Posted on Friday, September 13th, 2019 by Rob Hunter
(Welcome to DTV Descent, a series that explores the weird and wild world of direct-to-video sequels to theatrically released movies. This week’s entry takes a bite out of a sequel to one of the best vampire movies of the past two decades.)
Vampires are something of a ubiquitous presence in horror films, and while there are more than a few brilliant examples both celebrated and more obscure the bulk seem content with offering basic thrills from head to fangs – they suck your blood, they hate Christian iconography, they can multiply with a bite, etc. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (through its numerous incarnations on the screen) cemented the idea of alluring and debonair vampires wooing the unlucky to their sexy doom, and that remains the most common iteration up through the likes of Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Twilight (2008). Plenty of others have gone different routes from the comedic (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992) to the artistic (The Hunger, 1983) and the exploitative (Blacula, 1972) to the metaphorical (The Addiction, 1995).
What we don’t get nearly enough of, though, are vampire movies that treat the bloodsucking beasts like the straight-up monsters they are. Forget cool, sexy, and beguiling – sometimes you just want a vampire movie that embraces their visceral nature and delivers sequences of full-on carnage and horror. The best movie to answer that call is David Slade’s 30 Days of Night (2007).
It’s bloody as hell, beautifully shot – that overhead tracking shot is an all-timer – and emotionally horrifying, and if you haven’t seen it (at all or recently) you should probably remedy that. It also received a direct-to-video sequel in 2010 with the redundantly titled 30 Days of Night: Dark Days. Does it live up to the original’s high standards or does it crumble to dust before our eyes?
The Beginning – 30 Days of Night (2007)
The Alaskan town of Barrow is far removed from the rest of civilization, and that’s just how its residents like it. Life’s a bit tougher one month out of the year, though, as the town descends into darkness beyond the sun’s reach. Tougher, but livable all the same, at least until a mysterious ship arrives offshore and mysterious things start happening on their last day of sun. Satellite phones are stolen and destroyed, dogs are killed, the town’s power station is sabotaged – and then the slaughter begins. A group of black-eyed and bloodthirsty vampires has arrived for a month-long feast, and as the town’s tiny population grows smaller it’s left to a small band of locals including Sheriff Eben Oleson and his estranged wife Stella to fight back if they want any hope of surviving.
The DTV Plot – 30 Days of Night: Dark Days (2010)
Picking up just months after the first film’s end, Stella has moved to Los Angeles with the hope of convincing the world of what happened in Barrow. The official story labeled it a gas main explosion, but she wants everyone to know it was actually vampires. No one believes her, of course, but she still finds minor satisfaction in giving lectures and proving her claim by killing vamps in the audience with surprise UV lights. No one buys that either, inexplicably, but she does catch the attention of two groups – a trio of vampire hunters seemingly less qualified than the Frog Brothers (The Lost Boys, 1987), and the city’s own vampire population who’ve grown tired of her gossiping. The vamps attack, the human warriors save her life, and soon she’s joining their cause with a desire to wipe out the fanged species and avenge her husband.
30 Days of Night features an ensemble cast with Josh Hartnett (The Faculty, 1998) at its head, and he does a fantastic job as the young sheriff – seriously, he shames Ben Affleck’s similar role in Phantoms (1998) – dealing with both a disintegrating marriage and a dwindling population due to vampire infestation. The supporting cast is equally aces with strongly memorable turns by Melissa George (Triangle, 2009), Mark Boone Junior (Vampires, 1998), Danny Huston (Frankenstein, 2015), and a wonderfully vile Ben Foster (Pandorum, 2009) as the vampires’ desperate number one fan. Director David Slade came aboard hot off his acclaimed feature debut, Hard Candy (2005), and the script is co-written the original comic’s creator Steve Niles alongside Stuart Beattie (Collateral, 2004) and Brian Nelson (Devil, 2010).
This won’t surprise you, but the creative team behind Dark Days doesn’t quite reach that level of awesomeness. The perfectly competent Kiele Sanchez (A Perfect Getaway, 2009) steps in as the returning Stella, and while she’s a solid enough actor she can’t match George’s performance. We get some familiar faces in Harold Perrineau (28 Weeks Later, 2007), Rhys Coiro (Gotti, 2018), and Mia Kirshner (Exotica, 1994), but none of them do anything to stand out here. The folks behind the camera are more promising as original writer Steve Niles returns to co-write again. He’s joined by Ben Ketai (the sadly underseen Beneath, 2013) who also directs this time around.
How the Sequel Respects the Original
The biggest plus here – aside from retaining creator Steve Niles – rests in the continuation of the story. Stella is a character we care about through the first film, and we feel her loss by the time the credits roll. Following her as she takes the fight to the vampires is a thrilling and cathartic idea… in theory. The film also shows its respect by flashing back to one of the original’s greatest beats, the overhead tracking shot showcasing the town-wide slaughter and mayhem, but that actually leads into the sequel’s shittier side.
How the Sequel Shits on the Original
Why? Because reminding viewers how great the original looks does this film zero favors. There’s nothing even remotely resembling that shot here, and instead we get only generic, cramped, dimly lit locales that bleed into each other with their blandness. A dingy motel room gives way to even darker industrial areas before landing viewers inside the dull bowels of a cargo ship. It’s all instantly forgettable, and worse, it highlights a very simple misstep here in that the title refers to a month-long lack of sun due to Barrow being so far north of the equator. Los Angeles ain’t Barrow, and it certainly isn’t lacking in light. The already stupid title – what are dark days but days of night – becomes meaningless beyond the metaphorical darkness cast by bloodshed.
Where the first film leaves viewers caring about the characters this one leaves you wholly indifferent and unmoved. We lose the dynamic of Eben and Stella’s love, but more than that we also lose any interest in the supporting players. The original also gave us another distraught couple, a man and his father suffering from dementia, Eben’s concern for his younger brother, neighbors willing to sacrifice themselves to save others, and more. You believe these people know and like/love each other, but in the sequel? You only believe these people are depth-free idiots.
The vamp-fighting trio are introduced like heroes, and it’s presumed they’ve been doing this successfully for a while. Once they hook up with Stella, though, and inexplicably let her take charge, they immediately become morons and find themselves picked off in short order. You won’t care, but it’s still annoying. Ideally the vamps would pick up the charisma slack, but they’re all equally lacking in personality. We don’t “like” the original film’s vamps, but they have unique features and are made memorable through ferocity, behavior, and their high-pitched wailing. The vampires here are interchangeable noise-makers.
30 Days of Night remains a modern horror classic that holds up on re-watch and delivers thrills, chills, and terrifically bloody action while also managing to make viewers feel something. The sequel, despite the involvement of creator Steve Niles, forgets to do all of that. I imagine it’s probably a case of his ambitions and ideas, ones lifted straight from his popular comics, had to be neutered and minimized to match the DTV sequel’s shrinking budget. Whatever the reason, the result is the same – 30 Days of Night: Dark Days sucks.
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