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30 Days of Night   B-

Columbia Pictures / Ghost House Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Slade
Writers: Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie, Brian Nelson (based on the IDW Publishing comic by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith)
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, Mark Boone Junior, Mark Rendall, Amber Sainsbury.

Review by Rob Vaux

I really wanted to love 30 Days of Night. I adore the graphic novel on which it is based, and I have a high regard for director David Slade, whose Hard Candy remains one of the best movies of the last few years. It has a kick-ass premise, a refreshingly adult sense of the bleak, and Danny Huston playing an undead bloodsucker with great big fangs. It was going to be so cool. And then... well... um, I guess it still kinda is. At points. In certain ways that don't necessarily translate over to the rest of the film. But it's not what it could have been, what it should have been. Instead, it mixes some truly brilliant aspects with a significant amount of fumbles, miscues, and flat-out mistakes. In order to enjoy the best, you have to put up with the worst... and rarely have "best" and "worst" commingled quite so completely.

As far as source accuracy goes, at least, fans of the comic book by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith can relax. Slade presents the scenario -- in which a gang of feral vampires descends upon a small town above the Arctic circle where the sun doesn't rise for an entire month -- with only minimal changes and a sincere dedication to the original vision. The bitter, existential tone remains intact, blended with stark, almost black-and-white images of Barrow Alaska, whose residents are preparing for a very long winter's night. But troubling incidents shortly before sundown have sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) worried. Someone pilfered and destroyed every one of the town's cell phones, there have been strange incidents at the power plant, and the owners of the local sled dogs are horrified to discover their teams butchered in their kennels like pigs. At first, it all seems to be the work of a crazed drifter (Ben Foster), who apparently walked in over the frozen tundra for the sole purpose of committing such mayhem. Then the sun vanishes into the sea and the real trouble shows up... trouble that the isolated townsfolk have no apparent means of stopping.

Slade grasps the thematic needs of the piece quite readily, and his penchant for claustrophobic close-ups makes for a merciless sense of tension. Even the wide spaces feel as cramped as the inside of a closet, and when the vampires begin their lengthy hunt -- intent on wiping out the entire town one-by-one -- you can feel the uncaring chill clinching tight around us. The template here is John Carpenter's The Thing, whose icy shadows provide ample inspiration (and which might make an intriguing double feature with this film for those so inclined). 30 Days of Night further enhances the mood with an exquisite use of sound. The atonal music keeps our perceptions permanently off-kilter, while Slade plays clever tricks with spoken dialogue that affect us almost subliminally. (The heroes spend much of the film speaking in whispers so as not to be detected... and we grow so used to it that when someone unknowingly calls out in a normal voice, the effect is like needles on stretched nerves.)

The vampires themselves benefit from similar audio effects, while their horrifyingly distinctive look becomes one of the movie's best selling points. They convey a sense of animal depredation, far more Max Schrek than Anne Rice. Jagged teeth extend from rodent-like features, punctuated by shrieking hisses and a unique language of their own that drips with antediluvian menace. Though unspeakably cruel, there is little overt sadism in their actions. Rather, they act out of callous necessity, feeding their hunger without the slightest trace of guilt or remorse. And yet they're still quite intelligent... so much so that their leader Marlow (Huston) has developed a nihilistic philosophy to justify the brutality they inflict. Against them, the townsfolk's desperate fight for survival is as effective as screaming at the stars: they can't hear you and even if they did, they really wouldn't care.

Yet, while the rampage attains such dark beauty at times, it also suffers from some glaring flaws in the nuts-and-bolts department. Art Jones' editing, for example, works far better during individual sequences than as an assembled composition. He misses important expository and continuity shots, which often renders the action difficult to follow. Story elements must be inferred in a number of places and resolve themselves awkwardly at best, while the sense of passing time -- so crucial in a piece like this -- is bungled almost beyond recognition. Given Jones' background in music video, it's no surprise that he does much better in short clips. The set pieces and individual scenes work beautifully on their own, but they never coalesce properly, giving the film a herky-jerky quality that confounds its efforts at broader storytelling.

The screenplay, too, forms another troubling obstacle, mostly in the dialogue, which ranges from the perfunctory to the simply bad. Characterization is limited to routine details, and while we see a good deal of figures like Oleson and his estranged wife (Melissa George) before the horror begins, it becomes difficult to connect with them as we should. Other characters suffer much more deeply, their personalities defined by the actors rather than the lines they're speaking. This is particularly true in the case of Foster, who goes to waste in a role he could have knocked out of the park with a little more support.

Such failures strike at the foundation beneath the film's exquisite surface, keeping us from falling under its spell. It overcomes its problems more than once, showing flashes of brilliance that remind us how great this genre can be. For me, that eventually added up to a satisfying experience, and I imagine that horror connoisseurs will enjoy it far more than they would another dismal trip through the latest Saw sequel. But it handicaps itself in a distressing number of ways, forcing the superior elements to fight off its considerable failures like the very undead prowling across its length. Slade can do better, and I have no doubt he will. But given the material at hand, 30 Days of Night should have been so much more than the flawed, imperfect entertainment it turns out to be.

Review published 10.19.2007.

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