"KEEP BUSTIN'."

Near Dark

NEAR DARK is what happens when young, hungry Kathryn Bigelow comes off of co-directing the arty biker movie THE LOVELESS and teams up with the writer of THE HITCHER to do horror movies. She and Eric Red sat down and wrote two scripts together, one for each to direct. A producer says on the making-of featurette that he trusted her to direct, then admits he told her up front that she had three days to convince him not to fire her.

Man, firing her would’ve been a huge fuck up! It’s definitely a cool scenario they came up with, but the primary appeal of the movie is Bigelow’s style, mood, attitude. I suppose the alternate timeline scab that took over would’ve at least had the great cast she put together. Yes, three of them (Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein) had already been together in ALIENS (a movie that exists in some form within the NEAR DARK universe, unless the “ALIEN5” we see on a marquee meant PROMETHEUS). Bigelow correctly guessed that they’d not only be perfect for the characters, but would carry over a chemistry and familiarity that would work well as this outlaw family. Reportedly she hired them all separately and all were worried about the perception of following ALIENS with a low budget vampire movie. But they knew what they were doing. They chose right.

It starts in the boonies. Caleb (Adrian Pasdar, TOP GUN) is just some broad-chested small town hick going to the bar with his friends like any other night, but this time he’s spellbound by the sight of Mae (Jenny Wright, THE LAWNMOWER MAN), who’s not from around here. He follows her and courts her and has no way of knowing that her hard-to-get-ness is actually a reluctance to kill him and drink his blood as he falls right into her trap. When she tells him “I’ll still be here when the light from that star gets down here to earth in a billion years” he must take it for some new-agey hippie-dippie shit. Even when she bites him he doesn’t realize what just happened. How would you?

But she doesn’t kill him like she’s supposed to. She lets him turn. Brings him home to the family – a band of vampires living like post-apocalyptic survivors, covered in rags, drifting these dusty desert roads in an RV with the windows mostly covered, watching the road through a narrow slit, shielded by hoods and goggles. You got civil war vet (on the wrong side) Jesse Hooker (Henriksen), his badass, big-haired woman friend Diamondback (Goldstein), maniac Severen (Paxton) and bitter old man in a child’s body Homer (Joshua John Miller, HALLOWEEN III, MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS, CLASS OF 1999). Caleb’s small redneck buddies probly think of themselves as some rugged tough guys, but Jesse Hooker’s gang is so much sweatier and dirtier than cowboys.

None of them are welcoming to the new guy. They seem kind of jealous of the attention Mae pays to him. She’d been so distant, but she becomes nurturing as soon as she turns him. Straight up nuzzling him.

Caleb’s just learning what he is now, but he’s so head over heels for this girl he doesn’t think anything of abandoning his dad (Tim Thomerson, UNCOMMON VALOR, IRON EAGLE, CHERRY 2000) and his little sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds, WHEELS OF TERROR) to hit the road. Not at first. Not until the daze wears off. Then he says, “I like you. I really do. But I gotta get home.”

It’s not that easy. It’s like he forgot how to eat food. He’s slow about learning to kill people. I like the scene where they split into pairs to hunt via hitchhiking. Jesse and Diamondback luck out and get picked up by wannabe rapists. No qualms about killing those shitheads. Poor Caleb gets stuck with a truck driver (Roger Aaron Brown, who plays soldiers and cops in THE CRAZIES, BAD RONALD, COBRA, ACTION JACKSON, and more) so friendly he starts giving him lessons about driving big rigs. Caleb tries to get up the guts to make his move, shaking and drooling as he hesitates so long the guy asks “Hey, uh… you okay?”

When Mae realizes Caleb can’t do it, kills the man herself and lets Caleb drink some of her blood, it’s a ghastly kind of sweet. Reminds me of junkie couples who really take care of each other in the midst of their horrible sickness. Drug addiction is definitely the strongest parallel for this particular take on vampires. When he gets sick while trying to scrounge up money for a Greyhound home he gets mistaken for an addict. The bloodsucker life has taken him away from his family, from society, but it also has a certain allure because of the ways the vampires act as a new family. They understand each other, share the same flaws, roam around as outlaws, fucking with people they don’t like, upsetting the status quo, chasing chaos, feeling superior.

But Caleb’s gotta contribute to be part of it, gotta dirty himself. “It ain’t right for Mae to be carrying you, Caleb,” says Jesse. Severen pushes him to participate during the lengthy, legendary scene where the gang plays with and kills everybody at a little bar Severen declares “Shitkicker Heaven.”

