Vampire movies are a hit-and-miss genre, with the misses widely outweighing the hits. For every "Interview with the Vampire" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula," which treat the nighttime bloodsuckers with a certain level of tragedy, fear, eroticism and pathos, there are three or four listless, arbitrary bores such as "John Carpenter's Vampires
" and "Dracula 2000." Based on the graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, "30 Days of Night" falls closer on the side of the latter than the former. Director David Slade, who made such an auspicious and character-rich filmmaking debut with 2006's psychological thriller "Hard Candy
," downslides here with a bloody but erratically shot slasher film that is neither taut nor scary. The vampires themselves are merely a stock means to an end, lacking even the vaguest conscience or sign of lost humanity that could have made them more than forgettable imitations of the supernatural species.
Barrow, Alaska, holds the distinction of being the northernmost populated town in the U.S.a place where for thirty days out of the year, the sun no longer shines. While many of the residents temporarily set off for Anchorage or the Pacific Northwest, others stay put and keep Barrow running. On the first day of night, The Stranger (Ben Foster) mysteriously shows up, causing a disturbance at the local diner and immediately under suspicion for killing a family's pet dogs. Promptly hauled off to the local jail by cop Eben Olsen (Josh Hartnett), The Stranger portentously speaks of death coming, a warning that comes true when the town is overtaken by a gang of ruthless vampires and the citizens start meeting nasty, headless ends. For Eben, ex-wife Stella (Melissa George), Eben's teen brother Jake (Mark Rendall), and a handful of basically interchangeable silhouettes posing as mortals, they must find a way to survive until the sun once again rises.
A war between sharp-toothed, facially deformed bad guys who hiss while jumping out of shadows and chopping-block victims so shoddily written and developed that you couldn't give a rat's tail about any of them leaves no room for being engaged. Why care about the fates of people you know nothing about, or, at the least, kind of like? "30 Days of Night" consists of uninspired scenes where day players show up for a few seconds before getting their necks bloodied and wheel-spinning scenes with the lead actors as they hide out or cause distractions while the rest of them run from one building to the next. Chemistry between the characters is scant, relationships are obligatory or nonexistent, and the narrative is repetitive and unable to boast a personality or identity that doesn't remind of a lot of better movies such as 1982's "The Thing" and 2007's "28 Weeks Later
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of "30 Days of Night" is that the inventive premisethat of a vampiric siege on a town stuck in a month of constant darknessis so wasted. Save for a mood-drenched establishing shot of the quaint town popping up amidst a landscape of white nothingness, Barrow's community is haphazardly depicted and any hints of the village's spatial geography must have ended up on the cutting-room floor. Additionally, a day-counter sparsely popping up now and again to tell the viewer how much of the month has passed is a lazy and unacceptable substitution for portraying the passage of time. The story may span thirty days, but it feels more like two. The sheer terror that might come with knowing that one is stuck in a place where there is no escaping a more powerful and deadly force is lost upon director David Slade and screenwriters Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie (2005's "Derailed
") and "Hard Candy
" collaborator Brian Nelson. Sure, the vamps are physically threatening, but that crucial feeling of dread is not built up.
Josh Hartnett (2007's "The Black Dahlia
") and Melissa George (2005's "The Amityville Horror
") are the two leads among the cast, but the impression they make as Eben and Stella is minimal. The rekindling love story between these two is icy in a way that hasn't a thing to do with the temperature, and a potentially powerful climactic scene is ruined because of it. The only other actor worth noting is easily the best thing about the film. As the enigmatic, likely psychotic man only known as The Stranger, Ben Foster (2007's "3:10 to Yuma
") reinvents how offbeat, off-the-rails and positively chilling a screen character can be with no more than fifteen minutes of screen time. From his voice to his look to the eerie stillness of his body movements, Foster owns the role and steals the thunder away from the vampires themselves. Sadly, he is out of the picture before the one-hour mark, and the absence of his brilliantly quirky presence is deeply felt.
"30 Days of Night" has atmosphere to sparethe cinematography by Jo Willems is slick and appropriately ashen when it isn't overly hectic, the Alaskan setting (in truth, shot in New Zealand) looks genuinely blustery and isolated, and pieces of the music score by Brian Reitzell sound like creepy, unorthodox throwbacks to horror orchestrations of the early-'80sand the film pleasantly diverges from predictability in the third act. Before this point, however, it's safe and workmanlike and really rather bland. The vampires aren't frightening, only loud and ugly. The protagonists aren't endearing, only dull. Generated suspense, meanwhile, is zip. For a horror picture being released only weeks before Halloween, "30 Days of Night" doesn't thrill and it definitely doesn't spook.