Why do movies love vampires above other monsters? Is it because they’re cheap (rented teeth)? Because they’re sexy? Because they transgress? From Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Anne Rice’s Lestat, vampires do something to movie goers and book lovers alike which isn’t nice, but – We Want It. Vampires are desirable. Even when vampire movies are camp or made in the 80s and starring a drug-bloated Keifer Sutherland (hands up fans of The Lost Boys), we’re suckers for their blood-sucking, their deathly pallor, and their sex as death (those fatal kisses). 30 Days of Night tells a story that’s morally reprehensible and needlessly cruel, but as a vampire movie, it’s glorious.
The story takes place in Alaska, the place where Americans go to forget. Barrow, Alaska (we are told) is the northern-most town in the 49th state, and every year, for 30 days each winter, the sun doesn’t rise and no planes are allowed to fly (this second part remains a mystery – doesn’t Barrow airport have lights on its runway?). Barrow’s sheriff is Josh Hartnett: a tall, squinty-eyed fella who looks like a poor man’s Harrison Ford. Josh is separated from Melissa George, but hoping for reconciliation. Good luck for him, she misses the last flight out. Bad luck for everyone, vampires are coming to town.
The vampires of 30 Days aren’t gentrified, Anne-Rice-type vampires. Nor are they the gun-totin’, leather-clad, Kate-Beckinsale-in-Underworld sort. These are more your feral, Near Dark-style vampires – pack animals, vicious (we watch them prowling rooftops and jeering at their prey). These are vampires with long dirty fingernails and yellowing piranha-teeth. They dress like a debauched party has just ended and they’re out in search of fresh kicks. There’s an unhinged quality about them, something lawless. Danny Huston, playing their leader, is brutal and dead-at-heart, more Scarface than Michael Corleone. It’s a great, near-silent performance that bespeaks power and depravity and no shred of remorse. This is Genghis Khan by way of Studio 54.
Josh Hartnett, playing the hero, faces two impossible tasks. One, he’s got to take on twenty vampires. Two, he’s got to show us heart to match Huston’s heartlessness. He succeeds at neither. Not that Hartnett is terrible. He’s better than he usually is (this isn’t a balsa wood-reanimated performance like The Black Dahlia or Wicker Park). Hartnett just doesn’t have Huston’s reserve of talent. He’s 2000’s Harry Hamlin: tall and cute, but not – alas – a star. Melissa George is blond and holds a gun like she means it; but again, she isn’t dynamic or memorable beyond what her role requires. Playing the good guy in a vampire movie is a thankless task (like straight men in comedy), but it’s necessary, and Hartnett and George don’t shirk (bless ’em).
Director David Slade shoots 30 Days like 21 Grams, lending it an art-movie look where grainy cinematography is shorthand for Authenticity. Not that this is a cheap-looking movie, for this isn’t the film-school-grainy of countless shot-on-DV movies, but rather a rich, subtle palette that draws out texture and shade. The movie’s opening shot – of a man looking at a ship trapped in the ice floe – is like something Rembrandt would have painted if he’d done storyboards for The Thing.
If horror movies are like the drinks we regret then vampire movies are absinth. There is nothing we need or which nourishes us in the vampire story, and yet – we’re enraptured. Vampires are us stripped of morals, of conscience, of the quotidian and the need to –anything, except to lust. Anne Rice might have them waffle about God and try to pass for human, but the best vampires are those who enjoy being bad, not those who ask repentance. 30 Days of Night is a good vampire movie because it relishes blood – it’s cold, dark and brutal. When a frightened victim cries “Please God” and Danny Huston answers “No God”, it’s nihilism written in lightning.