A near miss made all the more frustrating by its brilliant concept and truly unsettling creature design, director David Slade's adaptation of the popular graphic novel by Steve Niles is ultimately done in by an overabundance of shock sound cues, an over-reliance on tightly framed fast-shutter photography, and an unexpectedly abrupt final confrontation that culminates with one of the most ridiculous climactic vampire deaths ever committed to film. It's a true shame, too, given the talent involved. In Hard Candy, Slade made his audience squirm for 99 excruciating minutes with little more than a pair of actors locked in a single setting; here he's got an entire town to play with, yet somehow still manages to let any true sense of character or tension slip beneath the arctic ice. Likewise, Danny Huston, so brilliant in such recent films as The Proposition, is given little to do here other than emerge from the darkness to cast the occasional, otherworldly glance and spout the poetic prose of the living dead in some nonsensical ancient vampire dialect. Of course, any of these faults would be completely forgivable had the film either possessed some sense of a true emotional core, or simply gone as far over the top as possible. Yet by half-heartedly striving to do both, it achieves neither.
The setup is great: The sun is about to go down on Barrow, AK, for an entire month, and as the majority of the town takes flight for the long night, a horde of vampires prepare for the ultimate feast. After cutting the electricity, slaughtering the sled dogs, and effectively isolating Barrow from the entire outside world by melting all the cell phones into a useless sludge, the demonic bloodsuckers boldly take to the streets to prove that some nightmares have firm roots in reality. These aren't your typical two-fanged night-stalkers either; sporting a mouthful of jagged incisors that can rend flesh with ease and casting sinister glares so hideous that they seem to be peering into this reality from some awful ancient world, these wicked beasts are truly some of the most visually unsettling vampires since Murnau's Nosferatu emerged from the shadows back in 1922. Yet spooky as these malformed monsters may be to look at, it's hard to truly rattle viewers when the camera can't stop shaking long enough for them to figure out just how much danger the chilly denizens of Barrow are really in. Save for a spectacular overhead shot at the beginning of the siege that gives great promise for things to come, any sense of coherency in the action gives way to the kind of tiresome grand mal camera rattling that renders the action almost entirely incoherent. It's plain to see that the filmmakers who have hopped on this eye-straining bandwagon think that they are cleverly creating tension by putting the viewer "in" the action, so to speak, yet the sheer frustration of not being able to follow said action as it strobes by incomprehensibly effectively replaces any sense of genuine suspense or anxiety with hollow confusion and unfulfilling bafflement.
Likewise, while the unfortunate aesthetic choices could have at least been balanced out by some actual characterization or compelling storytelling, screenwriters Niles, Stuart Beattie, and Brian Nelson instead opted for the easy way out. Monolithic, life-altering conflicts between characters are skirted over by single lines of throwaway dialogue that give the audience absolutely nothing to sink their teeth into, and seemingly important developments are suddenly rendered null and void after extended setups that seem to indicate something big is about to happen. Sure, there are a few good kills, the vampire design is truly unique, and a ghastly decapitation toward the climax may in fact be one of the most effective ever filmed, but all of this means nothing when the conflicts that are raised -- both emotional and physical -- repeatedly fall flat; it's as if the screenwriters realized they had a good concept and a creepy monster design, and simply decided that no further effort was needed. Save for the possible exceptions of slimy-toothed Ben Foster (who goes way over the top in channeling his best Renfield), head vampire Huston, and supporting player Nathaniel Lees, the cast largely appears to be sleepwalking their way through this long night -- with Josh Hartnett and Melissa George actually displaying negative chemistry as the struggling couple whose lives were torn apart by...who the hell knows? Toss in a final confrontation that seems to have been specifically shot as a visual reference for the term "anti-climactic," add one last blast of Slade's failure to follow through, and top it all off with a final dash of nonsensical schmaltz that is insulting in the manner in which it asks the audience to care, and the result is an over-hyped mess of a monster movie that's ultimately defanged by its own pretension.