Blade Runner: Best Film Ever.

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There has been so much written about Blade Runner that the act of writing something about it myself seems futile, and it’s something I’ve always put off because I worried that I wouldn’t know how to encapsulate everything I feel about it. I still don’t think I have with what follows, but given that October 2019 was the last month before Blade Runner no longer remains a film set in the future, I thought I’d better get my act together. Like the film itself, the narrative of this piece is somewhat lopsided and possibly frustrating to some. However, unlike the film, this piece will remain the one and only cut in existence.

Also, this piece does not acknowledge the existence of Blade Runner 2049 – not because I don’t like it (I think it’s great) – but I want to look at the original Blade Runner on its own terms, and there was such a long gap between these films that I think the original has lived on its own long enough to be considered a separate entity, unlike say The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II.

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Blade Runner is the most extraordinary film ever made. There, I said it. I’ve just watched it on the big screen again and it has, once more, utterly blown my mind. I love it so, so much. It moves me like no other film.

Whenever I’m asked to put together a top five or top ten films list, everything from #2 downwards can vary in content and positioning, but #1 has been the same for around twenty years now. I love Blade Runner on a deeply personal level, I adore it technically, I am knocked out by it philosophically, I am left breathless by it visually, I am in awe of it musically.  There’s not many things in this world that I can confidently say I believe to be a true work of art, or a work of genius, because I’m wary of throwing those terms around loosely, or glibly, or without authority, but Blade Runner is art, and it is genius. If it isn’t either of those, then I don’t know what is.

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For a film that was often regarded by critics back in 1982 as cold and inhuman, it is one of the most moving, profoundly emotional films I have ever experienced. I honestly believe that no film before or since has looked as good as Blade Runner. This was the time before digital effects – these were all practical effects, and created with such incredible detail that when you see it, on a small screen or a big screen, the impact is overwhelming. Of course, Ridley Scott is the name most associated with Blade Runner‘s success, but this is a team effort, and then some. The cast. The crew. The writers. The composer. The sheer ambition and effort put into this film, which becomes all the more apparent when you watch the film’s exhaustive Dangerous Days documentary, is jaw-dropping.

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I was merely a single year old when Blade Runner opened in cinemas, and it was totally out of my radar for over a decade after that. When I first watched it, it was when ITV premiered the film’s so-called director’s cut (so-called because director Ridley Scott was ultimately still not satisfied with this edit – it wouldn’t be until 2007’s Final Cut that he would publicly state a preferred version), which removed the two main elements which had displeased fans, critics and much of the cast and crew also – its tacked-on narration and the even-more tacked-on happy ending. Therefore, the first time I saw the film, I saw it not as, as Time Out would put it, ‘a flawed masterpiece’, but simply as, as Time Out would also say in the same review, ‘a masterpiece’.

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Ever since it opened to a mostly negative critical reaction as well as mediocre commercial success back in 1982, Blade Runner slowly (thanks to a small but impassioned fan base) grew in stature, its influence spreading out into literature, music, fashion and of course, film itself. A decade later, it had grown from a cult movie into something approaching a cultural phenomenon, and the release of the director’s cut seemed to be the final word on the matter. But it wasn’t. In 2007, Scott’s Final Cut and a superb, exhaustive DVD/Blu-ray release of the film upped the reputation of the film even more.

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I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen Blade Runner. I’ve seen other films more times for sure, but no film has felt so monumental every time I watch it as Blade Runner has. I can’t just plonk it on in the background like I can with the Prozac-equivalent, utterly comforting likes of The Lost Boys or Midnight Run, for example. With Blade Runner I become totally, utterly immersed. For me, there is nothing else like it. It’s effects on me are as puzzling, exhilarating and terrifying as the most intense emotions. Certain lines of dialogue, certain character mannerisms, certain hooks in the music or visuals caught by the camera will just blindside me and leave me in total awe. On a big screen, which is where I’ve now seen it three times, the effect is overwhelming.

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The plot, if one were to quickly summarise, is deceptively simple. The odds are, if you’re reading this, then you’ve watched the film, but if that’s not the case, then please, please, PLEASE – stop reading and watch the film. For the sake of narrative coherency in this article, I will detail the plot as quickly as I can.

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In Los Angeles in the year 2019, retired police officer or ‘Blade Runner’, Rick Deckard is persuaded back into his old lifestyle and must pursue and kill (or ‘retire’, as the euphemism goes) a group of extremely sophisticated synthetic human beings who have escaped from their off-world life of slavery and returned to Earth to seek their creator Eldon Tyrell, via lonesome Tyrell employee and genetic designer JF Sebastian, in the (it turns out, futile) hope of prolonging their short lifespans. During his hunt, Deckard becomes emotionally involved with Rachael, a Tyrell Corporation employee who is also a replicant, albeit one who, until now, had no idea she actually was one. One-by-one the fugitive replicants – Leon, Zhora and Pris – are retired until Deckard faces Roy Batty, the last surviving (and rapidly dying) leader of the runaways. Roy proves to be such an unstoppable foe that Deckard’s fate is almost sealed until Roy, in his last few moments, saves Deckard’s life. Aware that Rachael’s life is in danger because of her replicant status, Deckard flees the city with her, towards an uncertain future.

The Novel and the Film

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Blade Runner was adapted by screenwriter Hampton Fancher (with later drafts written by David Peoples) from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. A fascinating, beguiling work, it resembles Blade Runner in that it focuses not only on Deckard and his mission to retire the replicants, but also spends time with the replicants themselves. Coming to the book after watching the film (or vice versa) you will notice overlapping lines of dialogue, themes, subplots and technology. However, what is more apparent are the major differences – instead of an overpopulated Los Angeles of 2019, we have an underpopulated San Francisco of 1992. In both film and novel there has clearly been a major downturn in the state of society, but in the film doesn’t really explain why – even the acid rain that pours down on Los Angeles isn’t referred to as such in the film’s content (it’s been referred to elsewhere, such as in at-the-time promotional features), but in the novel there was an actual event – World War Terminus – that has left the world the way it is. There is a whole subplot involving a new popular religion – Mercerism – which involves people hooking themselves up to electronic empathy boxes which puts them in the mind of the Christ-like John Mercer, whose Sisyphean ascent on a mountain and his painful pelting with rocks is willingly, collectively experienced by those who are so alone socially and spiritually that they feel the need to endure something as painful (they feel the pain, and even emerge from the experience with cuts and bruises) as this ritual suffering. The empathy boxes themselves are also exclusive to the Dick’s book, an addictive device that allows you dial up emotions which you will immediately feel. There’s so much fascinating content and ideas in the novel, and yet maybe it was wise to excise these examples from the film – you practically have a whole separate film’s worth of ideas in these concepts, and paying mere lip-service to them might have proved frustratingly throwaway.

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One of the major technological elements of the novel does make it into the film, of course, and that’s the kit that’s used to tell who and who isn’t a replicant. Thanks to the newest ‘Nexus-6’ level of Replicant that makes it impossible for the average person on the street to tell them apart from a human (barring stuff like super-strength and advanced intelligence), the Voight-Kampff test (named after its creators – this is only made clear in the novel) is a device that is used to measure its subjects physical reactions to emotionally-led questions, to see if they have the empathy of a human. This is what’s used in the opening sequence where Blade Runner Dave Holden underestimates replicant Leon and is shot for his naivety. It’s what used to test Rachael (who takes a lot longer to identify as a replicant because she doesn’t realise she is one) in the Tyrell Corporation.

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However, the film introduces its own technology too – the Esper is a remarkable device that can take a photograph and literally go inside it, turning the two-dimensional three-dimensional and finding evidence and clues that are not visible to the naked eye. How it literally does this isn’t really explained, and it treads closely to those films where a photo is zoomed into an mili-fraction of itself, creating pixels where there were none before, to illogical effect. Still, the Esper scene, where Deckard identifies Zhora hidden in a photograph he found, is a spellbinding sequence.

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The characters are also very different. In the film Deckard is estranged from a wife we never see, in the book he is married to a disillusioned woman named Iran. Deckard in the novel is a put-upon bureaucrat who wants nothing more than to own the ultimate status symbol – a real animal. In the film he is morose, callous, cold and even outright unlikeable, and any references to owning non-synthetic animals are kept to a minimum. The character of Rachael in the film is a tragic, manipulated and heartbreaking creation. In the novel she is cold, calculating and vengeful. There’s a definite sense of us versus them in the novel, whereas the lines are far blurrier in the film.

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In the novel the replicants were simply referred to the at-the-time still in-vogue name of androids, or ‘andys’, but Scott felt that the term was so outdated and overused that he felt a totally new word was required. Thanks to either co-writer David Peoples or his daughter (who both credit each other), the term ‘replicant’ was born. It’s still a magnificently state-of-the-art word, it still sounds futuristic. As for these replicants, in the film they are far more sympathetic, tragic and relatable than their colder, more inhuman counterparts. This issue was a bone of contention for Dick, as he believed that the androids were supposed to be repellent – their total lack of empathy (which is really emphasised in the novel) is what makes them ultimately inferior to humans. In the novel, the androids torture animals, manipulate humans and seem to have no warmth to them at all. it’s quite a jolt if you’ve only seen the film beforehand. The replicants learn nothing and they don’t grow in character, which I guess was Dick’s point. In the film, the replicants are admittedly still relatively lacking in empathy and are also prone to sadism, but they are also far more complex emotionally and even philosophically than Dick appeared to be willing to allow.

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It’s stuff like this that make both novel and film so fascinating in relation to each other. True, a more faithful adaptation of Dick’s work would have made for an intriguing film, but ultimately that’s not what happened. The bonus of that however is that we have two individual works that are related and yet are both unique – they are their own individual works of art and neither one nulls the impact of the other. Of course, I prefer the film, which is why I’m focusing on that and not the novel, but Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a brilliant thing indeed, the work of a master in his field.

Blade Runner as Experience

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Recently I wrote a piece about Richard Donner’s tremendous 1976 blockbuster The Omen, a tremendous, tightly-scripted horror that I regarded to be so lean in execution that removing a single scene would dramatically compromise the plot. Blade Runner on the other hand, is a substantially different kind of work. There are moments that, you could argue, and if you were feeling very ruthless, could be snipped out or trimmed down. But why on Earth would you want to do that? There are many moments in Blade Runner that simply luxuriate in the sheer vividness of this world. And this differentiates from something like The Omen. The latter, for all its supernatural wildness, nevertheless takes place in a present-day world that is very much our own, whereas Blade Runner is set in a future that, for all its familiarity in terms of plot mechanics, characterisation and even brand awareness (there are lots of recognisable company logos in this film), is nevertheless strikingly different and fascinatingly strange.

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This isn’t a world you can just have as a mere backdrop to the story. It is an essential part of the story. Like Fritz Lang’s still-astonishing Metropolis (a major, major Blade Runner influence) before it, you can’t just take the script and plonk it in the present day, or somewhere else. When people think about Blade Runner, the odds are the first thing they think of is Los Angeles in the year 2019, that opening shot of the polluted cityscape, smoke stacks erupting flames, hover cars (named ‘Spinners’) flying from the distance to the foreground. They think of the leaking roofs of the Bradbury building, the glittering pyramids of the Tyrell Corporation (and the cavernous, shimmering, golden beauty of their interiors), the gloomy claustrophobia of Deckard’s apartment, the hustle and bustle of Animoid Row, the candle-lit sophistication of Taffey Lewis’ bar, that sort of thing.

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That’s why there are so many incredible shots in Blade Runner that you could argue are essentially glorious travelogues for this new world. Blade Runner is about story, but it is also about atmosphere. It is about transporting the viewer into a new direction towards a new world, and a vision this bold, brilliant and beautiful can’t just be relegated to a few back-projection shots – we need to feel as though we’re living here, and this is a world that does feel like it’s been lived in. This is not a glittering, gleaming future (Tyrell’s HQ excepted), but a grimy, busy, worn-down environment. The retro-film noir ambience also adds to this feeling of a world that’s as old as it is new. The film’s key action sequence, where Deckard pursues Zhora through an incredibly crowded and cacophonous city, is remarkable in that it all feels like a totally real place, not the Warner Brothers backlot. Thanks to visual futurist Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, special effects head Douglas Trumbull, director of photography Jordan Cronenweth, editor Terry Rawlings and countless other major talents, I have never been convinced so much by a film’s world as I have with Blade Runner‘s.

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The clues for this approach were all there in Scott’s previous film Alien, which in its first few minutes took its beautiful time to explore the interiors of the Nostromo ship before eventually finding its cast of characters sleeping in stasis. There are few films as effective as Blade Runner in creating an extraordinarily immersive environment. Take the bit when Leon meets Roy at the phone booth – they walk off towards Chew’s Eyeworld and the camera takes the time to drift off to the left and allow a group of cyclists pass by a homeless person and then us, scored by one of the few pieces of music in the film not composed by Vangelis (Gail Laughton’s beautiful ‘Harps of the Ancient Temples’) – there is no need for this moment in a narrative sense, but it’s mesmerising regardless. These are the kind of instances that come back to you in your hazy memories of the film, that come back to you in your dreams.

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You can scoff at Scott’s demands on his crew for a level of detail that was frankly, imperceptible to even the most dedicated viewer (we’re talking props, text and peripheries that you’d need one of Deckard’s Esper machines to get a proper look at), but that, combined with the incredible model and effects work, the stunning lighting and photography, as well as Vangelis’ stunning soundtrack, all add up to a film that’s about as three-dimensional as you can get without literally being so. There are moments of sheer, suspended beauty that will take your breath away. You can see things in the film on a tenth or twentieth viewing that you never saw before. I don’t know how the people involved in this film achieved all of this. Even after watching the documentary about the film, I’m still baffled. There was something magical at work here.

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Take the glorious shot from inside Tyrell’s office as the enormous window looking out into the city is gently draped in a shaded film so as to make the room darker – you can just feel the film breathing during this moment. Or the cutaways from below of the enormous commercial blimp that hovers over the city. The ascents into the skies or the descents into the murky city.  Blade Runner is likely to bore viewers who won’t have the patience for its languid pacing (one critic at the time amusingly suggested the film should have been called Blade Crawler), but it doesn’t outstay its welcome with its visual splendour. You see so much, but, as it should be, it feels like it’s never enough. The film is so ingeniously crafted so that you feel that its universe exists way beyond the parameters of its shots. This puts it way above other films where you really feel as though all you’re watching is a set, with the crew and equipment just inches away from what we can see on screen. To be honest, most of the time I’m content with films like that – I don’t try to spot goofs or take myself out of the narrative. I always want to lose myself in a film, and most films do that for me just fine. It’s just that Blade Runner goes way beyond the kind of expectations one has when it comes to depictions of another time or a possible future.

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So yes, this is indeed a film to get lost in. If you have depression, or are feeling the dull ache of loneliness, then something like Blade Runner can envelop you like a warm blanket, and this is where I must say that for all of the film’s success at depicting a future that is most certainly dystopic, it is a world that is utterly beguiling, inviting, beautiful, atmospheric and astonishing. When covert interactive film event maestros Secret Cinema focused on Blade Runner a few years back, its attendees were hardly going to be walking around the depiction of Los Angeles, 2019 thinking ‘I hate it here’ – they would have loved it, because it is, for all its horrors, a spectacular vision to be part of. You wouldn’t want to live here in real life I suppose, but in a cinematic sense, it is a world that’s impossible to resist. And of course, it’s not all doom and gloom – there is the amazing architecture of the Tyrell building, be it the meeting room where Deckard tests Rachael (complete with incredible views of the city) or Tyrell’s own bedroom.  Or there’s the fairytale beauty of JF Sebastian’s home, a dreamlike sanctuary filled with mechanical dolls and scored with a lovely, twinkling music-box score by Vangelis. For me, no other film has created a world as immersive as Blade Runner’s. It remains the benchmark for what is possible in cinema, at least in regards to practical effects, although nothing in the CGI-era has impressed me as much since.

Emotional Response

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Certain words pop into my head whenever I think of Blade Runner. Melancholy. Loneliness. Darkness. Neon. Death. Life. Violence. Dreams. That sort of thing. It is odd that one of the criticisms hurled at Blade Runner was coldness. For me the film is deeply emotional. Throughout this bit I’m going to take a few scenes from the film and explore them in detail.

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To start off, there are few scenes that break my heart as much as when Rachael finds out she is not human. Rachael, according to Tyrell, has begun to suspect her artificiality, and with the latter refusing to see her following the discomforting experience of the Voight-Kampff test that she has recently failed, she seems to have nowhere else to go except Deckard’s apartment in the hope of finding some answers.

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Almost immediately we see a side to Deckard we haven’t seen so far. Edgy, uncomfortable, defensive, guarded. We also see that he likes a drink. Rachael cuts to the point, refusing the offer a drink, and pressuring Deckard into admitting whether or not he thinks she’s a replicant. She has brought a photograph of herself as a child with her mother; proof surely, of her real past. This is when Deckard, nastily, runs off a list of things that happened to Rachael that no one else would or could have known. Immediately, she knows that he’s telling the truth, and her worst fears have been confirmed. Her identity, her past, her self – it’s all an illusion. The relationship she had with her mother, a sham. She is nothing.

