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Non-Review Review: 30 Days of Night

I really wanted to like 30 Days of Night. I’m a sucker for vampire films, and David Slade’s adaptation of the horror comic started off on all the right notes, with a rather ingenious central concept. After all, if you were a vampire, could you imagine a better hunting ground than a town that spends thirty days in absolute and complete darkness, isolated completely from the outside world? It’s a novel take, and one that really should be more interesting than the rather generic desaturated gore fest that it becomes.

In need of a reVamp?

I like novel takes on classic concepts, so the opening half-hour of 30 Days of Night had me sitting up and taking notice. A vampire attack in the Alaskan wilderness, where the creatures’ well-known weakness to sunlight wouldn’t come into play for a whole thirty days? I was on-board with that. Indeed, the opening scenes hint at an organised and systematic vampire strike, the kind of which it’s very rare to see, and one that was rich in potential. As the vampires close in on the community that’s bracing themselves for winter, all the phones in the village are mysteriously destroyed, the helicopter thrashed by some unknown force and the dogs brutally murdered.

This seems like it might be a new breed of vampire for the twenty-first century, one that isn’t launching a small-scale guerilla conflict with humanity in order to stay alive, but one staging an aggressive and calculated terrorist strike with planning and strategy to back it up. I loved that idea, because I don’t subscribe to the idea that pop culture archetypes should remain fixed or stagnant. We’ve had so many generic vampire movies that a new take on the genre was long overdue.

Fostering interest...

However, despite this promise, it ultimately ends up being a very generic film, with the vampires running around in gratuitous fast-motion, screaming and wailing like animals, rather than seeming as measured or controlled as their plan of attack would suggest. There are hints throughout the film that the creatures are smarter than your average movie monsters, using stray humans as bait to draw out those sheltered and hiding, and seemingly cultivating the idea that they are myths and legends in order to avoid attracting too much attention (“it took centuries to make them believe we were nothing but bad dreams”).

I think the problem is David Slade’s direction. Slade seems to think that quick cuts, animal noises and lots of blood are the key to making a scary vampire movie, but it just feels too much like everything we’ve seen before. Despite all the effort the script goes to in order to convince us that these are modern and well-organised creatures of the night, Slade instead gives us monsters wallowing in cliché. Despite their modern methods, they speak an ancient language. Despite their sophisticated plan of attack, they move and sound like wild beasts. It just seems a tad generic.

Snow escape...

And I think that’s the problem at the core of the movie. Once it moves past its first act, things fall into the same old pattern that we’ve seen time and time again. The best performance of the movie comes from Ben Foster as a mysterious stranger who arrives in town on the eve of the attacks, but Foster disappears from the script fairly quickly. It’s a shame, because he’s able to give life to what could have been a generic archetype, and because he leaves the film in the care of Josh Hartnett and Melissa George. Hartnett isn’t bad, but he’s not necessarily good either. And, as I’ve stated before, Melissa George can’t act – even her accent here, let alone her attempts at emotional engagement – are terrible.

Once the action kicks in, we also lose the wonderful establishing shots. The opening scenes, set against the last sunset of the Alaskan Winter, look beautiful – they really make the region look like an unspoiled paradise. In fact, even the initial vampire assault is well handled, with an impressive tracking shot from above. However, once that’s over with, the movie slides into cliché, falling back on familiar tropes we’ve seen executed countless times before in more interesting and creative ways.

Fear factory...

Slade even has difficulty with the tried and tested “creepy child” scene, the staple of a horror movie like this. A scene involving a young child changed into a monster is an effective way of emotionally engaging with your audience – because it’s such a primal fear. It’s a technique that has been used, time and time again, to great effect. It’s simple and easy to do, which is why film makers are so fond of it. However, Slade botches the execution here, turning it into a stupid and stilted scene instead of an emotionally powerful one. This is the problem with everything in the film outside the first half-hour: it isn’t that Slade falls back on stuff we’ve seen countless times before, it’s that he doesn’t seem able to execute it with any particular skill.

It’s a shame, because there are hints of a good film buried somewhere under here. I love the sequences where Slade isn’t afraid to hide his vampires in the background – catching a glimpse of something that shouldn’t be there is wonderfully unsettling – but they’re few and far between, and somewhat undermined by the fact that the creatures don’t remain as scary when they get closer. The core premise is really brilliant, and the opening scenes promise something that’s a bit different from every other generic horror out there. The problem is that the rest of the movie doesn’t nearly measure up.

One Response

  1. I like your review, but I got to disagree. I’m not sure why so many people dislike this film. It’s an original idea, in an original setting, with some really creepy vampires. what’s not to like? While the plot maybe mediocre I think there are enough great elements to add up to an awesome flick.

    I just reviewed this film myself on my blog. And being a fresh film critic I’m always looking for more feedback. And you are a good reviewer. ;)If you get the chance check it out.

    http://horrormoviemedication.blogspot.com/2013/02/30-days-of-night.html

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