After recent pics “Into the Wild” and “The Last Winter,” Alaska is once again the go-to place for premature death in “30 Days of Night.” Horror opus derived from a graphic-novel series charts the mayhem that ensues when vampires invade an isolated far-North habitat during its annual month of sunlessness. Mainstream bow by David Slade, director of attention-getting indie “Hard Candy,” excels at bloodthirsty action, though dialogue and human-interest aspects are a tad anemic. Result is a mixed bag but has a catchy premise and quite enough splatter to satisfy gorehounds, which should make this a solid Halloween-season earner.
Opening titles intro Barrow as the northernmost U.S. town, subject to a month’s unbroken “night” at the height of each winter. Much of the modest population choose to avoid that gloomy stretch by going south for a spell. But even as the last of them depart, leaving hardier loved ones behind, Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) discovers a string of disturbing crimes — stolen cell phones found burnt to a crisp, local sled dogs slaughtered in their kennels — seemingly committed by someone intent on cutting the town off entirely from the outside world.
A scraggly, ill-tempered stranger (Ben Foster) appears out of nowhere. When thrown into jail, the Renfield-like figure taunts Eben, kid brother Jake (Mark Rendall) and others that there will be no escape when “they come.”
They already have: A band of pasty, ravenous, irregularly prosthetic-featured bloodsuckers first pick off a few snackables on the outskirts before launching full-scale slaughter downtown. This reduces the cast to the usual ever-dwindling cluster of quarreling survivors a bit too soon. One might think vampires would want to pace themselves, with so many meals on hand.
Those citizens not yet drained and beheaded hide out in an attic for some days, then are forced to keep moving. Sacrifices are made, including a big one by the sheriff that leads to a somewhat underwhelming final confrontation with the vampire leader (Danny Huston).
Pic is at its best whenever the blood’s flowing, as David Slade’s direction, Art Jones’ editing and Jo Willems’ widescreen lensing create blunt, visceral action that makes the vampires’ speed, strength and thirstiness vivid. A notable early setpiece has a middle-aged couple abruptly dragged out of, and under, their home. Episodes involving a little girl in a general store and the fate of deputy Billy (Manu Bennett) will please those who like their gore graphic.
Punchy as it is at such moments, however, the pulse slackens considerably between them. Dialogue is humorless and obvious (including the vampires’ subtitled guttural verbalizations). Attempt to create some emotional tension between Hartnett’s Eben and Melissa George as his estranged-but-stranded wife Stella falls flat, with neither thesp bringing much charisma to the table.
Pic also does a so-so job staying credible on fantasy terms. The number of vampires seems to grow, but it’s never clear why. Mostly, the vamps are fast-moving and near-invincible; then again, sometimes not. Despite occasional titles announcing “Day 7,” etc., the passage of time is murky. Of course, this is the sort of movie that requires suspension of disbelief, but its numerous slow stretches allow such nitpicking questions to fester.
Tech package is sharp down the line. Pic’s look is slightly desaturated, with the color drained from the darkened world after some beautiful initial daylight vistas. Brian Reitzell’s score is unobtrusive — a high compliment these days — save one unfortunate late moment when Hartnett faces his foe to a ludicrous arena-rock drum roll even KISS would find corny.
Though there really is a Barrow, Alaska, pic was entirely shot in New Zealand. Tons of Epsom salts, shredded paper, white blankets and other elements convincingly stand in for a snowy, subzero environment.