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It’s a remarkably tragic moment – with Vangelis’ beautiful, deeply sad ‘Memories of Green’ softly drifting in the background, the effect is doubly devastating. Deckard, realising how badly he’s fucked up (and pathetically attempting to reassure her that everything he just said was a joke), sees Rachael’s tears and offers her a drink, but it’s not enough. It’s interesting that the only tears in this film are shed by replicants. Rachael leaves the now meaningless photograph behind in Deckard’s apartment and departs. It’s a deeply existential moment in the film – I know I have a past because I can remember it, but what if I found out that actually I was artificial, that, like the replicants, I only had four actual years of past behind me, that I never knew my mother, that she never knew me, never loved me, never cared for me? That the child in the photograph wasn’t me but someone else? Walls would come crashing down. I would be shattered. This is one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever watched in a film. In a remarkable moment that I can’t believe I missed for years, you can see the shadows in the photograph actually move, as though the memory in the photo has come alive – this is cinematic poetry. It defies logic and reason – now that I see it, it kills me every time.

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If anything, Blade Runner isn’t cold but is about emotional coldness. Deckard is a fascinatingly flawed creation – thanks to Harrison Ford’s magnetic presence he remains a seductive character, but this is a long, long way away from the dashing likes of Han Solo or Indiana Jones. His behaviour is downright ugly at times. Tyrell, cooped up on the top floor of his pyramid, the fatherly, god-like overseer of Los Angeles, seems to have no emotional connection to anyone, bar an ongoing chess game with Sebastian. His sense of remove from his creations is most bluntly portrayed when he cruelly refers to Rachael as ‘an experiment, and nothing more’. JF Sebastian’s only friends are artificial ones, be it the toys he creates to keep him company, or his short-lived relationship with Pris before Roy arrives on the scene.

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There are also major blurrings of the lines between good and bad in Blade Runner. The so-called villain, despite his occasional homicidal tendencies, is actually quite charismatic, appealing and sympathetic, as are his friends. The so-called hero is a bully, a contract-killer, and in the scene I’m about to explore, disturbingly violent.

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The pivotal ‘love’ scene between Deckard and Rachael, about two-thirds into the film, is a tough scene to come to terms with. Given the utter, aching beauty of Vangelis’ music that’s used here, (plus the fact that it’s called a ‘love theme’) you’d think that the eventual consummation between Deckard and Rachael would be a deeply romantic moment, but it’s far, far from that. The build-up is certainly crackling with tension – not exactly traditional boy-meets-girl tension, but something’s brewing. Given that their relationship so far has been far from delightful – a Voight-Kampff test here, a shattering of one’s sense of identity there and a rebuffal over the VidPhone to cap it all – we were hardly expecting things to continue smoothly, but what follows is one of the most unsettling scenes in a major-studio movie.

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In the theatrical cut we get more of an explicit idea of Deckard’s feelings towards Rachael via his voice-over – we are told of a growing empathy towards her after she leaves his apartment, and later an admittance of something approximating feelings for her after he’s retired Zhora. In the other versions without the voiceover, it’s a lot more vague – we only have Ford’s on-screen performance to go with, and he’s a tricky character to work out at the best of times. After Rachael saves Deckard’s life by killing Leon, the two go to Deckard’s apartment, where they share some home truths – Deckard admits he wouldn’t pursue Rachael if she were to leave town, Rachael confronts Deckard over his humanity by asking him if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself.

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An exhausted, possibly intoxicated Deckard lies on his bed and Rachael begins to play on his piano. She also lets her hair down from its striking style to its natural curly length. This could be read as a letting of one’s guard down. Rachael looks more naturally ‘human’ here than she has before. Like Deckard, Rachael is a tricky character to read, so her reasons for doing what she does here are unclear. Maybe she’s finding herself more relaxed in Deckard’s company, although this feeling won’t last long. Stumbling from the bed, possibly due to his ‘shakes’ that he suffers as ‘part of the business’ or maybe to do with drink, he joins Rachael at the seat of the piano, compliments her on her playing and kisses her neck. He then tries to kiss her on the mouth but she recoils – she doesn’t want to return the kiss.

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Rachael attempts to leave the apartment; Deckard reaches out for her but misses and it’s clear he’s become impatient. He stops her from leaving, slamming the front door violently with his fist and then angrily shoving Rachael up against the blinds of the window.  That look on his face when he approaches her – it’s desperate, inhuman, frightening. He then pressures a clearly upset Rachael to repeat lines like ‘I want you’ and ‘kiss me’. Then Rachael says, without any verbal prompting from Deckard, ‘put your hands on me’, after which they kiss and embrace passionately.

So, what to make of this scene? If you listen closely, Rachael says something along the lines of ‘I can’t rely on -‘ before she is interrupted, and it’s this line that makes me curious. Is it possible that Rachael does want Deckard, and that she’s ultimately too frightened to admit it? This doesn’t make Deckard’s behaviour any less objectionable, of course. Is the thing she can’t rely on her desire, or what she presumes to be her pre-programmed emotions? Can she trust her emotions? Can she trust anything about herself? Is her confusion the reason she originally wanted to leave? By essentially forcing the two of them to kiss and have sex, is Deckard basically being cruel to be kind, the equivalent of letting go of a child’s bicycle so that she or he can ride off on their own, and as such ‘freeing’ her from her pre-programmed replicant self? Or is he simply exploiting a scared, vulnerable facsimile of a woman and using her as his sex doll?

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If we go with the final theory, then we have a case of Deckard clearly not respecting Rachael or her rights as a living being, and his frustration over her unwillingness to kiss him is akin to someone kicking a printer when there’s a paper jam. It’s almost like he’s thinking ‘how dare this person, who isn’t even human, walk out on me?’ This is fucking ugly stuff, and I’ll admit these are totally personal readings I’m applying. For better or worse, Blade Runner is a film that asks a hell of a lot by giving away very little. That’s what makes it so fascinating and, in this scene, very uncomfortable. Some have considered this scene to be an example of how Blade Runner‘s sexual politics have dated. I can’t imagine this ever played out or was intended as a traditional love scene even back then, but there has been a many a film from this time that has been the subject of retrospective criticism for the kind of content that would struggle to be accepted in today’s climate. Did the majority of viewers back think there was nothing wrong with Deckard’s behaviour? Or did they wince back then too? The use of the ‘Love Theme’ certainly muddies the waters, making the scene play out like a kind of masochistic (or sado-masochistic, depending on whose point-of-view you’re adopting) rape fantasy, complete with dreamy music.

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Interestingly, this scene went on a bit longer originally – you can see the extended take during the Dangerous Days documentary. Here Deckard and Rachael’s coupling becomes more passionate, with Rachael undressing and wrapping her legs around Deckard. In a way this makes the scene more overtly erotic, but it doesn’t lessen the disturbing build-up. In fact, it kind of disturbs even more in the way that it seems like all Rachael needed was a not-so-friendly shove and for someone to ignore her pleadings in order for her to ‘loosen up’. I can see why people have real problems with this scene. Some have defended it too. It’s a scene worth talking about. However, it is a shame that Rachael is pretty much removed from the story after this scene until the very end. I think we could have done with seeing the aftermath of this moment, to see how Rachael felt after what had happened, but she’s kinda forgotten about. Hey, Blade Runner isn’t a perfect example of narrative. Its off-kilter structure, which works in its favour for the most part, and makes it a spellbinding, free-form experience, can make it frustrating at other times.

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Another major, major emotional scene is the end of Roy and Deckard’s showdown. After Deckard pressures Rachael to submit to him, we then focus on Roy, and his desire to track down Tyrell so that he can be hopefully granted more life, a hope that is denied when Tyrell admits that all attempts to prolong the existence of a replicant met with failure. After murdering Tyrell (and JF Sebastian, off-screen), Roy returns to the Bradbury building to find that Deckard has already arrived, retired Pris and has been waiting for him. So begins a duel where Deckard is hopelessly outmatched and outclassed by a dying (his lifespan is almost up) but still phenomenally powerful Roy. This battle culminates on the rooftop of the Bradbury, where Deckard clings for his life high above the streets of Los Angeles and looks set to fall to his death before Roy unexpectedly saves his life. On the rooftop, Roy regales Deckard with a brief summation of his life experiences, moments which, in his words, will ‘be lost in time, like tears in rain’. Roy dies, and like that, everything he has experienced, dies. It’s all the more tragic in that he is the last of his group – maybe he saved Deckard so that he has someone to acknowledge his existence in the future. If Deckard had died, then Roy too would have died moments later, on the rooftop, all alone.

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Death is a common theme throughout Blade Runner. It drives the replicants’ mission (their fear of it), and it drives Deckard’s (his dispensing of it) – and it also becomes a major part of Rachael’s development as a character – the death of her identity. JF Sebastian suffers from Methuselah syndrome, which has caused his glands to age rapidly. Maybe this is one of the reasons he relates to the replicants’ plight, despite his fear of them.

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Death, when delivered in Blade Runner, is ugly and painful. Both of Deckard’s kills (or retirings) are unpleasant, disturbing affairs – he shoots Zhora in the back, her death  scored by her own dying heartbeat and the deeply melancholy ‘Blade Runner Blues’, while Pris’ death plays out like a nightmare, her death throes a vivid, horrifying, terrified tantrum. There is no glamour to the life of a Blade Runner. Leon suffers an ignominious death, shot through the back of the head. Tyrell’s death is absolutely horrific, his head crushed by a vengeful Roy. Even those who survive to the end have the spectre of death chasing them, in more ways than one – it’s never clear whether Gaff has permanently spared Rachael’s life or that he’s merely given her a head start. Also, Rachael won’t have long to live anyway thanks to her short lifespan, and if we go with the unicorn theory (more of which later), neither does Deckard.

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Roy’s final speech, when fear, anger and desperation has given way to resignation of the inevitable, has been oft-quoted, oft-used in clip shows, YouTube, etc. but its impact is unlikely to fade. It’s a remarkably beautiful moment, one of the most heartbreaking reflections on life and death ever written and yet its most powerful moment wasn’t even part of the script. That astonishing metaphor of ‘tears in rain’ was an ad-lib by Rutger Hauer, and just like his character’s last-minute rescuing of Deckard, it takes the film into even more astonishing territory than before. It says so much in so little time – how life can be swept away, with all of our experiences and memories and moments lost like, well…tears in rain. I’m not going to try and top that description. For Roy, all of those things he’s seen and experienced, will disappear, and they sound like truly astonishing things, whatever a C-beam or the Tannhauser Gate was. It’s best we never see them – our imagination can work wonders with what we’ve been given.

Lately, when watching this moment, I think of my wife Carole, who died this year, and I think of her experiences, her viewpoints, her thoughts, her feelings, and how they’re all gone. True, some of those moments were shared experiences, and they continue to live on in the lives of those she’s left behind, but when we go, they will go too. It breaks my heart. So sad, so unavoidable, and so much a part of life is death. It comes to us all, and for many of us, it comes too soon. I guess that’s why we cling to things like memoirs, photographs, diaries and home videos – they keep the dead alive.

The Script

Despite its superficially accessible angle, (future cop hunts down rogue androids), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? must have been a tricky work to adapt. Yet the results are inspired. The script is a miracle of incisive, quotable, profound dialogue – I’ve never read any of the screenplay drafts, so I’m not sure which lines or instances should be attributed to Hampton Fancher or to David Peoples, but together (although they never worked on the script at the same time) they delivered something truly special.

I mean, these are just a handful of lines I absolutely adore:

“Wake up! Time to die!”

“Have a better one.”

“I’m not in the business. I am the business.”

“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.”

“If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”

“Nothing the God of Biomechanics wouldn’t let you in Heaven for?”

Also, Harrison Ford gives the best delivery of the line ‘Tell him I’m eating!’ in cinema history. Likewise, Rutger Hauer totally nails (after, funnily enough, putting one through his dying hand) the delivery of ‘THAT’S THE SPIRIT!!!”

Then there are the fascinating empathy questions that form part of the Voigt-Kampff test. The magnificent back-and-forths between Deckard and Rachael, or Roy and Tyrell, or Leon and Holden. And of course Roy’s final speech. For a film loved so much for its visuals, so many of its pleasures lie in the script too.

There are holes in the logic occasionally, some of which can be argued against. You may wonder why Deckard knows next to nothing about replicants, as evidenced in the ‘Blue Room’ scene, such as fake memories or four-year life-spans? Well, these could be things new to the Nexus-6 level of replicant, of which Deckard has never dealt with before.

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There’s also odd things like Roy knowing Deckard’s name during their final confrontation. Some question the logic behind how easy it is for a renegade replicant such as Roy to gain access to Tyrell’s inner sanctum, or why, for a film that seems to only take place over a few days, does Roy’s lifespan come an end seemingly a few months too early (he should have died in January 2020, not November 2019). The thing is, I’m not bothered by any of these things. In the end, I don’t care. These things don’t spoil the movie for me. Even a non-script issue like the obvious use of a stunt double during Zhora’s retirement never really distracted me or took me out of the scene. Saying that, when the Final Cut seamlessly rectified this I was quietly impressed with the correction. I guess what I want to say is that even a film so astonishingly accomplished as Blade Runner is going to fall prey to mistakes, and I can live with them.

The plot structure is also unusual. For the first hour the film seems to tread a familiar route, in that we are with the protagonist (Deckard) with only a few detours to see what the replicants are up to (Batty and Leon at eye-designer Chew’s Eyeworld, Pris meeting JF Sebastian at The Bradbury). But around two-thirds into the movie, Blade Runner spends around fifteen or so spellbinding minutes entirely in the company of the replicants, and for a while, they become the main characters, and all of a sudden our identification and comfort in being mostly in the company of our ‘hero’, which has already just been derailed by his ugly behaviour towards Rachael, is turned completely upside down. Now we have the charismatic, fascinating Batty, who may ostensibly be the film’s villain but is really a far more attractive, vivacious and mesmerising character than Deckard, and we’re on edge. I love it when films up their stakes or their ante in their second half, and Blade Runner really goes off into thrilling, uncharted territory in its last 45 minutes. The effect is quite disorienting, especially when our new lead character does something as shocking and wild as killing his own creatorm his God, if you will. The scene is now set for a surreal, haunting, spectacular final confrontation, which again belies expectations by having our villain save our hero’s life.

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Do Androids Dream of Unicorns?

Okay, I can’t avoid it any more, I’m going to talk about the electric elephant in the room.

Is Deckard a replicant?

This was the big question that arose when Scott inserted a brief daydream of Deckard’s into the movie for the Director’s Cut in 1992. In itself, you could say that the dream represents Deckard’s desire for something more beautiful, maybe – the forest setting is unlike anything else in the film (especially in this version, where the bucolic happy ending has been deleted), but the dream takes on enormous significance when you consider the final scene.

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Obviously I’m going over well-worn stuff here, but what the hell – throughout the film, the character of Gaff (Edward James Olmos), the up-and-coming blade runner who has enjoyed giving Deckard a hard time by interrupting him before he’s had a chance to tuck into his noodles or down a bottle of Tsingtao, has also been making a wry commentary on his rival’s character in the form of origami. This happens three times in the film – the first in Bryant’s office, when he makes an origami chicken as a comment on Deckard’s reluctance to get back into the blade running game, the second in Leon’s apartment when he makes a matchstick figure of a man with an erection (commenting on Deckard’s ‘hard-on’ attitude to the job) and the final outside Deckard’s apartment, when Deckard sees an origami figure in the shape of a unicorn. Deckard nods in some kind of recognition/acceptance of the origami and then leaves with Rachael. In the theatrical cut, this unicorn could simply be read as evidence that Gaff, who had previously made a chilling reference to Rachael not living, had decided, after visiting the apartment, not to retire her (despite the demands of his job) and given her a chance to escape with Deckard. The unicorn could simply represent freedom, a chance at a happy, magical ending.

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However, the director’s cut (and Final Cut), with its inclusion of the unicorn dream, now adds a twist. Earlier on in the film, Deckard reveals to Rachael that he had been given access to her implanted memories, one of which, that she told no one about, involved a spider she saw slowly build a nest over a summer who gave birth to a hundred babies which proceeded to eat her. The significance of the unicorn origami could therefore be that Gaff had been given access to Deckard’s thoughts, and that by leaving this item for Deckard to find, he is telling him that his most personal daydreams are implants, and that Deckard is a replicant. His nod of recognition could mean that Deckard now knows who he is, which makes the urgency of their escape even more urgent, for now there are two replicants on the run.

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So what’s going on? Is Deckard a replicant or not? All versions with the unicorn heavily suggest that he is, the theatrical cut not so much, but still obliquely, because there is more to this theory than just the dream. Throughout the film there is the occasional clue that Deckard may not be human. The most telling is the glowing-eye giveaway that lets us, the viewer, recognise a replicant. The replicants display this at various points in the film, and so does Deckard, when he’s talking to Rachael in his apartment (when he admits that, while he wouldn’t pursue her if she left town, somebody else would) – the thing is, Harrison Ford (who objects to the Deckard-as-replicant theory) says that in order for an actor on set to have that glowing eye effect, they had to stand on a particular spot on set for the camera operator to capture the illusion. Ford was given no such instructions, and he thinks that Deckard’s glowing eyes was an accident that Scott later worked into his replicant theory.

