While we know them as distinct monsters nowadays, most tales of bogeymen tend to converge the further back you go. Vampires, werewolves and undead ghouls may have developed their own individual nuances and mythologies, but they’re really just variations of the same primitive human fears adjusted for different cultural climates. However, even among these infinite variations, if you go back far enough, one thing is certain: bad things come under cover of darkness.
It’s this primal fear of the dark that makes Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith‘s 30 Days of Night such an effective graphic novel, with the story wasting no time in getting to its bloodthirsty premise. This also extends to David Slade‘s highly underrated 2007 adaptation of the story, a faithful translation of the source material that still manages to dive even deeper into its single long night of vampiric carnage. Boasting a deceptively simple setup and chilling visuals, the film has become one of my favorite pieces of wintertime horror fiction, and I believe it’s still worth revisiting in 2021.
For those unfamiliar with 30 Days of Night, the story takes place in the quiet town of Barrow, Alaska as it prepares to undergo its yearly period of polar night, when the sun sets and the area is shrouded in darkness for a full month. This time, however, a group of vampires have caught wind of the phenomena and are planning a month-long invasion where they can feast on the locals without fear of the sun. Once the inevitable massacre begins, it’s up to Sheriff Eben and his wife Stella to protect the survivors as they endure the titular night.
The comic presents itself as a short and sweet horror yarn, borrowing elements from zombie flicks and even classic westerns (with the small town sheriff standing up against an overwhelming force and eventually settling things with a climactic duel), but the movie expands on the mythology and characters thanks to the added length. Niles himself returned to pen the first draft of the screenplay, having already pitched this story to producers before turning it into a comic, but the studio would go on to request rewrites by Stuart Beattie and, later on, Brian Nelson.
David Slade was appointed as the picture’s director, and while he’s mostly known for 2005’s Hard Candy and Netflix’s interactive Black Mirror special Bandersnatch, he was also responsible for some of the best and most stylish episodes of Hannibal and American Gods. Under his guidance, 30 Days of Night went on to successfully translate this highly atmospheric tale to the big screen, making one of those rare winter-time horror movies that actually look and feel cold. The movie was also a box-office hit, with impressive home-video sales to boot, though a lot of critics didn’t quite warm up to it.
In a way, the film is actually structured more like a George Romero zombie movie than a traditional vampire narrative, presenting us with a small town under siege by undead invaders, though these creatures are more than brainless monsters. They may lack the elegance and romantic qualities of classic gothic vampires, but the antagonists of 30 Days of Night are still intelligent foes in their own primal way, hunting down humans with a ferocity that even the running zombies of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake can’t compare to. This may not have been the first time that we saw a modern take on vampires, but the nosferatu of this adaptation are certainly a lot scarier and more grounded than what the genre usually has to offer.
A lot of that is accomplished by their unique designs, as the art department went to great lengths in order to reproduce Templesmith’s eerie art style in the real world. This resulted in gorgeous make-up effects that make the vampires look like ancient, otherworldly entities. Their shark-like teeth may harken back to Tom Holland’s Fright Night and their resistance to religious iconography may remind you of Anne Rice’s bloodsuckers, but the vampires of 30 Days of Night are distinct in their savagery.
Even with the terrifying visuals, what really cements these vampires as fearsome predators is the commanding presence of Danny Huston, who turns in a genuinely iconic performance as Marlow, leader of this immortal clan. His calculating demeanor and eldritch accent make this one of the most memorable vampire performances on record, and it’s hard to not get chills whenever he’s onscreen. His interactions with the rest of the tribe are also our window into the mythology of this world, revealing much about the terrible consequences of immortality while also implying a lot of backstory and world-building without resorting to full-on exposition.
The rest of the cast is also great, with Josh Hartnett and Melissa George (an underrated Scream Queen) making for a compelling lead couple, though it’s really unfortunate that the originally Inuit protagonist was made Caucasian in the movie. The town of Barrow itself is also a major character in the story, with this atmospheric locale slowly decaying as the cold sets in. There’s an undeniable tragic feeling when you watch this isolated community burn under a dark sky once the vampires decide that they’ve had their fun, even if it’s obviously just a Hollywood set.
Thankfully, the real-life Barrow is a lot less dreary, more akin to a pleasant collection of seaside suburban housing than the gloomy settlement that we see in the film. It’s also no longer known as Barrow, having reverted back to its original Iñupiat name Utqiagvik in 2016. Regardless, it’s clear that the production design was going for an emulation of Templesmith’s dreamy silhouettes and hazy architecture rather than authenticity. In fact, most of the film’s snow was actually fake, with the filmmakers prioritizing these exaggerated aesthetic qualities instead of real-world accuracy. I guess that’s appropriate when you consider that this is a comic-book adaptation, but the movie still manages to feel absolutely frigid even though a large portion of it was shot in a New Zealand studio.
This stylization also extends to the film’s brutal effects, with more gore than you can shake a sharpened stake at. Not even the children are spared during the month-long invasion of Barrow, with some absolutely bombastic kills and copious amounts of (presumably) fake blood. The production value here is admittedly impressive, though the final showdown feels a bit less convincing than the rest of the film.
The movie has some other flaws as well, such as a weird time-skip in the middle of the story that worked better in the original comic, but it’s ultimately a satisfying horror yarn that makes the most of its premise. Oddly enough, I find that there’s something comforting about watching these characters struggle to survive in this icy setting while you’re still snug within the comforts of your own home. That’s why I tend to re-watch this one whenever the days start getting shorter and the temperatures start dropping (which, ironically, only happens around June here in Brazil).
In any case, 30 Days of Night is proof that the simplest stories are sometimes the most effective, and I think it’s a lot better than most folks give it credit for. From losing your loved ones to facing the existential terrors of immortality, the movie does a lot with what began as a simple fear of the dark. At the end of the day, there’s a reason why so many horror stories begin with “it was a dark and stormy night”, and I think more productions should strive to make the most of a straightforward setup.
So, while you hunker down in your own homes this winter, be it because of ravenous vampires, the freezing cold or a certain respiratory virus, why not revisit the chills and thrills of 30 Days of Night? Just make sure to keep a light on, just in case…