Rarely outside of the ouvre of Michael Bay has a movie looked so good and been so well shot and yet been so completely, thoroughly moronic. 30 Days of Night is a stupid, stupid film, a disaster at the script and casting stages. It’s like a turd covered in tasty Ghirardelli chocolate – as soon as you sink your teeth in you know you’ve got mouthful of sweetened shit.
What’s most disappointing about this film is that it is directed by David Slade, whose debut, Hard Candy, positioned him as not just a great shooter but someone with an actual interest in the content of his films, and most importantly a sure touch with actors. That movie is a two-hander that could work just as well on stage, but Slade manages to keep everything dynamic and brings out career making performances from Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. The announcement that Slade would be doing 30 Days of Night next excited me: the comic series is absolutely terrible, written by one of the most odious hacks in the business, Steve Niles*, but it has a killer concept. In the comic, a brood of vampires descends on a northern Alaska town where night lasts a whole month during the winter. I don’t know how original that concept is, but it’s certainly not been overdone. I had hoped that Slade would take the great concept and then make a real movie with it, bringing the deft touch he had shown with Hard Candy. Instead, he made an exact adaptation of the spirit of the comic: inane, boring, without characters but totally fucking cool looking.
The script to 30 Days of Night is so bad I find myself hard pressed to believe that it was ever actually read by anyone involved. It’s incredible that a screenplay as fundamentally inert as this could have three writers – Niles, Brian Nelson and the usually not so hideously awful Stuart Beattie. Every line is a clunker, and every time a character opens their mouth because you know not only will they deliver a poorly written, unnatural line of dialogue, they’re going to deliver it like an amateur thespian doing a self-important reading of the Gettysburg Address. Only Ben Foster seems to understand the sort of pulp junk he’s in, and he sinks his teeth (inevitable vampire pun) into his role as The Stranger, a gumbo-lovin’ Renfield type who leads the vamp pack to the land of the Northern Lights.
Slade delivers nice shots and visuals but he makes narrative mistake after mistake. The idea of a group of people trying to survive a month in a town overrun with vampires and engulfed in darkness only works on three conditions: you know the group of people, you feel the passage of time and you understand the geography of the town. 30 Days of Night fails on every one of these conditions. Slade makes almost no effort to establish the layout of Barrow, Alaska; we get to know a couple of locations, but never figure out how they relate to each other. The characters are trying to get to the Utilador (it sounds like a Spaniard who fights the electric company in an arena), which is variously too far outside of town to ever reach and close enough to the very center of town that characters can look out the window and recognize other characters hiding under cars. Slade has an impressive helicopter shot that pans down the main street of Barrow showing the vampires wreaking havoc on the whole town, but again the lack of geography erases almost any meaning from the scene – it’s a snowy strip of street! – and the rest of the meaning goes out the window when you have no idea who the little figures being massacred are. It’s a metaphor for the whole film: looks cool, utterly unengaging.
The lack of geographic understanding is frustrating because the characters we’re following, a small motley crew of survivors, are moving from location to location attempting to get to the Utilador. When they go from one place to another, or discuss going from one place to another, there’s no engagement, since these places do not exist in any relation to one another. More frustrating than this, though, is the way that there feels like no passage of time at all. It’s tough to show time passing without the rising or setting of the sun, but the events of the film really feel like they take place over the course of a few hours; nobody seems concerned about supplies, there’s little tension within the group despite the fact that they’re constantly moments from death (this isn’t helped by the fact that no one in the group has an identifiable character, although more on that later), and the only seeming wardrobe or make-up change is that Josh Hartnett grows a ‘beard,’ although I entertained the idea that one of the other survivors copied a prank from Jackass Number 2 and glued their pubes to his face. Without a sense of the passage of time, the weight of the situation these characters are facing quickly dissipates – the horror of dealing with vampires for a couple of hours is very different from the horror of dealing with them for weeks on end, but if you don’t make me feel the siege, I won’t feel the tension.