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There’s also, in the same scene, Rachael’s accusatory question of whether Deckard has taken the Voight-Kampff test himself, which was the most obvious alarm bell for anyone watching the film for the first time. However, this question could be read as not being literal – it could just be an angry response to Deckard being so stubborn and lacking in empathy for her plight. Elsewhere, Deckard’s coldness and inhumanity in comparison to the artificial replicants is a strong argument for his not being human. The replicants experience far more emotions than Deckard. There are also some cryptic lines throughout that refer to Deckard not being a human – Gaff’s ‘you’ve done a man’s job, sir’ and Roy’s ‘show me what you’re made of’ (his ‘aren’t you supposed to be the good man?’ also makes explicit the film’s muddying of good/evil character types this film revels in). Originally, Gaff’s question was followed up with ‘but are you sure you’re a man?’, which would have been much too much obviousness.

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However, some theories have been rebuffed. One that baffled fans for ages was the reference to the number of replicants on the run, one of which could have been Deckard. In the film there are five clearly referenced escaped replicants – Roy, Pris, Zhora and Leon, plus an unnamed one who was ‘fried’ when trying to break into the Tyrell Corporation. Yet Bryant clearly refers to six replicants having escaped from the Off-World colonies, which leaves a mystery remaining replicant not accounted for. Some fans figured that Deckard was the sixth replicant, although we would be getting into major guess-work territory for that to work, especially since Deckard is in the same goddamn room when he’s being told about all of this. The explanation is amusingly mundane. There was a sixth replicant that was going to be included in the film named Mary (to be played by Halloween III‘s Stacey Nelkin, who also auditioned for the part of Pris), but due to budget constraints, her character had to be written out. However, the line about six escaped replicants was never reduced to five, or the line about one replicant being ‘fried’ was never upped to two, presumably because of the hurried filming schedule and a lack of continuity awareness. So, it’s a goof, pure and simple.

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Some hate the Deckard-as-replicant theory because it supposedly invalidates Deckard’s growth as a character. By the film’s end, he has learned the value of life, learned to empathise with replicants and you know, maybe he’s not so much a total dickhead anymore. By revealing at the end of the film that he’s not even human, this has somehow made his growth fraudulent. I disagree. This film has shown us that to be a human at their best, one doesn’t even need to be human. I like the idea of Deckard being a replicant, because it showcases the film’s existential dilemmas at their most brain-melting.

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So what does it mean to be a human in Blade Runner? Empathy seems to be the keyword, in both novel and film. One could argue that Roy’s last-second awakening at the end of his confrontation with Deckard, when he spares his life and discovers the power of mercy and empathy, is the moment when he becomes as close to human as possible, the moment when he becomes complete, although that depends on whether or not you regard being human as the benchmark of existence. If the film’s actual humans in Blade Runner are anything to go by, they’re hardly classic examples of humanity. Anyway, Roy’s journey is just as, maybe even more vital and profound, than Deckard’s. While his ‘tears in rain’ speech is the film’s most famous and beautiful moment, Deckard’s equivalent moment of self-realisation, his ‘I don’t know why he saved my life’ voice-over, suffers from bad writing, banalities and was deemed poor enough to dispense with when it came to the director’s cut.

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Dick had little sympathy or respect for his androids, and didn’t agree with the film’s approach, that they were, according to Scott, ‘supermen who couldn’t fly’. The androids in Electric Sheep are bastardisations, crimes against nature, whereas the replicants in Blade Runner are, as stated ‘more human than human’ – they are smarter, stronger and by the end, wiser than any human being. There’s a sense that the replicants are the inevitable next step in existence on Earth, and as such are not to be dismissed as less than human, but something to be in awe of. Maybe, ultimately, they will replace us. But not yet. This particular generation of replicant, the Nexus-6, with their four-year lifespans and artificial memories, is clearly not the final word on the subject. They were, in the words of their creator, made as well as the Tyrell Corporation could make them, but, as Roy responds, not to last. Still, even with Tyrell dead before the film’s close, maybe the next level of replicant will be the one that nails it.

The Performances

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Blade Runner benefits from a perfect cast. Some bemoaned Harrison Ford’s performance as glum and withdrawn, but you might as well knock the character of Deckard itself if you’re going down that route. Ford’s turn here is beautifully insular and subtle – it was a striking departure for the actor at the time, and given the darkness of this character’s soul, quite a bold move too. The only thing I didn’t really like about his performance – the voiceover – was disposed of eventually anyway, so I have nothing but praise for it now. Plus, Ford remains, more than any other leading man, the best actor to take an on-screen beating in the name of art. When you think about it, he got roughed up and tortured a hell of a lot in his biggest films. He also has an astonishingly iconic, anguished scream (heard here when he snaps his broken finger back into place) that fans of The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom will know by heart.

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Rutger Hauer is the tonal opposite of Ford  – his performance is truly hypnotic. Hauer had that indefinable magic about him during his heyday that left Hollywood utterly in awe. His presence in Blade Runner is like a bolt of lightning as shocking as his white hair – I can’t take my eyes off him, and given we’re talking about this film in particular, he’s got a lot of competition, from both actors and scenery. Hauer, who sadly passed away this year, gave one of my favourite ever performances as Roy, and I really love that he loved this film, and his character. He manages to make Roy chilling, frightening, funny, vulnerable, tragic, seductive and totally unpredictable.

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Sean Young is utterly, heartbreakingly beautiful and wounded as Rachael. Like all the actors playing the parts of replicants, it’s arguable that Young has never topped this performance. She inhabits the character of Rachael entirely, and like the other actors here, I forget I’m watching an actor. I’m watching a character. She looks incredible too, like an oil painting of emotion – it’s telling that cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s favourite shot in the film was one of Rachael smoking a cigarette during the Voight-Kampff test. Yep, smoking is bad, bad, bad, but in films it looks good, good, good, and it never looked as good as it did here.

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Elsewhere, we have a wonderful cast of supporting actors – Daryl Hannah is magnetic as Pris; she gives a brilliantly physical, mesmeric performance. Edward James Olmos works wonders with such a small, but memorable role as Gaff.  M. Emmet Walsh was one of those actors who just added so much character to the films he was in, and I love him as the grizzled Bryant. Brion James and Joanna Cassidy as Leon and Zhora are simultaneously formidable yet tragic – they are fearsome presences (they both give Deckard a serious pummeling) but they are not cut-out second-tier antagonists – both actors imbue much subtlety and brilliance to their roles. William Sanderson is beautifully sad as JF Sebastian – what a great, great character, a great reactive performance. His observations as Roy talks to and then kills Tyrell are magnificent. And Joe Turkel as Tyrell, cast after Scott saw his turn as Lloyd the bartender in The Shining, has the kind of understated authoritative presence that makes me wonder why he wasn’t cast in more well-known films. And then there’s James Hong, who only gets one scene, but plays it superbly, as Chew, the eye-designer who gets a cold reception from the unwelcome replicants. Oh, and special mention to for Hy Pike’s amusingly sleazy Taffey Lewis and Morgan Paull’s superbly irritable/overconfident turn as the doomed Holden. The latter originally had more scenes that were filmed as Deckard visits Holden in hospital, but these were cut out eventually.

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What I also love about all these performers is how visually suited they are to the film – they’re just as important to the visual impact of the movie as everything else. Superb costumes, amazing make-up and the actors’ own incredibly expressive performances – the effect is incredible.

The Music

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Vangelis’ score is beyond compare. Already a composer of serious worth, having delivered many solo works, soundtrack compositions (including the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire) and commercially successful collaborations, for Blade Runner he created something so astonishing it frankly towers over everything else he’d made, before or since. It is a phenomenal achievement. Rarely has vision been so complemented by sound. The first thing you experience in Blade Runner, after the studio logo, is that unmistakable, thunderous crash before the credits begin. It sets the scene immediately. You know this is going to be an experience. After the plaintive, melancholic and yet ominous score that accompanies the rest of the credits and the opening text, that initial sensation is quadrupled when an even bigger rumble and crash accompanies the ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’ credit, after which we fade up to that incredible opening shot. Every time. It gets me every single time.

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The wonderful thing about this score is how varied it is – at times it is nothing more than an electronic ambience, at others it is a panoramic spectacle. Then it is becomes heartbreakingly melancholic. Or voluptuously seductive. Or delicately serene. Or thrillingly exotic. Or deeply eerie. Or downright apocalyptic. Personally, I think it’s the most impressive, moving, kaleidoscopic score of all time, and yet it’s not an ugly mish-mash of styles, which could have been the case given how far its reach spans. It all blends together incredibly well.

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There are many pieces of music in Blade Runner that I deeply, unreservedly adore, but the ‘Love Theme’ is arguably the one I love the most. Put simply, I think it’s the most beautiful piece of music created for any film, ever. It’s weird, because in the context of the film it scores a scene which is disturbing. ‘Love Theme’, by being totally, impossibly erotic and gorgeous, makes this ugly scene emotionally and thematically complex. The saxophone is an instrument that has been mocked (two words – jazz club) and misused (countless cheesy ballads) for so long, but of course at its best, that damn thing sounds like the most beautiful sound on Earth, and Dick Morrissey’s playing on ‘Love Theme’ is my all-time favourite example.

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I think if I had to come up with a Desert Island Discs type-list, then ‘Love Theme’ would be in there. It is a masterpiece of production – Vangelis at his very best can make music sound like it wasn’t created by mere mortals but like it was taken from the skies, from the elements. It sounds like a pure dream – listening to it is complete transportation to somewhere else. It is sensual, erotic, sad, enveloping, mysterious and so full of yearning.

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Elsewhere, the extended ‘Blade Runner Blues’ is an utterly mesmeric, free-floating fog of sadness. There’s a video on YouTube which loops this piece to the length of an hour, and I’ve listened to it many times. I can’t get enough of it, it’s just so damned gorgeous. ‘Memories of Green’ is extremely sad also, as befitting the scene it accompanies, yet there’s some kind of tender light at the end of its tunnel, those memories of green providing some solace in the midst of the grey, grey present. Both pieces that score the build-up to and meeting between Roy and Tyrell crackle with epic, rumbling, terrifying foreboding. ‘Tears in Rain’ matches the elegiac finality of Roy’s speech with some of the most gorgeous music I have ever heard. The early pieces that accompany the aerial shots of Los Angeles are truly majestic, magnificent panoramas of sound that never fail to take my breath away. And those are just some of the major pieces – throughout, Vangelis enhances the narrative and the visuals with an enormous variety of tones. It is quite simply, the best score ever composed for a film.

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And then, after all of that, we get the absolutely mighty final theme tune. It’s almost too much to take in, this soundtrack. So much good stuff. In a lesser film, a piece like ‘End Titles’ would have been overused throughout the movie, to show it off, because it’s just so good, but no, here it’s at the end, where it properly belongs.

Different Versions

Of course, one major element of discussion around Blade Runner is the amount of different versions that are available. Unlike, say Star Wars, where subsequent reworkings and re-edits have all but entirely replaced previous versions and become the one and only edition made available to the public, the complicated history of Blade Runner has thankfully been preserved and fans can acquire, quite easily, all the existing versions of the movie. The Final Cut is the version that Ridley Scott prefers and the one that you’re most likely to find in your local or online shop, but the easily affordable deluxe editions of the film offer the original theatrical version in both its domestic and international cuts (the difference being an extra fifteen or so seconds of violence in the latter), the 1992 ‘director’s cut’ and, most excitingly for fans, the pre-release workprint that was previewed to audiences in 1981 and that was controversial enough for the producers and Scott to add the narration and happy ending that many feel spoiled the theatrical cut. This might prove overwhelming for casual fans, but personally I think the Final Cut is almost entirely the most satisfying version of the movie, and the one I can easily recommend to newbies, which is convenient as its the most easily available. From there on I would suggest either the domestic or international theatrical cuts (depending on your tolerance for violence) so that you can make up their minds in regards to the narration and tacked-on ending, and if you’re really into Blade Runner by that stage, then the Workprint. The Director’s Cut’s differences to the Final Cut are really only cosmetic and I can’t see me going to back to it ever again, but I’m very glad it’s been included regardless.

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The Workprint, which was made available on the Ultimate 5-disc set in 2007, is as warned by Scott in the introduction, a rough cut. It’s still incredibly well put together, but if you’ve already seen any of the finished versions, it will obviously feel somehow not quite right. The most obvious instance of this is the temp music used for the final confrontation – at the stage of assembling the workprint, Vangelis hadn’t finished the score, so existing cues by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner were used instead. The effect is most disconcerting for those familiar with the proper score. As effective and dramatic as these cues are (and Goldsmith and Horner are two of my favourite composers), they make you realise just how otherworldly and unique Vangelis’ contributions were. There’s also a different piece of music in Taffey Lewis’ bar, which would have been interesting for the film’s legacy had it remained. The piece in question is David Byrne and Brian Eno’s ‘Qu’ran’, which became a pretty controversial song when the Islamic Council of Great Britain objected to its use of recorded samples of Qu’ranic recital, leading it to be removed from later pressings of the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I wonder if the film would have experienced similar controversy if the song had ended up in the theatrical version.

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Otherwise there are lots of alternate takes, missing or extra dialogue and, prior to The Final Cut, exclusive shots that were the stuff of legend amongst Blade Runner fans. This version was also the only one before the Final Cut that had the correct number of killed replicants referred to during Bryant’s conversation with Deckard, as well as the alternate reading of ‘I want more life…Father’, (as opposed to ‘fucker’) spoken by Batty to Tyrell, a line originally filmed for use in television screenings. I’m with Blade Runner expert Paul Sammon in that, while the ‘father’ version is loaded with extra meaning, there’s something about the vicious bite of the ‘fucker’ reading that takes one aback and shows how, underneath the charisma and cool, Batty is not to be messed with. Or should I say ‘fucked with’.

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Famously, Blade Runner‘s preview screenings met with a very mixed reaction from its test audiences. The chief criticisms were that it was too hard to follow and that it was too dark. The decision to add a helpful narration from Deckard, which was something that had been toyed with right from the Fancher days (and indeed there was a single use of it in the previewed workprint, spoken by Deckard after Batty dies, although this was different to the narration that was included in the theatrical cut), was finally given the green light and so began the recording of what has been one of the film’s most divisive elements. Speaking as someone who first saw Blade Runner in its director’s cut, the narration has never sat well with me and I’ve never felt like it belonged, but then again I hadn’t lived with the film for ten years to think otherwise. However, many did feel that the removal of the narration for the director’s cut improved the film immeasurably, and while the qualities of that narration are debatable, and I’m willing to admire it on an aesthetic level (chiefly its callback to film noir tradition), the other major post-production decision, that of the ‘ride into the sunset’ ending, is for me a total compromise and does not work. At all. To throw in some rubbish about Rachael not being inflicted with the four-year lifespan is just so much last-minute, deus ex machina rubbish. Tyrell had told Deckard that Rachael had more than four years? And he never mentioned it until now? Twaddle. That it’s also well documented that much of the aerial footage during this epilogue consisted of outtakes from The Shining only enforces the feeling that this is a cut-and-paste job.

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The theatrical version is of course the only one that was available for ten years (disregarding TV versions that cut out violence, nudity and profanity), and yet the overwhelming love for the director’s cut and the Final Cut have now left this onetime one-and-only edition of Blade Runner a curiosity, only available as part of a bigger box set. Casual or first-time viewers of Blade Runner these days might not even know that a version with a narration and a happy ending ever existed. Of course, that’s not to say that history has been rewritten and it’s been erased from existence, but simply put, the first official version of Blade Runner, the one that was released at cinemas everywhere in 1982, is not the default version anymore. I mean, it hasn’t been for decades now, but the odds of the theatrical cut being screened on, say UK television is slim to none, whereas I do remember ITV showing it a good few years after it had already screened the director’s cut in the 1990s.

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So, how does that theatrical cut play out now? Well, like it or not, it is an essential part of the Blade Runner experience. I will occasionally return to it for curiosity’s sake, but it will never be my go-to version. That would be the Final Cut. I can see why some don’t like it, because of the sheer wealth of changes made. If the differences between the theatrical and director’s cuts were more narratively and thematically striking, the Final Cut’s alterations are far more subtle and consistent. Lots of colour re-timing, additional shots, goof-corrections and so on – to some it might feel like robbing the original version of its purity. Maybe if those versions were no longer made available to us, then I’d have an issue with the Final Cut. But the fact is that they are, and of all the versions, the Final Cut for me is the richest of all Blade Runner experiences.

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Because of the wealth of deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage, plus the various different versions that exist, Blade Runner, more than any of other film, feels like this malleable, vivid, yet dreamlike moving thing, like a stream, constantly in flow, always changing – it never feels like a set text, it feels like this pure feeling, this pure essence. Maybe this would feel different if the changes made to the film weren’t great, but they are. Even the deleted scenes on the deluxe DVD/Blu-ray set are presented as one short film that kind of plays out as an entirely alternate version of the movie, albeit with lots of missing scenes (it only runs 45 or so minutes). I wish there was a longer version of Blade Runner that incorporated those deleted scenes, those longer takes, those alternate visuals. In fact, some fans have done this, and these versions are out there, but of course, they are totally unofficial. Yet this is the kind of dedicated fan work that Blade Runner inspires in its viewers. The same goes for the fan-made soundtracks that make the official releases look decidedly paltry. Bootleg releases like the ‘Unicorn Cut’ of the film or the ‘EMS Recombination’ edition of the soundtrack expand Blade Runner‘s official presence into much larger territory.

