The vampire has undergone periodic recreations through the history of cinema. Some eras attempt to reframe the vampire as a monstrous entity, others emphasize the inherently sexual nature of a villain who kills by exchanging bodily fluids. Indeed, whenever we’ve strayed too far from the original, romanticized Bela Lugosi iteration of the character a movie or set of movies seems to come along to send our hearts aflutter and remind us that vampires – however updated they might be for each new generation – are still damn sexy.
Most recently, Twilight, which upset purists but still sent many a sparkling vampire straight into the fantasies of countless fans. A decade before that, an entire generation experienced a sexual awakening while watching Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise experience, um, their own awakening in Interview With a Vampire. Yet, a decade before that Hollywood offered up Fright Night (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), and Near Dark (1987), tantalizing us with Chris Sarandon’s debonair good looks, Keiffer Sutherland’s effortless cool and MTV-ready gang of vamps, and Adrian Pasdar’s rather chiseled torso.
The vampire in these films can be a charming newcomer to the neighborhood or a tempting gang promising an eternity of generally doing whatever the hell you want, but good must still ultimately battle evil. The Hollywood happy ending forever beckons, and the downside to vampirism must be exposed.
Near Dark – Kathryn Bigelow’s second feature-length film – answers that last call better than most. Being a vampire in the American midwest, it turns out, is akin to the life of a gunslinger in the Old West, forever en route to one town or another and forever hounded by the authorities. The romantic qualities quickly give way to monotony, endless nights spent feeding on truckers and hitchhikers or sitting in a dingy motel room playing cards.
For 1987, that was a rather progressive thing to say about the vampire myth. Audiences weren’t totally down with it. The box office was practically non-existent, and the reviews were generally positive but not universally so. (The NY Times panned “The result of being pushed and pulled through the confusing styles of Near Dark is simple exhaustion.”) In the decades since then, Bigelow has moved on to bigger (Point Break) and more acclaimed (The Hurt Locker) works, ultimately becoming the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar. Thankfully, as a result of her profile-raising career more and more people have circled back to Near Dark and declared it an overlooked gem of its era, with Diabolique Magazine calling it “a treasure of tight filmmaking, stellar performances and a score that is lush and taut with an undercurrent of tension.”
Today, I weigh in.
What’s It About?
It’s love at first sight for Caleb (Pasdar) – a good-natured, Oklahoma farm boy – when he sees shy, Pixie-haired Mae (Jenny Wright) standing outside of a convenience store. He throws his best game at her, and she playfully lets him. Before too long, they’re in his truck together, getting to know one another as he gives her a ride home. You can see where this is heading right? Sexua…
Um, no, she turns him into a vampire after a simple kiss. Then her clan – middle-aged couple Jesse (Lance Henrikson) and Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), violent hoodlum Severen (Bill Paxton at his most Bill Paxton), and mysterious young boy Homer (Joshua Dan Miller) – swoops in to whisk him away in their blacked-out Winnebago. Understandably, he’s not totally cool with any of it – the need to feed, the endless nighttime cruising in stolen trucks and cars, the whole “stay out of the sun” thing. That’s ok. Other than Mae, none of them seem to actually want him around. Will he make his first kill to prove himself and truly join this new family? And will his father and younger sister get to him in time before he’s lost to them forever?
Why I Watched It
It was playing at a local theater as part of a month-long horror film festival, it’s something I’ve always meant to see but never got around to, and it fits in nicely with Thirst – yesterday’s 31 Days of Halloween entry – as a non-traditional vampire movie.
Did I Like It?
Near Dark is a strange beast of a movie, torn between neo-romanticism, genre deconstruction, and gritty, mid-80s action. Languid, dream-like sequences of the two would-be lovers – set to the tune of a lovely Tangerine Dream score – give way to action beats practically lifted straight out of the first Terminator. It’s hardly a surprise considering how much James Cameron carryover there is in the cast and crew. (Cameron himself even cameos in the film, and Aliens is listed on a theater marquee in the background at one point.) I can see why the Times found it exhausting back in ‘87, yet Bigelow brings an irresistible mood to it all and her script cleverly tweaks conventions. I found it quite intoxicating, even as the finale slips into some nonsensical plotting.
The backstory is Bigelow and The Hitcher screenwriter Eric Red were begging all over the industry for money to fund a western. Like so many other rookie filmmakers both before and after them, they were told to pick a different, more popular genre, something a financier could more easily get behind. So, they decided to merge the western with horror and came up with a vampire movie in which the word “vampire” is never used.
Contrast that with Fright Night or The Lost Boys, both of which far more directly acknowledge both their subject matter and the standard rules of vampire movies and mythology. That gives you a better sense of how strange it was for the audiences of 1987 to receive a vampire movie where nothing is ever spelled out and fangs are never even shown on-screen.
As per Bigelow’s original intention to make a western, this is a movie about a man who falls in with the wrong gang and is tempted by wanderlust and adventure even as domesticity and the homestead beckon. He ends up torn between his desire for normalcy and his love for Mae, and it’s to the film’s immense credit that the latter relationship completely works even as they end up on opposite sides.
Since Near Dark picks and chooses which elements of vampire mythology to honor, the solution to the central conflict manages to still surprise even today. You perhaps walk away with more questions than answers, but it’s still a trip worth taking. I’m ultimately more partial to the film’s more action-oriented second half than its slower first, but as a whole, Near Dark still stands as one of the better horror-westerns out there.
Did It Scare Me?
No, but the bar scene had people in the theater jumping out of their seats. Bill Paxton is such a wild card throughout the film, but in that scene, in particular, you have no idea what he’s going to do next.
Where to Stream
31 Days of Halloween So Far:
- Day 1: One Cut of the Dead
- Day 2: Effects
- Day 3: Microwave Massacre
- Day 4: The Wind
- Day 5: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key
- Day 6: Black Cat (1981)
- Day 7: In the Tall Grass
- Day 8: Creepshow (2019)
- Day 9: Thirst (1979)
Next Up: A zom-com.