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Over the last one hundred years or so (well, since Bram Stoker decided to get spooky anyway), typically when we think of vampires we think of kind of strange, kind of creepy but distinctly alluring characters with a thirst for human blood. Throughout literature and film, we were graced with the likes of Stoker’s Dracula (alá Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman etc.), Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire aristocratic velvet-clad blood-suckers (played on screen by Brad Pitt and Domiziana Giordana), or of course the leather jacket-ed, big haired babes of 80’s cult classic The Lost Boys. While all of these characters were indeed man-hunting predators, they have one other thing in common – they’re a little bit sexy. These are fabled ancient creatures that hunt down and drain innocent victims (and virginal ladies) of their blood without remorse – a scary concept – but they have been depicted as sultry and seductive beings in popular culture for quite some time. In 2007 however, this changed with the release of David Slade’s 30 Days of Night, based on the comic book series of the same name. Just in time for Hallowe’en, audiences were treated to a vampire flick that genuinely scared them unlike its predecessors, full of blood, gore, snow, and gratuitous violence, with vampires that were legitimately terrifying. Ten years on, for many it’s still a classic horror favourite and an excellent example of the vampire genre.
So why is this? Is it Josh Hartnett’s smouldering good looks as Sheriff Eben? Or is it the lovely Christmas-y atmosphere of Alaska mid-blizzard? No, it’s probably the fact that 30 Days of Night is an actual horror film. Unlike the vampire movies before it which were more glamourous and often pantomime-esque, with eccentric villains and romantic plots, Slade’s film presents vampires as cold and calculated killing-machines as well as taking great advantage of a number of classic horror tropes. Complete with black eyes and razor sharp teeth, these guys are far from human – nothing sexy about them. The general vampire mythos tends to be that vampires were at one stage human but unfortunately fell victim to their creator. In this film however, they are a species unto themselves, a coven of vicious predators constantly hunting for their next banquet of nice, hard-working Alaskans. What is perhaps more terrifying about them is their implied superiority to humans. They speak their own ancient language and mock humans for their belief in God and hopes for mercy – their leader, Marlow (played by Danny Huston), showing a particular disdain for us mere mortals. Another thing that separates 30 Days of Night from the typical vampire genre is the lack of a main antagonist. While Marlow is indeed the leader of the pack, he is not given the same reverence as characters such as Dracula or Kiefer Sutherland’s David (The Lost Boys).
They aren’t dastardly bad guys to be reckoned with, but instead straight-up monsters. 30 Days of Night also deviates from the good versus evil status quo of vampire films. Generally speaking the formula goes as such: vampires (bad) attack + noble hero (good) fights back = evil vanquished. Instead, the creatures wreak havoc with a bit of resistance from the townsfolk, but then just move on to the next unfortunate village, minus a few of their mates. The fact that the monsters aren’t actually destroyed in this film (even in spite of the noble sacrifice made by the protagonist) makes it all the more chilling. Furthermore, vampire films are known for their protagonists almost willingly falling victim to their assailant (because they’re sexy) and as such can become quite predictable, sticking to a general formula. 30 Days of Night instead makes use of building up tension and really amplifying the sense of isolation. The sense of dread slowly grows with the arrival of the vampires’ pet human (Ben Foster), and the destruction of the town’s power sources, vehicles and even (brace yourself) dogs. It is incredibly reminiscent of horror classics, The Thing (1982) or even Alien (1979), as the poor humans fight to stay alive (and sane), all while stuck without sunlight or outside contact for an entire month. Scary stuff.
Another reason 30 Days of Night is a firm favourite for horror fans is because it redeems vampires as movie monsters. For centuries, these creatures were genuinely feared in cultures all over the world, sometimes even causing mass hysteria and the staking of corpses (just in case). Depending on where you were, they came in many forms but more often than not, they were abhorrent in appearance and rarely charming: e.g. El Chupacabra. It wasn’t until the 19th century with Stoker’s magnum opus (or John Polidori’s The Vampyre – depending on how well-read you are) that sucking blood became in any way on trend. By the early 2000s however, sexy vampires were beginning to lose their steam and so this film served as a welcome change to the genre. Just a year after its release, the global phenomenon of The Twilight Saga made its cinematic debut, and while it remains incredibly successful, it also became a massive joke and the trope of the attractive, brooding vampire became laughable. Even in spite of many other successful franchises (e.g. True Blood, Underworld, The Vampire Diaries, etc.), it hasn’t really been taken very seriously – just take a look at the Key & Peele sketch on the subject.
Countering the downfall of Edward Cullen and his sparkly mates, the scary vampire began to – pardon the pun – rise again. In 2008, audiences were introduced to Eli the childlike but terrifying vampire in Swedish creepfest, Let the Right One In. In 2009, vampiric Ethan Hawke fought off an evil vampire corporation and monstrous mutated vampires in Daybreakers. In 2010, 30 Days of Night got a sequel. In 2014, Guillermo Del Toro’s TV series, The Strain, gave the nice folks at home a weekly scare at bedtime with plague-induced vampires. Maybe 30 Days of Night isn’t entirely responsible for this shift, but it certainly seems to mark a turning point in the vampire genre.
30 Days of Night turns ten years old this week. While it might not be a huge part of pop culture memory, it represents a turning point in the vampire genre, it still has its spook factor (try telling me the bit where they’re using the girl as bait isn’t creepy as hell), and for many, it remains a horror favourite.