Under the Radar: Near Dark
It’s been too long since I’ve done an Under the Radar entry, and given that Halloween is tomorrow, I thought I’d spotlight my favorite vampire movie ever (which I’ve mentioned here more than once), the 1987 cult classic Near Dark. It was directed by the great Kathryn Bigelow (one of my favorite directors ever; she also made Point Break and this past summer’s brilliant The Hurt Locker), and it’s one of the most unique vampire movies I’ve ever seen. It’s also scary as hell and totally awesome.
Near Dark is, in Bigelow’s words, a vampire western. Except it’s set in the modern day (well, 1987), so the western aspects come from the setting and the feel rather than the time period. It’s set in the American southwest, and follows a young country boy named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar, who’d go on to play Nathan in Heroes) who meets a beautiful, mysterious girl named Mae (Jenny Wright) while out with his friends one night. Intrigued, he pursues her, and she seems to return his interest, but pretty soon she’s making cryptic statements about still being around in a billion years when the light leaving distant stars reaches the Earth and imploring him to drive her home before sunrise. In an apparent fit of passion, she bites him on the neck, and soon Caleb is trapped, as the old Marvel comics covers used to say, in a world he never made. Not long after Mae’s love nibble, Caleb falls in with the gang she runs with, led by the menacing Jesse (Lance Henriksen), the father figure of a little family of nomadic vampires. The mother figure is his woman, Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), and their “kids” are Mae, the hot-headed psychopath Severen (Bill Paxton), and Homer (Joshua John Miller), an adult man trapped in a child’s body.
It may seem almost gimmicky now, but Near Dark is a vampire movie in which nobody ever says the word “vampire,” and not a single fang is ever glimpsed. Instead of the usual vampire mythology, Bigelow’s bloodsuckers are dirty, vicious predators, in contrast to the more traditional European vision of vampires as sleek, seductive charmers. By melding the standard vampire-romance plot with iconic western imagery, Near Dark becomes a distinctly American vampire tale, and, with the exception of Wright’s Mae (who actually is beautiful and seductive), the vamps in Near Dark are more like a gang of outlaws from a western, with ragged clothes, filthy faces, plenty of guns and a serious hate-on for law enforcement. (There’s even a sequence where the gang holes up in a small motel room for a shootout with police.)
Near Dark is an interesting reversal of what has become the standard “innocent human girl falls for dreamy vampire hunk” premise. The inversion benefits largely from Wright, who is astonishingly gorgeous; I might consider going through the hell Caleb suffers through in the movie for a shot with her.
But as much as Near Dark hits many of the usual vampire-movie notes with its pair of star-crossed lovers and lead character torn between the human and vampire worlds, it’s also scary as hell, but not in a jump-scare, monster-movie way. Near Dark is scary more in the way really tense crime movies are scary, with the threat of random, brutal violence always looming. The best example is the scene midway through the film (arguably the movie's centerpiece) where Jesse’s gang, with Caleb the new recruit in tow, enters a dusty redneck bar. From the second the vampires enter the frame, you know it’s going to get ugly, but Bigelow ratchets up the tension very deliberately, at an almost agonizingly slow pace, and the result is chilling. The terrified bystanders can only watch helplessly as the vampires casually kill everyone inside one by one.
In keeping with its western vibe, Near Dark veers into action-movie territory as the story progresses, particularly the Terminator-esque showdown between Caleb and Severen in the final act. That’s not a problem for me at all – Bigelow’s one of the best action directors to ever pick up a camera – but viewers looking for a movie about sexy young vampires making goo-goo eyes at each other for 90 minutes might be put off by all the gunplay and chases and explosions.
But an original idea and brilliant direction can only take you so far if you don’t have actors bringing it. Adrian Pasdar is great as Caleb, who has a nice arc going from wide-eyed country boy to vampire outlaw, and the scenes where he’s starting to enjoy his new life are particularly good; I could watch a whole movie about this band of bloodsuckers criss-crossing the country causing trouble. Jenny Wright doesn’t have to do that much other than look hot, but she’s pretty good at that. The only problem with her character is that Mae is played with such an inherent decency and goodness that it’s a little difficult to understand how she’s managed to run with this gang of killers for as long as she has.
It’s in the gang of evil vampires, though, that the casting of Near Dark really shines. Lance Henriksen in particular is fantastic and terrifying as Jesse, the leader, but it comes more from the feeling that he’d rip out your throat as soon as look at you, and his being a vampire doesn’t really have much to do with it. It’s all in Henriksen’s attitude and the way he plays the role. (I’ve been a huge fan of Henriksen for years; I think he’s one of the best character actors out there and few are better at playing villains.) Bill Paxton is also a treat; he gets the more flashy, scenery-chewing work as the playfully brutal Severen. And Jenette Goldstein manages to make Diamondback hard-edged and brassy but still give her an odd, motherly quality as well. (A big reason these three work so well together is that Bigelow cast them essentially right off the set of James Cameron’s Aliens, where they all played space marines and endured a pre-production boot camp, and between that and the actual shoot, they developed a camaraderie that Near Dark benefits from tremendously.) And while Near Dark may not have invented the idea, it was the first vampire movie I’d ever seen that looked at tragic concept of the vampire kid who’s actually an adult trapped in a child’s body, and Joshua John Miller brings a world-weariness to Homer that most child actors couldn’t come close to.
Near Dark has been a popular cult movie for years, and the two-disc Anchor Bay DVD set I managed to get my hands on years ago has some excellent extras on it, including commentary from Bigelow, deleted scenes and a great retrospective making-of documentary. Lionsgate has since repackaged the Near Dark DVD to capitalize on the success of Twilight, basically making the cover resemble the poster for Twilight as much as possible. It’s sort of a shame, but the movie itself is great, and if aping a better-known, more recent hit film will drive more people to see this awesome little gem of a movie, I can live with that. If you want to see a truly original, dark, violent and sexy vampire movie, Near Dark comes with my highest possible recommendation.
Labels: horror movies, Under the radar, vampires, westerns