A classic that frequented the sort of top 100 polls that read: ‘The Best Films To Rent You’ve Never Heard Of’, Near Dark wilted soullessly in the caverns of cinema’s black hole, yet this gem from 1987 wasn’t the usual bottom shelf turd that was destined to the recesses of 50 pence bargain bins, it was just the simple fact that no-one, bar a small group of die-hard, would-be bloodsuckers, had ever heard of it.
The film originally struggled to find its audience, certainly on a large scale, mainly due to a limited cinematic run and lack of publicity, and by the end of the year the general cinema-going public had to digest such horror treats as Evil Dead II, Hellraiser, John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness, Predator, and the film that stole some of Near Dark’s thunder, The Lost Boys. So as December came and went there was no room for director Kathryn Bigelow’s film in public consciousness.
Near Dark tells the story of Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and Mae (Jenny Wright). After meeting one night, she tells him she needs a lift home so Caleb obliges, intrigued by the mystery of her character. They flirt, they kiss, but after a few moments she breaks away and leaves Caleb in his truck alone, Mae disappearing into the night. His hand searches for a pain in his neck, revealing blood – had he been bitten? Staggering home losing consciousness, the now shining sun baking his skin so that it begins to smoke, he realises a recreational vehicle is closing on his person. Unable to avoid the speeding truck, the door opens and he is dragged inside.
Caleb is met by a group of drifters, one of them is Mae, and they threaten to kill him before Mae reveals that he has ‘turned’. Caleb doesn’t know what is going on, he’s confused and disorientated, and they tell him he will have to feed like they do to survive. What they feed on he doesn’t know, but he begins to realise one thing – he now has an undeniable thirst for blood.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red wanted to fuse a dark, ‘Dracula’ inspired story into a Western-like setting believing the amalgamation of the two genres would create an interesting and original hybrid. This is one of the most interesting things about the film, in that the conventions that are gleefully apparent in anything from For A Few Dollars More to Tombstone, sneakily register here. If anything, the film is happier as a western than a Vampire movie, as Bigelow and Red are content to subvert practically everything that The Lost Boys, Dracula, or Fright Night promoted in terms of mythology adherence, happily throwing in a bar room brawl, a shoot-out at a motel and continuing the theme of outlaws riding into town, only this time not on horseback but in a four-litre Diesel. Nowhere to be seen are a pair of fangs or a string of garlic, but while the sun does prove fatal this is seen as an ailment, a simple distraction from the incessant greed to survive. Like the outlaw staying one step ahead of the law, these neck-biters are trying to do the same and Bigelow wants us to view them not as fairytale foes but as the dark side of humanity, who just so happen to top the food chain.
The characters of Caleb and Mae are central to the film and offer an important dynamic creating a tug between familial indifference. When Caleb ‘turns’ he becomes a member of the family of vampires but his morals as a human being still remain causing conflict not only in his acceptance of his new situation but in his growing feelings for Mae. Equally, Mae’s allegiance to her inherited ‘family’ and her affliction, becomes increasingly sour as she starts to question whether her bloodthirsty obsession is a gift or a curse. These star-crossed lovers are the Romeo and Juliet of the underworld, and the film thrives on their relationship.
While both Pasdar and Wright acquit themselves well in their respective roles, it is Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton whose character’s and performances steal the show. Henriksen, as leader of the pack Jesse, has his method actor head on, brimming with a sadistic cool that makes your skin crawl from the sheer simplicity of his controlled manner. Right down to his sharpened, animal-like fingernails, Henriksen is the night dweller he brings to the screen. Paxton, on the other hand, is in-your-face madness. His persona boils with contempt for those that he must feed off to survive, and his relaxed, laid back quips are tainted with savagery, perfectly creating an eerie, monster personified juxtaposition. Both are the centre of the film’s shining moment when the bloodsucker’s turn their attentions to a seedy middle-American trucker’s bar. You just know there’s going to be some sort of showdown when the bartender tells Paxton’s Severen, ‘There’s two ways you’re leaving this bar…on your feet or on your back..’ Not unlike being in a room all alone with Hannibal Lecter and asking him what he likes to eat, this little statement is the calm before the storm, and what a storm it is. Drawn out terror, some of it implied, some of it explicit, the violence only relenting to heighten the tension, there’s a fire that’s just started and it’s only getting hotter. Paxton eats the screen finding more and more elaborate and bloody ways for his victims to succumb while Jenette Goldstein as Diamondback uses diversionary tactics – ‘There’s a fly on the ceiling’, she says as her target is shot in the back once…twice…three times… Jesse surveys the room like a school teacher stopping to collect blood in a pint glass while child actor, Joshua Miller as Homer, sees nothing out of the ordinary with his straight as an arrow face, blood and death all around him.
Surprisingly, this is Kathryn Bigelow’s debut as a solo director, but her efforts appear to be those of a veteran. Maintaining a gritty, mid-west feel, she steers clear of gothic clichés only hinting at the ideas behind her fantasy inspired central characters. There’s no heroic young virgin, or Priest throwing holy water every which way – Bigelow attempts to subvert the constraints put on her shoulders with tackling this genre. Her script doesn’t allow for any ease-the-pain humour, only cold, harsh quips and she keeps the mood downbeat and raw. Admittedly, there are times when the film feels as though it’s moving a little too slowly, but it’s pedestrian pace only heightens the tension as Bigelow knows what she’s trying to say in her story, and the short running time means there isn’t a pointless scene anywhere to be found. Her character’s back stories are left mostly in the dark, and what we do learn of them only leads to more questions which adds to the film’s mystique and its overall affect.
Near Dark only came to my attention about a couple of years ago and I was immediately intrigued, not least with the inclusion of three actors straight out of 1986’s Aliens. The cover art and poster work I looked at was superb and had me eagerly anticipating my first viewing, but there wasn’t a medium to view it on. Thankfully, now I’ve had the opportunity to witness how great this film is. From the interesting, terrifically handled genre-mating, the themes and the Romeo and Juliet undercurrent, the performances and the tour de force bar scene, the film has everything I couldn’t have dreamed I wanted to see. Beautiful, intriguing, and masterful in its execution this isn’t just a contender for best Vampire movie ever made – it is.