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Review: 30 Days of Night at Screamfest

Screamfest continued as usual on Tuesday, with a screening of TOOTH AND NAIL in the Mann Chinese 6 Theatre, but the main event was half a block away at the original Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where the premier of 30 DAYS OF NIGHT took place.

This eagerly anticipated film, based on the graphic novel of the same title, depicts a vampire siege upon an isolated town in Alaska, where the sun sets for thirty days. Although slick and entertaining, the film is a bit disappointing; it’s a bit too typically modern in its use of rapid-fire editing and gory comic-book violence – which is to say, it’s more action movie than horror. It’s cool, but seldom scary.

Rather like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the story eventually turns into a depiction of a handful of human survivors barricading themselves into a house for protection. This time the debate is whether to hide in an attic, instead of a cellar, but unlike NIGHT, the drama never catches fire, because you can barely tell the characters apart – they all seem to blend into the dwindling crowd. The film also falls down a bit in depicting the passage of time: the vampires seem to wipe out almost the whole town in the first few hours of darkness, and if not for the subtitles telling you the number of days elapsed, you would think subsequent events occurred in a span of forty-eight hours.

The gore factor is pretty strong for a mainstream film, including a rip-roaring scene where a mechanized truck plows through vampires faster than a chainsaw through butter, but it sometimes goes a bit silly – the vampires often seem more like blood spillers than blood drinkers, and you wonder why they waste so much precious food. Nevertheless, the strong point of 30 DAYS OF NIGHT is its depiction of vampires as a ravenous pack of predators; although intelligent and (at least in the case of their leader) articulate, they hunt in groups like wolves, teaming up to take out their victims. Danny Huston, a character actor usually cast in intellectual or even prissy roles (CHILDREN OF MEN) is the utterly convincing standout as Marlow, the pack leader.

Occasionally, the film turns off the sound and fury long enough to deliver a dramatic body blow, as when one survivor reveals that he has been bitten and begs to be killed before he goes from living to undead. Unlike similar scenes in George Romero’s zombie films, it would be too dangerous to wait until after he changes, so his friends have to behead him with an ax while he’s still alive. It’s one of the few horror moments not of the “ain’t it cool” variety – more like “that’s messed up!” In a somewhat similar vein, the ending deserves credit for a pretty innovative and clever method of confronting the vampires – a great melodramatic moment of self-sacrifice that works as both a kick-ass final showdown and a two-hanky tear-jerker. Horror fans will love it, and the girl friends (assuming there are any) will, too.

Despite my nitpicks, the crowded audience seemed to respond well to the film, awarding it with enthusiastic applause at the end. Of course, it’s always hard to judge this kind of response – this was a Hollywood premiere, and half the seats were “reserved,” meaning they were probably set aside for people associated with the movie.

Still, on the way home that night, I ran into Del, owner of Dark Delicacies book store, which certainly qualifies him as a genre expert, and when I asked him what he thought of the film, he unreservedly replied, “It’s great!” So maybe I’m just being a little too overly critical.

UPDATE: I have a somewhat more in-depth analysis of the film posted at Cinefantastique Online.