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.
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.
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.)