Near Dark (1987)

As many of my horror-movie-hound compatriots likely do, I tend to haunt used media shops. I can spend a good hour or two scouring any used DVD section looking for stuff I’ve never heard of or stuff I’ve always wanted to see, but never had the chance to. I think I ran into Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, our selection for day 21 of 31 Days of Horror, two or three times before I finally decided we should own it. I’d seen it once before, and my first reaction to it was overwhelmingly positive; somehow as time passed it wasn’t positive enough to convince me the DVD was worth $11. But after seeing it so many times, hovering around that $11 mark, I decided to pick it up. I’m glad I did, but maybe not for the reasons you think.

Mae's mysterious eyes are hiding something...

Mae’s mysterious eyes are hiding something…

Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is a small-town farm boy. He spends his night carousing around in his truck with his cowboy friends, but his tendency towards romance seems to separate him from the rest of the roughnecks. That’s at least how it seems to Mae (Jenny Wright), a vision under fluorescent lights suckin’ on a soft-serve, lookin’ all come-hither. It’s not long before Caleb woos her into his truck and the two spend the whole night together, Mae pointing out the dark sky in deep admiration. But the fun stops short when the sun starts to rise; Mae gets tense and demands Caleb take her home. He promises he will, but not until she gives him a kiss. She does, and of course it’s a kiss he won’t soon forget: a passionate nip on the neck that draws blood. After the tender love bite, Mae runs off, and Caleb seems mystified by her strange action. Things get worse when he tries to run home in the sunlight, smoking through the farm and alerting his father Loy (Tim Thomserson) and sister Sarah. “Caleb looks sick” she says curiously, right as a roughed-up Winnebago comes tearing through the farm, lifting Caleb into its cab.

Meet your new family!

Meet your new family!

What started off as a budding romance has now turned into a living nightmare; Caleb is now one of “them,” this rag-tag group of dirty, desperate thieves and murderers who hide from the sun. They consider themselves a “family.” Mom and Dad roles are played by Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) and Jesse (Lance Henriksen). Their two “sons” are both psychotic; Severen (Bill Paxton) a full-grown sociopath ready to toss Caleb out into the sun right then and there, and Homer, an ancient creature trapped in a young boy’s body with all the bitterness to prove it. Then there’s Mae, the newest addition to the family; someone Homer thought would be a good companion for himself. Homer is most disturbed by Mae’s wish to create her own companion, seeing it as a slight. In short, no one in this group is on Caleb’s side but Mae, and he has an awful lot to prove if he wants to survive with his new family. The only way to do that, surely, is to go out and kill. Will Caleb pass muster?

One of my favorite shots from Near Dark; our nighttime family from afar.

One of my favorite shots from Near Dark; our nighttime family from afar.

I have to say, there’s a lot about Near Dark I like. There are a lot of beautiful shots to feast your eyes upon; the American West provides an interesting setting for the creatures of the night. But probably my favorite aspect of the film is how Bigelow demystifies these animals. I spend a lot of time watching vampire movies wondering how they manage to afford “living;” surely the aristocratic vampire’s bank account would eventually run out after centuries of living; I mean, hello, inflation and everything, right?! But here it’s no secret where these monsters’ money comes from: their victims. Their existence is much more tenuous than Count Dracula’s; they don’t have the luxury of retreating into their castle’s cold, earthen basement for their daytime slumber, instead they have to book hotels before dawn and line the windows with aluminum foil to avoid going up in smoke. I really like this view of the vampire.

A bloody Bill Paxton beckons!

A bloody Bill Paxton beckons!

Additionally, there are some really great performances to behold here. Henriksen is, unsurprisingly, really fantastic at playing a veteran vampire. His expressions are usually cool and collected, but when he gets pissed, hot damn, he is pissed! This role was practically made for him. And now, as much as it might pain me to say it, I have to admit that Bill Paxton is so perfectly Bill Paxton that I think I actually shouted “I don’t hate Bill Paxton… I LOVE Bill Paxton” while watching this movie (this is the aforementioned reason I’m glad to have picked up this flick to add to my collection, lord help me). Seriously, this is a real revelation for someone who has refused to watch Frailty for the longest time because of his involvement in the film. Severen is a heartless, bloodthirsty killer way off his rocker. I can’t tell you how many bulgy-eyed stills I got of Paxton from this flick. He is so deliciously over-the-top I couldn’t help but laugh, and admit that the man’s got a certain charm. Unfortunately, our main characters are played by the weakest links. Either that, or the material they’re forced to work with doesn’t give them a lot of room to be interesting or have any fun.

A nighttime tryst like no other, Mae feeds Caleb under the oil derricks...

A nighttime tryst like no other, Mae feeds Caleb under the oil derricks…

And that sort of brings me to what I did not like about Near Dark: the treacly romance. Oh god, it is eyeroll-inducing. Mae and Caleb’s romance is sweet, sure, but Jiminy Crickets, Bigelow lays it on way too thick. I don’t think Wright and Pasdar’s chemistry was nearly enough to convince me that Caleb’s character would willingly give up his human family (the one he obviously loves) for these judgemental assholes Mae runs around with. And Mae’s constant reveries involving the moon and the stars make me want to barf. When we first started watching it I was ready to apologize to Q for suggesting we put the damn thing on. Luckily the movie more than makes up for these mawkish missteps, but be forewarned: it’s a little gushy.

What is so interesting, or maybe confusing, about Near Dark is its extremes. Those lovey-dovey scenes between Mae and Caleb are so tender and sweet, and ten minutes later we are violently jolted out of our romantic stupor as we witness Mae’s crew partake in one of the bloodiest bar brawls I’ve ever seen on film. I’m not exactly sure what Bigelow’s trying to say there, if

Lance Henriksen as Jesse, papa vamp.

Lance Henriksen as Jesse, papa vamp.

anything at all. Perhaps it is meant to highlight precisely why Mae sought out a new, tender-hearted companion: she can’t live off the violence alone, as the rest of her family seems to be able to do without issue. Either way, it is easy to see how Bigelow started with a film like Near Dark and ended up making Point Break: both are very serious about their content. Sure there are a few jokes here and there in both films, but neither are campy in the least. I think that works very well, somehow, for Point Break. After all these years of loving the shit out of that movie, I still haven’t exactly figured out why it works so well. But I think Near Dark loses a little something in all its seriousness. That being said, it is still a very good vampire flick. It is certainly one not to be missed by anyone who is a fan of the genre.


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