Ever wondered what it would be like to see every vampire movie ever made, all rolled into one? If so, 30 Days of Night is for you -- it's got a little bit of everything. For Dracula-lovers, there's a hillbilly Renfield, played by everyone's new favorite actor, Ben Foster. His arrival in town at the outset, with a shambling gait and greasy-roadie haircut, foreshadows the arrival of some nameless master who he's bound to displease in some way. The vampires, when they arrive, turn out not to be Hungarian sophisticates, but feral beasts who look like a cross between a cougar and Marilyn Manson. They take their movement cues from The Lost Boys, attacking from out of frame and grabbing their prey up into space or yanking them into a dark corner. Instead of sucking blood, they tear their victims' limbs apart as easily as restaurant rolls. An apparent nod to the Blade series also creeps in, when the vamps begin speaking some erudite, subtitled language and spouting faux-profound aphorisms like "things which can be broken must be broken!"
On top of this heady mishmash of genre staples there's a nifty overarching conceit, taken from the comic on which 30 Days is based -- the location of the carnage is a remote town in Seward's Folly, where the sun doesn't shine for a full month. (Why did it take vampires so long to hear about this place? And mightn' it have been more interesting if all the world's vampires came gunning for this place, instead of a handful? But that's neither here nor there.) The vamps that do descend on the snowy Alaskan hamlet must go head to head with two pretty local cops, played by Josh Hartnett and Melissa George, and one of the best things about 30 Days is that it acknowledges straightaway that the humans are physically no match for the vampires. Those who survive the initial assault must scramble into hiding places to save their necks and what follows is a sort of 'Anne Frank vampire film', with Hartnett and George and a ragtag group holing up in an abandoned attic and waiting for the vamp patrols to move on.
The Anne Frank conceit unfortunately reveals a big deficit in the film. The human characters are very thinly drawn -- almost as thin as the vampires -- and cramming them together in a confined space draws this out. Director David Slade (Hard Candy) follows the graphic novel closely and is clearly reluctant to stop the action long enough to put meat on the bones of secondary characters, which is understandable, but declining to do so means that we're forced to sit through scene after scene of tension-free waiting as the anonymous characters hide from the vamps in their attic space. They don't have any kind of interesting conversations or even interesting outbreaks of cabin fever, although in fairness, there's one promising moment when a senile old man up and decides he's going to go out the front door of the house, and no one can talk him out of it. Other than that, nothing. Slade also does no favors to Melissa George, repeatedly zeroing in on her blank expressions in every scene, almost like she's still waiting to hear 'Action!'
Another problem -- and this one could be easily fixed in a director's cut -- is that the subtitled language of the vamps is not only unnecessary, but profoundly silly. The moment they cease being bloody-chinned animals out for a meal and start making moral pronouncements -- at one point, vampire leader Danny Huston mumbles something about why humans 'are the way they are' or something -- all of the gravity they've acquired immediately dissipates. If we had no idea what they were saying to each other, though, we could imagine it to be anything we wanted: maybe instructions to the other vampires or simply some kind of vampire feasting call. The way some of the vampires occasionally lean their heads back and screech uncontrollably made me think they were sending out some kind of homing beacon, but this doesn't mesh with the complicated intelligence evinced by their language. Slade also errs in not giving each of the vamps their little individual character moments to shine. It seems at times like he doesn't want any of his characters -- vampire or human -- to have defining characteristics.
These and other flaws prevent 30 Days of Night from quite living up to the expectations foist upon it by the horror community, which has been hearing about the film more or less daily since it began production -- Melissa George was explaining the film to me back in 2006 -- but there's still a solid, well-constructed vampire movie to enjoy here, and I did enjoy it. The action scenes are expertly staged -- one in particular, involving a truck, is a knock-out -- and there are enough scattered moments of cleverness to make you imagine how well the elements could have gelled with another director, and consequently, why a likely sequel (it's already being planned) could prove to be a better film than the original. If the sequel does go forward, my only piece of advice would be to continue exploiting as many vampire cliches as you like, but please throw a few bones to the human characters in the film, so that we can have a little more attachment to them than the average victim in a Friday the 13th film.