Some films need a little time to blossom. When I originally watched David Slade's 30 Days of Night, expectations were quite high because of his involvement in Hard Candy. By comparison, 30 Days of Night felt like a much simpler film, almost a cop out. I did end up liking it quite a bit, but I recall feeling a little conflicted afterwards, and so the memory faded rather quickly. It's been years since I last watched Slade's second feature and I didn't remember too many specifics to be honest, so a rewatch was definitely in order. A perfect excuse to see whether its steadily growing reputation was warranted.
When I first heard 30 Days of Night was going to be a vampire flick, I was pretty bummed. I'm not a big fan of vampire lore, and this was even before the Twilight films added to the misery. It's a good thing then that Slade's bloodsuckers aren't the usual bat-morphing gothic menaces, instead, they are a well-organized, crafty group of killers who seek out vulnerable communities and pick them off when they are at their weakest. To me, the vampires here felt more like distant relatives of Boyle's 28 Days Later zombies, making them a lot more appealing.
30 Days of Night is the rare creature flick in which the star of the film isn't the creature itself, rather the setting where the story takes place (The Descent is another popular example, but these are obviously exceptions to the rule). The film is set in a small Alaskan village that goes through 30 days of nighttime every year. Part of the community moves away, only a few diehards remain. It would be a superb stage for any horror film really, but it couldn't be more perfect for a vampire flick (creatures who detest sunlight as it burns them alive). It's also the perfect film to watch in the dead of winter, when it's warm and cozy inside.
With a premise like that, there isn't much need for a complicated plot. Eben is the police chief of the small village, overseeing the yearly exodus. Once the majority of people have left, he starts getting calls about small acts of violence happening around town. Eben suspects a sketchy stranger, but when he takes him in, it quickly dawns on him that the man is just a pawn in a much bigger scheme. When the first people die and the town falls without electric power, Eben immediately realizes something bad is about to hit his community. By then it's already too late to get everyone out of harm's way.
Visually, this is quite a step up from the usual horror fare. The setting is of course pretty grandiose, the snowy landscapes, the perpetual darkness and the shabby village make for a rugged battlefield that allows for an epic fight between the vampires and the human survivors. That said, Slade takes great care to fully capture the beauty of this stage, opting for a dark and muted color palette, deliberate camera work and snappy editing. The monster make-up is also on point, and the gory effects (though few and far between) are effective, making sure the film delivers where necessary.
The soundtrack isn't quite as pervasive as I'd hoped, and it is primarily geared at supporting and enhancing the atmosphere. It does a wonderful job, but I will say that I expected more from a guy who started out directing music videos. It's a very basic horror score, based on moody, ambient soundscapes, ambient sounds and some shrill thrills to ramp up the tension. The execution and timing are perfect, adding to the atmosphere and making the dread that more tangible, but there is some untapped potential here that could've made the film even better.
The cast of 30 Days of Night is solid, but nothing too remarkable. Josh Hartnett and Melissa George are capable leads who know how to shoulder a film like this. They ace both the tense and dramatic sequence, but they never really manage to elevate their characters beyond their survivalist traits. The best performance comes from Danny Huston, who (helped by some mad eye make-up) delivers a delightfully fiendish bad guy. The rest of the cast is decent, with no weak links, but also no standouts. Not the worst thing for a horror film.
David Slade only needs a relatively short intro to paint the setting and characters. Once that is done, the crisis starts to escalate pretty quickly, with a horde of vampires swamping the little town, killing people left and right. 30 Days of Night becomes a pretty simple genre flick from that point on. A small group survives the first attack, and they have to keep alive until the sun returns, while vampires are scouring the town looking for human snacks. Most of the runtime, you'll be counting down the numbers, until the leads ready themselves for their final stand and confront the vampires head on. Typical genre work in other words.
30 Days of Night is a film that thrives on its setting and the atmosphere Slade manages to draw from it. The creepy vampires, the polished cinematography and moody soundtrack only enhance the icy dread. It's not a film that is going to grow beyond its target audience, but if you love a dark, brooding horror flick with some pleasant flashes of gore, then it's difficult to imagine 30 Days of Night will disappoint. It's a film that has everything in it to grow into a respected future genre classic, and the way things are evolving, it looks like it's well on its way to do just that.