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When director David Slade was young, he used to have nightmares about vampires. But over time, the bad dreams faded — not because he grew older but because the vampire myth, redone over and over again in movies, lost much of its, um, bite.
“They just weren’t scaring people anymore,” he said.
Slade will have his chance to re-instill fear starting Friday with Columbia’s “30 Days of Night.” The horror film is based on the comic book miniseries created by writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templesmith. Columbia picked up the rights for Ghost House Pictures to produce back in 2002 when the first issue was published.
The story is set in an Alaskan town attacked by hungry vampires as it settles down for its annual winter month of sunlessness. Combined with its stark, painted art, “30 Days” took the comic community by storm.
The movie rejiggers the vampire story in a way that “28 Days Later,” the 2002 horror movie directed by Danny Boyle, reinvented the zombie story. Until then, zombies were slow-moving, brain-eating creatures. Boyle turned them into fast-moving, fury-filled monsters. That movie’s success shook up the cobwebbed genre, with remakes, sequels and imitators flooding the market. “30 Days” could do the same for vampire movies.
Niles, who shares screenwriter credit on the film with Brian Nelson and Stuart Beattie, didn’t set out to reinvent vampires, but he knew which conventions he wanted to avoid.
“As time has gone on, we kept deconstructing, deconstructing — and then you get to Anne Rice, and she makes them lead characters, sympathetic characters,” Niles said. “And now, we have vampire detectives on TV and high school girls are dating them. It’s gotten ridiculous. We completely disarmed everything that was scary about them.”
So with Niles making vampires fearful on paper again, Slade and producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert set out to make them terrifying onscreen.
One thing the filmmakers did was made the new vampires old vampires. Pre-biblical is how Slade describes them. And he gave them a new look that owes more to Count Orlok in the German Expressionist film “Nosferatu” than Count Dracula as played by Bela Lugosi.
“They don’t have little canines — that is a little romantic — they have sharks’ teeth, rows of them. Black soulless eyes, sometimes not quite in the right place,” said Slade, who enlisted Weta Workshop to help with the creatures’ design.
The filmmaker gave the vampires their own language, too, making sure it was based on very simplistic urges like eating and killing. The creatures utter only one line of English in the entire movie, and it is featured in the trailer: Danny Huston, the lead vampire says, “No God.”
“30 Days” also gives its vampires a simple but signature way of killing, which is to leap on the victim and cut at their throat with their teeth and claws.
“This is not the Anne Rice vampire that says a little bit of Rimbaud before making love,” Slade said. “If the Anne Rice vampire is a metaphor for erotica, this one is metaphor for assault. Not for sexual assault but assault on human values.”
While the comic book had a unique look, Slade and the producers decided early on not to keep that “graphic novel” look for the movie the way adaptations of “300” or “Sin City” have done.
“If it was more of a graphic novel look, or more of a fantasy, it would move the viewer from the fear center of the brain toward somewhere else,” Slade said. “The (comic) frames-come-to-life give you a degree of safety — a safety net we decided to destroy by making it as realistic as we could within the confines we had.”
Raimi said he never felt that vampires were past their prime until he read the “30 Days” and set out to make the adaptation.
“I think it is only by the light of comparison, when someone shows you a new way, that you realize you were on the old path,” Raimi said. “And I, like everyone else, never knew I was on the old path until I saw their vision of what a vampire could be.”
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