|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 10 September 2002|
Even though relatively few people saw “Near Dark” on its initial 1987 theatrical release, it’s easy to tell that it’s been viewed by at least most of the folks in the horror filmmaking community, because parts of it have been widely imitated – albeit not improved on – ever since.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red came up with what is perhaps best described as a contemporary vampire outlaw story, with romantic and Western overtones. The word “vampire” is never uttered, nor are any fangs (nor crosses, stakes, holy water nor transformations) seen, but “Near Dark” is hardly coy about its subject matter – or much of anything else. The film’s examination of an existence that thrives on violence has rarely been equaled. “Near Dark” is uneven, but when it’s at its peak, there’s little that can compare.
Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is an average, good-hearted youth living in the rural Midwest with his veterinarian dad (Tim Thomerson) and little sister Sarah (Marci Leeds). One night, he crosses paths with beautiful, intriguing Mae (Jenny Wright) and gets her to go for a drive with him. They kiss, but Mae insists she must get back to her traveling companions before dawn. Caleb tries to keep her in his truck too long. Mae bites Caleb and flees. Caleb starts to feel bad around daybreak and runs on foot for home across a plowed field. In view of his father and sister, Caleb is overtaken by a Winnebago. An arm shoots out of the moving vehicle, scoops Caleb up and he – and we – are now in a new, dark world.
Mae’s traveling companions are a varied lot. Leader and father figure Jesse (Lance Henriksen) is a leathery veteran (of the Confederacy, as it turns out). He brought in hell-raising Severen (Bill Paxton), perhaps out of admiration for the other man’s wildness, and Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) as a lover. Diamondback in turn brought in Homer (Joshua Miller), a predator forever trapped in the body of an 11-year-old. Homer, whose desires have matured although his body has not, brought in Mae, but Mae wanted someone to love herself. Enter – unwillingly – Caleb, who now has the same strength, sun allergy and feeding needs as the others. Jesse gives Caleb a week to prove that he’s one of the group by making a kill. Problem is, Caleb may desperately crave blood, but he doesn’t have a killer’s soul.
The Chapter 13 sequence in a roadhouse bar is the biggest setpiece in “Near Dark” – there are massive gunfights and explosions elsewhere, but what sets this apart is the way it explores the characters’ approach to violence. Director Bigelow and the actors accomplish something that’s a near-impossibility – at least, other filmmakers and performers consistently fail in the attempt – by getting into the heads of beings who revel in bloodshed and yet somehow don’t come off as psychotic or pathetic, but rather seem as natural and instinctive as a school of sharks. They’re not trying to prove points to anyone and they have no qualms – this is simply what they do. The scene is chilling and mesmerizing, startling with the tingling intro to John Parr’s taunting “Naughty, Naughty,” with guitar strings sending off a flurry of notes that sound like a rock ‘n’ roll invitation to a fatal showdown. Henriksen’s world-weariness, Paxton’s primal jubilant ferocity, Goldstein’s cool menace and Miller’s angry assurance (nobody has ever done a child vamp this well before or since) are all indelible.
The film slows down a bit in its last 20 minutes or so, as the writers don’t seem to know how to end it – “Near Dark” is so much about exploring the nature of its characters that the plot steps that lead to the finale feel somewhat arbitrary. By then, it almost doesn’t matter – we’re still reeling from the rest of it.
Bigelow is one of the best action directors ever. A gigantic, blow-out-the-walls gunfight in Chapter 15 has a room being ventilated by shafts of light that cross in the air, burning all the flesh they touch, and an encounter between a big rig and an angry vampire is as vivid and ferocious as anything from “The Terminator” – it’s awesome without self-consciousness.
The score by Tangerine Dream is spare and potently ominous, the sort of music that makes listeners seek out the soundtrack, and it’s integrated very elegantly into the action. The DTS track on the DVD has good effects – little ones, like a car tire splashing through water in the right main in Chapter 7 and a tell-tale heart pulse in the center channel in Chapter 9, and big ones, like the previously mentioned Chapter 15 gunfight, with an impressive variety of bullet strikes, and a metal-smashing battle in Chapter 21 – but the dialogue sometimes sinks lower than we’d like, especially in Chapter 9. The rears also get primarily pick-up action rather than many distinctive discrete effects.
The Anchor Bay release of “Near Dark” comes in a two-disc set. Disc 1 contains the film itself, with an audio commentary track by Bigelow. The director is frequently informative, but she often falls silent, and the track does not rise to full volume around her on these occasions.
Disc 2 contains a 47-minute retrospective documentary, “Living in Darkness,” which intersperses illustrative clips with interviews with Bigelow, producer Steven-Charles Jaffe, executive producer Edward S. Feldman, cinematographer Adam Greenberg and actors Pasdar, Henriksen, Paxton and Goldstein. Henriksen and Paxton have particularly engrossing stories about themselves and each other. The two actors got so into what they were doing that they began to enjoy seeing how much they could intimidate civilians during their off-duty hours – Henriksen even managed to spook a cop. Fifteen years later, they all talk about what they were doing with so much enthusiasm and so much love that it’s actually affecting. Listening to them, we get a sense that we’re close to some truth about why people make movies – it’s so that they’ll get to feel like these guys do.
“Near Dark” is influential, potent and impossible to shake off, holding up as well today as it did when it came out. It remains a classic of the genre.