anticipate it will do so for a long time to come. Finally, the best horror film of the year has arrived.