The vampire movie may have the most limited requirements in the horror film genre, but there are just certain trappings we vampire fans demand to see, even if those very conventions make it nearly impossible to inject fresh life into the moribund concept. It's a bit of a trap, really -- stray too far from the known vampire mythology (the neck-biting, the moldy old coffins etc.), and you alienate your core audience, but hedge too closely to the same old bloodsucking routines, and those once-dependable conventions can turn around and, well, bite you in the neck.
'30 Days of Night' is aware of the pitfalls, offering a fresh enough take to keep things invigorated, while unapologetically delivering just enough of the cliches we know and love. No, '30 Days of Night' has nothing particularly new to say about the genre, but it does what it does so well that it seems foolish to complain.
Based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, '30 Days of Night' has a nifty premise. As it goes with vampires, they're always on the lookout for new places to bleed dry, and this time they pick the northernmost town in the United States -- Barrow, Alaska is plunged into darkness for one month out of every year -- the phones are cut off, the airport shuts down (apparently planes can't fly at night in Barrow) and, of course, the obligatory winter storm hits. Add to that a population of good-looking, if fairly dense locals, led by Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), his estranged, soon-to-be-ex-wife Stella Oleson (Melissa George), and various character oddities (the buffoonish local mechanic, the kindly couple with a sick grandfather etc.), and Barrow is easy pickings -- a Club Med for vampires.
The film wastes little time going for the jugular. After fifteen minutes or so of banal (if fairly well observed) scenes of small-town life, the vampires lay waste to the entire population in less time than it takes to order a steak at Ponderosa. Led by the nihilistic Marlow (a formidable Danny Huston), this swift group of cold-blooded killers (all dressed in black, with bizarre facial features and sporting some pretty gnarly dental work) runs, leaps, and swoops through the town-- all the while speaking a shrill vampire dialect that made me think of Jodie Foster’s "Nell' experimenting with Pig Latin. Not since the 1987 cult classic 'Near Dark' have vampires been portrayed so ruthlessly.
'30 Days of Night' is initially effective due to its sudden and unrelenting pace. The extended vampire siege on Barrow is utterly ferocious, and legitimately terrifying. Men, women, and children are picked off like lemmings as the film pummels us with desaturated, slick visuals and over-the-top comic gore that's almost lyrical in its excess. By the film's signature shot -- a long overhead pan across the snow-covered Barrow, with splashes of red dotting the landscape as victims cower and cringe -- it's hard not to be mesmerized by the sheer audacity of the spectacle.
Unfortunately, once the vampire attack concludes, the remainder of the film falls back into familiar territory. Anyone reading this can name a million horror movies featuring a ragtag group of protagonists, trapped in a confined space, who must defeat evil to survive, and '30 Days' quickly becomes an Alaska-style variation on Ten Little Indians. Yet, as directed by David Slade, it's a film of such visual agility that even the cliches are vivid and memorable, and it excels in its ruthless adherence to convention, without condescension, and with maximum style. The frozen, desaturated color palette, the fine attention to the spatial dimensions of the locale, and the well-defined (if stock) band of characters, all combine to create a memorably gory pastiche. '30 Days of Night' may not be a relentless classic on the order of 'Aliens' or John Carpenter's 'The Thing,' but it's willingness to aspire to such heights is commendable.
If '30 Days of Night' makes one major misstep, it is, ironically, in bungling the mythology of its vampires. Much of the hierarchy and "bloodsucking politics" of the graphic novel have been streamlined or jettisoned altogether, making their actions either fuzzy in motivation or altogether incoherent. Slade also cops a bit too much of the “vampires-as-Western archetypes” feel from 'Near Dark,' which leaves a whiff of derivativeness, despite the snazzy visuals. To the movie's credit (and to the credit of Huston, whose performance is chilling), ’30 Days of Night’ does leave viewers quivering at the sheer mercilessness of its vampires, even if it doesn’t offer too much to think about. Still, it’s too bad so little of the graphic novel's complexity has been retained.
