Sony // 2007 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 26th, 2008
Welcome to Barrow. Top of the world.
The original three-issue run of 30 Days of Night had a lot going for it: a creepy premise, effective artwork, and a rich and surprisingly sentimental story for a horror comic. The film manages to successfully translate two out of the three to the screen.
For 30 days at a time, the town of Barrow, Alaska, is plunged into night. The population dwindles from over 500 to 150 souls willing to brave the cold and the seemingly endless night. Charged with protecting the town during its nocturnal period, Sherrif Eben (Josh Harnett, The Black Dahlia) is a man trying to reconnect with his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George, Turistas) who misses the last plane out of Barrow before nightfall. As they deal with being thrust together again, a rash of crimes -- including the killing of a number of dogs and the destruction of a helicopter -- breaks out over the tiny town. As Eben and Stella attempt to solve these crimes, powerful strangers walk into town, seemingly superhuman and with a thirst for blood. The few remaining townsfolk must try to survive the 30 Days of Night.
I've seen a lot of horror movies, and 30 Days of Night ranks with the best of them in terms of talent behind and in front of the camera. Behind the scenes, there's Rob Tapert, the producer responsible such films as Evil Dead 2 orchestrating the production. In the directors chair is up-and-comer David Slade, taking a left turn from the psychological horror of his first film Hard Candy into more visceral vampire territory. Jo Willems holds the camera and creates an amazing look for the film. The WETA workshop, the special-effects minds behind the Lord of the Rings, deliver the blood and guts gore fans crave.
The talent in front of the camera is equally impressive. I'm not a Josh Hartnett fan at all, but his stoic Sheriff Eben fits the film well. Melissa George as the love interest is alternatively sweet and sassy, and the rest of the cast holds their own as well. A number of character actors pop up for roles of various sizes, including Ben Foster (Charlie Prince from the recent 3:10 to Yuma), Mark Boone Jr. (the motel clerk from Memento), and Nathaniel Less (Mifune from the Matrix sequels). There's very little of the overacting that often plagues horror films, as all the actors play their roles with credible realism.
Then, there's the nosferatu. No frilly lace collars and ambiguous sexuality for the vampires of 30 Days of Night. No, these creatures are superhuman killing machines, relentlessly moving from victim to victim, slashing skin and tearing out throats. Possessing their own corrupted tongue, the vampires represent a pitiless external threat that won't allow bargain or reason to interfere with their Alaskan feast. The makeup and effects associated with the undead are effective, allowing them to blend in initially, but then become increasingly monstrous as the film continues. Special mention goes to Danny Huston as Marlow, the lead vampire. He effortlessly exudes a creepy blend of power, arrogance, and intelligence.
So why isn't this the greatest vampire flick ever made? The short answer is the story. In the original comic Steve Niles simultaneously told the story of Barrow's invasion while also laying the foundation for other stories in his new universe. The graphic novel reads more like a pilot for a very adult television show than it reads like a movie proposal. The film strips away all references to the outside world. As a movie, 30 Days of Night is all about Barrow. While that might help ratchet up the tension and claustrophobia, it also removes some of the more interesting elements from the comic, like the elder Vincente. It's strange to see a film based on an ongoing comic avoid the potential for a franchise by excising all the references to a world outside of its characters.
Furthermore, the idea of thirty days of night as a story element is that it avoids the typical "the sun's going to come up and the humans will win" mentality. However, to make that work, the story has to constantly balance the fact that thirty days can be eternity, but also isn't that long if you're holed up somewhere with lots of food. The film does a poor job of conveying the passage of time, so as far as the audience is concerned, the story might as well take place over a single evening, so the conceit is wasted. The idea is carefully set up in the first third of the film, with the destruction of the cell phones and the exodus of the less hardy members of Barrow's population. The introduction of the vampires through The Stranger is effective, but once the townsfolk are whittled down to the core of citizens around Sherrif Eben, the film turns into typical survival horror, with lots of running, hiding, and worrying about making too much noise. In these sequences the influence of films like 28 Days Later is undeniable, with the fast-moving vampires and shaky cameras, not to mention a scene in an empty convenience store featuring a young vampire that looks suspiciously like a scene in a deserted general store featuring a young zombie (it's not shot for shot, but it's close enough to elicit a groan of recognition). There are a few surprises, like the use of surviving humans as bait, but for the most part we've seen this before. The ending, minus the helicopter, is imported almost straight from the book, maintaining the bittersweet tone of the comic's ending, which is a good thing.
Returning to the plus column, the presentation of the film on DVD is amazing. The director and cinematographer crafted a very specific look for the film, featuring numerous green-screen effects to mimic Barrow's climate at their shooting location in New Zealand. These effects give the film a two-dimensional look, not unlike a panel from a comic book. All of the effects, as well as the practical sets and the actors are wonderfully reproduced on this disc. I didn't detect a single flaw in the almost two hours of runtime. The audio is likewise effective. The score is primarily a-melodic, with numerous sounds and odd instruments creating the atmosphere in place of the more traditional orchestra. These sounds blend seamlessly with the language and sounds of the vampires. Dialogue was crisp, with no balance or volume issues. This might not be a reference disc because of the stylized look of the film, but this DVD backs could be used as evidence by the many consumers who are not planning to upgrade to HD because DVD is good enough.
The extras, while not as impressive as the audiovisual presentation, are informative. Eight featurettes comprise the bulk of the extras, giving details on everything from pre-production to post-production with lots of interviews with the cast and crew. I enjoyed the look of 30 Days of Night before I watched these featurettes, but I liked it even more when I saw how absolutely different the sets and locations looked in real life when compared to what got put on the screen. We hear from most of the principles involved in the film's creation, I would have liked to hear more from Niles and Templesmith, the gentlemen responsible for the comic, as their brief appearance in the extras was insufficient. There is also a commentary featuring Rob Tapert, Josh Hartnett, and Melissa George. It's a friendly, down-to-earth discussion of the production, with some lighthearted teasing thrown in. It's not chock full of info, but its breezy, familiar tone makes it easy to listen to, with enough interesting stories to make it worth your while.
The DVD box also lists an episode of Blood+ as an extra, but really it's a shameless plug for a vampire-related anime series coming to DVD a few weeks after 30 Days of Night. Maybe some will appreciate this preview, but I was unimpressed with the lackluster dubbing and poor dialogue.
For those who haven't read the original graphic novel -- or for those willing to overlook some of the been-there, done-that aspects of the second half of the film -- 30 Days of Night provides a satisfying and visceral vampire flick. Those who are tired of PG-13 horror will likely enjoy the brutal blood spray of this R-rated film.
Judging by the talent surrounding this film, it should have been a great vampire film. Instead, it's merely good, offering an interesting twist at the beginning, but slipping into tired territory by the end. But for all its missed opportunities, 30 Days of Night provides an interesting locale and satisfyingly visceral crunch.
Not guilty. The writers of the original graphic novel are encouraged to find another outlet, preferably a cable television show, to showcase their excellent vampire stories.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, and Producer Rob Tapert
* "Building Barrow"
* "The Look"
* "Blood, Guts & The Nasty #@$&!"
* "The Vampire"
* "Night Shoots"
* Blood+ Episode "First Kiss"
* Official Site