less blood more fear please

With the advent of 30 Days of Night on the big screen I thought it would be a good idea to read the original graphic novel, which was written by Steve Niles and drawn by Ben Templesmith.

The problem when approaching the vampire myth is how to do something new with it. The focus needs to come down to an original execution of a story about the blood-sucking monsters. As someone who has read and watched a great deal of vampire canon there are few permutations that I consider genuinely fresh. It can be done, but in many ways the story cannot just be about vampires. There must be an essential emotional narrative that will hook you into the tale of terror and anxiety (vampires are horrific after all).

30 Days of Night starts at sundown on the Alaskan town of Barrow as it commences its annual thirty days of no sunlight. It is overrun by a pack of vampires who want a town to terrorise, and people to slaughter. A few survivors, including the husband and wife sheriffs, Eben and Stella, hold out and try to last the month until sunlight returns. It reminds me of a cross between Salem’s Lot and Assault on Precinct 13. This is not an original concept – it’s been tackled lately in Frostbitten (2006), and before that in a Twilight Zone episode called Red Snow (1986). Even Pitch Black (2000) played with this premise.

Yet, there was a lot of potential for this graphic novel to contain a frightening and emotional story, but ultimately it didn’t do much for me. I’ve been a fan of Templesmith’s artwork for some time and didn’t have a lot to quibble with on that score. His chaotic artwork puts the viciousness of the monstrous vampires on the page, and does a lot to create a stormy, unpredictable atmosphere. But, the story fails for me on a couple of levels.

The community of Barrow isn’t set-up in advance, and there isn’t enough done to engage me with the characters of Eben and Stella, who are the protagonists. They are the besieged, and we should care about them and the destruction of their lives and home. Unfortunately, a kiss and a cuddle by Eben and Stella at the beginning isn’t enough for me to see the depth of their relationship. The vampires are on their doorsteps very fast, and while this makes for a fast start it means that it devolves into pages of evisceration too quickly. I would have preferred more development, more atmosphere and dread, and a sense of what’s really at stake.

Once the vampires are in the town within a few pages everyone is dead except for a group holed up in a basement, which includes Stella and Eben. There is no sense of how much time has passed, and there’s a blurry depiction of how people are hunted to their deaths that focuses overmuch on the vampires, not the victims. In my opinion this is a missed opportunity to establish a sense of terror and fear in the story. It’s all over too fast. Then, there is the obligatory vampire power struggle, and a discussion about the dangers of humans really believing in the vampire myth – this is very familiar territory, and the explanation verges on the lazy.

The solution at the end seems to violate the rules that were established about the nature of these vampires – they are the amoral soulless vicious variety as portrayed on the page and screen before in the likes of Dracula, Nosferatu, Salem’s Lot, and They Thirst (among many, many others). The result of the lengthy battle at the finale is unbelievable when you considered the relative skills of the opponents.

Overall, this graphic novel feels too slight, as if a large chunk of story is missing. Once I read 30 Days of Night my expectations for the forthcoming movie adaptation dropped – even before advance word of the film leaked out.

For those who like the vampire genre I’d recommend Frostbitten, the Swedish film that deals with this exact scenario with a lot more horror, inventiveness, and humour, than 30 Days of Night exhibits on the page.

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