Directed by: David Slade || Produced by: Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert
Screenplay by: Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie, Brian Nelson || Starring: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, Mark Boone Junior
Music by: Brian Reitzell || Cinematography: Jo Willems || Edited by: Art Jones || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 113 minutes
Much could be said of the Twilight franchise (books: 2005-2008, movies: 2008-2012), the subsequent backlash to its mainstream popularity, and its influence on the depiction of vampire mythology in popular culture. Given my preferred cinephile niche of sidestream genre films and violent, blood ‘n gore soaked action movies, I’ve been most exposed to discussions over contrasting portrayals of cinematic vampires that immediately preceded the worldwide phenomenon that was Twilight. Blade (1998, 2002, 2004) remains one of my favorite mainstream properties about that fantasy creature, depicting a sort of punk-rock, underground society of vampire monsters mingling with our surface-level society as part of a seedy conspiracy. Wesley Snipes’ titular character was more or less a superhero/anti-hero Molotov cocktail thrown into that diegesis for good measure.
Another relatively successful, adult-oriented vampire picture that predated Twilight on-screen was director David Slade and screenwriter and comic author Steve Niles’ 30 Days of Night. Based on the latter’s graphic novel of the same name, the film envisions a creative horror setting whereby the town of Barrow (Utqiagvik), Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States and the second largest population in the world situated in the Arctic Circle, is besieged by murderous vampires (these vampires are the classical type that burn alive in sunlight rather than sparkle) during the community’s annual polar night (re: nonstop darkness for the entire winter). That great premise is lead by capable star, Josh Hartnett, and fleshed out with bravado special FX and stunt teams to bring fun vampire ultraviolence to life. Unfortunately, 30 Days of Night fails where the Blade films mostly succeeded in their execution of consistent, quality horror-action supported by reliable cinematography and likable characters.
Slade’s biggest failing is his terrible lighting schemes that effectively neuter the terrifying premise of nocturnal predatory humanoids invading a town amidst weeks’ of continuous darkness. There’s remarkably little darkness in this film, as a matter of fact. Several brief sequences utilize obvious day-for-night setups, but these are the least of director of photography Jo Willems’ problems; most of the sequences shot indoors or outdoors at night are ruined by non-diegetic artificial (fluorescent?) lighting that, on the one hand, depicts on-screen action with clarity, but on the other, ruins any sense of horror, foreboding, or tension for which the story is clearly striving. The film’s ubiquitous bloody violence and grounded yet memorable stunts make 30 Days a capable action film outside its limited, forgettable cast, but Slade’s complete inability to generate horror atmosphere from a setting that feels ready-made for it is a huge disappointment. I would summarize this as the opposite extreme of Game of Thrones‘ (2011-2019) season 8, episode 3, “The Long Night,” a set-piece that used — some would say overused — nighttime cinematography to emphasize tone and dread. 30 Days of Night flaunts its violent choreography, but accentuates that action at the expense of horror, tone, and memorable visuals.
Other major problems concern the movie’s lackluster supporting cast. Hartnett does his job just fine, being the reliable lead that he always is, but most of the remaining cast are flatlines. Melissa George’s female lead and relationship with Hartnett in particular are a waste of time. Ben Foster and Danny Huston are the lone exceptions to their costars’ blandness, with the latter being a fine villain and the former acting like a cartoon character.
That being said, it’s hard to deny the entertainment value of a movie like 30 Days of Night. Its composed, grindhouse style and impressive production values coalesce with grounded action choreography to produce multiple impressive set-pieces. The film’s main problem is how this focus on action scale and clarity sacrifices any tension or suspense from the narrative’s polar night setting, which was the entire marketing gimmick for this film in the first place. It’s difficult to overstate how competent the film’s cinematic violence and gore FX are, as well as how not scary — even tense — much of the film is as a function of its bizarre cinematography and forgettable cast. As a horror picture, 30 Days of Night is an utter failure, but as a gory, exploitative action movie, it’s an acceptable Sunday afternoon hangover feature… especially if you like vampires of the monstrous sort rather than the sparkly kind.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Not as melodramatic as the Twilight saga et al. (see also Vampire Diaries [2009-2017], True Blood [2008-2014]) nor as entertaining as the Blade films, 30 Days of Dusk finds itself in an uncomfortable middle-ground when it comes to pop culture vampire mythology. Any hope it had of mining tension from its imaginative premise is ruined by uninteresting characters and terrible lighting. Josh Hartnett needed to give a career-best performance in a spectacular lead character to save this film.
— However… the movie boasts admirable stunts, creative gore FX, and overall impressive action sequences. Dany Huston is an effective, if standard-issue villain.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED* as a serious horror feature, but acceptable as a sort of “background movie” after a weekend of hard drinking. We need those, too, right?
? How about a vampire monster-movie that takes place on that creepy boat?