But Caleb finally proves himself in the equally great motel shootout. The bar scene is fueled mostly by the tension created by Paxton’s joyfully psychotic performance and his victims’ total helplessness. Even before there’s any violence the bartender doesn’t feel comfortable to say, “Hey, you can’t have a kid in here, sitting on the table!” But the motel sequence is all on Bigelow. Police surround the building, their bullets punch through the walls, turning sunlight into a deadly web of beams inside the room, causing enormous squib blasts of blood when they happen to hit flesh, the wounds catching fire. Seems like the family is fucked, until Caleb has the idea and the balls to throw a blanket over his head and make a brazen daylight run to a nearby truck with aluminum foil taped to the inside of the windows. He catches on fire, but he makes it – they all do, because of him.

Sitting in the driver’s seat with his face burnt up, but knowing he’s finally earning his keep, he says “Jesse!” And he and Jesse shake hands and laugh. And you can tell it feels good to have this gesture of brotherhood, even though it’s with this asshole. Feels like joining the family.

So inevitably Caleb’s original family comes back into the picture. He doesn’t know it, but they’ve become drifters too, travelling along the highways, searching not for victims, but for him. And they end up staying at the same motel. Before anyone realizes it, Homer runs into Sarah and invites her to watch TV with him. Before this he’s been at least a partly sympathetic character, having it harder than the others, getting picked on. But he gets his eye on this little girl and he puts on a kid voice we never heard him do before and we know what he’s up to, the little sonofabitch.

When Caleb sees his sister and his dad he has to choose sides. The vampires make it easy by wanting to kill his family. He’s not gonna go along with that.

The method by which he returns to them, and brings Mae with him, has always seemed like a cop out to me. On this viewing I forgave it more. I guess even looking at it as a drug metaphor it’s too easy – nobody gets clean over night like that. But the point is he has the help of his dad, and a commitment to change his life – literally switching from the darkness to the sunlight – and gets away from the toxic people who enabled his previous lifestyle. Which is not all vampires. Mae is cool. She gets to come with him.

I can’t lie, some of this subtext does rub me the wrong way a little. It’s easy to see the vampires as an exaggerated representation of non-conformists, societal rejects, which makes me resent the implication that Caleb needs to listen to daddy, stop running with a bad crowd, and go back to acting like everybody else in town. The dialogue underlines this reading. “You ain’t never met a girl like me,” Mae tells him soon after they meet – a girl who will introduce him to a whole different subculture. There are multiple references to the gang being “not normal.” “Normal folks don’t spit out bullets when you shoot ‘em, no sir,” Dad notes.

(That was one of the many cool parts. Dad shoots Jesse in the chest, Jesse coughs up the bullet, puts it in Dad’s shirt pocket and says, “For you.”)

They’ve got kind of a punk rock attitude, they got their own thing going fashion-wise, weird combinations of leather, trenchcoats, sport coats, rags, suspenders, ripped-off sleeves. (Costume designer Joseph A. Porro also got weird on NEON MANIACS, FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2 and SUPER MARIO BROS., plus he did six Van Damme movies.) At one point Homer wears a tie-dyed William S. Burroughs t-shirt, which is a reference to junkie culture but also is a perfect detail to show he sees himself as the brainier, artier one among this gang of reprobates.

A non-fatal weakness of the movie is that, like BLADE RUNNER, the anarchic bad guys are so vibrant and exciting that the more square hero seems bland by comparison. But parallel to his vampirism Caleb seems to be on the edge of discovering his not-normal-ness, bored of the small town bullshit with his friends. And Mae isn’t some buxom Playmate luring in low-hanging fruit by shaking her boobs around. Maybe she plays like a vampiric pixie dream girl now, but in 1987 a woman with short hair and all-denim signified toughness. I don’t think Caleb would’ve followed some girl in Daisy Duke cutoffs. He went for the one with the torn off sleeves.

And you know what? Caleb’s Dad may wear the standard uniform of a cowboy hat and plaid shirt but he’s not some boring normie either. He did after all give up his regular life to go on this mission for the love of his son. Taking Sarah out of school for it, letting her stay up late. “I do what I want to do when I want to do it,” Sarah brags to Homer, not knowing that’s his philosophy too.

Caleb and his dad are pretty similar. I think he chose the right family to stay with.

And man, does Bigelow give this thing a mood. The red sky, the driving Tangerine Dream score, the incredibly stylish shot of the gang silhouetted as they come over a hill to the doomed watering hole, some unknown light source shining through the fog behind them, illuminating their hair from behind, tracing the edges of their bodies with a line of white.

(Cinematographer Adam Greenberg had already shot THE TERMINATOR and later shot T2.)

Man, what about the scene where Mae lets Caleb feed on her, and they’re in front of a bunch of oil wells pumping away? Here are these things that represent the area of the country that the story takes place in, that are just an interesting visual to have in the background, that of course are sucking a finite resource from the earth just like Caleb is doing from Mae. There’s nothing deep about that, it’s almost too on the nose, but it’s fucking cool.

The climactic battle is intimate – just Caleb on a road fighting the gang, nobody else in sight – but fired up with an over-the-top energy. I like that he does drive a big rig (thank you, friendly truck driver – R.I.P.). And I like seeing the vampires’ bodies smoke as they flee under the sun. The flame effects on Homer are extremely well done. For a second I thought “Holy shit, they got that kid to do a fire stunt?” By dint of battle damage, Jesse becomes more traditionally monstrous at the end, his skin black and mottled, shadowed under a black hood, his hands on fire.

(LOL)

One of the original posters tried to sell it by saying “FROM THE PRODUCERS OF THE GOLDEN CHILD AND WITNESS.” I thought that was kinda funny. In recent years there was an unfortunate incident with a DVD cover with Caleb and Mae looking suspiciously like Edward and Bella from TWILIGHT. Luckily now there are plenty of people you can get on board just by saying “directed by Kathryn Bigelow.” I love modern day serious political Kathryn Bigelow, but I love love young hungry hitting-genre-shit-out-of-the-park-with-her-own-unique-spin-on-it Kathryn Bigelow. And NEAR DARK belongs in that category just as solidly as POINT BREAK. A great movie.

(It seems to be hard to come by right now. Hopefully someone’s working on a special edition.)

This entry was posted on Monday, October 14th, 2019 at 12:29 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Near Dark”

  1. I asked Lance Henriksen a few years ago at a convention if he had seen the TWILIGHT-esque DVD cover. He was both annoyed by it, but also amused by the possibility of some 13 year old girl watching this movie based on the cover, without knowing what she is getting into.

  2. My favorite vampire movie of all-time. Bill Paxton plays Severen like a man who really loves his job. Been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow for more than 30 years, and was delighted when she won an Oscar.

  3. This is also a personal favorite. The rehab solution does seem like a bit of a betrayal to the story but with the strength of everything that came before it, it doesn’t really matter. There’s still a great showdown to the ending after that too. The entire bar scene used to be up on YouTube and I would post it every once in a while to MySpace and later Facebook. The Cramps’ “Fever” on the jukebox is another factor in that incredibly strong scene along with the tough guy who is wearing shades and, if I remember correctly, is balding but also has a ponytail.

    Anyhow… Great movie with tons of style, forward momentum and great scenes to spare.

  4. And I’d argue that even though Mae isn’t a buxom Playboy type, she is very pretty and would stand out in any bar (which she is shown to do in the opening of the movie). I’d say a tough woman would be the bar owner that helps out in Streets of Fire.

  5. Man, this is such a great movie in every other respect that I feel bad about how much I let that bullshit ending ruin it for me. I just fucking HATE the idea of a vampire cure. It’s just…false. Dishonest. It robs the entire concept of vampirism of all of its potency. “Oh sure, Middle-American kids, go ahead and play around with the dark side,” the movie is saying. “You’ll never have to actually pay any price or suffer any consequences. Not like those skeezy, low-class people who deserve everything that happens to them. They’re just trash. They can’t be saved. Go ahead and light them on fire.” For me, the thematically appropriate ending would be Caleb remaining a vampire but choosing to protect his family from the other vampires anyway. And at the end he has to leave his family and go off on his own, because he’s not one of them anymore. You can’t go home again. Innocence lost is lost forever. You can’t get an innocence transfusion from your dad and then pretend nothing ever happened.

    On the one hand, this is the most badass and unromantic vampire movie ever, but even straight-up teenybopper shit like BUFFY or TWILIGHT knows that vampirism has to be a no-take-backsies situation or it has zero metaphorical power.

    All the good shit about the movie (and there is a ton) mostly makes up for it, but my dissatisfaction bordering on contempt for the sell-out ending keeps the film from being the personal favorite it otherwise would be. As is, though, I’ll probably always be a LOST BOYS man.

  6. You CAN love THE LOST BOYS, FRIGHT NIGHT & NEAR DARK equally. They all bring enough uniqueness and different flavors (coming of age teen movie, suburban street horror & gutter western) that you won’t have to choose just one if you didn’t have to.

