30 Days of Night is the latest entry in a long line of vampire horror movies. Vampires have sort of gone out of vogue in the horror world recently, replaced by decomposing, lumbering zombies. Director David Slade’s movie tries to get vampires back in the thick of the scare business, and he has a gimmick. 30 Days of Night takes place in an isolated Alaskan town which, since it’s so far north, spends 30 days of the year in complete darkness.
As gimmick’s go, it’s a good one. As the sun sinks toward the horizon for the last time, most of the tiny town’s 500 or so residents leave, preferring migration south rather than 30 days without sun. Some however, always choose to remain and the small town’s sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) marks the beginning of their 30 days of dark by adjusting their population sign to reflect its 152 remaining residents. Meanwhile, the vampires are already plotting. Someone has begun vandalizing key areas of the little village’s infrastructure. Satellite phones are stolen, and burned. The town’s helicopter is mysteriously damaged beyond compare. Something is afoot, but before Oleson can figure it out, the sun is gone and it’s game over.
The vampires come on the town suddenly, and in force. The power goes out, the phones go down, the internet is gone. The nearest town is 80 miles away, there is no sun, there is no hope, no chance of defense, no semblance of order. This isn’t a siege movie where the brave sheriff holes up in a police station with a group of survivors and defends them against an attacking evil. With the disappearance of light, the handful of residents left in the dark become rabbits, helpless scared creatures whose only hope is a quick death.
Except it takes them a few hours to figure this out. Meanwhile, the vampires' attack is an orgy of brutal violence and blood spatter as humans run out into the street brandishing weapons, mistakenly thinking they can actually fight. Each attempt at self-defense is marked by a red stain on the snow, and soon the defenders are gone and the vampires move on to crashing through houses and killing everyone else. By then Sheriff Oleson and the few people he has running with him have started to realize out they have no hope, and like the prey they are, go to ground praying that they can wait for the sun’s return.
They can’t. The vampires keep coming, keep killing, keep hunting. They’re an unstoppable force and Slade never makes the mistake of letting you think his human characters have a chance. He’s so good at it, that when something does go right for them you’re surprised. Even then, there’s always a horrible price.
The film goes extremely heavy on the gore; heads are brutally severed in extreme close-ups, blood drips through the snow leaving stains of death everywhere the camera goes. There’s an aerial shot in the middle of the film which will simply blow the mind of gore-hounds, as a camera sweeps over the town in the midst of the vampires’ most vicious, massive, killing frenzy. But what’s amazing is that gore isn’t what the movie is about. It’s intense and gripping, so intense that even though you’re watching one of the goriest movies you’ve ever seen, you may not even notice. You’re too caught up in what’s going to happen next. Are the vampires coming? Will they run? Will they hide? Will anyone make it out alive?
If there’s anything wrong with 30 Day of Night, it’s only in the final act when the movie’s dwindling supply of heroes make one of those truly bizarre decisions that people only seem to make in movies. And perhaps you’ll walk out feeling a little indifferent to Josh Hartnett, who’s not ineffective as the movie’s primary protagonist, but it’s clear that bringing heat to the cold just isn’t his thing.
Ben Foster however, shows up early in the movie to turn in his second great villain performance of the year. In 3:10 to Yuma he stole the film as a perfectly groomed uber-murderer, here does a 180 and plays a grungy, slimy, stranger who wanders into town and causes trouble. As he did in Yuma, he slips completely into the character until he’s almost unrecognizable. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t find a way for him to figure more prominently into the script. He leaves an impression.
Most of all though, see 30 Days of Night if you want to be scared. It’s so rare that a modern horror movie actually delivers that. Most seem to boil down to buckets of gore or cheap, easily spotted scares. 30 Days of Night brings the gore, but mixes it with a brutal, vicious, nail biting intensity that grabs you by the hair, drags you through the street, and cuts off your head when you least expect it. David Slade hasn’t revolutionized the vampire genre, but he may make you wet your pants.