There are lots of ways to come up with a story. One of them is to take a few disparate bits of fact and folklore and combine them in a logical but previously-unexplored way. For example, on the folklore side, vampires possess human intelligence, prey upon humans at night, and are vulnerable to sunlight. On the factual side, there are places in the extreme north which go weeks at a time without ever seeing the sun — literally without the sun ever being visible in the sky due to the tilt of the Earth.
Based on the graphic novel by Steve Niles, published by IDW Comics, 30 Days of Night puts those two things together in a tale centered on the town of Barrow, Alaska.
Barrow is a small town under the best of circumstances, and it’s about to become much smaller. Every year many of its residents fly out as its annual month of darkness approaches. The few that remain behind are largely cut off from the rest of the world; the few roads are impassable during the winter, flying is dangerous. The only way out is to use sled dogs. Only telephones provide any contact with the outside world.
And on the eve of the month of night, somebody ensures that Barrow will be even more isolated this year, systematically taking out every resource and utility that could be used to reach or contact other towns. Soon the town sheriff and fire marshal (Josh Hartnett and Melissa George) find themselves having to band together the few town survivors as a gang of vampires begins to slaughter everyone.
It’s a simple premise and an effective one. In post-Nosferatu vampire stories, the sun has typically provided a limit on the terrors of the vampire, a safe haven for its human prey and hunters. Niles’ story takes away that safety net and all others, putting the advantages firmly on the side of the vampires. The bewilderment and fear of the town survivors is palpable. A mild amount of romantic tension — the sheriff and fire marshal are an estranged couple — merely serves as counterpoint, adding an additional tone to the story without reducing the dramatic tension.
There are, however, a couple of missteps in director David Slade’s choice of presentation for the film, which decrease the tension in the film. The first is the hyper-frenetic fast-forward shaky-cam used whenever the vampires attack. It is presumably meant to be exciting, but it’s merely disorienting and vertigo-inducing. The second is the decision to have the vampires speak in a constructed language and have their speech subtitled. While it perhaps makes the vampires seem more alien, it’s an unnecessary and distracting choice. Danny Huston’s speeches and asides as the head vampire would be more interesting if I could understand him directly instead of reading half a sentence and then waiting for the other half to show up. And as the vampires clearly understand English and show themselves to be capable of speaking it in a couple small lines, there’s simply no significant benefit to using the constructed language.
But these flaws are not fatal ones. The film kept me engaged from start to finish. Its lead characters are easy to believe in and root for. And the menace of the vampires is also easy to believe in. It’s not easy to come up with a new twist on an old theme, and doing so doesn’t guarantee a good story, but 30 Days of Night succeeds.