Like Dark Castle Entertainment, most of the productions by Ghost House Pictures have been mediocre or just plain rubbish (Boogeyman being the biggest insult to any moviegoer with any mental deficiency), so it's a surprise that 30 Days of Night actually turned out so good.
Part of the success lies in selecting David Slade (Hard Candy) as director, who in turn brought in Brian Nelson to take a crack at the script, and with Jo Willems as cinematographer. Both men had worked closely with Slade on Candy to keep a balance between a visual style that supported the characters, and capturing bits of nuances that ensured the characters reflected on circumstances in more realistic, real-time moments.
Whether that involved a teen decapitating a child; a divorcé reacting with fear at being trapped for 30 days of oppressive darkness in Barrow, Alaska, the northern-most town on the North American mainland; or having to tell your best friend you acted a bit rash in killing your wife & daughter to save them from a bloody assault by invading vampires, the actors in 30 Days have some room to transcend scenes most directors tend to plow through with impatience, so as to get to the next gory sequence.
It's also appropriate how the film's violence is selectively shown; even after the vampires torment and eventually kill a victim, the gore is kept low to ensure a later scene involving a subsequent ax to the head – in two magnificent swipes – delivers the shocks in fine detail; it's like the T1000 robot getting it's head smacked to one side, except in 30 Days, it's a person's noggin tilting to one side after the neck receives one deep rut.
30 Days has its share of flaws: teeth can't warp and sharpen after a vampire's bite, and one lone acolyte sent into town to kills all the dogs and destroy all the cellphones is a bit rich. Additionally, given the film is set in the present day, there's little doubt the vampires wouldn't be caught: fly-by military satellites could not only track the movements of their ship, but retrace their slaughter from the moment they appeared on land, sprayed jugular blood in Barrow's city streets, and set the town on fire. Any doubts a town's destruction would be written off as some kind of mass-hysteria is feeble, as the 300 inhabitants who left before the month of darkness would demand an investigation when they return 30 days later to find their families and livelihoods all barbecued.
The vampires' plan to feed town-to-town would also fall flat because in attacking the northern-most town, they have no choice but to move southward towards more urbanized centers, navigating through popular shipping lanes and under plane flights carrying supplies and tourists. In 2008, it's kind of hard to remain completely isolated, and one wonders why creators Ben Templesmith and Brian Nelson (who also co-wrote the script) didn't set their saga in the 1960s or 1950s when technology was far more primal, and human isolation was genuine. The only fear in that era was probably Sputnik.
Of course, all of that matters only when one thinks a bit deeper about the film, because at its core, 30 Days is still a fun B-movie with a few memorable surprises – both in violence, and the bouts of self-sacrifice that don't come off as clichéd or tiresome.
Director Slade seems to have recognized the virtues of John Carpenter's The Thing and Ridley Scott's Alien: the first 25 minutes in 30 Days are slow montages interweaving characters, unsettling events, and more importantly, conveying to audiences the town's isolation; like Carpenter's Antarctic base, there's a potent loneliness to the Barrow's extreme locale, but as one of the characters points own, their decision to live in the arctic means they too have an lead on the vampires, because they also know how to survive nature's elements, including genetic aberrations like arctic vampires.
Like John Carpenter, Ridley Scott also gave a lot of screen time in Alien - 50 minutes worth - to establishing characters, locations, and ambience, and Slade applies the same patience to the mounting weirdness that, as in Alien, unfolds in careful beats. As the townspeople are winnowed down to a core group of duty-bound settlers, Slade and the screenwriters add little hints of strange happenings which, just like Gordon Douglas' Them! has a cop trying to figure out what the hell is happening to his own town, but unlike that classically structured, fifties sci-fi thriller, 30 Days has no scientist; without eggheads, it's up to the locals to figure out how they can deal with this maniacal threat.
The overall dialogue is fairly minimalist, a tactful ploy that also ensures the appointed leader of the remaining townspeople isn't forced to overtly theorize as to the vampires' existence, and humanity's potential demise; there's simply no time to pontificate, and it's a smart decision that minimizes clichés.
Slade's pacing and the small character bits also act as countermeasures to the lack of theorizing, giving 30 Days a strong narrative that intrigues, shocks, and moves – that is, if one buys the romance between the two fractured lovers, whose final scene is a gender reversal of Blade II's sunrise finale. It's poetic, but it's a direct steal.
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Sony's DVD is pretty sparse – a good chunk of the contents are trailers for other films – but there's a decent commentary track, and a lengthy making-of documentary from the film's pre-production stage to the final night shoot, with chapters devoted to special effects, locations, and other hard production components.
Missing are longer bits with the cast (compensated by their participation in the commentary track), background material on director Slade, and some comparative extras on the original graphic novel, but then Sony, like most studios, loves to double-dip, so fans should expect a supper-happy-magic-deluxe edition six months from now, larded with extras that were filmed and edited, but left off the DVD and saved for edition 2.0 so the same film can be bought twice.
The film's transfer is very nice and clean (albeit revealing some of Willems' overlit interior night scenes), and the sound mix is appropriately aggressive, with decent space given to Brian Reitzell's superb electronic and effects cluster-score – one of the best horror-and-soundscape tracks in years. Reitzell was the former drummer for the band Air, and has really crafted a nasty, industrial edged score that mimics a cold, mechanical presence infiltrating the already toasty town nest.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan