"30 Days of Night" has a marvelous premise, a reasonable cast, and a sublime location to play around with. But the producers just had to give the material to director David Slade, a truly unimaginative filmmaker, who drowns any promise this nihilistic tale of frosty survival held by smothering the picture in excessive, pedestrian visual gymnastics.
In the remote town of Barrow, Alaska, the sun takes a vacation for 30 days every year, leaving the locals isolated from the rest of the world. During this particular permanent night, a group of vampires (led by Danny Houston) swarm the town, gobbling up the locals without fear of sunlight to hinder their efforts. With most of the community reduced to food for the bloodsuckers, it's up to Sheriff Eben (Josh Hartnett), his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), and a small cluster of Barrow neighbors to survive the month while the vampires methodically stalk them.
Adapted from a well-received (and thoroughly franchised) graphic novel, "30 Days" is a concentrated horror stand-off; a survival tale with fantastical fringes, slicked with waves of blood and gore. The very concept of vampires let loose in a location that contains no sunlight to temper their hunger pains holds fantastic promise. However, "30 Days" as a movie is frustrating, more concerned with artifice than primal scream results.
I place the blame squarely on Slade's shoulders. His debut film, 2006's pedophile yawner "Hard Candy," introduced a director who holds no concept of suspense, only chaos. "30 Days" is another experiment in Slade's theory that tension is not something to nurture, it's something to detonate. After a chilly, epic introduction to the setting and the conflict, it doesn't take long for Slade to start digging into his bag of tricks once the vampire reign commences. A favorite of the director is clichéd open-shutter photography, executed by a cameraman who forgot to pop his seizer medication that day.
Every time a vampire moves, Slade's frame is hurled around, making the film impossible to comprehend at times. He pulled the same tired stunt in "Candy," and it's even more transparent in "30 Days." After nearly two solid hours of ocular abuse, it made me long for the John Carpenter glory years, where a filmmaker would trust his audience enough to allow them to search the details of the screen and encourage their fears, not bury them in noise and beat them into submission.
While Slade dreams up new ways to double-dribble his camera, the rest of "30 Days" wanders off into uncomfortable alleyways of illogic and flat-out neglect. A big piece missing from this puzzle was an introduction to Barrow, getting the audience used to the spatial relationships of the buildings. The community standoff plays a huge role in the second act of the picture, but it's impossible to understand how everything is laid out, thus leading to confusion over whether our heroes are actually in danger. With Eben running all over town, there's no way to invest in the tension when Slade doesn't bother to address the distances, or even the passage of time, leading to many a scene that flounders when it desires the utmost attention.
The vampires are another problem that chip away at the film's overall effect. Self-consciously designed to resemble runners-up in a "Miss German Expressionism" beauty contest, the creatures of the night that populate "30 Days" are a shrill, laughably over expressive bunch. There's a whole lot of stiff method acting going on here, but little clue as to what make these tenants of hell tick. Mostly they stare off into the distance, seem unable to wipe their mouths after feeding (yet they manage to dress themselves in hepcat suits, go figure), and feature fanged oral appliances so big, the actors can't close their mouths properly, or even spit out their dialogue cleanly.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Color was a curse word for the "30 Days" production, and the 2.40:1 image brings the viewer into this forbidding world with exceptional monochromatic clarity. A film with insane black levels, I was stunned to see how well the image was kept in place, revealing eye-popping clarity depth on even the most difficult moments of murky distress. Red seems the primary color let loose here, and it contrasts well with the overall gloom. It's a gorgeous transfer on a photographically complex motion picture, and the smooth viewing experience is likely to have people coming back for more.
The Dolby TrueHD sound mix doesn't let the visual quality down, shoving the listener into a world of screamy vampires, crunchy wintry details, and blood-spurting open wounds. A graphic movie, the Blu-ray experience doesn't miss a chance to amp up the sound effects, sending mayhem throughout the surround channels, balanced exceptionally with the dialogue and scoring.
A feature-length audio commentary from producer Rob Tapert and actors Josh Hartnett and Melissa George is far more charming than expected. Without director David Slade around, one might have the sinking feeling this commentary could lack true production detail, but thankfully the talent has come armed with a hunger for discussion.
Hartnett is clearly the alpha commentator on the track, leading the discussion in a fashion the reveals the actor is a fan of the supplement. To be fair, this isn't a comprehensive discussion of "30 Days" with discourses into on-set minutiae, but more of a laid back conversation between filmmaking buddies.
There are many pieces of trivia to enjoy here, including how Ben Foster got into character by shoving snowballs down his underwear; the challenges of making New Zealand and its warm weather feel like subzero Alaska; how Hartnett dealt with serious illness on camera; quizzing George on various Australianisms; looking to classify "30 Days" as anything but horror (Hartnett calls the film "a western-style thriller with supernatural overtones"); and George revealing she's an expert rollerblader, even divulging some technical know-how of the equipment.
Most curious is how much Harnett and Tapert voice irritation with the gaps in logic and other narrative bungles throughout the film. I'm glad to hear I wasn't the only one miffed with the scattershot storytelling.
"30 Images of Night" (Blu-ray Exclusive) is a photo gallery comparing frames of the movie with their graphic novel origin. While not as extensive as something like "300," I was stunned to see how much of the film matched to the surrealist imagery of the source material.
"Making of '30 Days of Night'" (50 minutes) is comprised of eight behind-the-scenes featurettes. Viewed together, this documentary on the making of the film is an unexpected treat, dodging grotesque EPK ass-kissing for a true snapshot of the film's creation.
Not every step of the movie is documented (post-production is not included), but this fly-on-the-wall experience is not to be missed, covering furious pre-production planning to the actual shoot, where the collective, exhaustive efforts of the crew were finally put on display. Exhibiting the stuntwork was a personal favorite of mine, showing off how many of the impossible moves were made possible.
Some comedic value is presented when the breakdown of a complicated vampire child beheading effect is exhibited in great detail. On the commentary, Tapert is insistent that Hartnett not reveal how they pulled off the trick. Oops!
No theatrical trailer is offered, but peeks at "The Messengers," "Sleuth," "Walk Hard," and "Steep" are presented.
"30 Days of Night" is a picture molded on a purely visceral level of appreciation. It strictly for audiences who like to be submerged and beaten instead of trusted. I found it to be one of the larger disappointments of 2007; a ridiculously wicked premise lost on a filmmaker who doesn't have the vision, patience, or slightest thread of talent to breathe life into it.