Over 80 years ago, director F.W. Murnau's groundbreaking film Nosferatu helped introduce the blood-sucking vampire to motion pictures. In that time, vampire stories have been done to death in film (no pun intended), with only the occasional entry coming along and breathing new life into what is most assuredly a tired genre. The best films are those that either seek to somehow reinvent the conventions of vampire mythology, like George Romero's classic Martin, or put an interesting twist on the blood-suckers themselves, like Near Dark. If a vampire film can't do that much, at the very least it should be an effective monster movie. 30 Days of Night, based on the popular comic book series created by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, doesn't do much to rewrite the mythology of vampires, but when it comes to being a straight-forward monster movie, you can't ask for much more.
Set in the tiny Alaskan town of Barrow, the northern most place in the United States, 30 Days of Nights starts out just before dusk, as the sun goes down for a night that will last thirty days. Nearly half the town, unable to handle the prolonged night, scrambles to make it to the out-bound plane, in some cases, leaving loved ones behind. Meanwhile, something odd is going on around Barrow. Nearly all of the cell phones in town have been stolen and burned in a small fire, all the dogs have been brutally slaughtered, and while much of the townspeople are making an exodus, a mysterious stranger (Ben Foster) has wandered in to town, even though the only want in or out is by plane. None of the strange activity escapes Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the town sheriff, who is determined to figure out what's going on before the month-long night gets under way. But no sooner has the sun officially set, when all hell breaks loose in Barrow.
Descending on the town like a plague of locusts, a group of mysterious strangers begin to commit cold-blooded murder. No one is spared the wrath of the strangers, and it isn't long before most of the town is wiped out. Those that have survived the initial massacre realize that they are up against something more than human--as unbelievable as it seems, they are being hunted by vampires. Now it is a fight for survival, as the remaining humans, awaiting the eventual return of the sun, attempt to hide from the homicidal blood-suckers. That is, of course, easier said than done.
Directed by David Slade (Hard Candy), 30 Days of Night is that truly rare film that's based on already existing material--in this case the comic book--that vastly improves on the original source. At the risk of alienating fans of the comic series, and the creators themselves, 30 Days of Night was a great concept for a comic series, but that was it--a great concept only marginally executed. Despite all the hype and accolades, it was a series that read like a first-draft, and never lived up to its potential.
The film, by comparison, is a wonderful, highly entertaining interpretation of Niles' original concept. But what the film has that the comic lacks is a greater sense of character development and emotional depth. In the comic, Eben and his wife Stella are happily married. But in the film Eben and Stella (Melissa George) are separated, with the sheriff pining for his soon-to-be ex-wife. This simple change creates an entire new level of emotional resonance, with Eben fighting not only to destroy the marauding vampires, but ultimately to salvage his broken marriage. It's an old trick used in films like Die Hard, and it can border on being a cliche if not handled properly, but it adds to character depth of the film 30 Days of Night in a way missing from the comics.
Another part of what makes 30 Days of Night such an effective film is that it never loses sight of the fact that vampires are monsters. Gone are the sexy creatures that often populate other vampires films, turning the whole affair into some sort of erotic metaphor for sexual awakening, sexual frustration, or sexual sex. No, these vampires are monsters who attack and kill people to drink their blood, period. In the film's wisest deviation from the comic books, these vampires are far-less verbal. More like highly intelligent animals, they can speak, but seldom need to communicate with anything other than shrieks and wails, like wolves hunting in a pack. This is the film's best twist, and a great addition to the vampire mythos.
Clearly inspired by the better films of John Carpenter (The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13), 30 Days of Night also draws deep from a pool of influences that includes Richard Matheson's seminal vampire novel I Am Legend, and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Slade creates a wonderful sense of dread throughout the film, playing upon the fear of a night that seemingly goes on forever. And while the film has moments of monsters jumping out of the dark, it also builds a sense of suspense that is missing from so many contemporary horror films. In one of the film's most effective sequences, a lone survivor stumbles through the dark streets of Barrow, crying out for help. As an audience, we know that she is being used as bait by the vampires to lure out other survivors, because we can see the blood-suckers lurking in the shadows. Eben and the other survivors can not come to her help, because they also realize that it is a trap, which allows the film to evoke a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that is far more terrifying than a monster jumping in to frame.
30 Days of Night marks a welcome return to form for the horror genre, which has suffered in recent years from too many misguided movies. Unlike the recent wave of bleak torture shows with sadistic killers and unlikeable protagonists, 30 Days of Night exists in a world of clearly defined morality, with obvious heroes that we want to see live. It is more of a classic monster movie than a contemporary horror film. It is also the most effective English-language entry since Neil Marshall's The Descent, and definitely one of the better fright flicks to come out of America in many years. Fans of the comic book series are likely to be upset with the changes and liberties the film takes, but this adaptation really is a bigger, better monster. As for die-hard fans of creature features, 30 Days of Nightmakes up for all the direct-to-video schlock that we watch just with hopes of finding a few effective moments to keep us entertained.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]