    I’ve been watching this movie since about 1991 when I first saw the VHS cover and couldn’t believe there was a vampire with 2 of my favorite actors at the time (Paxton & Henriksen). This was around the time PREDATOR 2 & PUMPKINHEAD were regularly rotated on my VHS and STONE COLD had won my heart. I went into it blindly. I did not expect something as grimey as what I saw.

    Like a crazed vampire who looked just a couple years older than I was at the time at most. Or the insanity of Severin all over the movie. Even though Jack Deth was in it I knew this was gonna be more of a challenge than any of those damn trancers he was always taking down.

    I haven’t seen it in maybe 9 years cause I no longer have a home video collection. But if I ever decide to double down on blu-rays this will easily be one of the first. No other vampire western has come even close. Not VAMPIRES which I still enjoy regardless of it being mostly waster potential and not FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3: THE HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER which I always had a soft spot for.

    It’s such a unique piece of cinema. I used to watch BLUE STEEL with Jamie Lee Curtis vs Ron Silver quite alot and when I found out it was the same director I made sure to never forget Bigelow’s name. Next to Tim Burton and Verheoeven she’s one of the first directors I made sure to always “follow” back then.

    I always put people on to this one especially during this season and ask for vampire joints or when they see the NEAR DARK poster in my home. I just tell them “imagine a vampire or western from James Cameron” since Bigelow shares a lot of filmatic sensibilities with her ex husband and also a lot of his regulars.

    I didn’t expect a break from slasher search and can’t believe I never realized this one had yet to have a review on here. So thanks a lot for this one Vern. Pretty nice surprise during this monster mashing season.

  7. With a gun to my head – or fangs to my throat – I would probably pick THE LOST BOY over this. Mostly because it has a great soundtrack, and a better story. Question; Does the police officer at the truck stop (Troy Evans) take Caleb for a junkie or a fellow vampire. If it’s the first, what is the point of the bandage on his hand?

  8. I have never seen this film. I… need to rectify that, clearly.

  9. I ADORE Kathryn Bigelow, what a run she had in the late 80’s to early 90’s!
    Near Dark
    Blue Steel (hugely underrated)
    Point Break

    I just wished she can go back to making Pulp Action thrillers like those again!

  10. Vern, you didn’t specify, but I guess the other script Bigelow and Red wrote was COHEN & TATE? It even has the oil pumps in there.

  11. “I ADORE Kathryn Bigelow, what a run she had in the late 80’s to early 90’s!
    Near Dark
    Blue Steel (hugely underrated)
    Point Break”

    100% agree. (Let’s also not forget her goofy video for New Order’s “Touched by the Hand of God”!)

    Near Dark beats out the Lost Boys for me as the best vampire movie of all time simply for its grittiness. The drug addict metaphor is apt (and scarily predicted the opioid addiction that would ravage rural communities a decade and a half on) as that’s how it would be to actually be a vampire. None of this glamour shit with robes and capes. You’re stuck inside all day and then have to go out and kill people every night. You’re only companionship is with other strung out vampires competing for the same dwindling, regional food source. You can’t store blood for too long and you can’t have animal blood. You can’t use your powers to become a pro MMA fighter or anything as that’s too suspicious. For a rebellious lifestyle, there sure are a lot of rules (not unlike punk rock, but I digress). It sucks (pun!) and Near Dark doesn’t let up on that despite how cool Bill Paxton is in it.

    The metaphor, like you said, Vern, also redeems the ending. Some people make it out of that lifestyle and it’s usually those with a large circle of support (as someone who used to work in addiction treatment, I’ve seen it firsthand). But a lot don’t. But to think the family is going to go on living as normal once Caleb is all good and human again is ridiculous. They’re also changed. They’ve seen and know things almost nobody else does and things that no one else could comprehend if they told them. The physical markers of vampirism might be gone, but the trauma it caused will be with them for a long time.

  12. I saw this movie in theaters when I was, I guess, 15. It was this weird theater in Paterson, NJ where they showed all their movies basically on a loop, so I walked in having bought a ticket to see SURF NAZIS MUST DIE and stuck around for NEAR DARK and PRINCE OF DARKNESS. (POD still scares the shit out of me to this day. For me, it’s one of Carpenter’s most frightening movies.) NEAR DARK melted my brain almost as much as seeing THE ROAD WARRIOR in a theater when I was ten did. (My dad was pretty cool about supporting my movie choices.) I mean, could there be anyone cooler, to a 15-year-old boy, than Bill Paxton in this? I own the Anchor Bay DVD and still pull it out every October.

