Pretty much every vampire flick ever made -- starting with F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu the better part of a century ago -- ends the same way. The sun comes up. The bloodsuckers turn to ash. Fade to black. Roll credits.
As you could probably guess by the title, 30 Days of Night strips away that safety net. Based on the incredibly successful graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, the film is set in the sleepy little town of Barrow, Alaska. Barrow marks the northernmost point of the United States, and once a year like clockwork, the sun goes down and doesn't return for a full month. This cuts the already isolated Barrow off from the world at large, with its population dwindling from 563 down to just over 150 whenever the town goes dark.
As the last glimmers of sunlight start to fade away, The Stranger (Ben Foster) swoops in. Sled dogs are butchered. The town's lone helicopter is ripped to shreds. Phone lines are severed. The harsh winter leaves the roads in and out of Barrow almost completely inaccessible, and the nearest town is some eighty miles away. With more than a hundred fifty warm bodies corralled like cattle, it's feeding time.
30 Days of Night follows Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), and the few straggling survivors that band together during the massacre. They know they're outgunned and aren't even bothering with the idea of a last stand. No, Oleson leads the handful of survivors from one hiding place to another, foraging for supplies and just trying to avoid being noticed. Tensions quickly mount -- some want to make a run for it, others are distracted or just don't seem to comprehend what's going on around them, and...hell, Beau (Mark Boone, Jr.) has a fistful of shotgun shells and the keys to a trencher and thinks, "fuck it". The survivors' numbers are dwindling, they're running out of places to hide, and every step they take brings them closer to certain death.
Once you get past the ingenious idea of setting a vampire movie in an isolated town that's dark for a month straight, 30 Days of Night is pretty conventional: you've got a ragtag group of squabbling survivors that are knocked off one by one, a rekindled romance, a sweet kid unrecognizably transformed into a killer, swapping out the car that won't start in favor of a generator that won't start, the brash, unlikeable loner who goes out in a sacrificial blaze of glory...you know the drill. No, 30 Days of Night doesn't set out to reinvent the vampire film, but it is a hell of a horror flick, slathering that familiar skeleton of a story in geysers of blood while eking out a good bit of tension and suspense.
Josh Hartnett catches a lot of flak for being a wooden actor, but I was impressed by how well he settled into the role of Eben Oleson. I prefer my action heroes steely and detached, and Eben's the type who quietly does instead of rambling on about it. 30 Days of Night marked Ben Foster's second turn as a disheveled psychopath this year, following his particularly memorable turn in 3:10 to Yuma. The Stranger's slight frame, rotten teeth, and shrill accent aren't all that imposing on their own, but Foster exudes a sort of menace, casting a dark shadow that sets an unsettling tone well before a single vampire is clearly seen on-screen. The vampires themselves are intriguing as well. These aren't chatty noblemen, draped in a black cape and sporting a sultry British accent. Glimpsed from behind, they'd look normal enough, clad in Eurotrash suits and nicely coiffed, but their faces are caked with blood...their black, opaque eyes set twistedly far apart...their lips opening to reveal rows of shark-like teeth. They hunt in packs and speak in their own impenetrable tongue, adding further to a sense of xenophobia...that this is a foreign, invading force that will suffer no survivors.
Their attacks are devastatingly brutal. In an era where horror films try to be as bland and inoffensive as possible to score a PG-13 rating, 30 Days of Night doesn't shy away from drenching every square inch of the screen in blood. The movie doesn't revel in its graphic imagery as if it were some sort of Saw knockoff, but there are a hell of a lot of grisly kills. The vampires also have a tendency to play with their food, and the way they savagely swipe at their prey with their razor-sharp claws...toying with them in their final, tortured moments of life...is as difficult to watch as any of the more visceral kills.
