Wednesday, March 5, 2008

30 Days On My Netflix Queue

30 Days of Night is a fabulous idea for a film that never quite jells into anything special. Based on a well-regarded graphic novel (geek-speak for comic book), the film centers around the sleepy Alaskan town of Barrow, about to enter into a month-long period without sunlight. While Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) puzzles over a pile of burnt cell phones and the slaughter of the town’s sled dogs, a stranger (Ben Foster) arrives sporting a thousand-yard stare and issuing cryptic warnings of evil tidings on the way. Sure enough, as soon as the sun sets for the last time, the town is besieged by a pack of ravenous vampires (led by Danny Huston) who proceed gnaw through the majority of the citizens, leaving a small pocket of survivors, including Eben’s wife (Melissa George, whose Australian accent makes frequent appearances) and younger brother, to wait it out until the sun comes up.

As long as there’s an audience for horror, there will be vampires. They can be witty and urbane, with the manners of landed gentry, or they can be feral beasts – wild animals driven only by their insatiable lust for blood. 30 Days of Night’s major misstep is in trying to have it both ways. Dressed for an IFC fund raiser, with sharp, dagger teeth and black shark-eyes, they’re a virtual amalgam of vampire clich├ęs. The townspeople fare no better; save Hartnett, there’s hardly a lick of characterization to be found. If that last sentence was confusing, let me formally state for the record that I am an unabashed fan of Josh Hartnett. He’s not the greatest emoter in the world, and if he can’t quite carry a film he can at least provide it with a strong center provided he’s cast correctly (he’s got one of the toughest – and least flashy – roles in Black Hawk Down, and acquits himself quite well). Danny Huston is stuck with a pretty thankless role, with makeup that doesn’t leave much for the actor beneath it and a silly vampire language that leaves him sounding like a Klingon with a cold. The only other actor to make even a slight impression is Ben Foster, giving another distractingly mannered performance, as if his character walked directly from the 3:10 to Yuma set all the way to Alaska. While watching, we thought of all the familiar actors that we’d be seeing had this been a Hammer or Amicus production (and yes, I’m well aware that it would also be 40 years ago). We’d have Michael Ripper as a nervous innkeeper, Michael Gough as the sinister stranger, and maybe even Nigel Green as Barrow’s Burgomaster.

Visually, however, 30 Days is a feast; director David Slade’s camera wrings much out of the desolate blue-white winter surroundings, and he uses digital augmentation to effectively light a town that is engulfed by darkness. Early scenes are handled quite well, particularly the wide overhead shots of vampire mayhem, leaving bright red splatters (the only appearance of the color is in blood) on the white snow. As the movie wears on – for a lengthy 113min – attacks degenerate into vampire wildings, with Slade leaning far too much on the every-third-frame-removed, Saving Private Ryan-esque visuals. This is especially damaging during the final battle between Hartnett and Huston, which plays like a gang fight in a direct to DVD programmer.
Sony’s Bluray disc offers an outstanding presentation of the film’s muted color scheme. Seen in standard def DVD, the darker scenes (that make up the vast majority of the film) appear murky, and much detail is lost. The Bluray reproduces very strong blacks, provided you’re watching on a properly calibrated television set. The major extra is a commentary track featuring co-stars Hartnett, George, and producer Bob Tapert which makes for a reasonable engaging listen, as all three are willing to speak to several of the film’s considerable narrative hiccups. The extras round out with a fairly comprehensive making-of documentary (actually comprised of shorter, individual segments that can be played continuously), a photo-comparison of various shots from the film paired with their comic counterparts (exclusive to Bluray), trailers are featured for other upcoming Bluray releases from Sony, but no trailer from the feature is included.