Near Dark. 1987. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Screenplay by Bigelow & Eric Red.
Starring Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Marcie Leeds, Joshua John Miller, Jenette Goldstein, & Tim Thomerson. F/M Entertainment.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
I’ll admit it right off the bat, other than Blue Steel, Strange Days, The Weight of Water, and this movie, I’m not Kathryn Bigelow’s biggest fan. All the same, on these alone I find her a solid director. Okay – I dig Point Break, too.
Near Dark, though. God damn. I consider a lot of movies 4 to 5-stars, after having seen over 4,200 films (and counting). However, that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Just means in my subjective opinion they’re amazing. When it comes to Bigelow’s 1987 vampire flick – that one where they never say the word vampire – I honestly think it’s perfect. I would not change a single bit. This is one of the horror movies out there, amongst my favourites, which doesn’t need a thing to make it better.
There’s a nice dose of horror, some blood and burning bodies, that type of thing. A dash of romance. Several great action scenes. The dialogue is top notch, from Bigelow and Eric Red (The Hitcher, Blue Steel), and the performances – specifically that of Bill Paxton – only make what’s on the page come more alive.
If there ever were an award for best modern vampire flick, this would certainly be in the running for first place.
The practical special effects are great fun and they start rather quick. After Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) gets a bite from Mae (Jenny Wright), he turns into a vampire. Running through a field trying to make it home, he begins burning up in the sun, and there’s an awesome effect where they ran tubes around in Pasdar’s jacket with smoke billowing out to make it look right. Everything about the film is impressive, well put together. For instance, the set design and locations are between Western and horror, from a dusty little bar where Severen (Bill Paxton), Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen) and the rest of the gang terrorise the patrons, to the inside of their RV with the windows mostly blocked, keeping the sun at bay so that they all don’t burn up. Then there’s also the makeup itself, which I can never get enough of – when the vampires start to burn a bit, it’s some of the best stuff out of the ’80s. Later on they all burn a good deal, so there’s a chance for the makeup artists to show off. My favourite moment is when Jesse and Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) hold hands as they charge into the sun in the car, a close-up shows us the extensive, kick ass makeup work with Jesse’s crispy black hand taking the brunt.
Dying ain’t easy. Then again, neither is becoming a vampire.
“We keep odd hours“
Caleb’s transformation is especially confusing, for him, and terrifying for both him and us. It’s painfully cruel, his mind and body struggling to adapt. What’s worse, really: the moral or physical pain of the vampire? Strangely enough, Caleb refuses to kill yet feeds off Mae, with whom he’s fallen in love. He can’t kill, so the other vampires want nothing to do with him. Mae loves him enough to feed him from her wrist when necessary. There’s a romantic angle to the story. Not in that it romanticises vampirism. In the end, Caleb finds a way to combat the vampire infection and helps Mae, as well. But the way Mae and Caleb fall for one another is unique, in that they don’t fall into being vampires together – she doesn’t want to turn him in the start, she actively tries repelling his advances. Only because of his insistence. He pushes himself on her until she bites. Almost like he was asking for the consequences. Only he didn’t realise this love was wrapped up in being a bloodsucking, undead creature.
The most unsettling part of the movie, for me, is how the crew are highly organised vampires. They don’t just live somewhere trying to make a life for themselves, someplace they can easily find prey and dispose of bodies, et cetera; y’know, vampire shit. No, Hooker and the gang travel in their RV, or any vehicle which they can rig for their purposes, and make a road trip out of their infection. It’s the All-American Family on the ultimate, perpetual vacation. Caleb isn’t ready to leave behind his old life and his real family, nor are his family willing to let him go so easily, chasing after him until they too are in danger.
So what’s the lesson? Love is the drug. The one to bring people back from the life of the vampire. Hooker, Severen, Diamondback, they’re all loveless. No joy except for blood and murder and death all around. Caleb, his father, his sister, and finally Mae, they want for more. They need love to sustain them, not blood.
“Dyin‘ for a bite”
Always enjoyed the finale, the big showdown as Hooker’s crew goes up against Caleb, trying to save himself, his family, and Mae. The gorgeous Tangerine Dream score has this great part with this brass arrangement before snapping into typically gnarly Tangerine Dream-type stuff. A savage, ominous tone that takes us through these last bits, wondering who’ll burn up and who will leave to see another day. What’s fun is that it’s essentially two families pitted against each other: the vampire family v. Caleb’s real, human family. The father shows his son yet another act of love, helping him to conquer the vampires for good. Everything about the end is incredible.
A 5-star classic that isn’t all hype: Near Dark has the goods. Bigelow did the horror genre a service by trying to do something not typical, merging pieces of Western movies with that of the vampire sub-genre. She did so much on a small scale, making these vampires feel part of the real world while not going overboard. The movie’s wild, no doubt. But whereas certain other filmmakers might go for bigger, more lavish vampire flicks, Bigelow does something more contained and, in turn, comes out with great characters, a unique plot, and makes sure never to do skimp on some bloodiness.