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October 18, 2007

Vampires just bloodthirsty enough in 30 Days

Somewhere between 28 Days Later and A History of Violence lies 30 Days of Night, a film that masterfully executes its brilliant premise. It is arguably this year’s best horror film. Like what 28 Days Later did to zombie movies, the film breathes new life into vampire movies with a heavy emphasis on scenery and mood. And like A History of Violence, 30 Days uses a premise dreamed up in a graphic novel to show small town America’s nativist sensibilities become irrevocably fractured by an unspeakable evil.

Director David Slade, though largely unproven, has shown a tendency to start films with a simple “what if…” premise and take it from there. A veteran of music videos, his previous feature was Hard Candy, the story of a girl who seeks to expose a suspected sexual predator she meets on the Internet—a reverse Lolita, if you will. While less contemporary, the premise for 30 Days is ultimately more interesting: What if vampires attacked a town that didn’t have daylight? The setting of Barrow, Alaska is a vampire’s paradise; the northernmost town in North America, Barrow is about to begin its yearly 30-day period without sunlight. The town’s population shrinks to about 20 percent of its normal size during the period, but within a few days, only a handful of people have not been killed by the vampires.

One survivor is Stella (Melissa George), estranged wife of Eben (Josh Hartnett), who is forced to stay in Barrow after narrowly missing the last flight out of town. Over the course of the film, the two are united by the trauma of seeing their world fall to pieces, and their bond ultimately sets the tone for the moral decisions that are at the center of the movie’s second half. Faced with choosing between who lives and who dies, between the value of the town and the dangers of the aftermath, 30 Days features ethical dilemmas not usually featured in your standard horror movie.

Hartnett, an actor who has had an up-and-down career, won’t get any acting awards for his performance, but he does a fine job portraying Eben, the natural leader who takes it on himself to make sure that something comes out of this town alive. George’s performance is a little weak, but she makes up for it with her excellent chemistry with Hartnett. Of the rest of the actors, the biggest standout is Ben Foster as a sinister vampire who tips off Barrow to the horrors that await them. Foster, an underrated character actor and former Six Feet Under regular, steals every scene he’s in, and builds on the acting strength he recently showed in 3:10 to Yuma.

The real highlight of the film, however, is Paul D. Austerberry’s production design and the artists from New Zealand’s Weta Workshop, who also worked on the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia films. The film’s scenery is a revolutionary, radical departure for the normal dark streetlights and deserted alleyways of the horror genre. With all of Barrow’s power out, each scene is painted an arctic blue, which contrasts chillingly with the fire and massive amounts of blood and fire that appear at each location of the vampires’ wrath. The polar landscapes in Transformers and The Day After Tomorrow look embarrassing by comparison, and while the design is so specific to its film, hopefully this will open the floodgates for innovation in the scenery of genre films, which have grown stale with the rise of CGI.

As far as genres go, horror is near the bottom of the totem pole for film critics, while simultaneously one of the most reliable box office draws (witness the recent success of the third Resident Evil film). Yet, I suspect 30 Days of Night will be one of the few horror films that critics love more than filmgoers do (The Descent is the best recent example). It avoids all the pitfalls of the horror convention: It avoids excessive exposition, produces no cringe-worthy lines of dialogue, and focuses more on nuance than over-the-top action and gore. Yet at the same time, the thrills, while present, are more sparse than in most horror films, and the absolute dreariness of the situation is more likely to depress than frighten. No matter how well the film does, Slade has produced everything one could ask for out of a horror film, and I expect that 30 Days and Nights is the type of horror movie we’ll still be talking about years from now.