Wednesday, November 26, 2008


The novelty of director David Slade's vampire movie "30 Days of Night" (*** out of ****)is its unique Alaskan setting. The opening titles reveal that Barrow is the northernmost town in the United States, with some 80 miles of road less wilderness separating it from its nearest neighbors. Moreover, once a month every year during the winter, the sun doesn't shine on Barrow. Anybody that knows anything about vampires knows that they only come out at night to prey. Cleverly, "30 Days of Night" exploits this bit of vampire lore for maximum impact, and the clueless citizens of Barrow line up like a buffet for these atheist bloodsuckers. Scenarists Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie, and Brian Nelson drew their blood-curdling screenplay for this ghoulish, often gruesome, exercise in nihilism from the 2004 graphic IDW novel series by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. Moviegoers who love their horror chillers basted in blood and gore will relish this taut tale of terror. Although the basic plot doesn't depart drastically from the standard vampire movie formula, the "30 Days" vampires differ from the Bela Lugosi/Christopher Lee variety. The "30 Days" vampires don't shape-shift into either wolves or bats. They dress in conventional clothes, bare jagged shark-like teeth rather than the dual canine fangs, and they feed on their victims like sharks rending flesh in a frenzy. Further, they defy gravity and bounce around like circus acrobats, and two of them boast enough strength to flip an SUV. They deploy their razor-sharp, talon-like fingernails to slash open gullets before they feast on the wounded. Finally, only the leader of these vampires can speak, and his accent is so thick and guttural that subtitles are necessary to translate his words.

As the last day of sunlight fades over Barrow, Alaska, North Slope Borough Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett of "Sin City") encounters 'strange' things. First, Eben and his deputy discover a pit of melted down cell phones. Second, they learn that vandals have destroyed a helicopter for no apparent reason. Third, a knife-wielding maniac has savagely slaughtered an entire kennel of sled-dogs. No, the dogs die off-screen, only the human die on screen. Meanwhile, Eben's estranged wife Stella (Melissa George of "Turistas") is scrambling to get out of Barrow before the airport shuts down. She works for the state fire marshal, and she's finishing up her inspection of the Barrow facility. While she is driving through the snow-swept landscape to the airport, a man steering a snow-plow collides with her when his brakes lock up. You'll chuckle at the folks who jump in their seats at this scene. Unhappily, Stella finds herself stranded in Barrow for 30 days with a man that she doesn't want to see.

Eben arrests an unkempt ruffian at the local diner, the Stranger (Ben Foster of "3:10 to Yuma"), for threatening the cashier. Suddenly, the lights go dark, the phones go dead, and the Internet goes down. The creepy Stranger warns Eben that bad things are in store for Barrow. Everywhere, blurry figures erupt from the shadows. They pounce without warning on the unsuspecting. They haul their victims out of sight in seconds as if sharks had seized them and dragged them underwater. Eben and Stella gather a small group of people, and they hide—Anne Frank style—in the attic of a boarded-up house while the vampires storm Barrow. Eventually, Eben learns the hard way about thetwo ways to slay these bloodsuckers. You can either lop their heads off with an axe or obliterate their noggins with a shotgun. Again, these vampires aren't the traditional variety. Similarly, "30 Days" doesn't qualify as a run-of-the-mill vampire movie.

Aside from one reference to Bela Lugosi, the "30 Days" characters know nothing about vampires. They never discuss the merits of wooden stakes over crosses or vials of holy water versus the use of garlic. Mirrors never play a part in any conversation. These animalistic vampires enter wherever they please without awaiting an invitation like the Bela Lugosi/Christopher Lee variety. These seemingly invincible fangsters follow their leader Marlow (Danny Huston of "The Kingdom") without question. The high point of "30 Days"--or low point depending on your opinion--occurs when our heroes scavenge for food and medical supplies in a supermarket. A little girl (newcomer Abbey-May Wakefield) with a five o'clock shadow of dried blood on her jowls and a devilish glint in her black eyes lurks on the premises. She spots the small band of survivors. Like a suicidal, banzai-screaming Japanese soldier, she attacks them with her shark teeth bared, screaming for their blood.

"Hard Candy" helmer David Slade takes his sinister subject matter pretty seriously. The R-rated violence is appropriately grim, sometimes even horrendous, with no shortage of blood spilled. The squeamish should avoid "30 Days." The performances are low-key, with Josh Harnett looking believably resilient for a change. Melissa George plays Stella with convincing grit. Slade shuns the use of comic relief to lighten things up when events turn truly nasty as the number of good guys dwindles during the 30 days of darkness. In many ways, Slade's horror opus resembles a B-western. The terrain is stark, rugged and inhospitable. The enigmatic night creatures invade Barrow, ostensibly from a ship anchored in the Arctic ice, and they behave like sadistic Apaches who want to annihilate everybody and destroy everything. In other words, they amount to memorable, menacing malefactors. The hero's strategy to defeat the fangsters is the last thing that you'd expect, but the showdown between Marlow and Eben looks straight out of a western. Although the story takes place in an Alaskan pipeline community, the filmmakers staged the mayhem on location in New Zealand. "30 Days of Night" ranks as an above-average, white-knuckled, full-fanged vampire epic that goes for the jugular.

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