"Near Dark" is, in my opinion, an unjustifiably ignored masterpiece. If you are a horror movie fan, you should go out RIGHT NOW and rent it -- or buy it, better still (it is scheduled for DVD release this coming Halloween). It is easily the best horror film of the late 80s, and, along with the original "Dracula" and both versions of "Nosferatu", one of the four best vampire films ever made.
"Near Dark" could most easily -- but not most accurately -- be described as a horror-Western. It is dreamy, passionate, terrifying, a hallucinatory vision of the American nightworld that is, in turns, erotic, funny, seductive, exciting, poignant, and devastating. There is blood here, buckets of it, and violence that comes down on you hard and fast like a 747 crash-landing in your skull. But there is also imagination, respect for horror and horror's audience and, most importantly, a strong thread of compassion and humanity that runs through almost every single character who comes on screen.
"Near Dark" contains all the trappings typical of a modern horror film -- blood, violence, black humor, even rock 'n roll music -- but its heart lies in the craftsmanship and care demonstrated by such men as Val Lewton, Cocteau, Tourneur, and others who laid the ground rules for how to terrify an audience. There are echoes of Matheson, Ellison, and Serling in the sharply defined screenplay by Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red ("The Hitcher"), but don't think for a minute that "Near Dark" is one of these films that borrows elements from better stories to make up for the lack of creativity in its own. This film has a strong singular character, one that weaves its spell over the audience with wit and skill.
The story takes place in rural Oklahoma of the late 1980s, shown here to be full of spacious farmland, deserted streets, and industrial decay. It's a grey world, this one, a world that seems to have had the life already sucked out of it. A young man by the name of Caleb (played to perfection by Adrian Pasdar) battles boredom by going downtown to swap stories and beer with his buddies, but on a particular Saturday night he spots a pretty new girl named Mae (Jenny Wright) and puts the good old boy moves on her. But Mae is not what she seems; she's a vampire, and soon their innocent necking turns deadly when she bites Caleb and leaves him.
In the first ten minutes of the movie Bigelow creates a quiet, languorous rhythm that is both romantic and tense. Aided by the superb cinematography of Adam Greenberg and the best score that Tangerine Dream has done since "Sorcerer", "Near Dark" casts its seductive spell from the first few opening shots and then builds with an intensity that never lets up.
Caleb and Mae are shown to be two young people who are lonely and desperate, kept apart by circumstances that neither seems able to change. But from the moment Mae bites Caleb, nothing in either's life will ever be the same again. Her bite is both a curse and a gift, because it takes Caleb out of his dreary world of the day and introduces him to a nightworld filled with people and places he never before imagined.
The word "vampire" is never used in the film, nor are there any of the usual trappings to be found in vampire movies. The gang that Mae runs with don't sleep in coffins, but rather stolen vans and trucks with windows covered in aluminum foil to keep out the rays of the sun, and even the sun is presented as not being that much of a threat to the beings: when exposed, their skin sears like raw meat on a grill (and it's shown to be quite painful), but once back in the safety of darkness, their wounds and flesh begin healing with an alarming speed.
No one ever tries anything as cliched as garlic or a stake through the heart; the victims they encounter are more apt to grab a tire iron or a twelve-gauge to defend themselves with.
A large part of "Near Dark"'s pleasure lies in the constantly shifting flow of meanings that Bigelow associates with the vampire. Romantic, erotic, and terrifying, the vampire may well be the richest symbol ever offered by horror fiction, and Bigelow knows it well. Not only is it presented as a terrible curse in this film, it's also shown to be a source of nurturing warmth, almost like mother's milk, as Mae allows Caleb to feed from her own blood because he cannot bring himself to kill yet.
As Mae, Jenny Wright ("The World According To Garp", "Crime Story") gives a fascinating performance; innocent and seductive at the same time, she inhabits the night landscape of this world like a lost child, but this child is capable of the most horrific acts when need be, and Mae is quick to kill her victims.
