US | 1987 | directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Logline: A young man in a small town is reluctantly turned by a vampire beauty, and drawn into her dangerous, nomadic clan.
Very much a movie of its time, but a highly original one at that, Kathryn Bigelow’s hybrid western-horror, with heavy shades of noir, is one of the most memorable vampire movies of the past thirty years. It’s easily amongst my own favourites, including Nosferatu - A Symphony of Horror, Nosferatu - Phantom of the Night, Innocent Blood, Daughters of Darkness, Vampire’s Kiss, and The Addiction.
One night, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a young mid-western farm boy, who lives at home with his father and kid sister, meets a striking, ethereal young woman, Mae (Jenny Wright). He offers her a lift back to the trailer home where she is staying with friends, but Caleb wants a kiss in return, and reticent as Mae is, she eventually necks with Caleb, then runs off into the night. Caleb has been bitten.
Turns out Mae’s “family” are a bunch of homeless vampires drifting across the country, feeding by night on whoever is unlikely enough to cross their paths. Caleb is forced to join the clan. At first he resists, despite his attraction to Mae, but after a couple of blood drinking sessions at Mae’s slender wrist Caleb feels the inherent, highly addictive power of vampirism.
Co-written with Eric Red (who wrote The Hitcher) Near Dark is a fabulously moody and atmospheric movie full of metaphor and rich with symbolism, yet skilfully lacks any pretentiousness or self-indulgence. It’s essentially an action film, and Bigelow would go on to prove her mettle in that department even more with Point Break a few years later. In fact, Bigelow would later marry James Cameron (who produced Point Break), so it’s curious to note several cast members from Aliens; Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein, while the broody cinematography is by Adam Goldberg, who shot The Terminator.
Near Dark had all the right ingredients to become a smash hit, but it was released around the same time as The Lost Boys, which devoured the box office, and, ironically, pushed Near Dark back into the shadows. However, most vampire movie fans will agree, Near Dark is the bone fide immortal cult favourite. While The Lost Boys still elicits a strong following among Brat Pack nuts, it is a much softer movie pitched at a younger audience. Near Dark is much more of an adult film, owning that hard-R rating, and it commands a substantial cult following.
As a slap-bang 80s movie it has aged surprisingly well. Even the special effects are achieved carefully, never being too ambitious, but still packing punch when they need to. The pulsating score from Euro progressive electronic outfit Tangerine Dream fits superbly with the mood of the film. It’s definitely an 80s sound, but there’s a floating, dare I say dreamy, ageless feel to it too.
Interestingly the screenplay and the look of the vampires has done away with any of the traditional gothic elements normally associated with them. In fact, the word “vampire” is never even mentioned. Nor are there any fangs on show. But there is plenty of aggressive, brutal bloodletting and several references to immortality and old souls, with Jesse admitting to having fought for the South (“We lost.”)
Henrikson always chews scenery, but he does it so well, in that Rutger Hauer kind of way. But Jenny Wright (who some might remember as a scene-stealing groupie in Pink Floyd – The Wall) plays one of the movie’s most memorable characters, exuding a delicate, sensual, enigmatic quality rare for an actor of her generation. Strangely, at times she reminded me of a female Sean Penn. It’s a real shame she never got to enjoy the success she deserved, and it seems she’s given up the craft; she’s a notable absence on the DVD retrospective making of featurette, and her last credit on imdb is from ’98.
For sheer undead mischief, Near Dark is one of the most entertaining vampire films ever made; the feeding scene in the truck stop bar is legendary! The dialogue whips and crackles like a roaring fire in the night (“What do you people want?!”, “Just a few more minutes of your time. About the same duration as the rest of your life.”), and while it is labeled a horror, it plays out as a dark romance, yet toys cleverly with the genres of western and noir. It snarls and cackles, guzzles and whines, like a good ol’ fashioned campfire bourbon-soaked yarn session … then it grabs ya by yer throat and rips out yer jugular! “Fingerrr-lickin’ gooood!”