Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Near Dark

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

FlixFling

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: A zom-com.

7 comments

  1. Hey! You forgot to mention that one of the truckers appears as “You forgot to say please” biker in Terminator 2.

    I tend to think of “Near Dark” as shocking especially the infamous bar scene. I always feel for the waitress.

    Major kudos to the late Bill Paxton, who can do goofy well but this time, he’s become something very uncomfortable. More so than when he did that odd New Order music video.

    You’re right about the happy ending. It wasn’t a bit forced. However I couldn’t write something better.

    1. I’d like to say I truly forgot to mention the T2 biker, but, in reality, I didn’t even notice the connection. And me, the guy who claims T2 is his favorite film of all time. I must now leave to commit the blogger version of Hara-Kiri. Correction: I must first figure out what exactly that would mean. I can’t literally stab myself with my own sword. Maybe just hit myself with a keyboard? Print out a monthly breakdown of my stats and use it to give myself papercuts while screaming, “Damn you, SEO. What keywords must I use to please you? Tell me!”

      I fear I may have overshared just now 🙂

      Anyhoo…the bar scene still shocks. I’m jaded by too many movies, but seeing that scene for the first time on the big screen with a nearly sold-out audience was quite the experience. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said people literally jumped out of their seats. The lady next to me threw a bit of her popcorn in the air on accident when Paxton slit that guy’s throat.

      Speaking of which, that is an excellent point about Paxton. I shouldn’t have really moved past his performance the way I did in the piece. He is truly exceptional here. He’s doing that crazy guy character we know so well from his James Cameron movies but he’s doing it with just this extra bit of menace which feels new and totally unnerving. With all due respect to Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright, the actual leads of the film, there’s a reason they put Paxton’s half-burnt off face on the cover of the Blu-Ray.

      As for the ending, maybe this is because a lot of the other horror movies I’ve watched this month close on nasty twist endings, but I did think there was going to be more. It’s never explained why the blood transfusion trick works or why in all their years of lived experience the other vampires never thought to try that. (It’s entirely possible the older vamps in the clan know all about it but don’t mention it because they don’t want to be human again and don’t want to lose any members of their family. We don’t know because like so much else about the vampirism in Near Dark it’s never explicitly discussed.) Even so, I can roll with the idea of Pasdar and Wright becoming human again and returning to the homestead. It works on a metaphorical level for me, if not entirely literal level.

      What I wanted to see next was what if the blood transfusion only works for a while? What if it wears off and they get caught out in the sun when it does? What if there are side effects like maybe they’re not quite human again but not totally vamp either? What does that mean? And moreover, how does Wright’s character reintegrate back into normal, human life? Will she resent Pasdar for making the decision for her? Would she rather have died than be human again?

      Really, what I’m saying is, I want a sequel. All of that is what they would have to address in a sequel, but that moment has passed, obviously.

      1. It took me a decade that trucker actor = head biker.

        There’s lots of kudos to go round that movie. Jeannette Goldstein, who I presume to be a nice Jewish lady IRL, sure does become white trash vampire matriarch.
        Even the kid vampire and his motives are their own unique sort of creepy.

        I am not sure how a sequel would go. Maybe Mae seeks some of the best psychotherapy in the 80s Mid-West. Maybe she’s happy that her life will not be a constant struggle of being both predator and prey and having a non-nomadic lifestyle. In time, she might get to take a holiday in Europe and see the world. 🙂

      2. “Maybe Mae seeks some of the best psychotherapy in the 80s Mid-West.”

        Speaking as someone from the midwest, I can verify that the psychotherapy would be…well, not the best in the world, but maybe better than you’d expect.

        “Jeannette Goldstein, who I presume to be a nice Jewish lady IRL, sure does become white trash vampire matriarch.”

        I could have used more of her character. I feel like of all of them she’s the least defined, just falling into a white trash matriarch, but I guess we do get to see her hunting with Lance and we do get a bit of their backstory together. Incidentally, Goldstein is obviously one of Cameron’s most frequent go-to character actors from Aliens to T2 to Titanic. On the podcast I Was There Too, she explained how all of that came about (she started as a bodybuilder) and what she’s up to now (she has her own line of bras): https://www.earwolf.com/episode/aliens-t2-titanic-with-jenette-goldstein/

        “Maybe she’s happy that her life will not be a constant struggle of being both predator and prey and having a non-nomadic lifestyle. In time, she might get to take a holiday in Europe and see the world. ”

        I like that reading of how Mae might react to it all. There is a definite dance between light and dark throughout the film, with Mae tempting Caleb to the dark and him ultimatley saving her by bringing her back into the light, something she’d given up on long ago. Of everyone in the vamp family, it certainly seems like she’s the least-invested in their lifestyle and the most likely to want out. So, I can buy that she would ultimately embrace being alive again. It’s just that so much of Near Dark involves Mae mentoring Caleb in the vamp lifestyle. The obvious second half of that story would be him mentoring her back into the human lifestyle, but that’s again me wanting to see more. If I walk away invested enough to want more, I’m obviously in the bag for what they did. And, really, it’s not like we haven’t seen that kind of human-to-vamp-back-to-human thing in vamp media in the decades since. Pretty sure Vampire Diaries recycled that storyline several times over.

      3. I just rewatched the film twice. Once with Bigelow’s commentary. She says the transfusion idea comes from Bram Stoker.

        I never knew that about Goldstein. Yeah, there’s not much happening with Diamondback. All I remember was her saying that she was hitchhiking then fell in love with Jesse. Maybe she bit Homer so she could have a “son”. We don’t even know when she got bit.

        Are we really sure Severen died? That could have been the sequel material.

      4. “Severen died?” – Not gonna lie. I completely assumed he was still alive, and that to complete the Terminator comparison he would emerge from the wreckage as an almost skeletal-figure slowly healing. For a low-budget 1987 film, maybe that wasn’t possible. There’s never really any on-screen confirmation that he definitely dies, though. Seems like an obvious story gap that would be exploited in a sequel.

        Good to know about the transfusion coming straight from the vampire granddaddy himself.

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