30 Days of Night (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's a pleasant change of pace to get a vampire movie where the bloodsuckers are allowed to be monsters. You know what I'm talking about - no more of this brooding, tortured soul shit. The undead here are hardcore killers, ripping apart their victims' throats then walking around with the blood caked all over their faces. Even Dracula wasn't this cold-blooded. Too often of late, motion pictures have defanged their vampires, turning them into whiney, pseudo-romantic figures. That's not a mistake made by director David Slade. Finally - a modern vampire movie where audiences sympathize with the victims rather than their attackers. If you think these creature are sexy, you need therapy.

The setting is Barrow, Alaska - the northernmost outpost of the United States - on the eve of the annual month without sunlight. Barrow doesn't have a large population during the summer but, when the sun goes down for the long, cold night, only the hardiest souls - about 150 of them - stick around. By the end of 30 Days of Night, most of them will wish they had followed the birds and flown south. Vampires have come to Barrow this winter with the dual goal of feeding and eliminating witnesses. Their initial attack is swift and brutal. Within a day, most of the town's citizens have become fodder. A small group of survivors, led by the sheriff, Eben (Josh Hartnett), and his estranged wife, Stelle (Melissa George), fight to survive, moving from place-to-place while occasionally dispatching a vampire if it gets too close. In Halloween, Dr. Loomis uttered the refrain that "death has come to your little town." That's an appropriate phrase for Barrow in 30 Days of Night.

The premise - providing vampires with a month of sun-free opportunity to wreck havoc - is clever and, if it's not fully realized, at least enough is done with it for 30 Days of Night to represent two hours of solid, gory entertainment. This isn't one of those neutered PG-13 horror movies. There's enough blood and viscera coating the screen to earn the R-rating without things tipping the scales into the "torture porn" category. In many ways, what Slade has wrought here is reminiscent of an amped-up version of a Hammer vampire movie. In fact, Danny Huston alternates between channeling Christopher Lee and Max Schreck.

Most vampire movies have their own "rules," and that applies here, where there are variations on a theme. There's no religious iconography and, while a wooden stake driven through the heart might make an impression, it's never tried. The way to eliminate a vampire is to sever the spinal cord or destroy the brain. Hence, the most effective weapon is an axe. Bullets only work if fired directly into the head. Humans killed by vampires will transform if given the chance. However, the undead are jealous of their status and prefer to decapitate their victims before the transformation can occur rather than growing the ranks. Sunlight is fatal but holy water probably isn't. 30 Days of Night also doesn't provide a clue whether garlic does anything more substantive than causing bad breath.

The movie, which is based on comic book, is set up more as an action thriller than a straightforward horror movie. Slade, whose previous feature, Hard Candy, touched on a horror of a different sort, establishes the framework largely as that of an extended chase. There are some "boo!" moments but those are largely beside the point. 30 Days of Night is more interested in getting the adrenaline flowing than in scaring viewers, although Huston's grim goth lord is pretty freaky. (This is arguably the most convincing portrayal Huston has ever given.)

Viewers have come to expect a lot visually from comic book adaptations, and 30 Days of Night delivers. There's nothing here as radical or groundbreaking as can be found in the likes of Sin City or 300, but Slade crafts a number of scenes that stand out. Perhaps the most indelible of these is an overhead shot of Barrow as the vampires hunt down and dispatch humans. The final scene is also effective in the way it marries beauty and horror.

One aspect of 30 Days of Night that's refreshing is that it doesn't require the survivors to have undergone frontal lobotomies in order to move the story forward. Yes, characters occasionally do stupid things, but they're not unreasonably stupid and they don't force members of the audience to fight against the suspension of disbelief gag reflex. I'm not going to claim that the screenplay is either airtight or brilliant, but it is smarter than the average genre entry, and that's a big plus. There's even a moral question to be toyed with: In order to defeat foes with no souls, is it necessary to lose one's own soul in the process? This is the issue that Hartett's Eben has to debate. With Halloween just around the corner, this is a seasonal way to spend two hours. 30 Days of Night works on its own terms, which is more than can be said of most horror films these days. If this is the kind of movie you're looking for, it delivers.

30 Days of Night (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1