The new horror flick “30 Days of Night,” based on the comic book series of the same name, is one of those simple, high concept movies you can explain to your friends right away. In a tiny Alaskan oil town, it stays dark for 30 days out of the year. Bloodthirsty vampires come to feast, and there’s no sunlight to kill them—great idea.
Unfortunately, this movie must have been greenlit on idea alone, because the screenwriters (all three of them) left everybody else out in the cold on this one. Director David Slade, who showed such promise with the twisted psychological thriller “Hard Candy” two years ago, shoots the movie with style to spare, but cannot muster an ounce of suspense. What’s more, “30 Days” feels every bit as long as its title.
After a brief introduction to the blandest of characters, including young Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) and his separated wife Stella Oleson (Melissa George), a stranger (Ben Foster, the only actor having fun in this entire film) is jailed who appears to be some kind of harbinger. He knows something of the mysterious killings around town, and is biding time until his masters’ arrival. This obvious lift from the “Dracula” myth still works wonders. For awhile, it seems as though certain doom is descending upon Barrow, Alaska, and the mood will blanket the entire picture.
Slade uses the “Jaws” template of only giving you tantalizing, quick shots of the monster at the beginning. These vampires are predatory beasts who move along like blurs in the background. You can never quite focus on them, and they are always shrouded in shadow. The director removes frames from the shots to make their movement quicker and more spasmodic than real life. A heaping helping of lightning-fast editing and non-diagetic sound effects (like a foreboding, repetitious machine noise) emphasize their strength and power rather than the gory details of the kill.
When the vampires—who speak their own Eastern European-sounding language and are subtitled for our pleasure—finally overrun the town, it is an impressive sequence. They are revealed to be unstoppable cat-like creatures with upturned eyes, cheekbones and jaws and an ear-piercing banshee wail. Led by Danny Huston, who is a total mouth breather, they toy with humans like insects with their legs removed and then pounce at will, feasting on their flesh. One shocking aerial shot reveals blood-red shotgun blasts and spurting necks on the all-white background of the city’s snowed-in streets.
Kudos to everyone involved with the art direction and cinematography on “30 Days of Night.” Bravo—you did your jobs exceedingly well. If only the movie were a short film. Once the Olesons and a small band of survivors hole up in an attic to wait out the attack (what else are these vamps doing for 30 days if they can’t find people in a house?), two things keep happening again and again until the movie finally ends well over an hour later.
First, we get to know the survivors. What a treat. The clichés in “30 Days” are so overused that they haven’t worked for 30 years. Everybody’s trapped inside, but old Grandpa goes stir crazy and has to go outside. It gives someone the opportunity to go out and die, and it gives our couple the chance for a weak parallel to hang their “who cares?” romance on. When his son goes out to save silly ol’ Gramps, Hartnett actually says to his wife, “The things you do to save your family. We were like that once.”
These characters are so boring that when one is bitten and they turn, we don’t feel any sympathy. We don’t feel anything. Like a bad slasher pic, some of these scenes actually elicited laughter during the screening I saw—not good for a movie with absolutely no sense of humor. (Come to think of it, there was another movie this year with stylized violence, a poor script, and no sense of humor called “300.” ) The writers also think we are so dumb (or maybe asleep), that the characters speak really obvious plot points out loud as if we didn’t already understand them.
Secondly, Slade completely sells out his opening “Jaws” strategy by showing the vampires so much that they aren’t scary anymore. He then amps up the gore factor to an extreme degree. (At least in “300” the decapitations took only one swipe of the axe!) The bloodsuckers get way too much screen time and become parodies of the fright that they inspired just a half an hour before. They don’t even give Huston anything cool to say. Where’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” when you need her? The big baddies on that show were always smart-alecky and intimidating at the same time.
I felt like the Sheriff, trapped in one scene in an attacked vehicle being turned upside-down from behind. My responsibility as a professional critic forced me to stay through the grueling end of “30 Days of Night,” but the movie never moved forward. The same conflict over and over is not frightening. Once it collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness and lack of suspense, it doesn’t matter how many cool-looking vampires screech like feral beasts—the novel idea of the movie has already lost all its blood.