30 Days of Night: Dark Days

ON

Available on DVD Tuesday, October 5

Cast:

Kiele Sanchez as Stella Oleson

Rhys Coiro as Paul

Diora Baird as Amber

Harold Perrineau as Todd

Mia Kirshner as Lilith

Ben Cotton as Dane

Troy Ruptash as Agent Norris

Review:

Direct-to-DVD sequels rarely try to hide the fact that they are nothing more than money grabs. They’re usually “in name only” follow-ups cheaply and crassly manufactured to extend the life of a worn-out series or a film that didn’t set the box office on fire but possessed franchise potential.

Dark Days is the exception to the rule. As 30 Days of Night didn’t do Underworld-like business, it’s understandable why Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures decided to do a low-budget sequel for the DVD market. What sets Dark Days apart from the pack, though, is that it based on the second graphic novel in writer Steve Niles’ 30 Days of Night series. So Dark Days is a true continuation of the story that began with director David Slade’s 2007 Alaskan-set, vampire-led bloodbath. Niles, who co-scripted 30 Days of Night with Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson, returns to Dark Days in the same capacity, this time working with director Ben Ketai. As the creator of the source material, Niles’ participation can only lend instant credibility to Dark Days. The last thing you expect Niles to want is a sequel that damages his good name or the reputation of the 30 Days … series, especially as the first film was one of the best vampire epics in recent years.

Does this mean Dark Days is a cut above disappointing direct-to-DVD sequels to Pulse, The Lost Boys and even Ghost House’s own The Grudge 3?

Yes and no.

It’s evident from the beginning of Dark Days that Niles and Ketai’s goal is to make a serious sequel that is worthy of 30 Days of Nights, even if they working with a tight budget that probably barely exceeded what Josh Hartnett earned for the first film. They take great pains to psychoanalyze the current state of mind of Stella Oleson (Kiele Sanchez, replacing Melissa George), the sole survivor of the vampire feeding frenzy in the small Alaskan of Barrow. The confrontations between man and vampire are deftly handled, the last-act return to Alaska doesn’t feel forced, and the grim ending remains faithful to the graphic novel. Ketai also does a good job retaining the bleak atmosphere that hung heavy over 30 Days of Nights.

The irony is, Dark Days feels stale precisely because it sticks so closely to Niles’ original story. Look, Dark Days isn’t a carbon copy of 30 Days of Nights. It’s not set in a single location with vampires tearing their way through a vulnerable community. Unfortunately, Dark Days feels too familiar as it tells its story of the hunted becoming the hunter. Niles and Ketai fail to put a fresh spin on things as a vengeful Stella and a group of vampire slayers track down Lilith (Mia Kirshner), the queen bloodsucker responsible for the Barrow massacre. You can countdown the minutes to each assault on a vampire nest, predict when the vampires will lessen the number of their human adversary, and easily anticipate the final outcome between Stella and her quarry.

Stella isn’t in Buffy mode when we catch up with her in Los Angeles, just a year after the events in Barrow. Still grieving the loss of her sheriff husband Eben (played by Hartnett in 30 Days of Nights, Stella’s traveling across the country trying to convince a skeptical public that Barrow’s demise wasn’t caused by an oil fire. Precious few believe Stella’s wild claims about the existence of vampire, even when she fries two or three of them in a semi-packed lecture hall using ultraviolet lights. It doesn’t help that the vampires have in their pocket FBI Agent Norris (Troy Ruptash) – a so-called “bug eater” willing to do their dirty work in the hope of receiving the gift of immortality – to cover up everything Stella does to reveal the vampires to the world.

Stella’s efforts attract the attention of the mysterious Dane (Ben Cotton), and she’s eventually persuaded to join forces with his vampire killers (Harold Perrineau, Rhys Coiro and Diora Baird) to take out Lilith (a suitably vacant Mia Kirshner) and her L.A. nest.

This is a different Stella than the one in 30 Days of Night. Unable to get past Eben’s death, this Stella is consumed with anger and bent on revenge. This works to Sanchez’s favor. She doesn’t need to duplicate George’s performance, and this frees her to make Stella her own. Her Stella boasts a tough exterior, but Sanchez often offers glimpse of the immense emotional pain she lives with and the psychological scars she bares from making it out alive from Barrow. Also, Sanchez carries herself more like a prototypical action heroine than George did or was allowed to in 30 Days of Night.

Dark Days doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore as Ketai takes us deep into the bowels of L.A. where the vampires reside. Ketai and Niles also aren’t afraid to kill off any number of Stella’s allies. Still, there are one or two many trips into these nests, and so Dark Days often feels more repetitive than it should. Thankfully Ketai and Niles break up the monotony by abandoning the graphic novel and shifting the location of the climax from a warehouse to a ship heading to Alaska with some very thirsty passengers. Don’t worry if this sounds too much like Resident Evil: Afterlife – it’s a logical change, one that brings everything full circle.

Niles and Katai do retain the graphic novel’s distressing ending, which reveals as much about the heartbroken Stella’s fragile state of mind than any other action she takes in Dark Days. It also will spark debate as the morality of Stella’s decision to do the unthinkable. The ending may leave many colder than Barrow in the dead of winter – it’s hard to imagine it would have kept had Dark Days gone theatrical – but fans of the graphic novel will applaud Niles and Ketai for refusing to compromise.

Dark Days isn’t the perfect sequel, and it’s doubtful it could have been much better had it been made for movie audiences. Most important, it has a reason to exist, which is something to appreciate at a time when there is no need or demand for upcoming sequels to the likes of Hellraiser or Children of the Corn.