Directed By: Ben Ketai
Screenplay By: Steve Niles, Ben Ketai
Based upon the comic by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
Produced By: Rob Tapert
Cast: Kiele Sanchez, Rhys Coiro, Diora Baird, Harold Perrineau, Mia Kirshner, Ben Cotton
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 92 minutes
Review Date: February 2, 2011
With Sequelitis, we strive to review all those odd, direct-to-video sequels of 20-year-old films. You know the ones: Low budget, unrecognizable cast, only tangentially related to the film it claims to follow? Do they hold a candle to the original, or do they reek of a distributor money-making ploy?
The first 30 Days of Night had a brilliant premise marred by the world’s stupidest characters. It has some effective scare moments and a handful of good scenes, but overall, I just can’t forgive the characters’ sheer idiocy (and the screenplay’s refusal to show the filmmakers realize the characters are behaving foolishly). It’s the kind of film founded on the great notion that vampires head up to Alaska so they can feed for 30 days, uninterrupted by the sunlight, which is immediately undermined by the vampires blowing their wad on the first night. (Even that wouldn’t be such a huge issue if not for the fact that the film’s vampire lore suggests they need to feed regularly and are pretty desperate toward the end of the 30 days.) That’s not even getting into the problem of the main character injecting himself with vampire blood — thus dooming himself to death by vampirization — so he can acquire the strength to fight them mere hours before the sun will come up and the vamps will clear out.
To its credit, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days starts with another brilliant premise to exploit — the polar (pun intended) opposite of the first film. Instead of setting the film in a land of eternal darkness, the filmmakers move the location to sunny Los Angeles. What a great idea — putting the vampires on the defensive instead of the offensive, forcing them into hiding in much the same way humans were forced into hiding in the first film. Considering it follows a ragtag group of vampire hunters, this could have been a great opportunity to explore a moral gray area — have the hunters leveled the playing field by forcing all the vampires to clump together in easily destroyed nests, or have they turned into the same sort of monsters? Do the filmmakers make clever use of this incongruous setting? Nope! The vast majority of this film takes place entirely at night, and with the exception of an unintentionally comical scene in which vampires (looking like pale extras from The Matrix) are flushed out using high-intensity UV lamps, there’s not a single reference to the sun.
Kiele Sanchez takes over Melissa George’s role, Stella Oleson. For those who don’t recall the grim yet dumb conclusion of the first film, she and husband Eben (played in that film by Josh Hartnett) stand on the edge of a cliff, weepy and huggy as the sun comes up and his body starts to burn to a crisp. Some time later, Stella arrives in Los Angeles to give a lecture telling the truth of what happened in Barrow, Alaska. For some reason, the audience laughs when she mentions vampires, and Stella mentions it’s not the first time. Not to get nitpicky, but wouldn’t you expect the audience to consist mainly of tinfoil hat wearing Art Bell fans, clutching copies of The Catcher in the Rye while muttering about the umbrella man near the grassy knoll? On the plus side, this sets a tone of dumbness that matches the first film.
In another goofy move, it initially seems like the lecture gets her on the radar of a team of vampire hunters, but it turns out she’s being led around the country by a mystery man known only as Dane, and the hunters work for Dane and were told to find her. There’s Paul (Rhys Coiro), the studly pseudo-love interest; Todd (Harold Perrineau), the token black guy (and the first to die, because this is a film that leaves no cliché unused); and Amber (Diora Baird), the inexplicably jealous female hunter. They take her to finally meet Dane (Ben Cotton), and she’s shocked to find he’s a vampire himself. Apparently unfamiliar with any of the modern vampire lore permeating the spectrum of popular culture, the film acts like refrigerated blood packs and Dane’s cabinet full of vampire-killing weapons are two of the cleverest ideas in the world. And, you know, they were pretty clever ten years ago on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but they’re kind of old hat at this point.
Dane has a plan for them to find and kill Lilith (Mia Kirshner), the vampire queen. He theorizes that once she’s gone, the rest will fall into chaos and end up dead. This is mostly an excuse for action sequences that don’t come close to matching the inventiveness of the not-particularly-inventive first film, but the story does take a mildly interesting turn when Stella learns about a possible “cure” for vampirism and becomes moderately obsessed with the possibilities for Eben. (Even though we’re led to believe Eben turns to ash at the end of the first one, this film “retcons” that to show that only his skin turns to ash, and Stella has buried the rest of his vampire body.) Unfortunately, this intriguing development sets up the worst twist ending since Signs.
Director/co-writer Ben Ketai, scripting with 30 Days comics co-creator Steve Niles, has effectively made a film for nobody. Ostensibly, it should have a built-in audience from the first film, but that was a straightforward horror-action piece. At times, Dark Days seems to want to follow suit — particularly when it attempts to raise the first film’s stakes by introducing Lilith as a baddie that makes the first film’s Marlow look tame in comparison — but it spends too much time as a moody, broody downer. Characters answer questions with pseudo-philosophical questions, while Stella stares grimly into the middle distance. Typical of low-budget direct-to-video fare, it’s one of those action movies that spends more time with characters talking about what they’re going to do than showing them do it (because everything invariably goes wrong within the first millisecond of putting the long-winded plan into effect).
The one thing the film has going for it is Stella, our only connection to the first film. For all its faults, the relationship between Eben and Stella in the first film was well-rendered and played well by Hartnett and George. Although watching Stella’s grief (which looks a lot like disaffected sulking) is not terribly compelling, the possibility of bringing him back sparks life into both the movie and, one assumes, audience members eager to see their reunion.
That’s what makes the twist ending such an embarrassment. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say the “cure” doesn’t quite work as advertised, and the final shot suggests neither of them will have a happy ending. It’s the sort of forced nihilism that works in torture porn, but that’s not what the first film is, and it’s not what 95% of this sequel is. It’s the sort of poorly thought out ending designed to blow minds rather than to satisfy audiences. Betraying the only thing the movie has going for it is not the way to end things, especially when the only people likely to check out this sequel are fans of the first one. Maybe I’m naïve to suggest the fans of the first film didn’t spend its entire runtime cheering for the vampires to win, no matter how stupid Eben and Stella revealed themselves to be.
The only positive I can draw from this film is that it has above-average production values for both DTV sequels and DTV horror. I’m not sure if this means the production team worked miracles on a shoestring budget, or if it was originally intended as a theatrical release. Whatever the case, it looks good. Unfortunately, it looks good while being exceptionally bad.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.