In 2003 British director Danny Boyle delivered his most successful film since his popular cult classic "Trainspotting." "28 Days Later" was an exhilarating reinvention of the zombie horror film, taking the conventions of the genre but kicking the intensity up a notch and utilizing a unique setting and visual style.
The film took place in an abandoned London. The city's inhabitants had fled since the accidental release of a virus that transforms its infected into vicious, rampaging creatures. The cinematography featured a grainy look created with the use of digital cameras, thus enhancing the beat-up feel of the city. The end result is one of the most original, mature, and satisfying horror films in recent years. It's a film that succeeds both as an intense horror experience and as legitimate drama - a rarity among today's fright films.
I bring up "28 Days Later" because the new film "30 Days of Night" basically does for the vampire movie what "28 Days Later" did for the zombie. Note basically. "30 Days of Night" is still successful but it fails to reach quite the level of sophistication of "28 Days Later."
"30 Days of Night," based off of a graphic novel of the same name, takes a premise so clever, and in a sense so obvious, that it's a wonder no one has done it before. Within the mythology of vampires there is always that ultimate weapon that the protagonists have against their undead foes: sunlight. Just bide your time until dawn and the sun will kill the vampire(s.) Well, what if you're in one of those few areas on the planet where the sun will not rise for part of the year?
"30 Days of Night" takes place in such a place: Barrow, Alaska. The film begins on the last day of daylight. Many residents are rushing to catch the last flight to Anchorage. The town's sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) spends the day investigating several strange crimes. He and his partner find a pile of stolen cell phones that have been burnt. There's also a mysterious slaying of all the town's sled dogs. Other means of communication also start to show up damaged. That night Oleson finds his chief suspect when he arrests a strange man who is being belligerent in the local diner. The creepy man who has noticeably horrific teeth speaks cryptic warnings that death is approaching.
And, oh, does death ever approach. The large group that descends upon the town win the award for the most horrific, terrifying, ultra-violent vampires ever to appear on the silver screen. In "28 Days Later" Boyle transformed the slow moving, dim witted zombie into a sprinting, manic menace. Director David Slade gives his vampires the same treatment. They are fast and ferocious, feasting on their victims like starving wild animals.
Just how intense is the "30 Days of Night" experience? The film woke me up - literally. I'd gotten up that morning at 7:00 am and by the time the 10:20 p.m. showing of "30 Days of Night" came around I was exhausted - certainly not ever actually falling asleep but struggling a bit to stay awake. Then there came a point in the film - perhaps somewhere between a third and half way through - when the intensity of the vampire attacks was really going wild. So-called "jump moments" - when the film attacks you and instinct kicks in causing a sudden dodge - are one of the reasons people go to horror movies. They're like those moments of float time on a rolling coaster when a combination of hill and drop gives you that weightless feeling. I judge great roller coasters on how much float time you get. And the intensity and frequency of a horror movie's "jump moments" is one way of judging a picture's quality.
Well, there came a jump moment in the film of such intensity that for the rest of the film I was wide-eyed awake. It was as though I'd just chugged a Red Bull. The film itself had produced enough of an adrenaline rush to noticeably affect me for the remainder of the picture.
So as far as being a horror flick goes, the film is quite successful. It's very scary, intense, and violent - so violent at parts that I was shocked they'd gotten their R. However, it's in the film's higher brow aspirations they stumble. It's clear that the filmmakers' goal is not simply to generate scares and violent thrills. No, they're wanting to be a real movie too with characters, acting, depth, etc. And this does not work out that well.
Now how does that judgment get formulated? It's real simple. How many of the characters' names do you remember? What were their relationships and issues? Or, more simply, what is it about the movie that you remember 24 or 48 hours later? I remember much of the vampire stuff quite vividly but as far as characters and drama goes I know that the Josh Hartnett sheriff was estranged from his wife Stella (Melissa George) and that the crisis brought them closer together. That's about it. And it's semi-memorable but really not that compelling.
Another testament to the mediocrity of the film's dramatic elements is the weakness of the first act as the characters and their relationships are set up. It's really pretty flimsy stuff. But in the end it's a necessary evil and worth sitting through to get to the really fantastic vampire sequences. And do make a point of catching the film in theatres to really feel its intensity.