  13. I hate to say this, but I think BLUE STEEL is, like, terrible. The movie certainly LOOKS great and Ron Silver could play a thin-lipped psycho in a shiny suit better than anyone, but the way the story plays out is incomprehensibly idiotic. Jamie Lee Curtis plays possibly the dumbest law enforcement official ever seen on film, and I am counting every dumbfuck deputy who ever got folded in half by Jason Voorhees in that assessment. At no point in the film does she display the slightest bit of competence, judgment, or even common sense. She pulls out her gun at every available opportunity (including once in her captain’s office!), never does any actual police work of any kind, fucks up every single step of the investigation, and puts her colleagues, family members, and innocent bystanders in jeopardy multiple times. The character’s behavior puts me in the shameful position of 100% agreeing with the sexist higher-ups who don’t think she belongs on the street.

    She is such a stupid character that I wonder if she’s supposed to be a satire of the entire rogue detective genre. Would I even notice this stuff if she had been played by a man? Or would I take it as simply going through the motions of the genre? I could almost accept this as Bigelow’s intention, but she fucked up and cast Curtis, who can’t NOT be sympathetic onscreen, so instead of making the character an obvious parody, she comes off as a fully realized individual whose intelligence, temperament, and instincts render her utterly unqualified to carry a badge, let alone a gun.

    In other words she’s the most accurate police officer ever captured on film.

  14. I don’t wanna stir up something – BLUE STEEL is not ZERO DARK THIRTY – but considering the pop cultural references and Magnum 44 fetish in the former maybe Bigelow should stay off political themes all together..?

  15. I agree that the addiction metaphor makes the cop-out ending okay. And Paxton is undeniably fantastic. Still, I didn’t really love this one. I was deep in my THE LOST BOYS obsession and this one was too gritty for me. I probably need to give it a rewatch.

  16. Pegsman – Sounds like I missed something in that scene. The cop was a vampire?

  17. I understand what some don’t like the ending, but for me the SPOILERS last moment when Caleb tells Mae not to be afraid because “It’s just the sun” (queue John Hughes freeze frame) is really poignant. They even ripped it off for the end of 40 DAYS OF NIGHT.

    I was obsessed with this movie as a teen. STRANGE DAYS had just opened and I knew I had to see this too. It’s the reason I got a Blockbuster card.

  18. I don’t think the cop is a vampire but he could have been superficially bitten and knows something is going on. Could be the remains of a deleted subplot, while I really enjoy the film the writing does have problems, the vampire cure is not only thematically problematic, it just doesn’t make any sense (how could the father have guessed? And how does it work anyway?). But it confers to the film a diamond in the rough aspect (Red was only 25, Bigelow was in her thirties but it was her second film and her first solo gig), so why not.

  19. Great movie, full stop. This has images in this that are in my brain forever, particularly the motel shootout, when the sunlight sizzles through bullet holes in the wall like laser beams… man.

    Though I love the Cramps to death, and “Fever” works perfectly in the scene, I definitely had doubts about whether that particular bar would have that particular song on the jukebox. Maybe the owner’s kid was a small-town Texas goth? I feel like there’s some backstory there worth exploring.

  20. I cannot BELIVE you are just now getting around to this one. This is a Vern no-brainer.

  21. It’s one of those ones that I’d seen a bunch and always considered a classic but never officially reviewed. There are plenty more on the list.

  22. Blue Steel is like that episode of TJ Hooker where Warren Oates gets obsessed with his laser sighted pistol except not as awesome.

  23. I just watched this and The Cramps Version of Fever does not appear in the bar scene. That shouldn’t make a difference but here it’s a central part of the scene. Fuck.

  24. Nevermind. I’m an idiot.

  25. The line “I’ll still be here when the light from that star gets down here to earth in a billion years” got me thinking–shouldn’t vampires (or some subset thereof) have a vested interest in space travel research?

    They are immortal, so there ought to be some long-term thinkers among them, right? Vampires that pay attention to scientific progress and thus know that in 4-5 billion years the sun will exhaust its core’s supply of hydrogen and will expand beyond the Earth’s orbit. Aren’t they worried about this? It’s difficult to avoid sunlight when the sun has swallowed the planet you’re on.

    All I’m saying is that if vampires want to continue to exist, they’d better get to work on the many problems of interstellar travel and not just expect us humans to sort it out for them in the next billion years or so!

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