The most interesting twist Bigelow brings to the myth of the vampire is in comparing the legends of the European vampire to the the legends of the old Western outlaw, uniting the anti-social impulses of bodh the old world and the new. Her analogy is brilliantly embodied by Lance Henriksen ("Aliens", "Millenium") as Jesse, the leader of the family, a charismatic and frightening figure, tall, drawn, wide-eyed, who can be loving one moment and murderous the next. Jesse carries with him a pearl-handled revolver with removable cylinder, a souvenir from the Civil War, where he fought on the losing side. On the handle of this gun is a crucifix, and Jesse rubs the symbol for luck every so often.
Rounding out the "family" is Severen (Bill Paxton), a leather-donning biker type who is easily the most dangerous and unpredictable of the bunch, Jesse's girl Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) a sultry, buxom blonde who knows how to lure a man but who is also shown here to have some surprisingly tender maternal instincts, and Homer (Joshua Miller) a smartass 14-year-old with the sexual appetite of a person three times his age.
You might think from all that's been said so far that "Near Dark" is a very bleak and cold sort of horror film, but nothing could be further from the truth. There is enough humanity and decent-heartedness in this movie for ten films. Compared to most horror movies of the 80s, it was like a breath of fresh air to see a film populated with real, richly developed, three-dimensional human beings.
The heart of "Near Dark"'s human decency lies in the moving relationship between Caleb and his father (Tim Thomerson of "Trancers", "Volunteers", and "Iron Eagle"). Thomerson, a comedian tumed actor, never made much of an impression with me until this film. His perfommance as Hoy, Caleb's down-to-Earth veterinarian father, is astounding. Here is a man who is quite strong and always goes about things with a stiff upper lip, but when he needs to show his family his emotions, he does. His touching search for Caleb wins both your heart and your respect. Thomerson proves with this role that he is an accomplished dramatic actor, and I don't think I'll be able to look at him the same way ever again.
There are moments of both subtlety and slam-bang bloodshed that never fail to mesh. "Near Dark" is one of the most perfectly-balanced horror films I've ever seen. It's a damn shame that more people didn't see this movie, because it should be held up as an example of just how to use both the subtle and violent elements of modern horror.
You'll notice a particularly unnerving pang of recognition as you watch this band of vampires do their thing; if it weren't for the fact that these killers drink the blood of their victims, they could almost be any band of Hillside Strangler-type mass murderers from the headlines—and perhaps that was Bigelow's intention here, to show the vampire as the ultimate symbol of anti-social behavior. Judge for yourself.
I should also point out something here about the victims in this film. Unlike any four dozen bad horror movies where people without identity are paraded onscreen just long enough to be hacked to pieces (preferably bloody, chunky pieces), every single victim in this film is given a full, rich, and very individual identity before being killed; you feel something for these people.
The pinnacle scene of the film is one that should go down in the history of horror movies as one of the most brilliant, terrifying, and violent ever filmed; a long, horrifying attack on an all-night honky-tonk bar, a sequence in which the mood shifts and changes with every victim and every song on the old jukebox. Far from being a one-note scene, this amazing sequence is so skillfully edited you might find yourself not breathing a few times.
But don't worry about the film being too humorless—it's far from that, too. There is so much dark humor in this film you might fnd yourself wondering if Bigelow isn't a frustrated comedy writer at heart.
Severen is given a majority of the funny lines, but the one he utters which will have you laughing—and squirming—comes about three-quarters through the film, when a little girl (Caleb's sister) stumbles on the vampires playing poker in a motel:
"Boy, you people sure stay up late," she says.
"Yeah," replies Severen. "We keep odd hours."
And it works.
Other scenes to watch for: a the shootout that has echoes of Sam Peckinpah; the scene where Jesse and Diamondback reminisce about the night they met (both touching and funny, that one, not to mention a bit creepy); Caleb's final confrontation with Severen and Jesse; and most of all, an opening shot that encapsulates the whole movie into one metaphor that's so simple it's genius. Kathryn Bigelow masterfully follows Peckinpah's rule about presenting the "Bad Guys" as real people, and you will, rest assured, feel something for every human being who is onscreen because they are just that -- human beings.
You may feel that all I've said here robs "Near Dark" of any surprise or suspense, but it won't. "Near Dark" is a genuine movie experience, and one you must have for yourself.