Wednesday, 11 January 2012

30 Days of Night (2007)

Dir. David Slade
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster

A man stands on a snow-caked shore. Behind him a black freighter looms. He turns and sets off through the knee-deep drifts. Towards Barrow, the most northerly town in the United States.

As with Insomnia this film could have been set nowhere else in the US than Alaska, and nowhere better than Barrow, up on its northern coast. 30 Days of Night plays on exactly the same facet of Alaska’s northerly location as Insomnia but flips from summer to winter. If there is a land where the sun never sets for part of the year, conversely there must also be part of the year where the sun never rises. Barrow sees an entire month between dusk and dawn. As the films starts most of the inhabitants are heading for the last plane out of town before the dark falls. The population falls by two thirds. What they don’t know is that out of the 154 that are left 150 will not live to see the sun. Because vampires are coming.

It is an intriguing concept. The night is scary. In how many stories have the creatures, monsters, things attacked by night. Their victims are left terrified, straining their eyes into the dark, praying for the dawn. In most cases that dawn would only be a few hours away. In Barrow it would be days. Throw in vampires to that mix, vampires that are not the urbane Christopher Lee-esque charmers, not the conflicted Robert Pattison-alike heart-throbs, but vampires that are savage, bestial, barely human. The vampires of 30 Days of Night attack with a feral ferocity and talk in a screeching glottal language of their own. But they have cunning. Their agent, the stranger they send into town (Ben Foster), has his tasks to do before their arrival – destroy satellite phones, wreck the helicopter, slaughter the sled dogs. As darkness falls they move in to complete the isolation of the town, trashing the communications tower and knocking out the power grid. With no roads for ninety miles the remaining inhabitants are trapped in the dark with no way out.

To be honest they don’t really need to cut off the power. What harm could a few street lamps do to creatures that can shrug off a bullet? But it all helps to terrify the humans, to make them understand before they die that – in the words of the vampires’ leader Marlow – there is “No God” (the only English any of the creatures utter). Meanwhile the deranged stranger (Ben Foster), believing that the vampires will reward him for his loyalty, raves unnervingly from his prison cell. “You can feel it. That cold ain’t the weather. That’s death approaching.”

I already had my write-up composed in my head even before I watched the film. I thought I would be using words like ‘hokey’, ‘contrived’, ‘passable’. In actual fact I kinda liked it. The central idea is a good one and I love that the vampires are depicted as monsters and not just better-looking, better-dressed versions of ourselves that just happen to suck blood (they are well dressed though, in suit jackets and party dresses, as though they have just stepped off a cruise-liner). Their not-quite-right faces smeared with blood are genuinely pretty disturbing. They don’t mess around – they storm into town and they take it. There is a great overhead tracking shot showing them slaughtering the remaining townsfolk in the snowy streets. Plus it has great shout-outs to other classics recognisable to the genre-savvy viewer. The isolated frozen terrain brings to mind John Carpenter’s The Thing. Ben Foster plays a seriously creepy ‘Renfield’. There is a ghoulish little girl a la Night of the Living Dead. And if Bruce Campbell made the chainsaw iconic in the Evil Dead series of films by Sam Raimi (who produced this movie), well, you should see the size of the saw Beau (Mark Boone Junior) has on the front of his tractor! The visuals are crisp and stark, betraying elements of the story’s visual novel genesis. If you like your horror movies to be packed with action and gore, this is one for you!

Going out in this weather?
You'll catch your death!

However, for me, the film could have been scarier. The build up is really promising – isolated clues and events, the cryptic comments of the stranger. But then the tension dissipates. The vampires go for full-frontal assault, slaughtering the townsfolk seemingly within the first 24 hours. After that it is just the story of a bare dozen survivors trying to hatch a plan as days pass. I would have liked to see the tension stretched out further as the vampires pick off the human population one by one, their attacks staged over days rather than in one mad orgy of blood-letting, whittling away at the defences of a Barrow that realises that it is under siege but which doesn’t yet understand what by. That is what would work if you had maybe half-a-dozen vampires to play with. But here there are loads. Against a half-dozen you could maybe go all Yippe-kay-yay and defeat them. But faced with the numbers seen here, and their unnatural strength, the survivors could never hope to destroy them all. As Marlow comments, “When man meets a force he cannot destroy, he destroys himself”. All Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) and his soon-to-be ex-wife Stella (Melissa George, only sounding Australian at a few points in the movie) can do is harbour the remaining survivors and try to survive until morning. This leads to pacing problems. The amount of action on offer would easily fill one normal-length night. But 30 days? What on earth are they doing in the week they spend hiding in the attic, or the week they spend hiding in the supermarket, or the week they spend hiding in the police station? And aren’t they cold? And why does no one need the toilet until day 17? It would have been nicer if the film was, actually, longer, so the tension could be ratcheted up and the survivors be given personalities other than ‘woman’, ‘big man with beard’, ‘slightly batty grandad’ etc.

What have I learnt about Alaska?
Frankly, it’ll be the death of you. There are people who are drawn to its isolation. “Isn’t that why we live out here?” Beau asks Eben, “You know, for a little freedom?” These are rugged, individuals, used to living at the furthermost frontier of America. But that life is relies upon at least the bare essentials of civilisation – communications, transport, electricity, other people. Take all of that away and they are mere survivors, waiting for the storm to pass.

Can we go there?
Barrow really exists, and really is the northernmost town in the USA. It is also one of the most northerly towns in the world, with only a few scattered settlements in Norway, Greenland and Russia ahead of it. It does indeed see an entire season when the sun is below the horizon – this lasts between November and January (65 days rather than thirty). Its population is also around ten times higher than that depicted in the movie. It is, however, unconnected to the rest of Alaska by road. If you want to come in you will have to fly or sail.

The movie was not filmed in Barrow, or even in Alaska. The company went south instead of north, and ended up in New Zealand. Shooting was done in studios in Auckland and outside in Otago in the South Island (the area made famous by the Lord of the Rings movies).

Overall Rating: 2/5

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