Not everything works. 30 Days of Night spans an entire month, but it does an abysmal job conveying the passage of time. If not for the cards that pop up a few times noting that it's "Day 18" or whatever, the entire thing seems as if it's taking place over just a night or two. There's no sense of increasing paranoia or frayed nerves as the days linger on. No sense of struggling over whatever food they'd rationed while hiding away in an attic...the stress of being trapped in one cramped room for days at a time while trying their damndest not to make a single sound... No, they just huddle in a corner, and then an intertitle appears saying a week and a half has passed. It gets to the point where they're seemingly safe where they are and only have a few days left until the sun comes up, and yet they make a supposedly suicidal mad dash for a power plant that turns out to be just down the road...? For a movie with such an outstanding visual design, it's also disappointing that director David Slade too frequently resorts to the same stale, disorienting shaky-cam photography every horror movie since 28 Days Later has used as a crutch.
Still, I dug 30 Days of Night. The writing's economical, not mired in reams and reams of unnecessary mythology or backstory, and the movie doesn't lean excessively on the usual booming horror stings. So much of the tension is owed to how quiet the movie often is, and the electronic instrumentation in Brian Reitzell's score is effective because it's so spare and subdued. 30 Days of Night struck me as a cross between Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, a comparison that seems even more apt with how much Reitzell's unconventional, unmelodic music reminded me enough of John Carpenter's approach to his scores. The cinematography is stark but gorgeous, and I was particularly impressed by a flyover of the town at the frenzied peak of the massacre, with the town blanketed with snow that's pockmarked by red pools of blood. There are some really fantastic setpieces such as Beau tearing through the main thoroughfare on a trencher -- think a bulldozer with a thirty foot chainsaw on one end -- and the dark decision Eben makes in the climax that I never saw coming. In days like these where horror movies either try to be self-consciously witty, pander to teenagers who can't quite make it into an R-rated movie, or are just unrelentingly sadistic, it's great to settle into a straightahead horror flick like 30 Days of Night. Recommended.
Video: 30 Days of Night's bleak, almost monochromatic visuals draw extensively from the stylized artwork of Ben Templesmith, draining away virtually all traces of color aside from a deep, crimson red. I was startled by the depth and dimensionality of this 2.39:1 image; even with the exceptional quality of so many of Sony's high-def releases these days, 30 Days of Night easily stands out as one of the mostly strikingly crisp and detailed titles on either next-gen format. In fact, it's so perfect -- so smooth and well-defined -- that if not for the faint traces of film grain, I'd have assumed that the movie had been natively shot on HD video. The only flaw of any sort that I was able to spot was light ringing around the actors as they trudged through the snow in Barrow's waning moments of sunlight. Even with that mild edge enhancement in place, 30 Days of Night is one of just a handful of discs I'd immediately reach for to showcase just how outstanding Blu-ray can look.
Audio: The 24-bit, lossless TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is incredibly impressive as well, as the howling northern winds and the snarls of vampires encircling their prey ensure that each channel is kept roaring throughout. The mix summons a hellish amount of bass, from Beau mowing down vampires in a glorified chainsaw on wheels to the resounding low-frequency pulses and thunderous drums in the score. The gunshots, that distinctive thud of metal colliding with flesh and bone, and the frenzied attacks of the undead make for some particularly aggressive use of the multichannel setup as well. Dynamic range is much more essential to 30 Days of Night than most; after all, its characters spend virtually the entire movie trying to hide in silence. The expansive mix boasts deep, powerful lows and crystalline highs, with even its most unflinchingly chaotic moments free of any clipping or distortion.
A French TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack has also been included, along with Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai. The long list of subtitles includes streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazilian and classic), Chinese traditional, and Thai.
Owners of fixed-height front projection rigs may be disappointed to find that the subtitles that appear over the vampires' dialogue overlap with the letterboxing bars.
Extras: Exclusive to this Blu-ray disc is "30 Images of Night", which compares panels culled from the graphic novel to the corresponding shots from the film. Each set of images can be toggled back and forth, offering viewers a closer look at both the artwork and the images from the movie. Each of the thirty shots can be viewed individually or played as part of a slideshow.
