by Rob Gonsalves
'30 Days of Night' is something of a John Carpenter portmanteau — it combines elements of his 'Assault on Precinct 13,' 'The Thing,' and 'Vampires' — but it’s a better Carpenter movie than he himself has managed in recent years. It’s not a classic, but it’s good blood-spattered fun.The premise, taken from Steve Niles’ and Ben Templesmith’s murkily rendered comic book, is ingenious: A group of vampires single out an Alaskan town wherein the sun goes down for a month and stays down. No sun, no worries about deadly sunlight. What the vamps plan to do after they’ve bled the town dry is, I suppose, the sort of logical question that kills a really nifty-sounding idea.
"In case you forgot, Mr. Carpenter, this is how it's done."
This is another endurance-test role for Josh Hartnett, who once rode out 40 Days and 40 Nights of celibacy and now, as the town’s sheriff Eben, must keep himself and a few survivors alive for a month of darkness. You got a timetable movie, Hartnett’s your guy. He doesn’t have much chops as a dramatic actor — like Jennifer Garner, he seems more comfortable in light romantic comedy — but he projects some decency and smarts, and that’s roughly all he needs. He’s joined by fellow lightweight Melissa George as Eben’s estranged wife and fellow law enforcer Stella, which gives Hartnett a chance to quote from Brando (“Stellaaaaa!”) if not act like him.
Yeah, but 30 Days of Night would survive even with Paris Hilton playing both parts. The vampires are terrific — animalistic, speaking to each other in their strange, guttural language. (Their subtitled dialogue is just off-kilter enough to make them seem like aliens.) They warm up by sneaking around town before the prolonged sundown, torching all the cell phones, and so on. Many of the townspeople take off for the month, leaving only a few stragglers. Once the airplane departs for Anchorage, that’s it — the place is cut off by 80 miles of ice. Snowy isolation, of course, provided some of the nihilistic chills of Carpenter’s The Thing (not to mention The Shining) — no one will rescue you out here. “No God,” the vampire leader (an eerie Danny Huston, with a razory underbite) clarifies. Nature is red in tooth and claw.
Much of the movie is a matter of moving the human protagonists here and there as they try to keep quiet. It doesn’t take long for 30 Days of Night to enter its ruthless Assault on Precinct 13 mode, in which there’s no time for anything but survival. If done tightly and well, though, such a movie is logistically entertaining — certainly more so than director David Slade’s previous feature, the sordid Hard Candy, also about the terrors of isolation. With a superior script to work with (by Niles, Stuart Beattie, and Hard Candy writer Brian Nelson), Slade works the bleak wasteland for all the spooky atmosphere and harsh beauty it’s worth, and he does some scary things with barely-glimpsed vampires hopping from roof to roof or emerging from shadow, always out of focus in the deep background. There’s even, I think, a nod to Night of the Living Dead with a little vampire girl feasting on a fresh corpse.
30 Days of Night compresses the comic book quite a bit, discarding some subplots and characters, but retains workable elements like a vampire wannabe (Ben Foster) who shambles into town in the movie’s stunning first scene. “That cold ain’t the weather,” says this stranger, “it’s death approachin’.” Dialogue like that makes me happy, and horror movies need more of it. David Slade knows how to make an audience squirm and gasp — a viewing of the lengthy sequence in Hard Candy when Ellen Page looms over the tied-down, pantsless Patrick Wilson with a scalpel confirms that — but in 30 Days of Night he uses that knowledge to announce himself as a bona fide horror director, not just a gimmicky indie director.Good. My beloved genre needs more filmmakers who know what they’re doing.
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originally posted: 10/20/07 17:19:11