The 2002 comic-book series 30 Days of Night more or less managed that trick. Writer Steve Niles cleverly set vampires down in a place called Barrow, Alaska, a settlement so far north of the Arctic Circle that it experiences a month of continuous darkness each winter. (Niles’ town shares a name and location with the actual Barrow, Alaska, but nothing else.) Illustrator Ben Templesmith augmented the story with his expressionistic black-and-white drawings that depicted the vampires as primal, animalistic beasts. Niles and Templesmith’s vision has inevitably been adapted for the big screen, and given how innovative and fresh the original was, it’s a shame that the movie comes out as so much slush.
Josh Hartnett stars as Eben Oleson, the sheriff of Barrow, who thinks he has the town’s 150-odd residents adequately prepared for yet another month-long night. He doesn’t know that a stranger (Ben Foster from 3:10 to Yuma, and yes, he’s still creepy) is disabling the town’s means of transport and communications so that a band of vampires can arrive and decimate the townsfolk. Eben gathers together a small group of survivors, including his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George), to hide out from the rampaging bloodsuckers until the sun comes up. The main story rests on Eben and Stella reconciling amid the carnage, but this attempt at character development is too hastily sketched in to be rewarding. Even if it were better written, Hartnett and George aren’t exactly actors with great emotional depth.
The bigger disappointment here is the director, if only because he matches up perfectly with the material on paper. David Slade is a music-video veteran who made a striking feature film debut last year with the child-molestation thriller Hard Candy. That movie wasn’t horror, but it was frequently horrifying, and Slade made the most out of the film’s action being largely confined to a single house. Here, the action takes place in a series of confined spaces (the survivors move from one hiding place to another when the chance arises), but the director never generates the same sense of claustrophobia. As for the horror, the vampires look too human to be scary, and the casting of milquetoasty Danny Huston as the head vamp doesn’t help. Slade doesn’t even manage to create any frisson from the fact that this town experiences 30 days of night; you’ll see how his work falls short if you compare it to either version of Insomnia, in which Erik Skjoldbjærg and Christopher Nolan used the endless sunshine of an Arctic summer to create a distinctive and dread-laced atmosphere. Composer Brian Reitzell layers on a few nice touches in the score — check the handclaps on the soundtrack during a chase scene — but these are hardly enough to make 30 Days of Night as memorable on the big screen as it was on the page.
30 Days of Night
Starring Josh Hartnett and Melissa George. Directed by David Slade. Written by Steve Niles, Brian Nelson, and Stuart Beattie, based on Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s comic book series. Rated R.