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Then there’s the music. In addition to Blade Runner being my favourite film of all time, Vangelis’ score remains my favourite soundtrack ever. An extraordinary kaleidoscope of emotions, tones, moods and atmospherics, it is as ambitious, all-encompassing and remarkable as the film itself. Obviously, it is at one with the film, so to separate them may seem odd. One is unimaginable without the other, but whereas Blade Runner‘s impact would be considerably lessened if the score was to be removed (check the climax of the workprint for evidence of this), Vangelis’ score is quite amazing on its own. If only accessing it was so simple.

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For twelve years, the only official release of the Blade Runner score was a bizarre, predominantly orchestral rendition of some of the film’s most famous cues. Orchestral? Really? Given that Blade Runner‘s score is one of the quintessential electronic soundtracks of all time, to throw out the synths and laden on the strings was a fucking bizarre decision to say the least, and unless you were prepared to go underground for the bootleg releases, this was all you were going to get. And it’s anaemic crap too, worth a single listen for curiosity and hilarity’s sake, but nothing more.

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Vangelis fans would have to get used to this sort of thing, as the missing-in-action scores for, er…Missing and The Bounty proved. In 1989, the brilliant compilation Themes was released, which, among other highlights, gave you one piece from Missing, two from The Bounty and, wonderfully, ‘Love Theme’, ‘Memories of Green’ and the ‘End Titles’ from Blade Runner.

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1994 finally saw an official Blade Runner soundtrack release, but it was a bittersweet result. It was a heavily truncated selection of the film’s score, with many major pieces missing, and yet Vangelis included three pieces that weren’t even in the original film! Thankfully, all three were great, and in the case of ‘Blush Response’ and ‘Rachael’s Song’, these were actually intended for the movie (‘Wait for Me’ was an entirely new piece). There was also the artistic decision to overlay dialogue from the film over some of the pieces, which was understandably frustrating for fans waiting for these pieces to arrive intact. Still, when all’s said and done, as an album, the 1994 Blade Runner soundtrack remains a marvellous listening experience. The dialogue samples really add an extra atmosphere, and it’s great that some of the pieces mix into one another, which really adds to the flow. I used to also have an issue with the inclusion of ‘One More Kiss, Dear’, the old-time torch song that plays on the radio after Deckard has retired Zhora. A fine song, but I always felt it disrupted the flow of the record. Now I’m used to it.

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Shortly after the release of The Final Cut, the curiously marketed Blade Runner Trilogy was released on CD – featuring three CDs, the first a remastered version of the 1994 album, the second an odds-and-sods of hitherto (officially) unreleased music and third an all-new album of Vangelis-composed music inspired by Blade Runner, it still wasn’t as complete a release of the score as fans wanted (and that third disc found few fans), but it’s definitely worth checking out. The second disc in particular is really great, especially for pieces like ‘Desolation Path’ (as heard in the Workprint instead of ‘Love Theme’) and the brief but utterly brilliant ‘Longing’, which can’t be heard in any version of the film but is so good that I wish it had been. It was also the first time legally-binding listeners got the chance to hear cues like ‘Tyrell’s Death’ (aka ‘The Prodigal Son Brings Death’), which was so obviously a highlight of the score that’s ridiculous that it had taken so long for it to get an official release.

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To put it bluntly, there has been no wholly satisfying legal release of the Blade Runner soundtrack. But there are massively superior alternatives out there. Just saying.

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Retirement

Okay, I’m going to wrap this up now, because I was hoping to get this published before Blade Runner stopped being a film set in the future, but I missed the deadline. At the very least I want to get this out there whilst it’s at least a film of the present, before December when it will become a film set in the past. Not literally of course. Blade Runner will always be a futuristic film, and that date of 2019 is ultimately just a date. The future depicted in Blade Runner may very well still come to pass, and in some cases, it already has. I only hope that Scott doesn’t release a Final-Final Cut that gets rid of the year in its opening titles in an attempt to make the film still appear ahead of its time. That would be one change too many. Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece, which I think I’m going to refer to as Blade Rambler before anyone else gets in there first.

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PS: The most essential resource for me whilst writing this piece has been Paul S. Sammon’s amazing, indispensable book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. Simply put, if you love Blade Runner, you need this book. It has everything. Also, of course – there’s the Internet Movie Database and its handy trivia and FAQ sections, as well as Charles de Lauzirika’s marvellous documentary Dangerous Days, which was released in 2007 as part of Blade Runner’s staggering deluxe set to mark the debut home viewing release of The Final Cut.

Songs I Love: Rose Elinor Dougall’s ‘Hell and Back’ (2017)

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Okay, deep breath. I’m going to try and put into words just how much I love my all-time favourite song by my all-time favourite singer and songwriter who isn’t called David Bowie.

Sad songs are everywhere, and I’ve listened to, experienced, cried to, dreamt to and been knocked out senseless by so many of them. Of course I also love happy songs, I love songs that I can dance to (badly) and I love weird shit too, but given that I find music the sweetest of all artistic tonics and it’s what I turn to when I need solace and comfort – sad songs in particular can be that indescribable embrace I need the most when I feel lost. I don’t know what I’d do without them. Then there are those sad songs that encapsulate turbulent, shattering and heartbreaking emotions so well and with such power that they end up being strangely kind of ecstatic, euphoric, utterly life-affirming and vital. They make me feel deliriously ridiculous and out of my mind with pleasure and sheer sensation.

‘Hell and Back’, a highlight amongst nothing but highlights (doesn’t make sense, I know) on the amazing 2017 LP Stellular by the fucking spectacularly talented Rose Elinor Dougall, is probably my favourite example of such a song.

I mean, it is very bloody sad indeed. But there’s a kind of defiant, passionate sweep to it that means I actually don’t want to curl up into a ball when I play it – I want to sing with it (badly) and then some. It is an an incredible, miasmic and breathtaking gut-punch of a song that boasts the kind of melodic (vocal and musical) shifts that make me want to weep with awe. It so good it just makes me want to knock on people’s doors like a bloody Jehovah’s Witness and ask them if they know about the Book of Rose – I mean, how can a song this astonishing not be loved by everyone? What the fuck is going on here, people?

And that’s the thing about Stellular, the thing that makes it so essential is its sheer richness. It sounds so fucking alive – it is an incredible production, a living, breathing, existing thing – it makes me want to live. It wreaks havoc with this heart of mine (to quote another Dougall song), it breathes life into the devils and demons in my soul and reminds me just how precious and essential the sheer act of existing is.

Compared to the modest (and very lovely) sound of Dougall’s first album, Stellular tears through the speakers in spectacularly exciting style. The beat, the pulse, the pace, the sweep – all of a sudden Dougall’s music was thrillingly widescreen, cinematic and yet so intensely intimate – sometimes a band or an artist can sound like they’ve had more money thrown at them but something ends up missing in the process. Not here. This album sounds like a million quid but also sounds utterly vivid, urgent – right there in the room with you.

It’s also the kind of all-killer/no-filler pop rush that the old days of vinyl demanded – there’s not a moment wasted here. It’s almost like a greatest hits that never was – every song delivers a colossal wallop, and yet it’s not exhaustingly high-octane either. The album moves through a kaleidoscopic range of tones, emotions and paces. Wind-tunnel, high-speed pop like the title track shake hips against utterly heavenly ballads (‘Take Yourself With You’), wrenching torch songs (‘Answer Me’), dancefloor funk (‘All at Once’), motorik-fuelled duets (‘Dive’, with co-producer Oli Bayston on guest vocals) and best of all, ‘Hell and Back’.

Everything about Stellular is brilliant, but above all else is that voice. It’s the voice I’ve been waiting to hear on record all my life – so relatable, charming, seductive, heartbreaking, powerful, subtle, beautifully restrained when necessary and, thanks to Dougall’s own creativity in the studio, wonderfully malleable and stunningly treated so that it becomes a kind of instrument in itself. I can listen to this voice all day. It has ten times the impact of other, lesser singers who always think more is more, that louder is better. It isn’t. Of course it isn’t. Dougall’s voice is stunningly layered, versatile and it’s getting better and better too. One listen to her new album A New Illusion is staggering proof of that – but that’s now. I’m talking about then.

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And I need to get back to ‘Hell and Back’ in particular – starting with, er…squiggles of synth (sorry writers, producers and performers, I tried my best with that one) and a drum beat that leads into those first lines: ‘In this world, seldom few contentedly make it through’ – we all have suffered, we rarely get through life without being burned, without avoiding the fucking dreadful pain that life can throw at us. Later talk of ‘black dogs’ suggest depression is a key subject matter here. Hey, I can relate to that. I’m on anti-depressant meds, have been for over a decade-and-a-half now – they’ve been part of my life so long that taking them in the morning (and evening) is as natural as putting the kettle on and waiting for it to boil to make my first tea of the day. I’ve suffered intense anxiety, OCD, depression in the past and wow, it’s a bastard. Yet it’s also made me stronger than ever because I’ve had to fight so hard to come to terms with it and I’ve learned to cope and live through it, and with it. Songs like ‘Hell and Back’ hit me hard because of this.

Dougall sings, ‘I walk that jagged line’ – I’m not sure if this means skirting the line between a what one would consider a normal life and one that one would consider ‘ill’ or ‘depressed’ – you know, seeming fine on the outside, but terrified that one might slip and fall into the abyss of depression at any time soon. It could also mean the euphoria and despair of feeling intense emotions, feeling like you can take on the world one moment and feeling there’s no hope at another. This is followed by ‘dance alone or out of time’. I’ve danced alone – sometimes, when you’re content with a night in, a glass of wine and your favourite mix playing, that can be great, but dancing alone can be the pits if you’re in a club and you’re with someone you feel no connection with or if you’re not dancing with the one you really want to dance with.

Obviously, I’m just taking what I’m personally taking from the song – there’s no definitive meaning to a song, ever. As for dancing out of time, well I’m going to assume that Dougall’s a good dancer (anyone who wrote ‘All at Once’ has to have a sense of rhythm) and that this is more to do with just feeling totally out of sync with everyone else. Feeling disconnected. Alone at the party. The music during these verses simmer and tremble with tension – sadness, an intense, longing and nerve-wracking kind of sadness, tightly wound by the coiled playing. It’s an incredible performance by the band, and proof of Dougall’s superb songwriting and grasp of structure. With verses like these, the tension can only last so long – something has to give.

The chorus is that very give, and it exudes a strangely determined passion – ‘let’s go to hell and back again’ – there seems to be a choice being made here, a statement of intent. Maybe let’s surrender ourselves to the pain, and if we see it through together, then maybe it will be okay. But who’s Dougall singing to? A fellow sufferer? Herself? Is she looking in the mirror when she’s singing this, prompting herself to carry on?

Yet ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ makes me question the line immediately before. Maybe Dougall’s not the one singing the title. Maybe it’s the demon on her shoulder, tempting her to fall into darkness, and ‘no matter how I try, they always win’ could be a surrender to that darkness. Now this chorus is, without a doubt, my most beloved moment in any Dougall song, and believe me, it’s up against formidable competition. What I love about Dougall’s songs is that they are, as well as being magnificent compositions as a whole, so full of extraordinary moments that I do the silly thing all the time and rewind my fave bits of the song to experience them all over again and again.

I’ll tell you which bit in the chorus absolutely kills me – every time. It’s ‘I have tried, I have tried to rid myself of them’ – especially, that bit I’ve put in italics. Oh my god, all I can do is sit down and just fucking keep it all together, lest I just fall apart over its unimaginable beauty. And the come down of ‘they always win’ ends the chorus (and indeed the song) on a frightening, uncertain note. This is not a song with a resolution.

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‘Hold my breath, even count to ten’ – are these methods, attempts to hold off anxiety? Maybe an OCD ritual, an exercise? It doesn’t seem to work – ‘the dark clouds descend’ immediately afterwards. Thinking about these words are fucking killing me, to be honest. They’re so sad. That feeling of hopelessness – ‘it’s no use’ – it just breaks my heart. If this indeed is what Dougall’s singing about, then I can relate to that sense of despair.

The next line –  ‘will you be my sole one partner in crime?’ is delivered with such a yearning, emotional wallop that it makes me want to fucking cry. Who is this partner? If it is Dougall singing in the first-person at the start of the chorus, then the sole partner must be that same person she’s singing to. A best friend, a lover – someone who she needs here with her. ‘Partner in crime’ is a fascinating way to put this, too – it gives the whole song an almost darkly romantic air, that together the two of them can find some kind of escape, like outlaws on the run, maybe? Yet unlike the almost determined ‘let’s go to hell and back again’, Dougall’s question (and delivery of that question) is less a hand outstretched to join her on this journey and more an intensely hopeful, pleading proposal.

The black dog, that famous signifier of depression arrives immediately afterwards, that blasted, incessant, heavy and intent beast that spoils it all, that tells you nothing will be alright, that you’re right to worry, to doubt, to feel bad. ‘Here comes the black dog’ – Dougall awaits her arrival, she’s been here before, it’s happening again. ‘Feel her running wild’ – not ‘see’, but ‘feel’ – because the dog is obviously not literal, its actions, its behaviour can only ever be felt. And don’t I have a lazy imagination for being taken aback when Dougall refers to the black dog as ‘her’ and not ‘him’? For me I’ve always pictured the black dog as male, but when a girl or a woman is suffering from depression, why the fuck would they picture it as male? I’m an idiot. Maybe it’s because most exposures to depression that I’ve encountered first-hand have been from men. That’s no excuse, though.

The chorus comes again, and like all brilliant second choruses, it takes the first and builds on it – in this case, backing vocals come in (are they Dougall’s?) doubling ‘devils and demons’ and adding ‘oh I have tried’ to the relevant foreground vocals, and the effect is almost like a taunting, deceptively innocent nursery-rhyme being sung by a playfully malevolent chorus of singers. It’s totally devastating.

Then there’s the amazing middle-eight, where everything builds and builds and swirls and swirls: synths come in, at once pulsating and insistent and also moving around and over the listener, and soon Dougall’s vocals do the same– multi-tracked so they mirror this whirlpool of sound, where they become a kind of instrument in themselves. I like to think of it as a less disturbing version of Tim Buckley’s incredible vocals-only experimental piece ‘Star Sailor’. Unlike that ‘song’, where the effect was pretty fucking terrifying, the effect here is like being intoxicated, or maybe something like hurtling through the stargate at the end of 2001 – absolutely remarkable production here. Few songs have conveyed this sense of sheer sensation – it takes the song to another level entirely.

With expert sleight of hand, it all stops, with nothing but a bassline, minimal percussion, and of course Dougall’s voice singing the chorus. It’s disarming and makes you double-check yourself. The second half of the chorus sees the whole band come back in and once more, the devils and demons win, and the song stretches out for a few more moments before stopping abruptly. It’s the perfect ending to the perfect song. Brilliantly, the song that follows – ‘Space to Be’– is cut from the same emotional, despairing cloth as ‘Hell and Back’, but something close to sunshine and wild determination breaks through here, a fiery yearning to be free from it all which makes it a far more positive song, and the absolute rush of energy the music provides delivers that positivity. Together the two songs form a mind-blowing double impact.

‘Hell and Back’, no lie, is in my top ten songs of all time. It just encapsulates absolutely everything I love about music, how it can take me away, how it can take sadness and make something truly exhilarating, incredible and astonishing from it, how it can make me want to cry, how it makes me want to just want to sing, scream, sigh and swoon. Nothing beats it. Fuck it, I think it might be my favourite song ever.

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Near Dark (1987) Part 2

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Welcome to Part Two of my look at Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. If you would like to read more about my long-gestating relationship with this most special of movies in regards to initial awareness, promotional material and first time (and many more eventual) viewings, then click here. This second part is more about the film’s content, and why it’s such a fucking fantastic movie.

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Near Dark is thirty-two years old this year, but like the vampire itself, it shows no signs of dying. Thrilling, edgy, scary, funny, romantic, stylish and vicious, Kathryn Bigelow’s solo debut is, on many levels, her most amazing achievement. Were it not for the fact that she’d already co-directed a film years earlier, I think this would get more praise as one of the greatest first films by any director ever. It really is an amazingly confident work, a horror landmark, a classic vampire movie and still one of the most original, inventive genre rides of all time. It’s a film of great collaborations – Bigelow is the driving force, but there’s also Eric Red, who co-wrote the film with Bigelow, the magnificent cinematography by Adam Greenberg, the remarkable, moody score by Tangerine Dream and of course the spectacular cast. It has grown from box office failure to cult classic and is now often regarded as one of the finest vampire movies of all time.

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Bigelow of course has gone on to great success, with one of her most notable achievements being the first woman to win the Best Director award at the Oscars for The Hurt Locker. She has also directed films that have developed a great cult following, notably the dynamic action thriller Point Break and the visceral SF mystery Strange Days. Before Near Dark, Bigelow had co-directed the curious and fascinating retro biker movie The Loveless with Monty Montgomery (best known to film fans for his enigmatic appearance as ‘The Cowboy’ in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive), which, like Near Dark is also about rebellious travellers with a taste for danger and violence (and sex too, though sex is replaced with blood-drinking for this film). Bigelow’s unflinching depiction of violence led to all of her movies from The Loveless to Strange Days being certified ’18’ in the UK, with Strange Days in particular skirting serious controversy thanks to a shocking, disturbing sequence in which a woman is raped but is made to wear hi-tech virtual reality equipment that forces her to experience her assault from the viewpoint of her attacker.

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Also made during Bigelow’s initial productive period (there was a long gap of inactivity between Strange Days and The Hurt Locker, with only flops like The Weight of Water and K19: The Widowmaker being produced during this time) was the psychological thriller Blue Steel, a wildly overheated, occasionally preposterous affair that nevertheless was an intriguing look at weapon-fetishism and gender-roles, providing Jamie Lee Curtis with a great role as a rookie cop who loses her gun on her first night on the beat. Most of the above films (there has also been the post-Hurt Locker films Zero Dark Thirty and Detroit, both of which pushed serious cultural buttons) are essential, but for me Near Dark has a simpler purity and poetic elegance that I find difficult to resist. For me, it’s her richest film.

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Near Dark was co-written by Eric Red, who in 1986 had penned the remarkably dark road thriller The Hitcher, a hugely effective shocker with Rutger Hauer starring as a supernaturally evil serial killer who plays horrendous cat-and-mouse games with C. Thomas Howell’s beleaguered driver. Thanks partly to Robert Harmon’s direction, Mark Isham’s score and John Seale’s cinematography, The Hitcher shares much of Near Dark‘s chilling nocturnal atmosphere, and the similar elements, most notably an innocent dragged into a world of evil and the theme of a nomadic killer(s) using the highways as his killing ground makes this an essential counterpoint to the later movie, although there’s a narrative cruelty and nihilism to The Hitcher that has been toned down in Near Dark. The latter focuses on sadism and cruelty, but the film itself isn’t, whereas The Hitcher‘s mean streak makes it an often difficult watch.

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Near Dark is a classic of many things, but one thing it achieves outstandingly well is its directness. It packs a hell of a lot in its mere 90-minute running time, and that’s thanks to Red and Bigelow’s super-lean script. The original screenplay, which was featured as an extra on Anchor Bay’s 2002 DVD release in PDF form, is fascinating – there you can see extra, interesting, but ultimately unnecessary scenes that were wisely omitted by the time of filming. The final script as seen on screen makes The Hitcher look positively flabby in comparison. Not a line of dialogue is wasted, every character beat means something (there’s barely any backstory), every scene is essential. Within moments, we’re already neck-deep in danger, as Adrian Pasdar’s handsome farm boy Caleb becomes instantly smitten with Jenny Wright’s mysterious, beautiful new girl in town Mae, and ten or so minutes later he’s already been bitten by her,  unable to stand sunlight and swiftly abducted into a new, terrifying world of murder, addiction and dangerous romance. Mae belongs to a family of blood-drinking nomads led by the ice-cold, laconic Jesse (Lance Henriksen), maternal but lethal Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), rambunctious and vicious Severen (Bill Paxton) and jealous, frustrated child vampire (Joshua Miller), who all make a literal killing on the Texan highways picking up unwitting hitchers and doing unspeakable (and thankfully mostly unseen) things to them.

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Forced to face the truth that Caleb has become one of them thanks to Mae not finishing off her meal at the time, the vampires give their new, unwanted recruit a week to see if he can make it as one of them, which of course means being adept at killing. And in this film, killing is an ugly, messy business. It’s not like other vampire movies where your personality conveniently changes to ‘evil’ to suit your new needs. Caleb is still a good person at heart, and despite the urgency and desperation of his newly developed blood addiction, he can’t bring himself to become a murderer. Getting by in the meantime through drinking Mae’s blood isn’t going to get him off the hook for much longer. If he doesn’t start killing, he’s going to end up ‘dead without dying….real uncomfortable’.

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The film’s centrepiece is a remarkable sequence where Caleb witnesses the feral brutality of his new companions in full, ugly glory as his new ‘friends’ kill off the patrons of an out-of-the-way, road-side bar. Despite the humour evident in this set-piece, here we really see the hands-on nastiness of how the vampires go about dispensing their prey. Yet even with his life and soul on the line, Caleb can’t bring himself to commit a kill and seems doomed until a remarkable twist of fate and an act of selfless bravery on his part leads him to be given temporary leeway and even acceptance into the fold. Such respite is short-lived however, as Caleb’s family catches up with him and the reality of what he’s involved in and the ruthless nature of his new companions is once more brought to the fore. Caleb is rescued by his family and brought back to the world of the living thanks to a blood transfusion, but the vampires won’t let him get away that easy. Mae pleads with him to come back, but when he refuses, the vampires resort to kidnapping his younger sister to lure him into a final confrontation, which ends with Mae choosing to betray her family, who all meet their end. Mae is transfused back into her old self and she and Caleb begin their new life together.

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Near Dark is a vampire movie that presumes you have watched lots of vampire films. You could call it a vampire film for people who don’t like vampire movies, or at the very least are a bit bored with them. Either way, it feels like a proper shot in the arm (or neck) for the sub-genre.

It benefits from being made at a time when almost everybody who had stepped into a cinema or turned on a television or opened a book were not only already aware of what a vampire was, but also the rules were surrounding their mythology. Maybe they had even grown bored and weary of the genre’s tropes and eventual clichés. Thanks to the countless earlier examples of books, films, television series, comics and folktales, the vampire had become just as ingrained into our collective nightmares as any monster, demon or boogeyman.

So yeah, by 1987, everyone knew what a vampire was, what a vampire movie was, and already, what a post-modern, self-aware vampire movie was, thanks to outright parodies like 1979’s Love at First Bite or gentler, half-affectionate spoofs/half-serious horrors like 1985’s  Fright Night. Near Dark, for the most part, avoids winks to the audience, but the initial exchange between Caleb and Mae is nevertheless loaded with nods for the viewer. “Can I have a bite?’ he asks, to which she answers ‘Bite?’, and we know just what she’s thinking, because we know this is a vampire movie, and we know what she is. If that wasn’t enough, Caleb admits ‘he’s just dying for a cone’, and she responds with ‘Dying?’

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Near Dark strips away all the excess, the baggage and the cliches of the sub-genre and rides into the darkness. By not getting bogged down in mythology and history, the film can get right down to business and become the cinematic equivalent of a vampire itself – fast moving, dangerous, violent, sexy and burning. On one level you could say this is ‘less’ of a vampire movie than other films of this time because of the lack of fangs, the lack of religious iconography like crosses and holy water, and even the lack of the word ‘vampire’, but on other levels this is probably the ultimate vampire movie because it conveys so well, more than most films, what one imagines the life of a vampire could be like.

Looking at the wave of vampire movies made in the 1980’s, it becomes clear that there’s very little in the way of solemn information dispersal. These films assume we already know about vampires, so what’s the point in telling us all the rules again? Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) barely bothers to explain what’s going on aside from showing us the unavoidable, that sharing bodily fluids with a vampire will turn you into a vampire, and that you will need blood to survive. Even then it presumes the viewer already knows an awful lot about vampire cinema to begin with, and it even has a little fun with this state of affairs, opening with Bauhaus’ classic gothic single ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ playing in a nightclub/vampire stalking ground as a nod to the first superstar of vampire cinema. It doesn’t even need to use the word ‘vampire’ because we the viewer know exactly what Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie are up to when they start to seduce a pair of unwitting nightclubbers and unleash those miniature daggers from their necklaces.

Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985) begins with its main characters making out in bed whilst a vintage (and decidedly creaky) vampire movie plays on the television – here the characters are all too aware of vampire cinema, and even try to follow its rules in order to defeat the very real bloodsucker who’s moved in next door. These are characters who, just like us the audience, have watched plenty of vampire movies. This same method is applied in Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987), where the two junior vampire hunters played by Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander have acquired all their knowledge from horror comic books, giving a copy of Vampires Everywhere to new kid in town Corey Haim as a ‘survivor’s manual’ to ensure his safety.

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Near Dark goes one step further than the self-awareness of Fright Night and The Lost Boys and ends up as a kind of post-vampire movie. While it was made for an audience that all too well knows their way around a vampire movie, for the most part (that opening exchange of dialogue excepted) it doesn’t reward the viewer for their knowledge with a series of cute references or knowing winks. Here, the vampire mythology is stripped down its absolute essence. You could almost imagine it as a pre-vampire movie, made before there was a demand for rules, regulations and set-in-stone mythology. Much of this I imagine is to do with the seriousness of the approach. Fright Night and The Lost Boys had fun with their playing of the genre and as a result were horror-comedy hybrids, the suggestion being that all of this stuff was so old-fashioned and quaint that they had no choice to play them tongue-in-cheek, although in both cases the horror and violence, when it does come, is played straight and aims for frightening impact.

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However, Near Dark is not interested in self-parody. It is clearly aiming to bring the edge and the danger back into the vampire movie, and to be fair, that wasn’t going to happen if it were to dabble with coffins, crosses, garlic and holy water. By focusing on the essence of vampirism, its original fascination and perverse appeal, but without all of the clichés that eventually came with it, Near Dark made vampire films feel genuinely new, which was quite an achievement given how fresh its contemporaries already were – for all their embracing of old tropes, Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Vamp and so forth were also strikingly modern movies that shook up the genre with their youthful appeal, humour and pop-culture drenched ambience and in doing so consigned the caped Dracula-types of the past to the coffin in the basement. The Hunger too, with its more adult approach, was magnificently contemporary and, for better or worse (worse, according to many critics) even chic. They were great movies, and still are. It’s just Near Dark was even more bold in its vision. In it, we’ve gone back to the period where people don’t know what a vampire is. There are no characters here who have an idea of what they’re dealing with, no rules to guide them or assist them. The only knowledge Caleb is armed with is that the sun kills and that you should always break your trailer before you break your cab.

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Given that vampire movies are most often morality tales, they usually end with evil vanquished and good restored, and Near Dark is no exception. Also, like almost all of its contemporaries, it gets off, for its first half, on the seductive, dangerous lifestyle (or ‘deathstyle’) its villains lead. Like the mob movie that revels in the amorality of its gangsters, the film has no qualms in admitting that being a vampire in 1987 was a proper fucking laugh. This ties it in closely with The Lost Boys, which made such a point of how fun it was to be a vampire that it made it the core message of its poster tagline.

Compare this to The Hunger, which was rooted in a more tragic, melancholic mindset. Fright Night had that moment where Chris Sarandon’s Jerry offers Charley ‘something I don’t have – a choice’, suggesting that being a vampire is a curse of some kind. There was also Sandy Baron’s nightclub compere in Vamp, who may have been immortal but seemed to be forever lamenting the fact that he was stuck in some sleazy joint downtown and not Vegas.

By 1987, things had changed. The vampires in The Lost Boys have absolutely no worries or frustrations about their lot in death, and Near Dark‘s crew seem to enjoy their time just as much, with the occasional exception of child vampire Homer, who understandably is pretty pissed off about never being able to grow up. At least the teen vampires of The Lost Boys were old enough to have sex, get into R-rated movies and whatnot.

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However, despite admitting that sometimes being bad can feel terribly good, the status quo must be restored, and so Near Dark, must eventually turn its back on evil and step into the light. Yet how it does so is very different to any other vampire movie made during this time. Often, its newly turned vampires are usually killed (or go on to commit suicide) to save their souls or are magically turned back into human form thanks to convenient twists like killing the head vampire or not having committed a first kill and therefore still being capable of salvation. In The Lost Boys, there is the interesting concept of ‘half-vampires’, where the vampire in question remains (and is still capable of rescue) until they make their first kill. Despite talk of first kills throughout Near Dark, there it is more of a social and moral factor than a physical or spiritual one.

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The convenience of being brought back to goodness following the death of the head vampire, featured in Fright Night and The Lost Boys, is ignored in Near Dark. Instead it prefers to bring its vampires back into the light with a seemingly novel device that, actually, isn’t that novel given that it also features in the archetypal vampire novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’m talking transfusions.

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Near Dark‘s transfusion salvation is not one of its more popular elements, and has been regarded as ridiculous, but given that we’re talking about a supernatural movie that’s clearly not rooted in reality, I have no problem with this. The fact that removing vampire blood from a body cures it might seem impossible is besides the point – the fact that it is a literal, physical process and not the more overtly magic means of other vampire movies mirrors the physicality of this movie’s approach. The method of transfusion is symbolic: this is, after all, a vampire film that errs closer to science than religion. In fact, despite the references to damnation and praying in the taglines for the UK and US posters respectively, this is probably one of the least religiously-inclined vampire movies ever.

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These vampires don’t have outrageous powers or the ability to perform magic tricks – they certainly don’t change into bats (indeed, the first image we see in the film is a mosquito – a far more appropriate symbol of what these creatures are than a bat). They can’t fly and they can’t make you see things that aren’t real. Everything about these vampires has a grounded reality to it – they kill with visceral brutality, they die in messy, elemental fashion (the sun is practically an overhead furnace to these creatures), they are hands-on, earthbound, resourceful, unglamourous and are their own agents. They have no daywalkers protecting them, they drive their own vehicles, they use vulgar language and they look down and dirty. When Severen admits to Jesse that he smells like ‘a dead polecat’ after drinking the blood of his latest victim, you get the sense that these vampires stink. I mean, they would wouldn’t they?

Their senses are emphasised throughout – these are probably the most secular bloodsuckers on Earth. Take some of the dialogue: ‘The night is so bright it’ll blind you’ (sight), ‘listen to the night, it’s deafening’ (hearing), ‘cut the shit, I know you’re awake – I can smell it’ (smell) and regular food as a deterrent (taste). At one point Severen smears his finger over the blood on Caleb’s mouth and licks it, a delightfully intimate moment. These vampires, when hurt, really get hurt – they ‘look like 40 miles of rough road’. They have no glamourous or cool lair – they sleep in mobile homes, or dingy motels. They constantly live life on the run, on the edge – I mean, it’s amazing they’ve lasted this long when so often they’re racing against the clock to make it to sanctuary before ‘sun-up’.

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The only things that can kill them are not magic or random things like a crucifix or a clove of garlic, but the intense, burning rays of daylight, or simply the unavoidable impact of an explosion. All of the vampires in this film who die do so in flames. Their deaths are grim, sober things, with the exception of Severen, who goes out the way he probably always dreamed of, playing rodeo with the cab of a truck and being blown up in a mother of an explosion. As for the others, Homer dies in heartbreak (Sarah having abandoned him – can’t blame her, really) and intense agony, wilfully running into broad daylight in an attempt to catch her and going up in flames as a result. With the rest of their family either dead or estranged, Jesse and Diamondback seem at first to be prepared to mow down Caleb and co with their car, but given that the sun is well and truly up and their initial attempts to black out the windows has failed, their final drive into the light seems less homicidal than suicidal, and as their skin blackens and begins to ignite, there’s a sad sense of resignation. Jesse looks utterly forlorn and dead inside, whereas Diamondback simply says, with a bittersweet smile, ‘good times’. They both hold hands and their car then explodes in flames. Even though Caleb says ‘roast’ with a sense of angry triumph, there’s a rather sad sense of achievement and justice here, and it’s a far cry from the ‘death by stereo!’ triumphalism of The Lost Boys, where each death was an out-and-out crowd-pleaser. This is much more sombre.

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However, there are also elements that are very much in keeping with certain vampire traditions, the most obvious being the irresistible attraction of being a vampire. The way Bigelow and Greenberg shoot the night scenes, the driving scenes, the wanton carnage and drinking scenes betray a definite lack of resistance to the whole ‘vampires are sexy’ way of thinking. Okay, these vampires aren’t sex symbols in the ways of Kiefer Sutherland’s David, Frank Langella’s Dracula or Chris Sarandon’s Jerry, but their low down and dirty approach has a seduction all of its own. There’s a wickedly delectable moment when, in response to Caleb asking her what the two of them are to do, she says ‘anything we want…until the end of time’. Her grin as she says this sells the evil temptation of vampire life more seductively than any other film.

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And you can totally get why Caleb falls for it. Even when he’s scared, shocked and appalled by their actions, there’s still the crucial moment after he saves their lives at the motel and wins their friendship, and he seems genuinely pleased to be accepted. He comes from a broken home (Caleb’s mother is not present or even referred to) and here we have a good, old fashioned nuclear family willing to take him in as long as he learns the house rules. You can see why he wants in, even though his proper family already love and care for him. His new life is just a bubble waiting to be burst though – as soon as he’s confronted by his proper family, he realises how bad things are with his new one. Nevertheless, at one point in the motel confrontation he does reject his father and sister and is actually prepared to stay with the vampires, so his loyalties are admittedly muddied.

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Speaking of seduction, the issue of sex, sexuality and metaphorical sex is quite interestingly depicted in Near Dark.

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Even though The Hunger, which is probably the least overtly vampiric of all the vampire films, avoided fangs, the whole religion-as-protection element and the use of the word ‘vampire’, it still had a classical genre feel to it, with its upper-class bloodsuckers and their appreciation of fine art, as well as the blending of sex and vampirism, which despite being very modern in terms of explicitness (giving it a homoerotic twist also made it feel very fresh, especially for a major studio movie), was nevertheless as a consolidation of the old, old themes that were always bubbling under the surface in more or less all vampire stories. That being that vampires use their sexual appeal as a seduction tool. Sarah is attracted to Miriam for many reasons, but the most notable one is a sexual one.

Fright Night, The Lost Boys and Vamp also featured a notable sexual element to their stories, be it as a ploy to seduce an unwitting teen in a strip joiny (Vamp), a Dracula-style romancing (Fright Night) or simply straight-up teen desire (The Lost Boys, where the sex simply seems to be straight-up sex, and coincidentally is the least interesting sex scene featured in any of these films, though the lack of any heated chemistry between Jason Patric and Jami Gertz didn’t help). Near Dark on the other hand abandons sex entirely, even as a precursor to the serious business of bloodletting, with the exception of Caleb’s early amorous intentions towards Mae (and even that is just limited to the desire for a kiss), and a very brief moment where he seems to move desperately towards her crotch before his first feed (Mae quickly moves him up to her face). By taking sex out of the equation, the film continues to strip the excesses of the vampire movie to their bare minimum.

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Of course, there are still subtexts to this film, the most overt being the idea of vampirism as a drug addiction metaphor. This isn’t entirely new – The Hunger, especially in the way it depicted Susan Sarandon’s Sarah’s descent into dazed, desperate illness, had a definite drug feel to it (she’s even mistaken for a junkie in one scene), and The Lost Boys, if for only one scene, treated the act of blood drinking as a kind of initiation, where Jason Patric’s Michael is coerced into taking his first sip in the sunken hotel due to good old fashioned peer pressure, not unlike being egged on by mates to down a pint of beer. Near Dark runs with the drug idea though, depicting Caleb and Mae as something like runaway junkies, the latter closer to a functioning addict, the former as a distraught, mess. There’s a scene that was removed from the final cut but available as an extra on various DVD releases reveal that vampires can see the dark as a kind of bright, monochromatic and blissful paradise, and the excised scene in question sees Mae and Caleb, in the midst of a blood-high, embracing and taking in their surroundings as though they were on mind-altering substances. It’s a beautiful scene. However, whatever high he had the night before is all gone and he’s desperate and panicked again, screaming into the night. He’s come down, and hard.

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The blood-drinking scenes between Mae and Caleb may be free of actual sex, but they still charge with an eroticism that many other vampire movies lack. Seeing that he is desperate and ill from lack of nourishment, Mae bites into her wrist and proceeds to feed Caleb her blood, which he takes ravenously. The soundtrack reveals their heartbeats, and Mae seems to be taking intense pleasure from this act of giving. This clearly is as close to sex as the vampires get, and from the looks of it, it transcends it too. Instantly Caleb is transformed – he’s euphoric, a bloody mess admittedly, but euphoric, and she looks dazed and knocked out. They kiss and then they run away, and only now does Caleb appreciate what Mae told him earlier, that the night is so bright, it’ll blind you.

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As for Near Dark‘s vicious side, well this is the stuff that earned it it’s 18 certificate back in 1987 and put it clear ahead of The Lost Boys on the horror front. The violence, when it comes, is hard and brutal. Blood pours freely, and there’s even some out-and-out gratuitous gore (splatter fans will like the moment when Diamondback throws a knife at Caleb, misses, and hits Jesse right in the mouth). And yet aside from some shots of bitten necks and wrists, the first half of the film is relatively sparse with the grue, and this is because of Bigelow and Red’s smart choice to hold back on the viscera. This restraint is beautifully executed in the sequence where we see the vampires stalking their prey, luring their victims by pretending to be hurt, promising a night on the town or picking up hitchers.

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What makes this sequence so unnerving is that we don’t see any of the kills – okay, we see Homer, pretending to be the victim of a cycling accident, pull the good Samaritan towards him, but it’s a quick cut away from that to Caleb and Mae. As for the other kills, they’re left to our imagination, which makes it all the scarier and leaves it all to our imagination. We also hear a reference (the second in this film) to removing someone’s face, which must be the MO of this particular gang. Wisely, we never see this act performed in the movie. I don’t think anything would top our own imagination of what that must be like.

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This leads to one of the most unnerving moments in the whole movie. Mae and Caleb have hitched a ride with a cheery truck driver, with the clear intention that he is to be Caleb’s first kill. But this guy’s just too damn nice. In this brilliantly written scene, we have two things happening at once – the driver, blissfully unaware of his fate, is relaying vital information to Caleb (and to us) about the dangers of braking your cab before you break your trailer (this is how Severen will be killed), but you can be forgiven for not paying any attention to that because all the while Mae is pressuring Caleb to kill him, both of them sharing loaded exchanges. Mae’s expressions throughout this scene, from impatience to malevolence, are visual gold. In the end she resorts to pushing Caleb closer and closer towards the driver until Caleb has to feign sickness and flee the truck. The poor driver, at first mocking Caleb for not being able to hold his drink but then showing real concern, is then killed by Mae who drinks his blood.

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The most disturbing part of this is when Caleb, who sees Mae approaching the driver from behind, sinks to the ground because he knows what’s going to happen, knows this man is doomed, and lets it happen. Again, the violence is only briefly seen, and there’s no blood, it’s just a simple bite to the neck before we cut to the aftermath, with Mae once again feeding a ravenous Caleb, the grinding machinery in the background mimicking the flow of blood and the sexual mechanics of the act. This time Mae really has to struggle to free herself from a delirious Caleb, who again is now as high as a kite and seemingly unconcerned when she admits that ‘you could kill me if you drink too much’.

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Much like the careful unfolding of onscreen violence in The Lost Boys, we get a sense that the film’s been holding back from showing us all of its nasty tricks, and like that film, the halfway point is when everything erupts. No more cutaways or off-screen deaths. This is where it gets ugly.

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And so begins the film’s most celebrated and popular sequence, the bar massacre. Opening with the remarkable shot of the gang seen atop a hill with bright mist behind them, and then a long, long, long shot with the bar in the foreground and the gang in the far distance, we then cut to the interior of the bar, the sound of a break from the pool player and then ‘Naughty, Naughty’ by John Parr kicking off with its synth-riff. I haven’t heard this song outside of this movie (Parr’s most famous song of course remains ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ from the movie directed by The Lost Boys‘ Joel Schumacher) but I can’t imagine ever being able to divorce it from the on-screen nastiness that follows.

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Compared to the rush of violence that made for The Lost Boys‘ equivalent scene, where Run DMC and Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ scored a rapidly edited orgy of bloodletting, Near Dark‘s set-piece of horror is a lot slower, more deliberate and knowingly cruel. Instead of a single snippet of a song, here we have four songs over ten minutes of prolonged horror. Each death is carefully, exactingly executed. There’s the poor waitress who is led on by Jesse but has her throat slashed by Diamondback, after which her blood is served in a beer glass. There’s the guy at the jukebox who is taunted by Severen (with talk of mothers being screwed and fathers getting off on it) before having his head squeezed and his neck broken. There’s the trucker (played, amusingly by the same guy who would stub a cigar out on Arnie in Terminator 2‘s own sequence of bar-based carnage) who has his drink knocked over by Severen, has another drink spat over him, is punched across the room and then shot several times in the back by Homer. And of course there’s the luckless bartender whose neck is sliced open by Severen’s spur.

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Throughout this sequence we can only sit stunned as the vampires (and Bigelow) take total control, sadistically all too aware that we and the bar’s patrons are utterly helpless – any attempts at violence dispensed towards these killers (Caleb is punched several times and also shot, Severen is strangled) has no lasting effect, any threats laughed off, any pleadings for mercy ignored. The music is wickedly inappropriate throughout – either horny good-time radio rock, jaunty honky-tonk jazz, seductive love songs or good, wholesome country blues, all of it happily playing along over these shocking events. We get that this is a situation they’ve been involved with many, many times – there’s a sense that the gang have their routine, their designated victims and their methods (note how Jesse’s arm is draped over the what is likely to be the only telephone in the room). Nothing surprises them (only Caleb, understandably, is out of his element) – look how casual Homer seems to be when the waitress is killed. It’s a disturbing scene. It’s also a funny scene too, although your amusement from this scene will depend on how much you love these admittedly bad-ass killers and their gallows humour.

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If Near Dark has an arguable flaw, it’s that the relationship between Caleb and Mae with all its romantic, twisted dependency and erotic charge is pushed to the background as the other vampires get more in on the act, but their antics are so entertaining and take the film into such a bold, vicious new direction that this can be forgiven. Indeed, Near Dark is unique for films made during this time that this is a film that really enjoys spending time with the enemy. In most other vampire movies, the vampire is a distant, invading presence. The Lost Boys hangs out with its title characters for a brief spell (not coincidentally, this is the strongest section of the film), but for the most part they are outsiders to the story. Near Dark has us on the road with the killers, forcing us to identify with them at times. Only occasionally do we return to Caleb’s family and their ongoing search for him. This gives the film an added charge, and a unique identity. You could argue that the first half of The Hunger adopts this ‘vampire POV’ too, but there it felt like there was an intentional, elegant remove from the characters, as though we were watching them framed as though they were in a painting. A very, very beautiful painting, mind. With Near Dark you really feel like you’re on the move with these characters, which sets it apart from any other vampire movie from this time. Their chemistry together is so natural and believable.

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By spending more time with the vampires, it makes their actions all the more disturbing, as we indirectly become witnesses and silent voyeurs to their killings. This was nothing new to the horror genre in 1987, as the slasher film had been doing a similar kind of thing for years, adopting the POV of the killer and making us identify with evil in the process, but whereas those killers were anonymous, inhuman monsters, impossible to sympathise with, Near Dark made its monsters like outlaws, a gang of bloodsucking Bonnie and Clydes, where we got to like and become fascinated with these killers, as well as be scared of them. The Lost Boys did this kind of thing as well, but because the title characters remain unknowable and, in the case of three quarters of their fold, pretty damn underwritten, we mostly fear them and little else. Near Dark has the edge thanks to scenes like when we find out how Jesse originally turned Diamondback when she stopped her car to help him with his flat tyre. ‘I knew you were trouble’, she admits. ‘You were right’, says Jesse, and he delivers his first, and thankfully not last, laconic chuckle of the movie. It’s a great moment, where we share a moment of intimacy between these killers, and it makes their evil all the more fascinating. I love The Lost Boys very much, but I wish we’d had more interactions like this between the characters.

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Of course, the one vampire we really get to know most of all is Caleb himself. Even though he’s not a strict vampire in that he hasn’t committed or even wants to make a kill, his is the character who acts as our conduit into this world, taking a bite for the viewer and descending into a new, terrifying hell.

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Funnily, if Near Dark was not a vampire movie, and were we not already attuned to Mae’s latent threatening presence (added to which her strength over Caleb, plus the horse freaking out over her), we might be somewhat worried for her, taking a ride with this strange man. Not that Caleb comes across as overtly sinister or creepy, though his behaviour could definitely be read as mildly, if amiably aggressive – his desire for a kiss and especially his later outright coercion, when he refuses to drive Mae to sanctuary until she kisses him – in any other movie this would be seen as appalling, but there’s a certain glee in witnessing this deluded idiot about to get his comeuppance.

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Despite the fact that Mae’s the vampire, Caleb’s the real sucker here, and as soon as he gets bitten, he’s in trouble. What I love is just how immediate his predicament is – within minutes of being bitten, and the rising of the sun, he’s already burning up. No gradual illness, no eerie tell tale signs, no warnings, just instant vampire. It’s brilliant. Like him, we’re completely knocked sideways by this turn of events, and moments later he’s been abducted, has a spur to his neck and a gun to his head and is being told that his face is about to ‘come off’. Then he’s soon tucked up comfortably in some weird makeshift bed, being cradled by Mae and you just have to feel for the poor guy. Much of the first half sees Caleb slowly coming to understand his new situation, and as such so are we. Like him, we are freaked out, and want to leave, but despite trying, we end up back with the gang, and we end up further trapped in this world. In the bus station scene there’s a delicious moment when Caleb, mistaken for a junkie, has his shirt inspected by a suspicious cop – the cop has a bandaged hand with blood underneath it and Caleb is attracted to the blood like an animal, and we know why. In the same scene, the cop asks him ‘what are you on?’ and Caleb can’t help but laugh and say ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you’. It is a funny moment, because as horrible as his predicament is, in the context of a horror film, it’s still undeniably thrilling and, after all, the reason we’ve sat down to watch it. This is quite a bold tonal switch given that moments later I wanted to cry for his character when he helplessly whimpers after being turned down a ticket for his bus ride home.

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However, as mentioned earlier, we can’t hang out with these vampires to the end, we have to step back into the light. We can only identify with vampires so much before we have to admit that they’re too bad for the morality of the movie to live with, and so die they must, or in the case of Mae, return to the world of the living.

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The very end is also unusual in that, despite being on the surface a happy ending, it has subtle suggestions that hint otherwise. Quite understandably, Mae is unsettled by the prospect of her new life. Her final words in the film are ‘I’m afraid’. What is it that she’s afraid of? Caleb thinks he knows why. ‘Don’t worry, it’s just the sun’, he says, However, there’s also the fact that there’s the weight of her past actions – although we only see Mae kill one person in the film, obviously she has killed hundreds, likely thousands more in the past. ‘Don’t think of it as killing – don’t think of it at all’, she said to Caleb earlier when he was expressing concern over his new lifestyle, but despite her malevolence and coldness, there was clearly still a heart underneath that murderous exterior. It was just very, very well hidden.

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Can Mae be forgiven for what she’s done? This is where I think the idea of a sequel to Near Dark would be pretty fascinating, and it would take the term ‘post-vampire movie’ to a whole new level. Imagine it – a vampire movie with no vampires, just people who used to be vampires, who have to come to terms with the fact that you once had immortality, and surrendered it. The night has its price, Mae memorably says at one point, but in this imagined sequel, the day does as well.

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Visually the film has endless appeal – Bigelow and Adam Greenberg really sell the temptation of living life on the run, of always being on the move, and there is much kineticism and speed-driven energy to the road scenes. Likewise, Greenberg makes the night and the dark a three-dimensional world of beauty and terror here. It makes you realise how often difficult it can be to film scenes at night because, well, it’s dark. It’s amazing to think that the moment near the start where Mae, having got Caleb to stop the truck to look up at the stars was filmed on a sound stage, because it just looks so much like they’re outside. There’s the relatively rare use of wipe-edits for a lot of the first half (a method for which the Star Wars movies are probably the most famous users of) which gives the film a sleek editing pace. There are also wonderful shots of scorching suns, blue dusks, pink dawns and rising moons that take the breath away.

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On an aside, one of the common criticisms charged at Near Dark is how quickly the sun seems to rise, with scenes that began in darkness shifting to daylight within the space of minutes. Indeed, you could say that the first night depicted in the film seems to come and go awfully quickly, with Caleb driving into town at sunset, meeting Mae within moments and then apparently spending the entire night driving, with only a couple of stops to break the momentum. True, the use of edits suggest reveal that the Caleb and Mae’s ‘date’ is not playing out in real time, but to be honest, Near Dark‘s use of time is regularly played out at an unrealistic rate, and it all depends on how much of a stickler for realism you are. Granted, the stripping down of some of the genre’s more fantastical elements would suggest that Bigelow and Red were aiming for a more realistic approach, but ultimately this film is about vampires (even if they’re not referred to as such) and it is a fantasy. It helps that there is a consistency to the rapid pace of time in this film – pretty much all the scenes that take place during an extended period of night time have rapid sunsets and sunrises – indeed one of the very first shots of the film shows us a sun sinking at an unnervingly fast rate.

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Elsewhere, there are many classic Western motifs deployed into the visual tapestry, such as riders on horseback set against misty backdrops, betray the film’s original genre intentions (Bigelow wanted to create a pure Western, but was turned down due to the genre’s profitability at the time, hence her fusion of it with the much more popular horror/vampire genres). For a film made on such a relatively low-budget, Near Dark crackles with style, visual poetry and utter beauty.

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On the musical front, Tangerine Dream, by this stage, had scored a spectacular amount of movies – their first, Sorcerer, was one of the earliest examples of an all-electronic film soundtrack, and after that they were rolling. Thief, Risky Business, The Keep, Wavelength, Firestarter and Legend are their most notable achievements on this front, but Near Dark was probably the first time I’d heard one of their scores, and it remains one of their final major cinematic achievements. It’s imperfect – some times the sounds are shrill, or at odds with the action, but for the most part it’s an essential component to the movie. Even though many of the other classic vampire movies of the decade boasted very impressive, atmospheric scores, Near Dark is probably the only one of the lot where the original score is the main focus on the soundtrack, as opposed to the pop-heavy approach of Fright Night or The Lost Boys or even The Hunger, where Michel Rubini and Denny Jaeger’s score took a back seat to Bauhaus and Delibes. Aside from the diegetic use of songs in the later bar sequence and the very, very brief instance of radio in a couple of scenes, all of Near Dark‘s music is made up of Tangerine Dream’s effective and rich score.

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The opening theme (sadly not present on the soundtrack CD, replaced with a lousy, atmosphere-free bit of elevator muzak called ‘Caleb’s Blues’) is beautifully synchronised with the beautiful onscreen images of dusk turning to night as Caleb drives past the desolate farms on the road into town. Within moments, we’re hooked. Other themes showcase the score’s versatility, be it the spooky/sexy start to ‘Pick Up at High Noon’ that eventually becomes a driving, intense build-up, the gorgeously sad ‘Mae Comes Back’ and truly haunting ‘Mae’s Transformation’. Then there’s ‘Bus Station’, which accompanies Caleb’s desperate attempt to pay for transport home. One of Tangerine Dream’s all-time greatest themes, it starts with a heavy bass and eerie synths and slowly builds to a pulsating, hypnotic theme that perfectly mirrors Caleb’s fear, alienation and intense hunger. Admittedly, some elements of the themes during the final confrontations are a bit unwelcome, with harsh, tinny and dated synth stabs during ‘Severen Dies’ letting the side down a bit. For the most part however, the music is an absolutely essential element of the film. It’s unimaginable without it.

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The cast list is very notable – this would be Adrian Pasdar’s first lead role, having previously made appearances in the very successful Top Gun and the not very successful Solarbabies (aka Solarwarriors, which also featured Jason Patric and Jami Gertz, stars of The Lost Boys). He’s a handsome, sympathetic lead, and he conveys the downfall of a once cocky, over-confident and would-be dashing hero very effectively. Admittedly, he does play the straight role in comparison to his undead co-stars and as such doesn’t get to have as much fun, but Caleb is the moral centre of the movie, the dramatic rock and Near Dark is his story.

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Jenny Wright had appeared as one of the groupies in Alan Parker’s adaptation of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, starred in the Cameron Crowe-penned The Wild Life as well as St. Elmo’s Fire in a supporting role. As Mae, she is utterly luminescent and yet also a striking departure from the vampire norm, especially when we consider the lineage of the bloodsucking seductress. There’s no red-lipped pouting or vicious hissing on show here. With her short hair, boyish clothes and handy strength, she’s a totally refreshing new kind of female vampire. No mere bride of Dracula, she has agency, strength, intelligence and cunning ruthlessness. You can see why Caleb falls for her instantly as she walks in slow-motion on the scene, ice cream in hand (we can only assume she’s not really eating it, given the vampires’ intolerance for regular food in this film) and waiting for someone to pluck up the courage to talk to her. Thanks to Near Dark‘s electric pacing, Caleb’s given her a lift in his truck within moments, and so begins one of the best, most instantly arresting opening acts in horror cinema (what is it with Eric Red and starting films so well?) – Wright gives Mae an alluring, mysterious, dry and yet also misleadingly innocent, vulnerable and dreamy quality that confuses Caleb right up to the moment where he essentially blackmails her into a kiss. And what a kiss. It might be my all-time favourite screen kiss. A kiss that’s full of excitement, eroticism and danger – Caleb really should have read the warning signs when Mae starts to look like a ghost, but man, who could resist her? Tangerine Dream’s score is at its best here – seductive, yet ripe with mounting terror, and we the viewer are just waiting, waiting for Mae to go for the neck. Brilliant stuff.

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Wright’s chemistry with Pasdar is wonderful, and like I said earlier, it is a shame that the intimacy of their relationship has to make way for the other vampires, but there you go. Still, you could have made an alternative Near Dark that just focused on the two of them and it still could have been amazing. Or maybe we could have had a longer version of the existing film and simply luxuriated in their early, deadly romance a little more. Rare is the horror film that I wished could be longer, but this is one of them. There’s a superb scene near the end when Mae returns to Caleb to ask him why he ran away from them and there’s no possible answer – all they can do is approach each other, embrace and kiss. It’s beautiful. Their final scene together, as discussed earlier, is also magnificent. Yet there’s also the darker, meaner side of Wright’s performance which gives Mae an edge – the scene with the truck driver, the cruel seductive dance she shares with the last living patron of the bar (poor James Le Gros’s pool player looks so scared, probably the most any character has ever been whilst dancing with a beautiful woman in a movie), which is so horrible when you know what her intentions are. Her character appears to lose her strength and power near the end when she seems totally under the rule of Jesse, but she ultimately makes the defining decision of the climax when she rescues Sarah from a ravenous Homer and risks her own death by fleeing their vehicle into the daylight.

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Lance Henriksen had made his mark over the last decade in solid supporting roles, but Aliens was a real breakthrough, with the character of Bishop turning out to be a real fan favourite among fans of the series, thanks to his level-headedness, bravery and self-effacement. Gifted with striking looks, Henriksen was made-up to look particularly ghoulish in Near Dark, looking every inch the guy you do not pick up on the road – he could have been an alternative Hitcher in another world. Oddly enough, Jesse is the only vampire in the movie whom we don’t see kill, but his effortless menace means we don’t even need to – as the oldest member of the gang we know he must have murdered thousands to get where he is today. We also find out that he fought for the South in the American Civil War! There’s a strange warmth to Henriksen’s performance, an easy-going humour that makes his occasional utter ruthlessness all the more shocking. He might seem like an alternative father for Caleb, but he is ultimately a killer.

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Jenette Goldstein barely resembles her character in Aliens at all, although both Diamondback and hard-as-nails Vasquez are equally dangerous. Again, like Jesse, Diamondback seems disarmingly maternal and mellow – in the scene where she and Jesse are held up by the highway criminals, she seems serenely passive. But she commits probably the nastiest kill in the movie, the murder of the waitress. Her sadistic playing of her butterfly knife was cut by the BBFC at the time of release, an awkward edit that also resulted in one of Jesse’s best lines of dialogue being truncated. Probably the vampire with the least to do, Goldstein nevertheless makes Diamondback a striking, scary character, and her love for her surrogate son Homer makes for one of the more intriguing character traits in the movie, although you have to question the sickness of a couple who were perfectly willing to turn a child into a vampire, ensuring that he never grows up. You get the impression that this decision was probably more Diamondback’s, given how much Jesse doesn’t seem to like Homer at times!

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As Homer, Joshua Miller has a truly unique role – there aren’t many homicidal children in cinema, and while his whiny, frustrated presence seems incongruous amongst these cool-as-ice killers, it makes perfect sense really. He’s the frustrated teen, the one who lashes out, especially since he’s going to be a teen forever. Imagine having teenage hang-ups for eternity. We discover early on that Homer was the one who turned Mae, but she ultimately rejects him for Caleb, and there’s little as painful as unrequited love when you’re that age. He later on has his sights set on Caleb’s younger sister Sarah, but she rejects him too, which leads to his desperate act of pursuing her into the daylight, where he is killed. Like the other vampires, Homer is a curious creation, one that produces sympathy and utter revulsion in the viewer. Some have professed to find Homer annoying (I admit I did so too on early viewings) and even cheered when he meets his end, but his story is ultimately a very tragic one, and Miller is pretty damn aces in the role.

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Of course, Bill Paxton is the scene-stealer of this movie. It’s him taking centre stage on the posters, it’s him who nabs all the best lines, the most memorable kill and he also has the most spectacular (and bloodiest) exit. Compared to his cowardly, panic-stricken Hudson in Aliens, Severen is a wild, brash, cocky, vicious and crazy bastard who loves his job. He loves to ‘tap dance’ on his victims with his spur, pick up gorgeous ladies, start fights, play chicken with trucks and blimey, he even sleeps standing up. All the vampires in Near Dark are something special, but Severen is a totally classic creation, superbly played. Okay, I’ll admit, Paxton does sometimes threaten to overdo it later on and derail his frightening presence (all that talk of ‘remembering which side of the bread your butter’s on’ is bordering on camp), but overall he’s a thrilling bolt of electricity in a film already full of it. Plus he looks incredible with only half a face in his final scene.

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Stuck with the potentially duller roles of the family back home, Tim Thomerson and Marcie Leeds are wonderfully natural and warm as Caleb’s father and sister, and their presence is a necessary reminder that Caleb’s new life has its emotional casualties. As thrilling, dangerous and exciting as his new friends are, you never forget that he belongs home, and the confrontation at the Godspeed Motel is where these tensions between good and evil come to a dramatic head. The transfusion scene, where Caleb’s father risks his own life to save his sons, is beautifully played and moving. For a brief, if deluded moment afterwards, everything seems to be back to normal (unlikely, given that the gang know where Caleb lives) and there’s a lovely moment between Caleb and Sarah where he walks through the cornfields with her on his shoulders, and he promises her that one day he’ll tell her everything that happened, but that she’s not to ask him about it until then. Gorgeously shot in golden sunshine, it’s a brief, idyllic moment, soon to be shattered. Then there’s the dinner scene afterwards, where normality seems to have returned but there’s tension lurking underneath with talk of nights getting longer and the awkward conversation between father and son after Sarah’s gone up to bed. Everything’s changed now, forever.

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All of these elements – performances, direction, visuals, music, script – it adds up to a near-perfect whole. There are issues you could have with it – the film’s internal logic seems to be what frustrates some viewers – but the great far outweighs any potential not-so-great, for there is so, so much that is great about Near Dark. It’s a rare horror that improves on viewings – not bad for a film I loved the very first time I saw it.

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To close, I will ask one thing. You see that star up there? Well the light that’s leaving that star right now will take a billion years to get down here. You want to know why you’ve never seen a vampire movie like Near Dark before? Because it’ll still be loved when the light from that star gets down here to earth in a billion years.

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Near Dark (1987) Part 1

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This is part one of a two-part look at Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 vampire horror Near Dark. If you want to skip all my nostalgic reminiscing about how I came to love the film, then jump here to my analysis of the film itself. This first part will focus on my memories of being first aware of the movie, my exposure to its striking promotional artwork, my first viewing, and subsequent purchases of the film on various formats.

When I was a young, pre-teen boy in the late eighties and early nineties, I was scared easily by stuff like horror movies. Unlike the other children down my road, who were younger than me and were already boasting of watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was too busy avoiding horror at all costs, especially at my local video shop. Occasionally, some primal instinct in me would dare myself to pull out the VHS tapes of say, Demons or Demons 2, and peek at the absolutely horrifying imagery on the back – stills of demonised humans with rotting skin, grotesque fangs, wicked smiles or pained screams, that sort of thing. This was stuff wrenched from the bowels of Hell, and I was thinking at the time, if this is just the video art,  then what on Earth would the films themselves be like? Well, I had no intention of finding out. I had tip-toed around the horror genre once or twice already – petrified beyond belief by the first five minutes of The Company of Wolves, or shocked by the pre-watershed nightmare-fuel of the third episode-cliffhanger of Doctor Who tale ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ (more werewolves), I knew I didn’t have the mettle to endure the genre anymore than I already had done.

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A major turning point for me and horror was the New Year’s Day television screening, on BBC1, of Joel Schumacher’s vampire horror-comedy The Lost Boys. My memories are fuzzy regarding my awareness of the movie before I first watched it, but I do remember thinking that with a title like that, the film was going to be something about missing children, not bloodsuckers. In the copy of the Radio Times that covered the Christmas/New Year period, there was a picture of the film’s striking UK poster, a vista of an amusement park at night, dominated by the pale-white, melancholy face of Kiefer Sutherland’s teen vampire in human form, and already my alarm bells were ringing: this film looked like it was going to be really scary. Yet my sister was already planning to watch it that night, because she was 16 and The Lost Boys was the coolest thing ever at that time, and so for some reason, I was set to watch it with her too. Yeah, the film was a ’15’, and I was 10, but come on, we all watch horror films before we’re meant to, don’t we? Even wimps like me. That’s the unspoken rule. I don’t think anyone my age waited until they were 18 to watch Elm Street for example. I was probably the last one of my friends to do so, and I still watched it a few years before I was legally allowed to.

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So on 10.15pm on New Years Day, The Lost Boys began, and my nerves were wracking. The first kill was committed off-screen, and the vampires were unseen. I was hoping – praying – that the film would maintain its rule of not showing any on-screen murders, or showing any fangs or anything scary. For a good hour or so, the film abides by this. Yet I knew it wouldn’t stay that way. I knew that the film would shift gears and show everything. And there was something very frightening about that inevitability. And something strange about the fact that I didn’t leave the room during this build-up. Maybe I wanted to prove that I could last as long as I did. Maybe – just maybe- the film would wimp-out rather than vamp-out and not show anything that would give me nightmares.

Wow, was I wrong. The key moment – when the vampire gang reveal their true form and proceed to tear a group of Surf Nazis to pieces on a beach – remains one of the most horrific things I remember seeing in a film. Even decades later and countless re-watches (I adore the film now, and have seen it more than any other movie), I still remember and feel that first time viewing, when my blood curdled, my body froze and my nerves broke. I fled the room from that point, and my limit for horror films, whilst relatively stronger than it had ever been, had still been set at a point where I couldn’t last the entirety of a mild 15 rated horror film that was also a comedy (though there was nothing funny about that particular scene). In the road where I lived, that meant I was officially a wimp. And I was fine with that. I mean, seriously – fuck that business. Horror was too horrifying for me.

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The Lost Boys would continue to taunt and haunt me for a few more years – future television screenings were to be avoided like the plague, as were the VHS tapes in my local video shop or branch of HMV. In the meantime, the rest of the genre would also be a no-no. My mum was happy with that – for her, horror reached its maximum acceptability around the late 50’s with Hammer’s Dracula. Yet the genre still had a way of stalking the fringes of my cultural intake. This is where stuff like video shops came in – my local one didn’t categorise their films by genre, in fact I’m not sure they categorised their films at all, with the exception of the kids stuff which was clearly separated from everything else. This meant that when scanning the spines of the tapes as a child, you never knew which kind of film was going to show up next in your eyeline. And a film like Demons, with its simple, direct title and scary font, stared out at me like devil eyes peeking through my bedroom window.

Then there were the film posters, the ones that covered every inch of a video shop’s wall – genres mashed up in a claustrophobic collage with no rhyme or reason, Lethal Weapon next to Hellraiser, the Care Bears Movie next to Platoon, that sort of thing. Even more so than the poster for The Lost Boys, even more so than the back covers to the Demons movies, or the front cover to A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors, the one piece of cinematic promotional art that seared its way into my soul the most was the one for Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark.

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I don’t remember the first time I saw this poster. My local cinema, formerly an ABC but during the mid-eighties until just before its closure, a Cannon Cinema, would have, above the exit doors, four spaces to promote upcoming movies, one of which I am absolutely sure was for Near Dark. The likelihood of a four-screen cinema showing a relatively obscure horror film feels slim, and maybe my memory is playing tricks with me, but I’m sure they showed it. I really need to check old local newspapers from around the time to see if that was the case. Either way, that poster unsettled me like little else. I had no idea if it was a vampire movie back then, but its genre-leanings were unmistakable. This was a horror.

The poster depicts a man with a stark-white face (similarities to The Lost Boys already) screaming in pain in front of a black background, with rays of what I later realised were sunlight piercing through the darkness and striking his hands, causing them to burn. It really disturbed me. It looked like a nightmare. Then, underneath it, the man’s jacket was open to reveal, where his chest should be, a scorched sun-lit backdrop, where silhouetted figures stood, facing us. And underneath that, the title – ‘Near Dark’. It’s a brilliant name for a film, isn’t it? Two four-letter words, both complementing each other, and each delivering a striking impact. The ‘dark’ speaks for itself. Darkness. Night. The world of fear, nightmares, danger. I was still afraid of the dark. Then ‘Near’ – a word that can often mean a promise, a few steps away from safety, that sort of thing. But it can also mean a few moments away from danger, in this case the dark. ‘Near’ rhyming with ‘fear’ probably set off some unconscious alarms too. The font for the title is another masterstroke – sharp, pointed text in white outlined in red.

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I swear I also remember seeing a television advert for Near Dark around this time too, though I cannot find it anywhere online. The key image I remember, and it must be my imagination because it’s not in the film or any deleted scenes at all, is one of a group of figures approaching, upwards, towards a kind of monument, surrounded with shining bright mist, with the film’s title and a ‘now at cinemas’ text underneath it. Text aside, it’s not a dissimilar image to the title characters walking up towards Gozer during the climax of Ghostbusters, and given that I would have seen that film for the first time around a month before Near Dark’s UK release date, I’m thinking my memory has been playing tricks on me. But then again, there is the matter of Near Dark‘s most famous image, that of the vampires atop a hill, their silhouettes cast against a misty night sky. Maybe that was the image I saw in this TV advert that I can’t prove the existence of.

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I swear I remember seeing the poster elsewhere too, most likely in a video shop, and maybe I saw the video tape in shops. But one thing was for certain, there was no way I was going to watch this film, especially in later years after having experienced all I could of The Lost Boys. If The Lost Boys seemed like it was almost halfway approachable to a timid viewer like me (and indeed it literally was a halfway-affair in regards to how much of it I had seen), Near Dark looked far more dangerous, adult and frightening. One key clue to its fear-factor was that while The Lost Boys was a 15, Near Dark was an 18. By that logic, this film was bound to be so much worse than a lighter film I knew I couldn’t handle.

As time passed on I conquered my fear of The Lost Boys thanks to a repeat BBC screening and plenty of encouragement from my sister, but I was still pretty wary of its presence afterwards. I think one of the reasons I eventually purchased the film’s poster to put in my room was because I wanted to wholly conquer my fear. Pretty extreme exposure therapy, especially at night when the moonlight illuminated Kiefer Sutherland’s face and gave me the chills. As for Near Dark, aside from being aware from TV listings that it was being screened on one of the Sky satellite channels (which we didn’t have), it was pretty much out of bounds for me anyway. I do remember an issue of cheap-alternative TV guide TV Quick that showed a picture from the movie next to its listing – it was a lo-fi quality reproduction of one of the film’s most famous stills, that of Bill Paxton’s gnarly bloodsucker Severen covered on blood in front of a misty grey background. That was enough to continue reminding me that this film looked serious. Incidentally, it was this image that was used for the US poster for Near Dark – a very striking, bloody image – but one which lacks the haunting, scary beauty of the UK version.

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Then, one night a few years later, my sister and her boyfriend (now husband) decided to have a movie night. And the movie was Near Dark, a copy taped from satellite TV and now, without warning, about to be shown in our front room. To say I was nervous was an understatement – my exposure to horror was still in its infancy and as such I was very, very anxious. Still, I didn’t want to chicken out – not after having got over my Lost Boys fear. The thing is, I’d built up Near Dark so much in my head, with nothing to go with except that magnificent poster art and a couple of production stills, so what would the reality be like? In the end it was just a movie. And a bloody good one too. Very tense, especially the opening ten minutes, where young farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) tries his luck with beautiful, pale and mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright), only to be bitten by her during a hot and heavy kiss just before dawn. Wasting no time (this is one hell of a lean movie), Caleb is rapidly inducted into the world of the vampire and is given a week to see if he can be considered one of the club. That means making his first kill. All the while, Caleb’s father and younger sister are on the road searching for him.

I’ll delve into the plot more in Part Two, but needless to say I was very drawn in to this story, and it was interesting that, like The Lost Boys did for its own first half, it lets us use our imagination by not showing any of the murders or any graphic violence. Yet I was all too aware that of Near Dark‘s similarity in plot mechanics to The Lost Boys (this is a coincidence – both films were produced at the same time and more or less were released simultaneously too) that I was getting the same sense of dread as before, with the film progressing further and further towards what was most likely going to be a similar breakout of violence and horror to The Lost Boys beach scene.

Not that I made it that far. Yep, like my first-time viewing of The Lost Boys, my initial exposure to Near Dark was also cut short, though not by my choice. Nope, my sister decided that this was not going to be suitable entertainment and insisted we turn off the movie. I think I might have been relieved, as it was the start of the scene as the vampires enter the bar where they would kill nearly all the patrons in an orgy of sadistic violence, and I think we all knew things were about to get hardcore. I think it was the rather colourful line ‘Bartender, I’ll have whatever donkey-piss you’re shoving down these cocksuckers’ throats’ that got my sister’s alarm bells ringing. Oh well, I thought – I was proud to have watched some of it, and what I had seen would stay with me, my imagination filling in the gaps of what happened during the rest of that bar scene, and beyond.

About a year later, I had sussed out that the owner of my local video shop wasn’t really concerned about the legality of renting 15 or 18 rated tapes to anyone below that age. Wrong, wrong, wrong, I know, but I certainly wasn’t complaining at the time. For the record, my first 18-rated VHS from the shop, issued to me when I was thirteen (!!!!), was the comic-book action horror The Crow. Confident afterwards that I could get away with borrowing more 18 films, I, without telling anyone at home, borrowed Near Dark and watched it alone on a Tuesday afternoon without telling a soul.

Once again I was wracked with nerves, knowing I was going against my sister’s wishes and knowing that what followed the point I was originally stopped from watching the film could be horrifying. It wasn’t, in that I wasn’t scarred for life, but then again it was, because the bar room sequence turned out to be one of the most jaw-dropping, magnificent scenes in all of horror cinema. Morbidly funny yes, but also disturbing and shocking. After that bit the film was on a non-stop momentum and I was hooked. And by the time the film was over I felt so happy that this mysterious film, which for so many years had been this terrifying, dark, haunting image staring at me from cinema foyers and video shop shelves, had been (gradually) faced and now embraced. I think I loved it.

Still, as someone who didn’t really re-rent films (there were too many movies out there to waste time with stuff I’d already seen), Near Dark drifted off my radar, with only my confidence that it would eventually get a terrestrial television screening one day putting me off attempting to seek a retail copy. Saying that, this was around 1994, and the film was already seven years old, so was it ever going to be screened. All I had to keep me believing was the fact that the same year’s RoboCop had only just been premiered on ITV, so it was still possible. In the end I it was finally shown for the first time on regular telly in 1996, on a Monday night on Channel 4. I remember the TV ad, and thanks to those wonderful uploaders on YouTube, it’s online for you to see right here. Pretty cool, right? I loved the effort the terrestrial channels put into their adverts back then, even for relatively unknown films like this.

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On that Monday night, I was all set with a blank video tape and my finger all-ready to pause the ad breaks (something I was really fixated with back then). It’s easy to forget just how tense a taping of a movie could be back then – making sure it really was recording, hoping the tape wouldn’t mangle (I was very unlucky with my video players back then), that sort of thing. In fact, I remember (and this was really geeky) that I cut out the listing and info from that week’s Radio Times and taped them onto the video cassette itself. I never did this with any other film recording I made, just Near Dark. The poster artwork the Radio Times used to promote it was something I’d never seen before, one which played up the romantic, erotic element of the movie – a close-up of a kiss, with blood seeping from Mae’s mouth and a great tagline – ‘In one hot, hungry kiss, he gave her everlasting love, she gave him everlasting life’.

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That recorded copy of Near Dark ended up being one of my most cherished video tapes, and for some reason – maybe it was to have a back-up copy – I taped the film again when it was shown for the second time as part of Channel 4’s amazing ‘Blood Lust’ season of vampire movies that screened during one Christmas in the late 90’s. That was an superb retrospective, including such treats as Vampire Circus, Cronos and of course, Zoltan: Hound of Dracula (aka Dracula’s Dog). Since then it has been screened on the BBC and FilmFour, but that original taped copy was my most watched version of the movie, and yet, such is the way with treasured possessions, I ditched the bloody thing as soon as I had enough money to buy the proper retail VHS, which I still own by the way. But oh, how I wish I’d kept that original tape of mine. It probably had some Simpsons episodes taped afterwards to best utilise the rest of the tape, which is what I usually did at the time. And they would have been great Simpsons episodes too, because back then of course, they were the only kind that were produced.

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Near Dark would be a regularly re-watched mainstay in my life – it’s easily one of my most watched movies. I have done my best to win over other people with it, with varying results. Some loved it, some were left utterly cold by it, but it remains one of my ‘have you ever seen this?’ movies. I loved it so much that it would be the film that would break my import cherry, when it became the first Region 1 DVD I ever bought (I had no patience to wait for a domestic release) and yet I’ve still kept my retail video because a) it’s VHS innit? b) that artwork and c) the DVD feels strangely brighter in terms of picture quality, which is a good thing because you get to see more, but I still love the murky darkness of the VHS transfer. I really should dig out the old VCR and watch it again like that.

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As for that original poster that unnerved me so much? Well, it would be the very first item I bought on eBay back in 2002-2003, and, unlike my absolutely tattered and perished Lost Boys quad (this was the days of Blu-tack, not framing), I still own it now! I bought the soundtrack (for £15.99!!!!!) from Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus because I just had to own and hear that music – unfortunately it’s not a wholly satisfying representation of the score, with many key themes missing and some pretty lousy ones (either heard for a millisecond in the movie or not at all) being given unwelcome CD space. Still, the best stuff on this release remains amazing, and as it’s the only version of the soundtrack still available, it’s essential for fans.

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Elsewhere, I jumped at the chance to watch it on the big screen in 2003 at the NFT, and only recently jumped again when the Phoenix cinema in Finchley screened it as part of their VampFest schedule. Coincidentally (or maybe not, as it’s been revealed that it was the first film they saw at the cinema together), both screenings were introduced by one half of the same married couple – the 2003 screening was introduced by Dr. Linda Ruth Williams and the one I watched the other night was introduced by Mark Kermode! Near Dark is currently available on Blu-ray (with bizarre artwork that suggests the distributors were aiming to lure the Twilight crowd) but apparently the transfer is not good and as such I’ve not upgraded from my old DVD, which is still an essential purchase for fans thanks to the great extras. Together with The Lost Boys and Fright Night, it forms part of my Unholy Trinity of Favourite Vampire Movies. When my good friend Mark and I started recording fan audio commentaries a few years back, we (after testing the waters with something lighter, in this case Commando) jumped at the chance to record and talk about Near Dark.

So there you have it, that’s my relationship with Near Dark in regards to promotion, television/cinema screenings and home video purchases – next up I’ll talk about the film itself, and why it remains a masterpiece of horror cinema, of vampire cinema, of…well, cinema.

Tim Buckley’s Blue Afternoon (1969)

Blue is the warmest colour, Blue Afternoon is the loveliest Buckley album.

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I can’t even remember specifically how the music of Tim Buckley came into my life, which feels appropriate, because my favourite music by him has a similarly mysterious aura.

Pretty much all of Buckley’s music is brilliant – there’s even very worthwhile stuff on his final two, least loved albums – but for me Buckley’s most astonishing period starts with 1968’s Happy/Sad, continues with the following year’s Blue Afternoon and Lorca, and closes with the incredible, wild Starsailor in 1970. Here, Buckley began to divorce himself from the increasingly impressive run of relatively conventional song-based material that dominated his self-titled debut and the brilliant Goodbye and Hello. Those two albums, especially the latter, are rich, beautifully sung and evocative – if all we had from Buckley were those LPs, we’d still be talking about him with reverence.

Something happened on Happy/Sad now. The more free-form, experimental and jazzier sound of his live performances began to creep onto record, and with it, came an utterly masterly set of enigmatic, gorgeous and dreamy songs, of which there were only six, all allowed to stretch out and move at their own luxurious pace. Buckley’s chances of continued mainstream popularity would dwindle afterwards, yet it was on that record that Buckley soared above the wave of his contemporaries and became a true, individual artist. Happy/Sad is one of my all-time favourite albums.

Its follow-up, Blue Afternoon, is probably my go-to Buckley record though. It used to be quite the rarity too. Along with Starsailor, this album was released through Frank Zappa’s Bizarre/Straight labels, and due to ownership controversy that lasted decades, it was impossible to find copies of these albums in the shops. There were brief CD releases through Rhino records in the late 80’s, but they soon were deleted, and in the era before peer-to-peer sharing, the likes of Blue Afternoon and Starsailor were like these enigmatic, distant mirages, impossible to grasp. Weirdly, the once- fascinating, mysterious whereabouts of these albums suited the magical musical content of both albums.

Starsailor is one of the most far-out records ever released by a once-popular artist, and a miracle of vocal expression and musical experimentation. It was also home to the original ‘Song to the Siren’, one of the most purely beautiful songs of all time and one that was more famously covered in 1984 by 4AD house band This Mortal Coil, with Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser delivering an amazing vocal performance. The sparse simplicity of Buckley’s version is the one for me, however. Starsailor‘s obscurity suited its legendary content, and it still sounds incredible.

Blue Afternoon however, is a different kind of mysterious. Far more hushed, eerie, gentle and purely lovely, it feels like a seductive whisper in the distance. Not all of it, mind – the closing, free-form ‘The Train’ feels like a dry-run for the wilder Starsailor, for example. The other songs though glimmer with a hushed, beautiful tranquillity. Even when the music swells and rises, it still has a quietly transcendental quality to it that frees it from bombast. Here we have songs that are a kind of North American folk, given gentle, subtle contemporary embellishments like electric piano or electric guitar. The album’s title is most appropriate – it plays out like a day that’s pleasantly winding down for a few hours, when there’s the need for a rest, or a getaway, or a sorrowful cry, or even say, a secret meeting between two lovers in the middle of nowhere. It also has an air of melancholy, of loss and sadness. It is indeed a blue album. The cover, a close-up of a closed-eyed Buckley lost in some reverie while around him the world around him is rendered soft-focus and dream-like, perfectly mirrors its contents.

I recently listened to all of Blue Afternoon during a walk from my workplace to the train station where I get my train home. I took the scenic route to take in all 40 or so minutes of the album, and it was a beautiful, sunny evening. Walking past people in front of pubs, children in the playground, couples on the grass, through the street where the food market stretched from beginning to end earlier but had now packed away for the day. It was a calm evening – very hot for sure, but there was a stillness that worked well with this album. I think if I’d listened to the intense mania of Starsailor then the weather might have proved too much, but it worked great with Blue Afternoon. It’s also a great album to listen to when you’re exhausted, either mentally or physically. It’s a comfort.

‘Happy Time’ (originally written and demoed during the Happy/Sad sessions) opens the album, and it is indeed a happy song, but one that brings with it a gentle sadness. Maybe it’s just me. Sometimes the happiest songs can get me sad. I think what I love about Blue Afternoon is that, admittedly, it sees Buckley refraining from progression, and focusing simply on loveliness. Coming soon after Happy/Sad, it is indeed cut from the same cloth, albeit with a more resigned, softer and less immediate approach. It is at once less experimental than that album yet somehow even further out into the unknown, like a buoy out at sea. Maybe it’s the more subdued production and playing, which is less vibrant than its predecessor, more soft-focus and less in the foreground that makes it at once less risky yet more commercially remote. These are quiet, lovely songs, and ‘Happy Time’s is a lovely opening. The sounds of electric piano tie it to the period, and I love it. I wasn’t around in 1969, so I have my own imagined idea of what it was like. It’s a total fantasy, of course, but I don’t care.

The hushed, ‘Chase the Blues Away’ (another Happy/Sad-era song) is one of Buckley’s most intimate recordings. A song about the need for love and sex as a temporary release, you feel like you’re right there, within the private moments between two lovers, although this isn’t like the hot, sticky and sweaty fuckmusic of Buckley’s later Greetings from L.A. It’s just as erotic, but less messy, more poetic, and deeply, deeply lovely, yet also with an unsettled, dark vibe that feels like the happy times aren’t here to stay, that it’s all transient. ‘I Must Have Been Blind’ seems to call to mind a kind of religious awakening, especially with the ‘Lord’ that precedes the title in the chorus and an early reference to ‘praying;, but whether or not its about spiritual or secular love isn’t clear. It does have a vague, stripped-down gospel feel to it, and it’s gorgeous. ‘The River’ is the centrepiece of the album, a tremulous, shivering epic, a promise of love from singer to listener, albeit one as unpredictable as the flow of its title’s subject matter. ‘So Lonely’ is the album’s lightest moment – it’s the Tim Buckley Blues, with a slightly knowing feel of ‘woe is me’ here, describing a town where the cops treat you dirty and the children are mean. It’s not a comedy song, but you can imagine Buckley with the mildest of wry smiles on his face performing it.

The astonishing ‘Cafe’ exudes the chill of open vistas, landscape visions, while the lyrics are often elemental – talk of sea, breezes, mountains and the like. It’s essentially a tale of boy meets girl, if only for what seems like a achingly brief while. The narrator, describing himself as ‘just a curly-haired mountain boy’ passes through some undisclosed location (somewhere by the sea is all we’re given), meets the the lonesome girl with ‘sad, china eyes’ and instantly a mysterious attraction develops between them, and our narrator is already talking of love as the two waltz ‘to our heartbeat’, sharing a moment that may or may not have moved on to something else, something sexual, possibly. Whatever does happen takes places during the song’s instrumental passage and we’ll never know what that was, but after that time has ‘slipped on by…and with the time, so did our love’. The experience, however long this may have lasted, has now affected him forever, ‘burning inside’ him like a fever. And so the song drifts away, like a dream fading away as dawn rises. The opening self-deprecation of ‘just a’ mountain boy suggests that this experience was possibly a first love. The fact that he was curly-haired suggests that maybe this song has an element of auto-biography about it. That no other characters make an appearance gives it an intense intimacy.

‘Blue Melody’ is just so damn warm, a welcome drink at the bar after the cold chill of ‘Cafe’. Opening with beautiful piano and resting into a lovely, relaxed shuffle, it’s more a heartfelt blues than ‘So Lonely’, lacking the pastiche of that song and just drifting by on a kind of blissful melancholy, of a loneliness that brings with it some kind of exquisite beauty. Don’t get me wrong – loneliness hurts like little else, but when the music’s right and the sadness hits your heart in just the right way…I don’t know, I guess you end up creating songs like this.

I must say however, ‘The Train’ is an odd way to close the album. It’s totally at odds with what’s preceded it, and normally I wouldn’t have a problem with this sort of thing, but when a mood such as that spun by Blue Afternoon has bewitched me so utterly, I do find the more rambunctious, free-form and extended jam of ‘The Train’ a wake-up call I’m not sure I want. The Beach Boys did the same on their similarly lovely album Friends, following eleven beautiful songs with the ironically titled rocker ‘Transcendental Meditation’. However, unlike the BB song, which is rather crap, at least ‘The Train’ is really good. I just wish it was on another album. It certainly points the way towards the sound of Buckley’s later sound, so from a chronological, historical point of view it’s a fascinating close to the album. But I’m not listening to Blue Afternoon as part of a piece in the Buckley puzzle. I’m listening to it for itself, and for the most part it’s an astonishingly lovely album.

After this Buckley released Lorca through Elektra/Warners, and because of that, it has regularly been available to buy, unlike either of the albums that bookend it. It’s an interesting album, returning to the long-form songcraft of Happy/Sad but almost doubling as its darker, sparser twin. The first side in particular remains his most stripped-back, difficult stretch of music. Even the album after that, Starsailor, which is even more experimental, risky and wild (especially on the vocal front), is nevertheless so kaleidoscopic and breathtaking in its approach that it’s a lot more engaging and exciting, whereas much of Lorca is still likely to unnerve and disarm with its starkness. It might make you, on first listen, want to retreat back to Blue Afternoon, because there are few albums that are so beguilingly lovely and purely beautiful. Now that it’s far more easy to access (although a stand-alone CD release hasn’t happened in the US or UK/Europe), there’s no better (or cheaper) time to discover it.