We’ve all been disappointed by lousy thrillers that had cool ideas but didn’t know how to execute them. “30 Days of Night” is the rare horror film that actually lives up to its potential.
Based on a comic book mini-series by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, the film’s premise is so ingeniously simple you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself: A band of vampires targets an isolated Alaska town where there’s no sunlight for 30 days at a stretch. That’s a lot better than movies about vampires who live in L.A., which makes no sense at all.
These bloodsuckers are smart, making sure to cut off electricity and communication, and to sabotage the local helicopter. Tiny towns like Barrow — population 563, except during the dark month, when all but 152 of the stalwarts move to sunnier digs — need a chopper because the nearest community is 80 miles away, and the road to it is often impassable. Everyone lives here because they like the cold and isolation. They live here because “nobody else can,” as one character puts it.
We begin in the waning hours of the last day of sunlight as town sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) is scurrying from place to place, making sure the town is ready for the month-long night. His estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George), a state fire marshal, is in town on regulatory business but doesn’t want to talk to him. When she finally calls him, it’s only to ask for a ride to the tiny local airport before it closes for the night — so he sends his trusty deputy to chauffeur her instead. Two can play at this game.
Strange things have already begun to happen outside of Eben and Stella’s marriage. Someone stole a cache of satellite phones and burned them in a field. A group of sled dogs were murdered at a kennel. There was the aforementioned helicopter vandalism. The likely culprit for it all is a man referred to as The Stranger (Ben Foster), a filthy, rotten-toothed little weasel who isn’t a local resident and smugly refuses to tell Eben anything about himself or his activities. He warns that dark things are a-comin’, and it ain’t just the 30 days of night.
The vampires — vicious, malformed, shrieking devils who speak their own Germanic-sounding language and have a clear pack leader (Danny Huston) — beset the village in a hellish attack. Most victims are killed, though a few are turned into vampires themselves. (The rules governing when and how that occurs are not clearly established.) Eben, Stella, and a band of survivors alternate between fighting, hiding, and running. Guns aren’t very effective against the beasts, but Eben discovers that an ax can be.
And there you go. There’s your vampire movie, uncomplicated, straightforward, suspenseful, and clever when it needs to be. I find it interesting that it was directed by David Slade, whose first film was “Hard Candy,” a sexual-predator thriller that was all about tension and apprehension rather than actual on-screen mayhem. “30 Days of Night” gets a lot of mileage from that same type of thrill, particularly in the calculated way the scenario is set, and in the strategic use of silence. Much of the film is eerily quiet, with very little musical accompaniment, and always the low howl of the wind in the background.
Then, gradually, the story becomes grislier and more visceral, though it never stoops to wallowing in the gore. By the end, everyone on both sides is grungy and blood-soaked, and you feel almost as worn out from watching it as they are from experiencing it. Not nearly as cold, though, thank goodness.
B+ (1 hr., 53 min.; )