In the bleak 2007 horror Western 30 Days of Night, Josh Hartnett stars as Eben Oleson, a small town sheriff who takes a stand against a bloodthirsty gang of vampires. The story is set in a fictionalized version of the actual town of Barrow (Utqiaġvik), Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States, which experiences an annual polar night, during which the sun does not rise above the horizon for much of the winter, including the entire month of December. In the movie, as well as its source material – a comic serial of the same name by writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templesmith – the polar night is dramatically interpreted as a month of unbroken darkness, which allows the vampires to kill indiscriminately without fear of being hunted down during the day. We watched the film to observe how director David Slade and cinematographer Jo Willems lit and shot a monster movie set primarily in the snow at night.
Although a few scenes in 30 Days of Night were shot on location in actual snow at a New Zealand ski resort and regional park, the majority of the film was shot using backlot sets, sound stages, and models with artificial physical and digital snow. In both situations, the nighttime scenes feature very soft, bright light. On set, Willems employs overhead moon boxes and other diffused lighting sources to flood the town with soft light that reflects off the artificial snow on the ground. Occasionally, streetlights or lights on buildings provide extra, slightly harsher light, which is often used to highlight falling snow. On location, where it is impractical to set up lights, the filmmakers rely on day for night, applying filters or postproduction manipulation to make the soft sunlight of a cloudy day resemble the pale blue light of the moon. The high production values of the well lit on set shots, the necessity of day for night while on location, and the unavoidable whiteness of the snow in both scenarios add surprising brightness to the film’s unending night. While this film demonstrates that a snowy environment allows nighttime scenes to remain convincing even when they are very brightly lit, its approach to shooting in the snow at night downplays the darkness that should be pivotal to the plot and lacks the blackness and harsh shadows that give many horror movies a dark, expressionistic feel.
In its few daytime scenes, the movie alternates between close-ups of faces and wide shots of picturesque landscapes. With their shallow depth of field and indistinct, white background, the close-up shots could have been shot anywhere, including in a studio in front of a backdrop. This technique allows the filmmakers more control over the close-ups because they are not necessarily dictated by the landscape in which the film is set. By pairing these close-ups with wide shots that showcase harsh but beautiful landscapes, Slade, Willems, and editor Art Jones define the location of the character while simultaneously suggesting his vulnerability to his environment and creating stylistic parallels between their film and more traditional Westerns, especially the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s.
In fact, many elements of 30 Days of Night recall the Western genre: its plot centers around a righteous sheriff making a final standoff against a brutal gang; its sets much more closely resemble a Classical Hollywood Western town than the actual Utqiaġvik, Alaska; its juxtaposition of close-ups and wide landscape shots of snowfields at the beginning of the film mirrors the cinematography and editing of Western films shot in the desert. This movie’s greatest strength is in its chilling premise of vampires conspiring to rule the polar night, and its execution is made all the more intriguing by the unconventional interpretation of traditional Western tropes – snow instead of sand, monsters instead of gunslinger outlaws, and cold darkness in the place of hot sun. However, the film’s overall sleekness and relatively high production values work against it as a memorable member of either the Western or the horror genre. In his 2002 introduction, Clive Barker praises the original comic for being “not pretty,” but this brutal movie somehow manages to be exactly that. With its backlot sets, digital snow, extravagant lighting, gory special effects, and desaturated palate, 30 Days of Night is intellectually creepy and excessively violent but lacks any true grit.