30 Days of Night should have been good. It had a great concept and wonderful cinematography. The problem is that the movie never fully explores its strong points, downgrading this 113 minute long movie from a Must-see to a Rent-it Thriller.
The plot is cool: a group of vampires turn a small Alaskan town into a 24-hour diner after the town plunges into complete darkness for a month. The survivors refuse to be easy prey.
The main selling point is that the vampires are the smartest bloodsuckers to turn the silver screen red. They rip through victims like wild animals, but they also utilize the cold, bait their victims and ensure that they keep their numbers down.
The creature make-up is subtle. The vamps are pale with glossy black eyes that slant upward in an impossible angle. Their fangs advertise one thing: a monster cannot daintily sip blood with stalagmites for teeth.
The gore is also realistic and director David Slade pays attention to detail. Bodies are rarely decapitated with one ax swing in real life and the movie follows suit. The human characters exhaust themselves when they fight and many have medical ailments such as the main character, who has asthma. Even those in peak physical condition are not exempt from problems; some go into shock and others dehydrate from the weather.
The biggest problem is that there is no tension. The movie tries to emphasize the isolation and hopelessness of the situation, but the viewer doesn’t feel terror with the characters. It is like the characters are strung along from point A to B because the plot calls for it. This is especially disheartening since many plot points are predictable.
The movie did have some suspenseful scenes. The creatures initially kept to the shadows, but that tactic only worked for the first twenty minutes. After that, only the “No God” torture scene included any tension. And that was because of the moral ambiguity: should a human allow vampires to slaughter one person so that others can fight another day?
The lack of tension probably stems from the broadly stroked characters. Josh Hartnett as the hero Ebon has just enough backstory to motivate his altruistic behavior, but his character has two modes: stiff policeman and teary-eyed martyr. The plot with Stella (Melissa George), Ebon’s estranged wife, is just a plot device to get Ebon to kick butt during the film. Everyone else should have been named Expendable Victims.
Two actors stand out. The Stranger (Ben Foster) looks like he crawled out of a dumpster and sounds like a demented version of Mr. Rogers. The passion, the insanity, the betrayal – this character was fascinating to watch, but even he takes a back seat to the lead baddie.
Danny Houston as Marlow is the acting king. He uses subtle tics and expressions to characterize what must have been a stereotypical villain in print. When Marlow kills his victims, he is both affectionate and menacing, stroking his victims’ faces before harming them. He often tilts his head in different directions, mimicking childlike curiosity when he studies his human subjects. No wonder the other vampires follow this guy-he is one of the only characters with a point of view!
The script is pretty decent, but the pacing is weird. In one scene, the characters survived the first couple of days and then a subtitle announces that day twenty-something has arrived. When did that happen? What did these people do? And how did the vampires pass the time if they killed so many off the bat?
It is hard to imagine vampires sitting by a fresh corpse to play Monopoly, but imagining them walking around and hissing at each other for a month is equally ludicrous.
At least the cinematography is excellent. The film limits colors to black, white, red and grey. The stark contrasts between these colors jar the viewer and make the images stand out. In particular, the aerial shot of the entire town being slaughtered shows the full extent of the vampires’ violence. With the white wasteland suddenly bursting with red as black figures run, the scene seems morbidly beautiful.
Fans of the genre should check it out, but this thriller deserves only 6 out of 10 stars.