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Friday, Aug. 28, 2009
'30 Days of Night'
Grimy production sinks its fangs into cinema-goers
By KAORI SHOJI
Director David Slade, who gave the world the vein-freezing, hemoglobin-depleting "Hard Candy" four years ago, has turned his hand to making a genuine horror film — a vampire thriller that plops A-list actor Josh Hartnett in the middle of a seemingly low-rent basement production called "30 Days of Night." You know when you're apartment hunting and the agent shows you into a dank, dungeonlike studio and then tells you the rent is $2,000? The same kind of shock is in store in "30 Days of Night" — everything looks dirt-cheap and well, DIRTY, but underneath the grime they're actually using quality stuff. Slade, who directed "Hard Candy" on little more than a shoestring, assembled a sizable budget for this production but never lets it show. "30 Days" is a prime example of cheap chic merging nicely with horror — we've seen the formula work a dozen times ("28 Days Later," "The Ring," etc.) and in this movie Slade keeps the scare factor set to permanent hysteria while blood and other body fluids splatter with artistic flourish against walls, clothes and people's faces. He's not out for romance. He doesn't want subtlety. All he wants is to chill the viewer to the very marrow of their existence.
Speaking of which, the story is set in Barrow, Alasaka, which, according to the production notes, is located at the northernmost tip of the U.S. and enveloped in total, sunless darkness for a solid month every winter. What we can see of Barrow doesn't look inviting even if it were summer, but in this darkest and coldest time of the year, its bleakness would have Franz Kafka yelping for mercy. Understandably, most of the population and other living creatures have emigrated south. Unaccountably, 150 people including Sheriff Eben Oleson (Hartnett) and his estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George), have stuck around. Bad choice, because a band of vampires have headed out to Barrow to feast on people's blood vessels and wreak havoc; perhaps the place was written up as a vacation spot in some guidebook for fanged night seekers.
The vampire genre has been pretty much exhausted by industry masters including Francis Ford Coppola and Neil Jordan, but Slade's group of Alaskan Draculas represent a whole new ballgame. They're asexual, uncouth, unromantic dudes in grungy street garb (think Kurt Cobain on a particularly bad day) that don't give a rat's ass about souls, immortality and other vampiric angst topics. They're just hungry and want to have a good time (which, given that they're in Barrow on a winter holiday makes perfect sense). Unfortunately for Sheriff Oleson, they're also a tradition-defying bunch and prove immune to crosses, holy water and garlic. The logistics of driving stakes through their hearts also prove difficult, since none of them feel the need to lie in coffins to escape daylight. The only way to off these vampires is decapitation, preferably with an axe. One of the recurring sounds in "30 Days" is the whoosh of the sheriff's axe as he swings it in the air, followed by the "gulch" of a vampire's severed head.
Not that the bloodsucking villains take anything lying down — moving with surprising agility (considering the roads are iced over, the electricity is out and blizzards rage every few hours) through Barrow's blackened streets, they guzzle and feast their way through one citizen after another with ferocious, carnivorous glee. There's none of the polite, pin-prick bites that vampires from Bela Lugosi to Brad Pitt, have left on peoples' necks. No, they go straight for the jugular and then keep going, which generates a lot of mess and afterward makes it impossible for the victims to resuscitate themselves into new vampires. This is because vampire leader Marlow (Danny Huston) has decreed: no new recruits and, um, no leaving food on the plate either. Marlow never bothers to explain why — like some teenage basketball player, the guy's twin obsessions are playing and eating. He'd almost be endearing if not for the blood caked all over his cheeks.