Josh Hartnett had pretty much given up on scary movies. Even though the horror hits "The Faculty" and "Halloween H20" had helped establish the actor's career early on, Hartnett more recently had steered toward artier movies such as "Lucky Number Slevin" and "Resurrecting the Champ."
Then Hartnett met director David Slade.
The British video and commercial director had arrived in Hollywood with a clatter: Even though critics were sharply split over his 2005 Sundance sensation, "Hard Candy," studios were eager to engage the maker of the unsettling low-budget drama about a pedophile and his would-be victim. The 38-year-old Slade met with the producer of the "Narnia" movies and was briefly considered for "Justice League of America."
The movie that came together, though, was "30 Days of Night," a $30-million vampire story adapted from the popular three-book graphic novels by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. And it was that project that brought Slade and Hartnett together in a bar in Minnesota, where Hartnett lives.
"It's a happy place," Hartnett says of the combination watering hole and bowling alley. "And as we were leaving, David took a couple of pictures of the place." The director later e-mailed them to Hartnett after altering the images. "I didn't even recognize the place," Hartnett says. "It looked haunted."
Slade's photo trickery convinced Hartnett to return to gore, and the director's visual manipulations would also prove central to his adaptation of Niles and Templesmith's work. "David's whole pitch was he wanted to go back to the core graphic novel," says "30 Days of Night" producer Rob Tapert. "He felt very strongly that there was a real clean story within the graphic novel."
Or as clean as a pack of bloodthirsty vampires descending on an Alaska town can be.
Like the graphic novel, the movie unfolds in Barrow, the northernmost town in the United States. For a month every winter, the sun never rises, pitching the small working-class city into darkness. Just as the sun is setting for the last time, a number of disquieting things start happening: Cellphones vanish, a helicopter is sabotaged, the power fails and all the town's dogs are slaughtered. There's not even e-mail!
The town's several hundred residents, it seems, are stuck. But not quite alone.
Stopping into Barrow for a quick bite are a band of voracious vampires, led by a particularly nihilistic guy named Marlow ("The Constant Gardener's" Danny Huston). It falls to Sheriff Eben Oleson (Hartnett) and ex-wife, Stella ("Turista's" Melissa George), to keep the town from being completely overrun by the bloodsuckers. The cast includes "3:10 to Yuma's" Ben Foster as a mysterious interloper.
While "30 Days of Night" includes several horror staples -- survivors holed up in an attic, a desperate dash to freedom -- Slade tries to bring freshness to a genre that has been done (literally) to death.
When Marlow's band descends on one unlucky family, the vampire decides to take a brief respite and plays a classical music record on his fingernail. When one of the town's residents decides to immolate himself to blow up some vampires, he doesn't valiantly go up in flames; instead, he's torn to shreds. And the vampires themselves owe little to Bela Lugosi or "Dark Shadows": They look more like especially wound-up skinheads and are shot in desaturated, nearly black-and-white colors, which makes the blood all the more striking.
"I wanted to make a scary movie," Slade says, "but the idea was not to make a fantasy. So you have to set it in reality as clearly as possible. The violence cannot be voyeuristic. It has to be true."
In a way, Slade is only picking up where "Hard Candy" left off. That film starred Patrick Wilson as Jeff, a 32-year-old sexual predator who tries to lure 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) into an unlawful get-together. Once alone, Hayley turns the tables on Jeff, and before the movie is over, Jeff believes he is about to be castrated by his would-be victim. Although the film sold to Lionsgate at Sundance for more than $4 million, it fizzled at the box office, grossing just $1 million.
"I thought it was horrible," Hartnett says, meaning it as a compliment. "The subject matter made me incredibly uncomfortable, and yet it was so well executed. And that he shot it in 13 days for $600,000 -- I was blown away."
Like a lot of Hollywood producers, Tapert and producing partner Sam Raimi got an early look at the film as they were looking for directors for their new production imprint, Ghost House Pictures, a horror label with credits on both the hit "The Grudge 2" and the flop "Rise."
"Sam and I were incredibly impressed with David Slade's ability to maintain energy and a claustrophobic feeling," Tapert says.
Slade eventually brought his "Hard Candy" collaborator Brian Nelson to work on the script (the final screenplay credits include Stuart Beattie and Niles) and worked to make the movie less formulaic where possible.