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