Ultimately, '30 Days of Night' is not a genre-redefining event, but it’s still a skillful and compelling horror pic, milking maximum juice from its cliches, and achieving the appropriate grand guignol style, without resorting to the the mean-spiritedness that has informed today's waning torture porn subgenre. Whatever its flaws and inconsistencies, '30 Days of Night' kept me watching, so even if it won't go down as a truly classic vampire flick, it does -- for lack of a better pun -- inject some bloody jolts into a genre that's long been as dry as a turnip.
Sony presents '30 Days of Night' in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode framed at the film's 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Overtly stylized, '30 Days of Night' nicely interprets the original look of the graphic novel, combining stark, desaturated visuals with vibrant splashes of red. The result is chilling, and quite effective.
Right from the get-go, this transfer exhibits a sense of detail up there with the best high-def. Fine textures are clearly visible, even in the wide shots, with an excellent sense of three-dimensionality. Though low-lit shots contain some excessive grain, the source is otherwise smooth and clean, with no obvious defects. The film's color palette is appropriately winter-like, with desaturated grays, blues, and pale browns rendered cleanly and consistently. Of course, the dominant accent is deep, dark crimson, and the contrast is splendid. Fleshtones, while not "realistic," are in keeping with the intended visual style, and look as natural as could be expected.
Unfortunately, knocking down the video rating a hair is some slight edge enhancement, which can result in thin halos on sharply contrasted areas of the picture (particularly some of the long shots of figures silhouetted against snow). Also, there is some noise evident on darker-lit shots, which can also dull out shadow delineation. Otherwise, '30 Days of Night' looks pretty terrific.
'30 Days of Night' features very fine English and French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround tracks (48kHz/24-bit) which are startling effective. (Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround dubs in Spanish, Portuguese and Thai, along with subtitles in all of the languages mentioned.)
Starting from the first frame of the film, you know this is not going to be a subtle mix. The ominous, chugging low bass tones of Brian Reitzell's electronic score immediately hit the subwoofer, and the rears fill up with all sorts of engaging effects and bleed. Such sonic inventiveness doesn't let up for the rest of the flick, and '30 Days of Night' is quite an aggressive treat. There is rarely a dull moment throughout the film's 113-minutes, with a highly-engaging merging of effects and score so seamlessly integrated that you can't tell which is which. Combine that with sudden bursts of "shock" effects that underpin the action without overwhelming it, and you have A-level sound design.
Tech specs are excellent as well. Dynamic range is quite expansive, with a clarity and realism that's palpable. Dialogue is perfectly balanced and strong in the mix. Low bass is again incredibly impressive, with the subwoofer almost constantly engaged, but always supporting, rather than overwhelming the track. The mix easily handles the sometimes extreme peaks and valleys of the sound design with aplomb, with the track always seeming as if its on the verge of exploding in loudness but never falling apart. Boasting one of the best mixes I've heard recently on Blu-ray, '30 Days of Night' is a five-star audio presentation.
'30 Days of Night' comes to Blu-ray day-and-date with the standard-def DVD version, and both share the same spate of extras. No, there are not a ton of bullet points here, but the quality is generally high. Even better for the Blu-ray, too, is that all of the video-based material is presented in full 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video and looks quite spiffy. Sink your teeth in and enjoy. (Note: Subtitles provided for the video-based extras include Spanish, Portuguese, Traditional Chinese, and Thai.)
'30 Days of Night' defied my expectations and breathes some new life into the long-stagnant vampire genre. It's not revolutionary, but it's fun, scary, fast-paced, and spectacularly gory (rather than merely being gross). This Blu-ray is suitably excellent, with terrific video and audio, and some spiffy supplements, too. Well recommended for genre fans, and I suspect even more casual vampire admirers will get a kick out of '30 Days of Night,' too. Recommended.