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30 Days of Night

November 2, 2007

30 Days of Night continues Hollywood’s current fascination with several trends.

First, there is the apparent preoccupation with graphic novels as source material. Hollywood has been mining this particular seam for some time now, most explicitly in recent times with the near-frame-by-frame adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300. 30 Days of Night began life as a three issue miniseries of horror comics, written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith. The series takes place in Barrow, Alaska, a town so far north that during the winter the sun vanishes for 30 days.

Bravo. It’s a killer premise, for in this month the tiny town is besieged by a group of vampires intent on round-the-clock mayhem. I’ve always been impressed by simple conceits of the “why didn’t I think of that” variety, and here it works very well. Not having seen the comic series, I can’t vouch for whether any visual threads were lifted for the movie (although, of course), but it all begins sure enough with bold, epic strokes, vast whited-out landscapes that urge you to think about the isolation. The few people, black specks against the white, who appear are there for a purpose (two or three times you hear the residents say “we live here for a reason, right?”) and they’re summarily sketched out in these opening scenes. Most significantly, there’s Eben Oleson, the town Sheriff; his estranged wife, Stella; his brother, Jake; his deputy, Billy; and a handful of other townsfolk, battening down the hatches for winter. In many cases it could be seen as a rather Western dynamic. Under the shadowy gloom of the disappearing sun, and the bleak nothingness around them, they make preparation for the tough days to come.

And then a sudden, intense, extreme close-up of a mysterious traveller, again, an image that must have come from the page. Dumped on an icy shore he looks back at a gruesome ship, a huge shadowy behemoth floating out in the mist. With no equipment or food he trudges across this immense landscape and finds the town. From this enigmatic beginning you’re hooked. No Clint Eastwood hero this, however; the stranger kills the town’s husky population and trashes its helicopter, cuts the ‘phone lines and generally destroys outside world contact. When he’s caught he simply tells the sheriff and his family that “they will come”.

From that moment the film’s action escalates at an alarming rate and you worry that it will fatally shoot its bolt, so suddenly do the vampires (and the knowledge of what they are) arrive. No need to worry on that score. After a quite extraordinary reveal scene, full of chaotic brutality where gallons and gallons of blood are spilt on the previously pristine white streets, a long and excruciating siege takes hold of Barrow. The townies not caught outside as the monsters arrive are holed up in attics and cubbyholes, shops and apartments, and thus begins a deadly game of cat and mouse.

And that’s a standoff set to last a month, so we’ll leave the Barrovians for a moment and return to some broader concerns.

Second among the themes that 30 Days of Night highlights is the prevailing enthusiasm for ultra violence on the screen. Much has been written elsewhere about the film’s most intense scenes, especially a beheading that, with the advances in seamless special effects, actually does appear to be someone being decapitated. Like, for real. I mean, genuinely. Furthermore, he’s slumped against a wall and being attacked with an axe, so as you can imagine, it’s not a clean kill; his assailant has to make a few swipe to get it right. Plus, to make it even worse, if that’s possible, he does this because the guy is screaming and alerting the vamps to their position, so it’s an attempt to keep him quiet, not because he’s a bad guy. Yes, as you’ve probably worked out, it’s unbelievably gruesome. Example two, a little girl – admittedly, vampirised – is hacked to pieces. Example three, a woman is taunted and killed in leery stages by a gang of the creatures, resembling a mouse being toyed with by cats, all the time being watched by the terrified hiders in their bolt-holes. Example four, a man…no, no, I’ll stop there.

As you can see, this is a fierce film. Indeed, it’s one of the most brutal, unsympathetic things I’ve seen in a long time, but oddly it doesn’t have the same affect on the senses that dreadful Torture Porn pap like Saw or Hostel or Captive manages. In Hostel, particularly, the grim litany of abuse is trooped across the screen to such flaccid effect, that the only result was to render the audience disinterested or bored or to shut them out. In 30 Days the cruelty is a very specific attempt to show that these monsters are ‘other’; they’re not us. It also emphasises just how desperate the survivors’ position has become. Bizarrely, then, I have to say, as horrific as all this sounds, it’s not in the least bit gratuitous.

And third, Josh Hartnett. Why?

Oh, that’s a little unfair, I guess I just don’t get him, nor Tinsel Town’s fascination with him. He was laughable in The Black Dahlia, cringeworthy in Sin City and should have sunk, aptly, with the USS California in Pearl Harbor. But no, he’s here, and holding up the heavy end of the cast list. In fairness he doesn’t do a bad job, even though his pathetic attempts at bum-fluff whiskerage suggest a man trapped in moderate discomfort for 30 hours and not 30 days. There is one moment when he says something that is supposedly ominous, and it fails completely, but mostly he’s there to look like a man presented with a situation that’s beyond him, and I guess he’s had plenty of practice at that.

No, ultimately, it’s probably wise that Josh doesn’t go in for any studious thespian acrobatics, because that niche is taken up by Danny Huston, who plays Marlow, the leader of the vampires. If there’s a more terrifying presence on cinema screens this year, I’d be amazed; if there’s a more genre-defining vampiric turn in film, I haven’t seen it. He is wonderfully unnerving, infused with an alarming energy and alien passion. Templesmith’s creations on the page were described as being like a great white shark stuffed into human skin, heads sharply arrowed and focussed, cut-out holes for eyes, the balls of which glisten black. Huston oozes an animalistic menace and authority, he speaks an ugly, spikey, unknown patois, within which the only recognisable words – during that appalling toying scene – are ‘no God’. Meaning, of course, that here, now, there is no God other than him. He’s extraordinary.

There’s a tantalising hint of back story here that fascinates; the vamps want to destroy everything about the town because they don’t want the outside world to know of their existence. Marlow tells his horde that for centuries they’ve worked to develop a mythology that humans can easily dismiss, so that they can hide when necessary, but when they do emerge they have to make sure they leave undetected. There’s a lot in that, unknown stories, all weighing down on his shoulders. With that chilling ‘no God’ message, with the responsibility of his species, his awful bone-white pallor, and his ferocious unknowability, there’s even an anti-Messianic quality to Marlow. Astonishing then, to think that this pure monster is played by the man who was Nigel, the Art czar, holed up in Battersea Power Station in Children of Men. Clearly a man of considerable ability.

Unfortunately, there are certain elements of the movie that don’t come across quite so powerfully as Huston’s performance. There are themes that aren’t explored, a few irritating plot holes that could have received a bit more exposition, a leap from ‘Day 7’ to ‘Day 18’ that is very jarring, and a brief moment of predictability that does no-one any favours. I suppose you could counteract that with an out-of-the blue sacrifice, a real and tangible sense of dread (and cold), and the fact that the cute doggies get it. Horribly, and with no faffing about. But these things do threaten to derail what is otherwise a brilliantly effective thrill-ride.

Now the clocks have gone back and it’s getting darker every day, just be glad when the sun comes up the next morning, and that Danny Huston is safely tucked away in the city of the angels.

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