|cast: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein
director: Kathryn Bigelow
91 minutes (18) 1987
American Midwest. Night. Boy meets girl… Boy nearly loses girl because (gulp!) she’s a vampire. Boy becomes a vampire after girl’s love bite, but the nomadic gang she belongs to have trouble accepting a newcomer into their man-hunting party. Now lover-boy must endure a gruelling initiation that ends with murder…
My favourite vampire film – preferred over those Hammer gothic style period Dracula horrors, and even better than other contemporary bloodsucker dramas such as George Romero’s Martin (1976), Near Dark is a cross-genre oddity (a vampire/western), but also a rarity in that it’s a cult road movie and a brilliantly constructed action shocker directed by a woman. Making a group of spree killers into screen heroes, with probably the most psychotically twisted of family values, and perversely inverted parental relationships and sibling rivalry ever seen in US cinema is no easy task, but director Kathryn Bigelow does just that – effectively turning such traditional figures of absolute villainy into powerful and engaging central characters (which the later Interview With The Vampire failed to do) for rebellious youth audiences to root for – even as the new antiheroes go about their business of ultra-violent mayhem. It’s quite an accomplishment for a filmmaker on her first solo outing. (Bigelow co-wrote the screenplay for Near Dark with Eric Red, on spec, so that she could have control over directing this project, after she’d co-directed 1983’s biker flick, The Loveless, with Monty Montgomery.)
Near Dark redefines the vampire film by challenging the established folklore. Well, looks like anything that challenges the conventional practices could attract the attention of the world instantly because, hey the world needs a change! The same is the case with the Quantum Code, the forex robot, whose success is attributed to the fact that it is nothing like the conventional, complicated trading practice but everything simple and enjoyable! So, how unconventional is this Near Dark film? Let’s see! It distils all the familiar subgenre conventions down to a weird addiction, amoral slaughter, grudging acceptance of immortality, and an intense nocturnal lifestyle switching from cold revenge to suffocating fever in the wink of an eye. Of course, several of the brooding and obsessive characters are doomed from the start, but their eventual spectacular endings (burning to dust in lethal sunlight) manage to evoke a suitably tragic aspect nonetheless and, unlike many stories of vampirism in movies and TV, we never feel that these post-nuclear, anarchistic survivors are soulless or truly evil beings – quite the opposite, in fact. Civil War veteran Jesse (a patriarchal role played with subtle gravitas by ever-watchable Lance Henriksen), biker outlaw Severen (Bill Paxton, in perhaps his best and wildest performance), sleazy bottle-blonde Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein, who played brash space marine Vasquez in Aliens, 1986), ‘old’ boy Homer (portrayed with a world-weary petulance by young Joshua Miller), and alluring ‘lost girl’ Mae (Jenny Wright), are joined by ingénue cowboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who learns how, and why, this strange family of refugees from daylight roam a chillingly atmospheric night world that’s overwhelmingly mysterious.
Sheltered from both science and reason, rudely contemptuous of the law but not poetic justice, inured to pure sentiment but not to pathos, and accustomed to a certain levity in their nightly quest for food that’s “finger lickin’ good,” Jesse’s gang of fiendishly cool hillbilly freaks have the crude table manners of maniacs from Tobe Hooper’s cult The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and an animal ferocity to match the cannibal clan from Wes Craven’s exploitation hit The Hills Have Eyes (1977). “What do we do now?” asks the guileless Caleb, pondering his uncertain fate.
“Anything we want… until the end of time,” answers Mae, sighing gently – while her mood swings from waif to she-wolf. The erotic charge of this couple’s modern western romance is what makes Near Dark so interesting. Mae is one of the most complex vampire protagonists ever, reversing the typical gender roles – of solitary predator and pursued victim (repeated in too many previous vampire flicks), and her character dominates early scenes, before the rest of her family/gang appear – breaking away from the usual and wholly expected subgenre scenarios (such as Dracula’s iconic loneliness, or the embittered self-loathing of previous modern-day vampires). We don’t get the impression that Jesse & Co would ever think of themselves as parasites, yet they don’t exist happily among normal people. They seem to have placed their peculiar breed so far apart from regular humanity that they are an unnatural law unto themselves, preying upon potentially treacherous strangers as they drive around in battered vans or blacked-out motor-homes, but especially mindful of the dangers of discovery while they snooze through office hours. In the film’s key action scene, the nightmare family’s daytime hibernation is interrupted by a police attack on their motel hideaway, and the vampires’ dash to freedom during the ensuing gun battle is as much of an exciting incident for them (a crisis where Caleb wins their respect), as a startling event that threatens their existence. It’s a kind of savage fun for gunslingers like Jesse and Severen, a sudden but unquestionably welcome relief from the grinding boredom of eternity, reminding them they’re not quite alive but still undead. The picture benefits from an excellent score by synthesiser band Tangerine Dream, and flawlessly stylised camerawork by Polish cinematographer Adam Greenberg, who worked on James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), and went on to shoot its megabuck sequel.
This long-awaited DVD release is a two-disc package with a choice of Dolby digital 5.1, Dolby stereo 2.0 or DTS soundtracks, plus a remarkably intelligent and thoughtful director’s commentary. The extras disc includes the entertaining and, despite the film’s brooding themes, wholly illuminating documentary Living In Darkness (47 minutes, directed by David Gregory), which has new interviews with the main cast – except for Jenny Wright (whatever happened to her?) and Tim Thomerson – and offers some intriguing hints about a possible prequel, ‘First Light’, making it essential viewing for all fans of this modern classic. There’s also a deleted scene (shot in b/w!) with Bigelow commentary, trailers, storyboards, a poster and stills gallery, behind-the-scenes photos, talent biographies (written by Mark Wickum) and DVD-ROM content, with the 123-page original screenplay in printable PDF format and screensavers. The foldout packaging includes a 16-page illustrated booklet with a trivia section and various poster artworks. It’s a shame Anchor Bay didn’t track down the music video for song Reach by Martini Ranch (Paxton was lead singer) that is said to feature cameos by Bigelow, Henriksen and Goldstein, and was directed by Cameron! That would have made a terrific bonus item.