[K.V. Taylor is an avid reader and writer of urban fantasy and dark speculative fiction. Her first novel, “Scripped”, which stars pseudo-vampiric fae, is coming from Belfire Press in May 2011. For more vampiric nonsense visit kvtaylor.com]
“30 Days of Night” is that rare animal: an honest-to-god, gut-wrenching horror flick that goes for emotional involvement. Unlike the anti-hero, or at least sympathetic villain vampire film, this one goes for a post-apocalyptic zombie movie feeling.
The movie takes place in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States. As the catchy title implies, for more than a month every year, Barrow never sees a sunrise. No one comes or goes, and what communication they have with the world is easily cut off. The only real question is why it took the vampires so long to sort this out; the place becomes a month-long all-you-can-eat buffet.
That’s really all you ever learn about the vampires in the film, apart from a few tips and tricks (decapitation and sunlight as weaknesses, vampirism as a blood infection, etc.) and their basic desire not to be rediscovered by humanity– who have relegated them to nightmares and fiction. The real story follows Eben (Josh Hartnett), the sheriff of Barrow, and Stella (Melissa George), his estranged ex-wife of a fire marshal, as they try to keep a mismatched handful of survivors alive until the sun finally comes up. This is where the zombie apocalypse part comes in– most of the movie is them scurrying and hiding around town, trying to avoid the violent, bloodthirsty monsters.
But there’s more to it than that. Beyond the relationship between Stella and Eben– which could easily be overdone, but isn’t– there are some truly interesting character moments. A little girl accidentally turned, a friend used as bait; self-sacrifice, fear, community, and protective instinct all get a workout, creating genuine personal horror beyond the primal “oh god, I’m about to be torn apart and eaten” reaction. The build up and interspersion of these moments makes the drawn-out tension more bearable and sustainable than in most horror films. More obviously, it also lets us know our heroes, so we actually care if they get eaten or not.
It’s a classic set up with a classic ending, nothing unpredictable or visionary about it, perhaps. But it’s a well-executed, intensely human-centric vampire movie. And is not for the weak of stomach.
There are some really interesting featurettes on the DVD, not the least of which is talking about creating the vampires, their look, their language, their movements. There’s also some waxing philosophical about how unromantic* their brand of terrifying is, which considering the modern vampire climate is certainly worth noting.
THE MOVIE Vs THE BOOK
“30 Days of Night” was a horror comic by Ben Templesmith (artist) and Steve Niles (writer) first. Niles was involved in the script-writing for the film, which as usual is a good sign– but the two incarnations have as many differences as similarities, in some ways. I like the book, but– and I realize it’s generally blasphemous to say this– I think the movie is better on the whole.
The movie preserves most of the comic’s finer points. It grabs you by the throat and drags you in fast, covers you in blood, and leaves you breathing hard. It even keeps some of the most memorable moments in the book perfectly intact– for example:
However, the book gives you zero character involvement. Eben and Stella don’t have a lot of personality (not in the first book, which is the one on which the movie is based), and none of the others are more than a random name dropped here or there. The breakneck pace of the book is great for action but:
1. You hear them talk about as much action as you’re actually shown.
2. The lack of character is gaping, to the point where it’s just about blood-splattered snow.
The film also preserves the book’s aesthetic in some ways. This is a point of much argument, as Templesmith’s art is somewhat love it or hate it. The art often reflects the lack of character– the faces are vague in terms of physiognomy, serving more as a palette for emotion than anything else– but what it does, it does well. Slade preserved that gory rawness in the film without the sacrifice, though.
The one thing the book does better is give the vampires motivation, which makes them terrifying in a slightly different way– if not more or less. The intense human focus in the movie makes it unnecessary, but it’s worth reading the book to get the other side; it’s as monstrous and enjoyable as you’d expect. There are also some plot complications meant to set up the sequel, “30 Days of Night: Dark Days”, which stars Stella as a more fully-realized character, that they left out of the movie. But that’s for the best, considering.
As a side-note, my favorite nod to tradition– which appears in both the book and movie– is “The Stranger”. This is the guy the vampires send ahead to take care of communications and generally be creepy before the sun sets. In both book and movie, he orders raw meat and has an affinity for bugs. In the book, they call him a “bug-eater”.
Nice to see you again, Mr. Renfield. And well done, Steve Niles.
*The whole unromantic thing gets blown out of the water by the second book, Dark Days, which is funny since it’s Steve Niles talking about it on the DVD. But it certainly holds for the movie.