I Watched This On Purpose: 30 Days Of Night
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Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking—yet in some way irresistible—entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: "Infamy" might be too strong a word for 30 Days Of Night, which debuted last October to tepid reviews and so-so business. But general indifference is its own sort of infamy when it comes to a movie in which vampires attack Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States, during a month in which no sun shines. Do premises come much more inspired than that? Also, music-video director David Slade was hot off the success of the indie thriller Hard Candy (which I still haven't seen). Also: Vampires in Alaska during a monthlong polar night. But I may have mentioned that already.
Curiosity factor: My reasons for watching this are fourfold, but all of them are completely nerdy:
1. I liked the comic book: First published as a three-issue miniseries in 2002, 30 Days Of Night built on its ingenious premise with a gripping story, three-dimensional characters, and striking chiaroscuro art. Written by Steve Niles and drawn by Ben Templesmith, it's an inspired collaboration that spawned numerous spin-offs and sequels. None of the ones I've read match the original, and I've been left cold by Niles' writing elsewhere, though Templesmith's work is always pretty great. Still, there was every reason to believe it would translate into a great horror movie.
2. It's a horror movie: I'm a fan. I'd rather watch a good movie than a bad one under any circumstances, but in my heart of hearts, I would rather watch a truly awful horror movie than a merely okay film of any other kind. I used to try to keep up by watching every horror movie that played theatrically, but the truly awful spate of horror movies that started popping up in the wake of Scream (which I like) ended that habit. I can even tell you the movie that broke me: Dracula 2000. It was 99 minutes of, "Wait, why am I doing this?"
3. Solitude: I love horror movies. My wife does not. At all. I never thought I would marry someone who has never seen the original Dawn Of The Dead, and yet we're somehow making it work. Mostly I watch them in theaters, or when she's not around. I watched 30 Days Of Night while she was away on business. (Yes, dear, this is exactly the kind of debauchery that goes on when you're not around.)
4. Technology: I recently purchased a PlayStation 3, in part because of the allure of the built-in Blu-Ray player. I didn't think that DVDs really needed improvement, but as long as I was getting a game system, I might as well get one that plays next-gen movies, right? I rented 30 Days Of Night from Netflix on Blu-Ray. After watching No Country For Old Men the previous night, this was my second Blu-ray movie.
The viewing experience: If nothing else, watching 30 Days Of Night put my Blu-ray skepticism to rest. I'm not about to throw out my DVDs—they still look great, especially when up-converted by my PS3—but when it comes to capturing the crisp detail and elaborate sound designs of digital-age filmmaking, they're pretty great. Yay, Blu-ray.
But boo, movie. Well, not boo. It could have been worse. There were some striking images in this movie, and Danny Huston was amazing as the head vampire. He hasn't inherited the directing skills of his father, John Huston—I say this based only on the soft-pornish biopic Becoming Colette; maybe the direct-to-video 1995 thriller The Maddening, starring Burt Reynolds and Angie Dickinson, was awesome—but he's definitely inherited screen presence from his dad, and his grandfather, Walter Huston. In 30 Days Of Night, he's simultaneously aristocratic and feral. The IMDB lists Huston as being in five upcoming movies. I hope to see all of them. (Although at least one YouTuber took issue with his occasional looks of confusion.)
Elsewhere, however, the casting is a problem. Josh Hartnett and Melissa George play an estranged husband-and-wife pair. He's the sheriff of Barrow. She's some kind of state inspector type who gets stuck in Barrow when she misses the last plane out for a month. The characters have been written as having a long, complicated love/hate relationship, which would make sense if they were played by, say, Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson, or some other pair able to convey world-weariness, and with enough years under their belts to validate it. But when did Hartnett and George's relationship hit the rocks? After prom?
As for the rest, I like that the look of the film is inspired by Templesmith's art, and I really dug the overhead shots of the vampires running amok in the mostly abandoned town. In fact, the whole practically post-apocalyptic middle section pretty much lives up to the premise, especially the scenes of the vampires using terrified innocent people to lure others out of hiding. There's nothing particularly romantic about these vampires. They're just mean and hungry.
Too bad the end just drags on and on, and the film never really provides a reason to care whether the characters turn into vamp food.
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? I used to hold to the idea that no movie was a waste of time, since it contributed to my professional ability to talk about movies. I also used to believe in Santa Claus. That said, this was more passable than bad, and Huston and a handful of scary scenes made it worth watching for me as a fan of the genre. It isn't Dracula 2000, in other words, so let's say 55 percent.