30 Days of Night (2007)
The essential thesis of the modern horror film has developed thus: you’re not so special, you hordes of suburban wannabes, so die screaming, piggies. I mean this in the sense that in comparison with the psychologised miasma of a Vampyr or the mythological dreaminess of Whale's Frankenstein, where horror is chiefly conceived through a limited set of characters and it’s the individual moral consciousness that’s really at risk, in modern films grotesque death is almost abstract. People are interchangeable in large part and can be exterminated on mass.
So, by the time 30 Days of Night’s core narrative movement commences, in which a small group of survivors tries to last out the eponymic nocturnal period, you've not met half of the characters you now need to care about before, and there’s not a whole lot to discover about the ones you have. It's a common weakness of graphic novel adaptations, as if someone in Hollywood thinks that greatness of that art-form is that it doesn't need such hoary requirements as human interest. The hapless haemovore bait in 30 Days are lightning sketches of everyday people with everyday problems, sufficiently specific to the setting: horny young refinery workers, pinch-faced middle-aged couples, nutty freedom-seeking frontiersmen and pot-smoking matriarchs. The most substantial pair is the heroic sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) and his fire marshal wife Stella (Melissa George), who have just separated, it seems, because of his unwillingness to have children. You don’t need anymore do you? What do you need plot for? There’s vampires. They’re eating people. The people don’t wanna be eaten. You need a doctoral dissertation?
And yet, in spite this overeager, headlong rush into Hades, 30 Days of Night is surprisingly good, far ahead of the sick, shallow chomp-and-stomp of the similarly-constructed likes of Alien Vs Predator: Requiem. Even if it hews to the modern trend of razoring back dramatic content to simple essentials, director David Slade believes in atmosphere and intensity, and he expostulates a darkly intelligent (and intelligible) tale. He channels The Fog/The Thing-era John Carpenter in building a sparse, savage survivalist tale, and makes that sparseness work for him. It’s a cruel, blasted world he evokes, beginning with an eerie quiet and resisting heroic hype. The beasts, led by cadaverous, contemptuous Marlow (Danny Huston), terrorise Point Barrow, Alaska, having come with a simple purpose, and reduce matters for its humans to equally simple priorities.
Slade makes his wizened, haggard, Nosferatu-esque vampires ferocious, horribly fast and powerful predators, rendering them unsettling foes – relentlessly inhuman and inimical to any human weaknesses. But they’re also united by a forlorn sense of community as are the people they prey on, and Huston berates a godless universe where there’s only hunger and pain. In the film’s most intense sequences, as when a teenage girl is slowly sliced to ribbons in trying to bait out others, or when Eben’s younger brother (Mark Rendall) is shattered by having to hack off the head of a girl vampire, gains a truly vicious focus that compares worthily with the sensitising horror of predecessors like Night of the Living Dead – the act of both consuming and defending oneself are linked in that each reduces sentience to animalism, far below any moral position. It could also be recent cinema’s most effective vegan tract.
It’s finally a human trait - a capacity not merely to act for self-satisfaction - that drives Hartnett to surrender his humanity and, then, life for others. In all good horror films, the flailing, hurting world has to either have its moral schema re-invented or die. Something intimately terrifying and probably destructive has to be encountered before a new rule of order can be established. Hartnett’s self-sacrifice is the effective Calvary that achieves the rebirth.
Although Slade can’t always win the battle against the short-cut nature of modern effects that counteracts the integral grit of his models, he still conjures a believably tactile environment that strikes the eye as bitterly cold and corrosive to any form of life, and it’s the most beautiful-looking horror film in many years. The film sports some excellent action sequences, notably in the kamikaze rampage of arch-individualist Beau Brower (Mark Boone Jr), and one amazing overhead shot of the vampires’ feeding on the townsfolk that plays literally and thematically as some disinterested god’s view.
Apropos of little, Melissa George and Isla Fisher have come a long way since balancing out each-other in bikini shots in their Home and Away days…