sharp, pointy teeth

As someone with an abiding interest in vampire fiction and movies I generally get around to seeing every film that is added to the canon. The other evening 30 Days of Night was on TV, so I finally caught up with it.

Most people are aware that this is an adaptation of the comic book of the same name, which was written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith. The comic disappointed me, which did not incline me towards the film. As I said before, Templesmith’s artwork was wonderful, but there was a shallowness to the story that left me cold. Niles writes well, but the action happened rather too quickly, and I never found it scary or suspenseful.

The film version was written by Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie, and Brian Nelson and directed by David Slade. What I enjoyed about the film was having a pack of vicious vampires on the screen, the colour palette, the subtle evocation of Templesmith’s artwork, and much of the direction. In a smart departure from the comic book the events are telescoped out to generate suspense as the survivors try to eek out an existence until the next sunrise. The film does a good job in mining this situation for much of the tension in the film. There are also more characters and a better sense of development as the horrific events unfold.

One of my stumbling blocks with the film is the depiction of the vampires. I’ve no issues with them being cruel and sadistic, but they seem rather stupid. Having them all speak in an Eastern European language is an interesting choice, and I suppose it worked. I’m not sure why they couldn’t just have been English-speaking (or some of them at least) – it seemed like a way of making them more “other” than the humans. Plus, these guys are the sloppiest eaters I’ve ever seen. I was surprised at the number of times they just maimed and ripped up people, without even taking a bite. They were also disinclined towards basic hygiene. It might seem irrelevant to creatures that don’t feel the cold, but the physical problem of having frozen blood in clothing for 30 days at a stretch as you hop and skip across rooftops means that you’re going to incur wear and tear. It’s entirely reasonable that vampires might like new threads after the first ten days of playing with their food.

The premise is that the vampires are going to hole up in a town for 30 days and nights and snack and fest upon the residents without being hampered by sunlight. But, if they massacre the townsfolk right at the beginning they run out of food quite quickly. Where’s the point in this? I suppose you could argue that they don’t get this kind of freedom often and are revelling in unhampered slaughter. The attack is well planned in some ways (although I just can’t believe that no one would notice an entire town going off the grid for 30 days), which proves they can be strategic in their thinking – although they seem to have a poor understanding of modern forensics if they think a big fire is just going to destroy all the evidence.

The basic concept offers the opportunity for genuine terror. I can imagine gruesome scenarios about what would happens if a gang of amoral thugs took over a group of people with the goal of killing them for shits and giggles. De Sade wrote about it long ago in his 120 Days of Sodom. Our history is replete with examples of this kind of atrocity. But the rampage at the beginning of the invasion (however nicely shot with a birds-eye-view) shuts down those options, and the film becomes a kind of Anne Frank story. In this regard I found my credibility stretched to almost snapping point when I considered the practicalities of how they managed to survive: the realities of food, water, and waste disposal were glossed over much of the time.

Much of where 30 Days of Night succeeds is when it concentrates on the emotional horrors: of having to decapitate a friend who has turned into a vampire (Slade cleverly doesn’t even show us the scene, but we see the awful cost in Eben’s expression afterwards). The slow grind on the humanity of the survivors is what’s interesting, and the writers and Slade achieve some good work here. If they had really paid attention to this angle then Eben’s decision at the end of the film would have been a metaphorical extension of what can happen to people when they are forced to endure horrific situations. That reading is not earned in the film as it stands.

I have the same problem with the big fight at the end between Eben and the vampire in the movie as I do with the version in the comic book: the outcome is just not believable. The showdown between man and monster appears mandatory in this kind of text, but how you execute it is important.

In cinema vampires tend towards being overly humane or outright psychos, which is not the kind of depiction that we would find satisfying in most characters – although it’s considered permissible for our monsters. Personally, I prefer a range between these extremes, because that’s where the opportunity for complexity resides.

Vampires are inherently horrific because they are predators, and humans are their prey. There is plenty to be getting on with in that concept alone – as Let The Right One In demonstrated – without leaning on bloody set-pieces, and lots of nasty sucking sounds to provide the horror. That kind of thing quickly leaves me indifferent towards a film. It only requires a few innovative, vicious scenes – directed well with the intention to maximise fear and display vulnerability – to nail the audience to their seats if the intervening sections are replete with drama and intriguing characters.

Overall, I liked the film better than I expected. If you enjoy vampire/horror cinema then 30 Days of Night is worth at least one viewing.