Kathryn Bigelow is a name that will go down in film history as the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a legacy of what can be called one of the most unique cinematic evolutions, with a filmography that spans almost 30 years, leading to her Oscar, and has carried her farther into the 21st century. Early in her career, like many filmmakers, she cut her teeth making genre films, giving us Point Break, every dad’s favorite Patrick Swayze film.
Long before that, Bigelow’s early work experimented with the then dying western genre. Unable to fully fund a straightforward western film, Bigelow was convinced by Hitcher writer, Eric Red, to combine the western with a more profitable genre. With vampires going through a resurgence in popularity throughout the 1980s, Bigelow was able to find funding for her solo debut film, Near Dark, under the now defunct De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. Sadly, due to the company’s bankruptcy, Near Dark received very little promotion and an even shorter release, dooming it as a box office flop. With the advent of home video and HBO, Near Dark has developed a devoted cult following, becoming one in the holy trinity of 80s vampire fare, standing alongside the likes of Lost Boys and Fright Night.
Near Dark tells the tale of Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a young cowboy, living with his father and much younger sister in a small town in Oklahoma. During a stroll in town one night, Caleb strikes up a conversation with a young drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright), convincing her to go on a date with him. Due to the sunrise and Caleb’s pushy attitude, Mae ends the date by defensively biting him and running off. As Caleb returns home, his skin begins to smoke in the morning sun. Before he reaches the safety of his homestead, Caleb is forcefully abducted in an RV by a ragtag band of outlaws, who just so happen to be creatures of the night.
Along with Mae, the pack is led by former Confederate soldier, Jesse Hooker (Lance Henrikson), 1920s flapper and den mother, Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), wild card, Severen (Bill Paxton), and jaded child, Homer (Joshua John Miller), who is potentially older than everyone in the room. Originally there just to pick up where Mae failed, the gang reluctantly take Caleb in once they find out he’s been turned, giving him a week to make his first kill and prove himself. From there, Caleb is forced to fight for his humanity as his own family attempts to locate him.
From a production standpoint, Near Dark nails the look of old school westerns, even visually foreshadowing the look of Bigelow’s Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker, specifically Near Dark’s wide angle shots of the grand desert landscape, tight handhelds, and an overall grittiness to every location. You feel every cloud of dirt that’s kicked up with a boot. We’re also treated to a generous use of fog and moonlight, showing us a world that goes from hot and unforgiving, to cold and desolate. Near Dark is a film where saying you “want to shower after” feels like a badge of honor.
This is, after all, a film that aims to deromanticize vampires, a word that’s never even uttered throughout Near Dark. Typical vampire weaknesses are even avoided all together, with an explicit crucifix on the handle of Hooker’s six-shooter. The only thing that outright kills them is sunlight and fire, which they fear, going as far as to spray-paint windows and hide under blankets in desperation to avoid even the slightest glimmer. Scenes like this lend the audience a surprising amount of empathy for these otherwise violent parasites.
On the acting side, this is one of those rare films where the leads are outshined in every way by the supporting cast. Over time we grow to care about Caleb and Mae, but their performances feel stale in comparison to the rest of the cast. And you spend enough time with them to grow wary of this. Though I’m hard on Pasdar’s performance, the overall character of Caleb is handled well. At the beginning, we’re presented with a character who has likable qualities, but just as much the potential to be a sleazy creep. If he was too goodie goodie from the start, then the film couldn’t linger on that question of ‘will he turn to the dark side?’
On the supporting front, the late Bill Paxton is clearly having a blast playing Severen. He is the true source of horror in the film, playing up the general instigator of the gang and revelling in the fact that there are no rules when you can’t die. A more underrated stand-out goes to Joshua John Miller, trapped in the body of a child but when the time comes, can turn on an innocent lisp to lure you into a false sense of security. Henriksen and Goldstein come off as the real power couple throughout the film. Though kept in the background, these are two characters that have a history together and don’t have to say anything to show that they care for one and other above all else. Plus, they’re both able to hold a commanding presence over the others, despite looking emaciated and ghoulish, victims of their own tragic circumstances.
Compared to the colorful camp of Fright Night, and the glowing carnival lights of Lost Boys, Near Dark comes out as the tough younger brother of its contemporaries. Sure, it has some noticeable story comparisons to the latter, but Near Dark shines over Lost Boys in one major aspect: the action scenes. Near Dark’s bloody, bar-room brawl and later motel shootout are the stand-out scenes of the film. Both show our bloodsucking brethren at their strongest and their weakest. Bigelow’s trademark characterization is on full display. No matter the deeds committed by each character, they’re not invincible, and they’re left to grapple with their own morals in the aftermath.
Grab yourself some drinks, pop in some Tangerine Dream, and give Near Dark a watch.
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