30 Days of Night was directed by David Slade (Bandersnatch, Red Bird Lane), written by Stuart Beattie (Interceptor, Obi-Wan Kenobi), Brian Nelson (11.22.63, Agent Stoker) and Steve Niles, who adapt from Niles’ and Ben Templesmith’s comic, and stars Josh Hartnett (Penny Dreadful, 40 Days and 40 Nights), Melissa George (Between Us, Home and Away), Danny Huston (Wrath of the Titans, Eden), Mark Boone Junior (The Gateway, Wristcutters: A Love Story), Megan Franich (Bad Romance, The Good Hearts Club), Mark Rendall (Departure, Sam Sam), and Ben Foster (The Contractor, Six Feet Under). It’s about the citizens of a small Alaskan town fighting off a hoard of vampires after the sun sets for a month.
The Plot: Because creature features of the era were so invested in blood feuds, ancient history and subplots, 30 Days of Night benefits from stripping back the excessive details to allow for a straightforward story that’s unexpectedly compelling, all born from an ingenious idea by the original comic authors.
Barrow, Alaska is facing its last day of sunlight before the annual polar night takes hold. Right out of the gate, it’s hard to ignore the wonderful pairing of concept and setting, with such a phenomenon lending itself to the story at hand. While townspeople like Sheriff Eben (Hartnett), handyman Beau (Junior), and Eben’s brother Jake (Rendall) are preparing for the long dark while most of the mere 600-ish citizens leave for brighter territory, the Stranger (Foster) is on the approach. One of the few failings of the plot is the weak attempt at a mystery surrounding a gradual cutoff to the outside world; it’s all too clear that the wandering man is responsible.
Later that night, while Eben’s estranged wife Stella (George) is brought back into town, a clan of vampires led by Marlow (Huston) and Iris (Franich) finish the job by destroying the power grid, locking everyone in place for the titular 30 days of night. While most movies would stop there and let the narrative stagnate, Beattie, Nelson and Niles make survival an integral piece of the movie, with scenes devoted to diminishing power sources and foodstuffs making appearances until Eben, Stella, and company are forced to make an offensive. It may be simple, but the plot here is no slouch as it pays attention to the basics while doing some background worldbuilding that plays well until its punchy conclusion.
The Characters: Slade’s mission here was to provide genre entertainment without going overboard on backstories and interpersonal woes, so 30 Days of Night doesn’t have very many fleshed-out characters, but the leads are more than enough to carry the feature.
Eben is a strict but fair kind of sheriff, citing people for minor things but hardly ever following through with tickets or arrests, but he’s vindictive about the ones he does want to bring in, showing visible anger once the town starts losing power and supplies. Despite his hardness in most situations, threats against his brother get to him – as well as seeing what’s happening to Barrow at the hands of the vampires – but he doesn’t let that get in the way of keeping as many people alive as he can.
Stella is trying to fix her relationship with Eben by requesting that he pick her up when her truck gets wrecked on the way out of town, although she was initially just going to complete her work in Barrow and leave without notice. Once the couple is forced to stick with each other for the length of the polar night a reconnection arc takes place, largely in the background so as to not get in the way of the main material.
Assorted side characters like Beau, Jake, and a handful of other survivors all help to round out 30 Days of Night’s roster. They all get their own traits and personalities, which are mostly one note, but Beau and Jake get small arcs – the former surrounding his social distance from others and the latter a rapid maturation – to give a sense of drama to the proceedings.
By leaving some blanks but filling in the leading couple, the filmmakers do a very good job at creating characters to root for without ever getting bogged down by the minutes spent amongst them.
The Horror: Although 30 Days of Night’s rendition of vampirism is similar to how 28 Days Later approached zombification (whether this is coincidental or not, I don’t know since the comics came out mere months before the movie), Slade gets plenty of scares with the novel twist on this antagonistic trope.
Marlow and his goons are a might more cunning than horror antagonists at any point in horror history. While there are a handful of contrived moments (most notably in the last few minutes), their overall tact is thorough and vicious. After having all but the back-up power sources destroyed, they still take their time and prepare to assault Barrow in a sequence so fast and brutal that it’s almost a blur, but in a good way. Even the characters are unsure of what’s happened until getting closer views of the bloodsuckers. Seeing just how quickly and efficiently they wipe out most of the town sets the stakes (pun if you want it) superbly.
Because the vampires are so effective, Eben, Stella and the rest are all forced to stay inside whatever shelter they can find, which, given the small size and isolated placement of the town, isn’t an easy task. As food in their pitstops dwindles, some scuffles break out which cause their own tension owing to the acuity of the vampires’ senses. Each step the humans take is a carefully measured risk that translates well to the audience.
Not every attempt to scare lands, as there are some predictable tropes in use – the biggest flop is a child vampire that’s gnawing on a body and audiences are supposed to be unsure about the state of the kid – but 30 Days of Night overcomes them with startling sequences and sustained atmospheric tension.
The Technics: Despite only directing one other feature in 2005’s domestic thriller Hard Candy, helmer David Slade did a terrific job at crafting a larger-scale horror picture with remarkable technical prowess. Hardly a slip-up is to be found.
Most of 30 Days of Night wasn’t shot in Alaska, heck most of it wasn’t even shot outside. Largely filmed in New Zealand on sets designed by Paul D. Austerberry (The Liberator, It: Chapter Two) and decorated by Jaro Dick (The Man from Toronto, Avenging Angelo) with only the exterior shots being done on location didn’t do anything to diminish the production, which always looks fantastic regardless of filming circumstances because of Jo Willems’s camerawork, which often emphasizes the faces of the participants and gives a personal look at the events unfolding. Sometimes these shots can linger a little too long, and the movie could probably be trimmed of about three or four minutes of extraneous footage.
Special effects studios Weta, Digital Post, PRPVFX, Jelcoprops and Cobalt did just as much of the legwork in creating the setting though, as much of the outdoors are accentuated by completely digital extensions to the setting, adding buildings, lights and terrain to go the extra mile when the movie could’ve gotten away with tighter shots. Weta’s makeup team created the vampires too, which aren’t too over-the-top, keeping the antagonists distinctly human in all ways but the eyes, skin tone, and teeth, making the threat more real. It’s great work by everyone involved.
30 Days of Night may not be a great movie, but with its novel take on vampires being sturdily acted, directed, and produced, it’s easily one of the best in recent memory.