That tension should be coming from places besides the monsters, by the way. One of the things that makes ‘survival horror’ movies like the Dead films or The Thing great is that the danger isn’t only coming from outside. While Slade and the ‘writers’ may have not wanted to get into the usual tropes of the 12 Angry Men Meets Frankenstein genre of horror movies, they err in the other direction, making their group so homogenous as to be boring. There’s some disagreement at the beginning, but that is cleared up quickly. Most of the survivors are as good as faceless; when one guy gets bitten by a vampire and begins to change he delivers some fucking speech about his family that was killed in a car accident years ago and I found myself wondering why I should care for this guy who had been set up in a two minute long scene an hour earlier. One or two of the survivors have a characteristic as opposed to a character – an old man who is senile, his son who is worried about him, Hagrid who keeps to himself – but I couldn’t tell you anybody’s name. I couldn’t tell you anything about them beyond that single characteristic. And by the end, I couldn’t tell you why I cared if they lived or died.
This apathy extends to the main characters. Josh Hartnett and Melissa George seem carved from some kind of styrofoam here – not only are they delivering lifeless performances, they’re light as feathers. They’re terrible, absolutely wretched, and close to unwatchable in their roles. But they get off better than poor Danny Huston, who is actually humiliated by the movie. Huston’s a fine actor, and to see him reduced to the King of the Vampires…
First a word on Slade’s vampires. These aren’t the suave undead of Anne Rice. They’re feral pack animals with poor hygiene – they never wipe the blood from their faces. They are also apparently nerds, since they speak to each other in what sounds like Klingon the whole movie (at first the idea of a vampire language is neat, and then it just becomes silly and pretentious to have subtitles in a film like this, or at least subtitles for a made-up language). For some people this is a neat spin on vampires, but for me it’s boring. Why does The Stranger want to be one of these vapid beasts? The beauty of the vampire legend is that they’re seductive, they offer eternal life and a good time. They’re the supernatural upper class, feeding off of us plebes. In 30 Days of Night they seem like a band of better dressed crust punks, riding the rails for their next free meal and not interested in ever washing their fucking faces. Don’t get me wrong: I see why the vampire legend needs updating, and in theory I wouldn’t mind a feral, animalistic vampire clan, but the film doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind. They’re savage, but they’re organized and communicate and have a society. They come to Barrow on purpose, because of the darkness, but once they get there they kill everybody and…. just hang out? What’s the point of that? They don’t even have a party or anything, they just seem content to chill out on the rooftops for the other 28 days of the month of darkness. These are not interesting vampires.
And Huston is their King, and he plays the role like he had recent brain trauma. His mouth is forever hanging open, and he looks around at everything like he doesn’t even know what’s going on. At first I thought he was supposed to be actually stupid – an instinctual living dead beast whose brain had quit working – and when he delivers lines of dialogue (in Klingon/vampire) like "What can be broken must be broken" or something, I felt like my Retarded Vampires thesis was supportable. But it doesn’t seem that’s what the movie is presenting, and we’re supposed to realize that the vamps are like really smart or evolved or something or other. They just seemed to suck, as far as I’m concerned. And yes, that’s more vampire punnery.
30 Days of Night does deliver some strong gore, but it takes the movie a while to get to that point. And while Slade does have some wonderful shots up his sleeve, he relies on the worst variation of the shaky cam for much of the action; shaky cam should be in tight and make us feel like we’re in the middle of the action, but Slade often sets his camera far away and then shakes the shit out of it (some of it seemed like it may have been shook in post, which is weird), and this doesn’t make you feel like you’re in the action but maybe in a truck with no shocks that happens to be on a bumpy road near the action.
I really wanted so much more out of this movie, and out of David Slade. Even if he had been stuck with this terrible, terrible script, he made no effort to redeem himself beyond the basic visuals. To see this concept fucked twice now – once in the comic, then on screen – is so very disheartening to me. On every level beyond the gore this movie left me unsatisfied and sort of depressed. What a lovely looking piece of junk.
*Steve, please don’t call me.