At the beginning of David Slade’s 30 Days Of Night, Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) watches the sunset for the last time. The town of Barrow, Alaska, is about to plunge into a month of darkness, a time when days bleed into one another and most townsfolk flee to warm climates. As Oleson stares off into the setting sun, his face is etched with fear, apprehension, and exhaustion at the prospect. But nothing can prepare him for what waits for him and Barrow in the inescapable darkness.
30 Days Of Night chronicles the massacre of Barrow by an ancient tribe of vampires who see the month-long night as the perfect time for a blood buffet. These creatures devour everyone they can find in perhaps one of the most harrowing scenes in contemporary horror. Through the use of close-ups and crane shots, Slade and cinematographer Jo Willems are able to create fear by distancing the audience from violence while also creating a new kind of uncanny vampire.
The massacre is preceded by a smaller scale scene in which the lead vampire, Marlow (Danny Huston), and his female companion murder a couple in their home. In a cramped room, the camera is trained on Marlowe’s face and hands as he snarls, howls, and stabs. The viewer is given an intimate view of the vampiric violence, which is to be expected of a vampire movie. So often deaths at the hands of vampires are almost sensual as the creature buries their face into the neck of the victim and seductively drinks their blood. The camera is glued to their mouths touching flesh as if it is romantic. But here, the suit-wearing, dapper-looking vampires have shark-like teeth and long talons that rip through flesh like a vicious predator. There are not two pinpricks to the jugular; this is the removal of the throat, with nothing left but a bloody pile of gore. The use of close-ups in this moment emphasizes the vampire’s ferocity and shatters the illusion of their humanity. While many vampires are either mostly human or mostly monster, Slade’s version defies audience expectations of the iconic horror figure.
Then the massacre begins and the scale of the killing moves from a couple in their living room to the entire town being devoured in the streets. Here, the camera begins to switch between close-ups and crane shots, which creates a disorienting tension in how the audience is meant to view the violence. At first, close-ups show blood spurting from open wounds and more well-dressed vampires ripping out throats. It’s what’s expected from a horror movie; we are meant to be uncomfortably close to the violence to elicit a strong reaction.
But then the camera cuts to crane shots, which quickly remove the viewer from the horrifying scene. While this distance could seem like it functions as a relief from the gore, it instead expands the scope of the violence. In close-up shots, the viewer is only seeing one death, albeit an awful one. But with the bird’s-eye perspective, the viewer is seeing multiple murders at once, never sure where to look or what person to focus on. It is an overwhelming shot that adds to the confusion and chaos of the vampires’ massacre, as well as to the overwhelming fear of what is unfolding in this town.
As the camera cuts between two different types of shots, it also creates a better understanding of the vampires. Again, like Marlowe, they are dressed like business professionals until their clothes are stained with blood. In their suits, they leap like carnivores from rooftops onto their victims and show absolutely no mercy. Despite their human appearance, they have no regard for human life and view people as no more than sacks of meat for immediate consumption. Close-ups illustrate this fact as they shake human bodies like a dog shakes its favorite toy.
Brian Reitzell’s score is layered on top of the chaos like the most demented cherry. His soundscape is something entirely unique, as Reitzell invented a new instrument to create such a distinctive sound. The strange melodies produced from this instrument feel, like the vampires, uncanny, familiar yet completely alien. Reitzell is able to put sound to these vampires, perfectly capturing their anxiety-inducing energy. His instrument thrums, and drums pound to the beat of the vampires’ murderous rampage, making the viewer’s heartbeat race.
However, the camera then lingers in the bird’s-eye view of the town and the jarring score fades away. The only remaining sounds are those of gunshots, screams, and gurgles. While the camera is placed far away from the mass killings, the perspective better establishes the scale of what has been done. Blood stains the snow. Bodies litter the streets. Survivors try desperately to drag themselves to safety. There is nothing but death in Barrow, and the silence further emphasizes the bleakness of the scene; everyone is dead and there is no one out there who can help them. Barrow is doomed.
While 30 Days Of Night was by no means a critical success, its bold aesthetic choices gave the film a strong visual style that makes its vampires as terrifying as possible and its story unbearably bleak. This scene establishes just how difficult survival is going to be. Slade demonstrates that terror can be conveyed through more than just close-ups shots of death. In giving the viewer a different perspective on violence, the film’s sense of nihilism is better conveyed. The helplessness of the situation sinks in as the camera slowly pans over the quickly-reddening snow.