It's a little odd that no one involved with the graphic novel, none of the screenwriters, or even the movie's director show up for 30 Days of Night's audio commentary, but don't let that steer you away. This laidback and breezy track with producer Rob Tapert and stars Melissa George and Josh Hartnett is still a great listen. Tapert does a solid job standing in for director David Slade, touching on some of the scenes that had to be fought for to make it into the final cut, the unconventional lack of reshoots, and a quick mention how the vampires' hearing was originally intended to be augmented by touch. What I really dug about this track is just how scattershot all of the discussion is, from native Aussie Melissa George grousing about the whole "shrimp on the barby" cliché, Josh Hartnett ranting about that mid-'90s Fango mentality where genre flicks were embarrassed to call themselves "horror movies", a quick lesson on how to stop when you're rollerblading, and how Pepsi Max didn't want its logo in a scene with an undead kid being decapitated, but regular Pepsi...? No worries. It's also more candid than I'm used to from a commentary track on a studio flick. Hartnett in particular isn't shy about pointing out some of the weaknesses he sees in the movie, including a couple dodgy lines of dialogue and how poorly it sells the passage of time. This is definitely one of those commentaries that's more about the personalities involved than the nuts and bolts of putting the movie together, but I'd still say it's worth setting aside a couple of hours to give a quick listen.
The rest of the extras on 30 Days of Night are anchored around a set of eight featurettes that run just under 50 minutes in total.
There's a lot of ground left uncovered that I would've liked to have heard more about, though. For one, the graphic novels are mentioned almost in passing, and how can you leave out the fact that 30 Days of Night was making the rounds as a movie pitch well before it was ever conceived as a comic? Rob Tapert teases in the audio commentary about a featurette on 30 Days of Night's unique score -- including some instruments created by hand just for this film -- but that's nowhere to be found on this disc.
- "Pre-Production" (8 min.) plows through script meetings, crewing up and lining up equipment, scouting for locations in New Zealand, signing off on costumes -- a lot of the stuff that's usually glossed over on these sorts of extras.
- "Building Barrow" spends four and a half minutes detailing how the sleepy Alaskan town was built from scratch on a former air force base, from the picture references of the actual city of Barrow to the blazingly fast assembly of the interior and exterior sets to blanketing every inch of the ground with fake snow.
- Director of photography Jo Willems discusses 30 Days of Night's stylized visuals in "The Look" (6 min.), including a quick peek at storyboarding, camera tests, deciding between HD video and traditional 35mm film, the challenges of lighting a movie that's set predominantly at night in a town without power, and shooting the snowy exteriors day-for-night.
- "Blood, Guts, & the Nasty #@$&!" (7 min.) turns its attention to the ripped out throats, decapitations, stomped heads, scorched flesh, and, of course, the barrel drums of blood splattered across just about every square inch of the screen.
- The six minute "Stunts" serves up a quick look at the extensive stuntwork throughout the film, including vamps crashing through windows, leaping across rooftops and plummeting to the ground to feed, and braving intense winds while clawing at the roof of a speeding van. The sequences with the trencher carving up everything in sight and the battle with the bloodsucking little girl also get plenty of attention.
- "The Vampire" (5 min.) explores 30 Days of Night's approach to these iconic monsters, including rehearsals with the vamped cast so they'd act as if they're part of a single hivemind, belting out their distinctive shrieks, and coming up with the tribal-inspired sounds of the vampires' language. Also delved into is the look of these creatures, including their misshapen eyes, jagged fingernails, and shark-like rows of teeth.
- The cast and crew of 30 Days of Night suffered through agonizing weeks and weeks of "Night Shoots" (5 min.), and this featurette documents just how close these 6 PM to 6 AM shoots can push someone towards the brink of insanity...and towards a particularly nasty coffee habit, natch.
- "Casting" (8 min.) is the last of these featurettes, including brief comments from each of the actors about their characters as well as noting how 30 Days of Night drew deeply from New Zealand's base of character actors.
The Blu-ray disc also leaves off the two online shorts -- "Blood" and "Episode 1" -- even though they're on the standard definition release.
A slew of trailers and promos round out the extras, including high definition plugs for Sleuth, Steep, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and The Messengers.
Conclusion: No clunky sense of humor. No existential moaning. No screenplay that reads like a Masters thesis on the deconstruction of the vampire myth. Nope, 30 Days of Night is just a brutal, blood-spattered, balls-out vampire flick. The movie looks and sounds incredible on Blu-ray, and 30 Days of Night is backed by a reasonably impressive set of high definition extras as well. Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.