I think Hollywood should change the focus of their current debates. Rather than the Writers’, Directors’ and Actors’ Guilds discussing whether they should strike against the Producers’ Guild, shutting down production, they should turn their attention to Josh Hartnett. Should this “actor” be allowed to continue to appear in films? Why hasn’t he been banned to some television show on the CW by now? Take a moment, a brief one because I don’t want you to waste too much time on the subject, and try to think of any film Hartnett has appeared in that you might place on a Ten Best list for any year. Still thinking? Even “Blackhawk Down”, probably the best film he has appeared in, will not be remembered as one of director Ridley Scott’s best films. “The Black Dahlia”, “Pearl Harbor”, “40 Days & 40 Nights”. Don’t think so. Every Hartnett performance serves to drag the films down a notch. And when the films aren’t that good in the first place, his performance only makes them worse.
So I struggled with if I should even see “30 Days of Night”. I decided to plunk down $9 for a matinee because the idea of the film intrigued me - a gang of vampires invades a small Alaskan town just as the townsfolk prepare for a month of complete darkness giving the creatures full reign to feast on the few inhabitants left in the town - enough to sit through another performance from this young thespian.
“30 Days” begins promisingly. As the thirty days of night approaches, people race to leave the small town of Barrow, Alaska. If they are going to return to the mainland, or a larger Alaskan city, they have to do it now or they will be confined to this small town for the next month, living in complete darkness. Stella (Melissa George), the fire Marshall for the rural area is desperate to finish her job and catch the last plane back. As she races to the airport, she gets in an accident and has no choice but to call her ex-husband, Eben (Josh Hartnett), the town’s sheriff. As he didn’t know she was in town, he is shocked to learn she is trying to get to the airport. She misses her flight. As the town prepares to hunker down, the remaining few citizens turn up the fire and prepare to stay indoor a lot. But Eben and his deputy, Billy (Manu Bennett) receive a couple of strange calls. A number of sled dogs are found mutilated. Then the telecommunications go down and Eben finds a horrifying sight at the satellite. What is happening? A couple of the townsfolk are attacked by strange, unseen beasts, causing witnesses to flee indoors for safety. As Eben returns to the Sheriff’s station, he happens upon the Stranger (Ben Foster). The Stranger is making a scene at the local diner, asking to get fresh, raw meat for his dinner. Eben hauls him in suspecting him of the attacks. Locking him in the cell, his dispatcher, Eben’s grandmother, and his brother, Jake (Mark Rendall) start to get antsy. They soon realize strange forces are at work in the town. Eben and Stella learn a small group of vampires are feasting on the town’s citizens. Their leader, Marlow (Danny Huston) seems all too efficient as they feast and kill people rapidly. Soon, Eben, Stella and a small group of survivors try to wait out the “Thirty Days of Night” evading the vampires.
Hitchcock knew how to do it. Robert Wise knew how to do it. John Carpenter knew how to do it. What is ‘it’? Scare the be Jesus out of viewers without resulting to cheap gore and gross out tactics. This is why “Psycho”, “The Haunting” and “Halloween” are regularly ranked as the top horror films of all time. Currently, the majority of filmmakers who make horror films seem to think gallons of blood, evisceration, gross out moments and sickening torture are the only thing we need to scare us. Actually, that just grosses us out. To scare us, you have to pique our interest and leave some of the terror to our imagination.
“30 Days of Night” begins in a promising fashion. There is an impending sense of dread as the townsfolk evacuate, some of them leaving loved ones in this small barren town for a month of darkness. Then, as the attacks begin, we don’t initially see what the creatures look like. People are grabbed and dragged under houses or into dark corners and we hear some of the sounds of their death, perhaps see a trail of blood. But we imagine some of the visuals and it is much more frightening. But all too quickly, director David Slade reveals the vampires to us. Initially, they are really just a blur. They move at incredible speed and overtake speeding cars and trucks. When they have a victim, they attack quickly and with ferocity, dispatching their meals quickly leaving a bloody mess in the snow. When we don’t know what these creatures look like, the film is much more suspenseful. As soon as the director reveals the cause of the attacks, the fright level goes down considerably. It is always scarier to see just glimpses of something, or to hear something happen, leaving the rest to our imagination.
As the film begins to deteriorate, there are interesting ideas thrown into the mix, always sustaining my hope the film might finish on a high note. At one point, Marlow (Danny Huston), speaking in some sort of dialect translated for us with subtitles, seems happy to have found this fertile feeding ground. He wonders why they never came to this place before. Later, he reveals the motive behind another part of their plan. This plan feeds into our ideas of their mythology, giving us a chill.
There is a suspenseful moment when the humans realize they might have a weapon to use against the vampires. Eben rushes to locate it and make it usable before they attack. This moment is all too brief and doesn’t add any thing, except time, to the story.
But the film is also filled with plot holes. There are, I think, ten of these creatures who have descended on this small town of Barrow. In the beginning of the film, Eben and Billy change the population of the City Limits sign from 521 to 152. If this is an accurate representation, the 10 creatures have 152 people to feast on, and feed on them for a period of thirty days. The creatures can’t leave either, so they are limited to the people in the town to provide them with fuel. Once they start to attack, they dispatch just about everyone in the town in the space of two days. Leaving ten or fifteen survivors. Ten vampires are going to feed on 15 people for twenty-five days?
The purpose of The Stranger (Ben Foster, “3:10 To Yuma”, “X-Men III”, “Six Feet Under”) is never made entirely clear. He seems to be some sort of scout or emissary for the vampires. Why him? And why do the vampires take the actions they do towards him?
After the initial attack, when we are left with the survivors, a title card appears to show us the progression of the days. This helps to orient us in the timeframe of the story, but it also helps to make the film seem drawn out. It is never good for a film to seem drawn out, tedious and boring, especially a film designed to be frightening and suspenseful. But the filmmakers seem determined to make us feel everyone of the thirty days the characters in the film are living through.
Naturally, because Eben and Stella begin the film as an estranged couple, and because they are so darned young and attractive, they will fall back in love by the end of the film. This gives Stella time to witness Eben’s heroism and forget the fact that he forgets to lower the toilet seat or doesn’t do the dishes. You know, the reasons she left him for in the first place?
Who in their right mind would appoint someone like Josh Hartnett to be the Sheriff of their town in the first place? He is never able to convince us that he could be a law enforcement figure in this town, even if there are only five hundred people living there during the majority of the year. And towards the end of the film, he makes a choice that is simply ludicrous and just doesn’t work in the film.
“30 Days of Night” is based on a ‘groundbreaking’ graphic novel. I haven’t read it, but the film will soon be breaking ground. As landfill when the DVD is released and many copies end up in the garbage.
Come on, repeat after me. No more Josh Hartnett films. No more Josh Hartnett films.