The sleepy little town of Barrow, Alaska sits so far north that the sun literally can’t rise above it for 30 days every winter. As Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) explains, Barrow draws the kinds of folks who live there because nobody else can. For the most part, the cold, dark winter isn’t that big a deal. This year, however, what’s usually a minor seasonal annoyance will become a fight to survive against an unstoppable force of darkness. Because, you see, a group of vampires has figured out they can use Barrow and its residents for 30 days of fun and food without having to worry about being turned to dust by pesky sunlight.
Hard Candy director David Slade expands the original three-issue comic series by writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templeton into a film that adds quite a bit of material to reach its 113-minute running time. Most of what’s added serves the story well, particularly by embellishing its supporting characters. Other changes don’t work as well.
The sweetest scene in the comic is an early moment shared by Eben and his deputy, Stella, who’s also his sweet, hopelessly romantic wife. Stella holds Eben close and makes him watch the last sunset for 30 days with her, even though he’s a bit distracted by some of the strange things that have begun happening around town. In the film, Eben watches the sunset with a male deputy and reminisces about happier times. Stella (Melissa George) is now a fire marshal; she’s leaving Eben and can’t wait to get out of town. The change allows for one dramatic payoff that’s still less than what it would have been had the film maintained the Eben/Stella relationship from the comics. It forces Hartnett and George to muddle through forced, cheesy dialogue about their collapsing marriage, cheapening characters we expect (and want) to be together. In all fairness, however, someone who’s never read the comics probably won’t think twice about how Eben and Stella are handled in the film.
In the comic, the first group of vampires to arrive in Barrow is intercepted by a second, older group that warns them of the implications of their actions. The movie wisely excises the complication of the second group but inexplicably retains the flaw in the first group’s plan. Having them realise the problem on their own — on the last day of their invasion, no less — makes them look remarkably dumb and actually creates a plot hole.
Both the comic and the film suffer the same major problem with the passage of time. We see the passage of time via Hartnett’s facial hair, but we never feel it. And when the vampires attack as savagely as they do, we’re left to wonder why they didn’t wipe out the entire town in one day. One second they hunt with intelligence, efficiency and teamwork, but then go for days at a time without being able to find a large, loud group of human survivors.
The scariest character is a Renfield-like harbinger of the vampires’ arrival played by Ben Foster, who recently got a lot of deserved attention as a dangerously insane killer cowboy in 3:10 to Yuma. Foster is so feral and so spectacularly crazy that he makes the actual vampires — who bob their heads like birds, speak in a garbled language and screech at each other a lot — look like cheap imitations. Hartnett towers over him, but every second they’re together you’re entirely convinced that Foster could tear the larger actor apart.
Plot holes and the questionable handling of time passage aside, Slade still does lots of things right. The vampires’ initial siege on Barrow is told by an expertly choreographed aerial tracking shot that will chill your bones as screaming townspeople are turned into warm, bloody stains on the cold, white snow. And despite the unnecessary changes in Eben and Stella’s relationship, character dynamics work well enough thanks to excellent work from the cast. Mark Boone Junior, who played slimy characters in Memento and Batman Begins, is particularly endearing as the bear-sized town curmudgeon who surprises everyone with his heroic actions. Nathaniel Lees is another standout, radiating sadness and kindness. Slade builds up good emotional and psychological dynamics when certain characters are turned into vampires themselves, and the camera work is never less than excellent. The film has some good scares and lots of gore to keep horror fans happy.
Josh Hartnett is determined and heroic as Eben, and Melissa George is so sweet and lovely that she actually overcomes the character assassination this adaptation heaps upon Stella. The movie looks great and the cast does a lot of fine work, but a lack of consistency in the narrative keeps this from being a true horror classic.