10 April 2008

30 Days of Night

I’ll never write a story using vampires. Never never never. (I know I’ll eat these words one day; any absolute statement is designed to cause regret.) But I’ll still watch an occasional movie starring one, or read a book featuring one. I watched I Am Legend in December, and even though the filmmakers tried to hide their creatures as something other than vampires, you can’t fool me. I read the novel and I know they are vampires. And last night I watched on DVD the recent adaptation of the graphic novel 30 Days of Night. It offers nothing new in the vampire legend stakes, only the suspense idea of a town that undergoes a month-long vampiric siege when the sun goes down for a full month in the winter.

The town of Barrow, Alaska is real, and it is the most northern town in the U.S. However, it doesn’t suffer from an abrupt thirty day sky black-out as the movie portrays, and anyone with any knowledge of the northern and southern regions would understand that. The sun doesn’t rise, but it still lights the horizon at dawn, and the descent from day and ascent back into it happens more gradually than the sharp cut-off the film shows. And Barrow has regular flights in and out during the darkest month and isn’t cut-off from the rest of the world as the movie shows.

But it’s a film with a “oh boy, hot dog!” premise, so why let reality get in the way? It’s a flick starring vampires, after all, which don’t exist, so let’s not quibble further over the available light in Barrow, Alaska.

As a horror-suspense movie, 30 Days of Night gets the job done, nothing more. The actors are a decent bunch, and Josh Hartnett is actually well-cast as an everyman sheriff. He has a limited range as a performer, but this falls squarely in the range. Melissa George as his sparring love interest is far too “pretty” for the part, and the drama between the two of them isn’t given enough play to make it an interesting contrast to the prowling snarling vampires on the street. It’s much more interesting to watch Mark Boone Junior mow down vampires with his giant snowplow than stare at Hartnett and George struggling to relate about their past relationship.

The vampires belong to the most common breed of contemporary movie vampire: feral beasts. I would love to see an old-fashioned aristocratic vampire again one of the these days, one who uses stealth and charisma to lure his or her victims, but for now I will have to settle for the scabby Red Bull-jacked nosferatu who spew gore messily each time they rip into a victim’s throat. Danny Huston, one of the most suspicious-looking actors whose ever lived, does the film’s most memorable turn as the vampire’s leader, Marlow. (That’s what the credits name him; I don’t recall his name ever mentioned on screen. The vampires speak in what sounds like pseudo-Hungarian as performed by Morbid Angel, so it’s hard to tell.) There’s a bonus wild-child vampire in a convenience store, which is the movie’s best sequence.

30 Days of Night is one of those movies that, while it sustains entertainment, eventually reaches a point where the audience has too many opportunities to ask needling questions. I kept thinking, “What are the vampires doing during the off-time from the thirty-day siege? They’ve already fed themselves on everyone available, so there’s no more food supply. Are they just standing around on the streets, looking menacing? Don’t they have hobbies or some ways to kill time? Hell fellas, here’s a rare opportunity when you get to be up all day—use the time to learn some skills. Typing, snowboarding, refrigerator manufacturing, anything! Carpete noctem!

My biggest criticism of 30 Days of Night is that it’s not that scary. The grim snowbound atmosphere creates an oppressive gloom, but the genuine fear never kicks in. Even the jack-in-the-box frights didn’t get much of a jump out of me. Although the story takes place over thirty days, the only way I knew this was the on-screen countdown titles and Hartnett’s meager five o’clock shadow; otherwise, the sense of a prolonged fearful stand against the vampires doesn’t come through, and that defeats a lot of the tension. It isn’t a dull film, but it isn’t a breathless ride either—and that’s exactly what it needs to be.

By the way, snowmobiling and alcohol don’t mix. I know this because of a sign in the Barrow sheriff’s department that keeps appearing in the frame. For some reason, I burst into laughing fits every time I saw the sign. Vampires don’t kill people; Tanqueray and a snowmobile do!