Photo courtesy Perfect Strangers re-make starring Bronson Pinchot and Josh Hartnett
Hopped up (or perhaps hungover) from a Halloween of pizza, candy, nachos, scotch and worse, a few buddies and I made a spirited attempt to recapture the spirit of the holiday with a post-viewing of the new, massively promoted vampire flick 30 Days of Night. Yet another big-screen graphic novel adaptation, our hopes were high that the comic’s nearly unimpeachable concept (seriously—setting a pack of vampires loose in a town so far North that it endures thirty days of night every year…no one thought of this before?) would transcend the mundane. Alas.
It’s a toss-up as to who fails the material most: David Slade’s (of Hard Candy fame) hyper-kinetic direction ruins the possibilities of hackle-raising scares arising from the most obvious source, namely the combination of flat, endless arctic expanse and vampires; the screenplay by Steve Niles, Stuart Bettie, and Ben Nelson strives for a kind of grim foreshortening of action that moves too brusquely past certain moments, too slowly through others and falls back on narrative cliché whenever it backs itself into a wall; and special note must also be made of the performers, almost all of whom believe they’re acting in slightly different movies than those they’re working opposite.
Kudos first to Danny Huston, who here continues his highly improbable rise to movie stardom as the vampires’ leader. Looking something like Billy Idol with jet black eyes and terrible teeth, Huston hisses his way through 30 Days looking more a real performer here under layers of pancake than he did in Birth, Silver City, and Marie Amtoinette combined. It's the most (un)intentionally hilarious performance of the year. He's almost matched by Ben Foster, who's been sent ahead by the bloodsuckers to prepare the town for their descent; the generally baby-faced actor dirties himself up nicely in the Renfield role. Constantly beset upon, townsfolk like Josh Hartnett (the local sheriff) and Melissa George (his ex and local fire marshal) don’t have space for much beyond squinting and looking grim. Hartnett especially looks out of place—he’s as much of a hero as he can be, but doesn’t quite carry the despair of a near-hopeless situation.
The script isn’t there to help anyone (I’m sure the vampires felt blessed in only being called on to snarl and occassionally utter lines of subtitled dialogue). In a thriller with a countdown built into the title, one wouldn’t expect to ever question what day the characters are living through, but placement within the duration of the month long night is too often left to our imagination. As such, the film’s most interesting possibility gets closed off—temporality just bleeds and we move from the first day to day seven to the end of the movie with alarming speed. Also left largely unexplored is the moral quandary of dealing with former neighbors turned vampiric—Hartnett is offerred the chance to decapitate a few friends, but there’s an ethical weight lacking that might have rendered these bits more poignant, and lent the overal scenario some flashes of tempering reality. An unexpected ending twist almost pays off, until it devolves into yet another illegible fight sequence.
Slade probaby fares best, pulling at least three or four worthy images out of his hat. The most memorable’s a langorous god’s-eye perspective of the town as it’s first beset upon by the vampires. The shot, though probably digitally rendered, lingers, and seems to bear the mark of terrific choreography—feasting vampires battling scared townsfolk amidst bloody piles of their dead comrades. Fires rage amidst the snowdrifts and modern frontier architecture, and it seems for a second that he might pull a movie out of a mess. Unfortunately, for a film that fronts like horror, 30 Days of Night focuses more on gore than genuine scares. And while the gore is occassionally effective, achieving something like camp at times, a more elegant touch could have worked wonders—early windswpt vistas full of foreboding quickly give way to the blandness of unconsidered interiors. All we’re left with are a handful of seizure-inducing fight scenes and bits of kismet that conjure up what might have been.
Better luck next year, I suppose. At least it's far better than Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf looks…