Quick: name a good vampire movie that can be called a horror film.
If you're having trouble coming up with an answer, it may be because all the good, mainstream vampire movies for decades upon decades have been action films, dark comedies, or satires--but strangely enough, not horror. It is a strangely unacknowledged irony that the vampire--one of the most fearsome of mythological monsters--has never really been given a decent Hollywood treatment. For ages, they have been romanticized as demon lovers, politicized as group leaders, and anthropomorphized as sarcastic jokesters. But they've rarely been characterized as sinister, intelligent abominations feeding in the shadows...Until now.
30 Days of Night, directed by David Slade of Hard Candy fame and based on an acclaimed graphic novel, is set above the Arctic Circle in the ice-entombed town of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in the United States, where, each year, the sun is virtually unseen for a month. Taking advantage of this perpetual night, a pack of vampires led by the ancient and lethal Marlow (Danny Huston) invades the remote locale, feeding upon the unsuspecting locals with speedy brutality. When it becomes clear that they are dealing with the unimaginable, the survivors of the initial slaughter, cut off from the rest of the world, band together to wait out the darkness, led by the local sheriff (Josh Hartnett) and his estranged wife (Melissa George).
From the icy backdrops to the foggy haze of relentless night, the stage is set beautifully in a world of desolate wilderness. The atmosphere of insomnia and sleeplessness contrasts well with the frantic level of on-edge terror experienced by the characters, and there is a constant level of unease in the grounded-in-reality environs--a reminder that there are monsters right outside the door. 30 Days of Night is a harrowing nightmare set in a bloodstained, dreamy winter.
When we spoke with Melissa George in an exclusive interview last year, she had been shooting the movie for four months and was excited about how it was shaping up, saying, "You've never a seen a vampire like this before." Fortunately, the bold claim was more than substantiated by the final product. 30 Days of Night envisions the vampire as it was meant to be: a sentient, intelligent monster that sees itself as the top of the food chain. In this incarnation, they have enough of a passing resemblance to humans to seem formidable, and yet are also alien enough to seem unright. They are animalistic in their bloodlust, but thoroughly calculating, fueled by cruelty, deep-running malice, and insatiable hunger.
The fact that the vampires have their own language--created by a linguist brought onboard for the sole purpose of developing an inhuman tongue--adds another alien aspect to them. Hints about their history are occasionally dropped, but the vampiric backstory is never really explained, leaving a fantastic sense of mystery that makes them all the more unpredictable. Viewers do, however, get a sense of their timelessness. At one point, Marlow makes the interesting claim that vampires have actively strived to convince humans that they are merely the stuff of fiction, lulling them into a false sense of security. It's a short but sweet attempt to explain why society is not as preoccupied with myths and monsters now as it was in more superstitious centuries past.
The manner in which the vampires are shot also adds menace to their image. The camera rarely dwells on their faces, mostly offering brief glimpses that imprint bizarre images in the minds of viewers, yet cutting away quickly enough so that technical things like make-up do not become distractions. And when it comes to demonstrating their superhuman physical abilities, the camera presents trembling cuts that suggest things more than blatantly putting them on display. The vampires don't particularly break the laws of physics--these bloodsuckers don't fly through the air like bats--but they do demonstrate strength and speed just beyond that of top level athletes. They leap from rooftop to rooftop with unnerving agility and chase down cars with vicious speed. Their pack mentality is seen when they tip over a truck with passengers, hammering and clawing at it as if it was merely a tin can containing food. Another scene that takes place in a living room has the disturbing feel of a cannibalistic home invasion.
Of course, a clan of vampires can only be as intimidating as their leader, and that's where Danny Huston's performance makes a world of difference. While he garnered praise as a villain in the indie western The Proposition, Huston has always seemed like one of those distinguished actors who was above the whole "based on a comic book" movie world. But while both he and studio heads had misgivings about his playing the key role of Marlow, his ultimate inclusion in 30 Days of Night may be the single element that pushes the movie into horror cinema greatness. He's a fantastic change of pace from the prissy, wimpish vampires that have plagued the big screen for too long--characters who seem strangely preoccupied with throwing rave parties and taking blood-flavored recreational drugs. Huston brings a dark intellectualization and adulthood to the role, and as the head of the snake, the peculiar demeanor and soulless expressions he delivers bring that much more credibility to the vampire pack.
Actor Ben Foster also steals a few scenes--much as he did in 3:10 to Yuma--as a downtrodden drifter who agrees to carry out some dirty work for the vampires in exchange for the prospect of immortality. As archetypes go, he is the vampiric familiar personified by the character of Renfield in Bram Stoker's Dracula.
With its critical re-imagining of the vampire and its deft blend of reality and legend, 30 Days of Night is an unexpectedly groundbreaking treat. It feels new and fresh, and without a doubt, it is the vampire movie that many, many horror fans have been waiting for.
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