Viking Night: 30 Days of Night
By Bruce Hall
April 5, 2018
The kind of horror films I enjoy are rarely about the monster. They’re about tapping into larger concepts that frighten us on shattering, primal levels. I know that zombies and werewolves are not real, and that nobody on screen is really being killed, so what else have you got? To truly get into someone’s head, you need to get their mind into a state of lonely isolation where their deepest fears can be stirred. That sediment gets whipped into a cloud of blackness not by the monster, but by the world the monster represents.
That said I guess I don’t “enjoy” them so much as I occasionally appreciate the effect they have on my perspective, not unlike taking a cold shower. So when a friend recommended I review 30 Days of Night for this column, I had to pause and do a quick Terminator-style memory scan. Do you mean:
28 Days Later?
50 First Dates?
3:10 to Yuma?
Every number-related movie title I could think of flashed through my mind, and I came up with nothing. I was informed that this was a vampire flick, which game me pause because those usually suck. But after running my concerns past a trusted colleague, I was told assured that 30 Days of Night was well worth my time.
I’m happy to report that it’s also well worth yours. The story takes place in (a movie version of) Barrow, Alaska. The town sits above the Arctic Circle, which means that that once a year it’s plunged into a full month of darkness. And why?
Because the Earth is round, people.
The town’s inhabitants are hardy, blue-collar folk who work on the nearby Alaskan Pipeline. Still, most of them can’t handle thirty days of darkness and flee for more forgiving climes until the event is over. Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) and his deputy Billy (Manu Bennett) are responsible for preparing the town for the long night and this year, they’re not looking forward to it any more than usual. Eben is also estranged from wife Stella (Melissa George). So when she misses the last plane out of town and ends up staying, you can add “30 Days of Awkwardly Avoiding My Wife” to Eben’s list of woes.
It gets worse. A certain series of events leaves the town cut off from the outside world. The sabotage is clearly intentional and it coincides with the appearance of a disheveled and violent stranger (Ben Foster) whom Eben promptly arrests. What the unsuspecting townies don’t yet know is that this is merely the vanguard of a well organized vampire invasion force. But thankfully, this is not a From Dusk Till Dawn style grindhouse shoot-em-up.
The built-in excuse for shooting entirely at night makes for an obvious atmospheric advantage, and the Arctic setting is an added bonus in that department. But this is a movie about people who consider themselves to be a strong, self sufficient community finding themselves entirely out of element. Of course that’s not necessarily original either but if it works, who cares?
And like any good film, this one is truly the sum of its parts. It’s not without its flaws, but it combines atmosphere, drama and “brio” in the perfect proportion to keep me riveted. David Slade (Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Black Mirror) is probably an deal director for such a balancing act; a proven small screen talent who can be safely entrusted with a relatively low risk, high reward project like this one.
He certainly gets the most out of his actors, too. Horror and Noir themed comics often lean heavily on reaction closeups, and there are more of those in 30 Days of Night than a in a Mexican soap opera. But they’re effective; usually shot in narrow focus on an actor clearly reliving some kind of Method trauma. If you appreciate seeing actors emote, then you’re in for a real treat with 30 Days of Night. Maybe they brought Stanley Kubrick back from the dead to scare the living shit out of everyone.
Whatever it was and however it happened, there’s some pretty solid acting going on in this movie.
Hartnett’s character was plucked from a spaghetti western and stuffed into a parka. He’s a resolute and aggressive Sheriff, but also easily the most human of anyone in town. He’s often reluctant to make hard decisions but he’s conscious of setting an example, and eager to allow everyone whatever dignity he can. This is why they follow him, even when they’re not sure he knows what he’s doing. And of course, nothing mends a broken marriage like a vampire attack. Eben and Stella’s thawing feels earned though, and you hardly notice until after it’s already happened.
I’m not saying there’s no melodrama here at all. Things go over the top on occasion. But would you order a hamburger dry, or would you put something on it? Right - and that something is vampires.
I haven’t mentioned them yet because as I said, this story isn’t about them. And...like most modern vampires, these are highly stylized. They look like characters from a slightly buggy Grand Theft Auto mod. Their spoken language sounds like a Klingon reading Hebrew while chewing on unsalted almonds. When they get worked up they screech at each other like howler monkeys on meth. I get it; they’re meant to be ancient creatures with feral tendencies. At first it’s suitably unsettling. But by the end, with all of them on screen at once, it reminded me of every Halloween party in the 90’s that had twelve guys dressed like The Crow.
Just. Fucking. Over it. But hey, they’re there to do one thing and they do it well. And as their leader, Danny Huston and his eyebrows are legitimately terrifying. There are also a number of things I’d be willing to bet are direct reproductions from the comic. One in particular made stupendous use of the film’s restricted color palette. Even the sound design is worth mentioning; what little music there is relies on weird, organic percussion sounds cued to horrifying events on screen. For comparison, I found 30 Days to be no less effective overall than Sin City, and I enjoyed this movie a whole lot more than that one. So there.
Simply put, I dug this film. It grabbed my attention. It got me engaged. And though it’s twenty minutes too long and almost goes off the rails in its last third, it recovers nicely in the final minutes and absolutely nails the ending. Even the credits are worth watching.
I can think of no higher praise.