It’s Finger-lickin’ Good! – 25 years of Near Dark
by Stephanie Scaife
1987 was a good year to be a vampire. In October, just a few months after the release of The Lost Boys, Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western hybrid Near Dark was unleashed on cinema screens across the US. Although initially doing poorly at the box office, Near Dark was well received by critics and has gone on to become a cult classic and a film that is often heralded as the first non-gothic vampire picture. Gone are the crucifixes, holy water and stakes; here instead we have an ancient RV and an endless desert landscape with not a castle or cave in sight. Our disparate band of vampires rely more on weapons, ammo and straight-up brawling than any sort of supernatural powers or fangs, and the word “vampire” is actually never used in the film,; but the one ever constant threat that remains true to the roots of the mythology is the threat of the sun, hence the title Near Dark. Bigelow even took the actors away for a vampire boot camp before they started shooting where she would time them blacking out a room, using anything from tinfoil to duct tape (apparently with them getting down from 5 minutes to 30 seconds), which is a useful skill if you’re supposed to be a vampire living in the sun bleached Arizona desert.
I have endless amounts of respect for Kathryn Bigelow, as not only is she a woman working in a very male dominated industry but she is also making genre films (Near Dark, Strange Days), a war film (Hurt Locker), not to mention a homoerotic foray into action movies (Point Break); something that you don’t often, if ever, see from female filmmakers. In fact Bigelow has said that she had real trouble securing financing for Near Dark due to that fact that the studio wasn’t sure a woman could make a horror film. She was given the task to prep the film and shoot for the first 3 days and if she wasn’t up to scratch then the producers going to take her off the project and replace her with a more bankable director. Luckily for us, she more than stepped up to the mark and as a result we have one of the best vampire films ever made.
It wasn’t until a friend recommended Strange Days to me, a fantastically dark dystopian film that has been criminally overlooked and underappreciated, that I started to seek out Bigelow’s other films. Near Dark was her first solo outing as a director, having previously co-directed The Loveless with Monty Montgomery, and it remains her best work in my opinion. Aided in great part by the cinematography of Adam Greenberg (The Terminator), creating a noir-ish aesthetic that ensures that almost every shot looks like a work of art; not an easy task when shooting almost entirely at night and whilst capturing Bigelow’s desire to make a western perfectly, right down to the tumbleweeds and a final showdown. The combining of the two genres, that of the western and the horror film, creates a fantastic opportunity as a filmmaker to be visually and thematically striking. The vampire subtext in itself is almost seen as a complication in what is at its roots the age old love story where two young people are unable to be together due to familial complications.
Near Dark is about Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a naive Midwestern farm boy who comes across the beautiful Mae (Jenny Wright) and is instantly smitten with this apparent ingénue, although appearances can be deceiving, as Caleb soon finds out. As it would happen Mae doesn’t take too kindly to sunlight and needs to consume human blood to survive, and after giving Caleb a little love bite, he too starts to turn. Confused, injured and literally about to be burned alive, Caleb stumbles home across the fields towards his family farm only to be swept up into the RV along with Mae and her extended family led by Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) and Jesse (Lance Henricksen). Along with Mae this gang of vamps also includes the psychopathic Severn (Bill Paxton, in perhaps a career defining performance) and Homer (Joshua Miller), a 40 year old vampire trapped in the body of a child.
Mae is the youngest having been turned by Homer, and clearly he feels that he has some sort of ownership of her, meaning that the arrival of Caleb instantly causes some rifts within the previously solid family unit, especially as he is so reluctant to make his first kill and fully turn: a common theme throughout the genre, that is in this instance firmly grounded in the ultra realism of the film and hinges on a pivotal scene, the now famous bar brawl. This scene is 10 minutes of almost entirely flawless filmmaking and if there were ever any doubts that Bigelow could do this movie then they are completely quashed here. In fact a lot of filmmakers could learn a thing or two from Bigelow, there is nothing in this scene that isn’t needed. It’s tight, the dialogue is sharp (although heavily improvised by Bill Paxton after he got sick and was given B12 injections – which perhaps aided Severn’s manic persona) and don’t let it ever be said that female filmmakers can’t do horror because it’s about as visceral and violent as you’re likely to see. It is pure bravura that pays off exponentially, guaranteeing Near Dark’s place within the cult canon, not to mention the excellent use of Fever by The Cramps.
This scene is also pivotal for Caleb and it’s a turning point for his character. His Faustian pact becomes increasingly appealing and although horrified by the actions of himself and those around him he starts to relish in the violence and imagine the possibilities of eternal life. A shot to the gut being nothing more than a minor inconvenience for him and it becomes, for all intents and purposes, his indoctrination into the family. This scene also perfectly sets up our characters for their own individual downfalls: Severn in all his reckless glory as he lives solely for the fulfilment of what it means to be a vampire, Diamondback with her assumed maternal role is just as dangerous as the others, Jesse is the clear leader and alpha male who ensures that nothing harms his pack at any cost, Mae is the beautiful seductress, and Homer is the wildcard, infinitely frustrated at forever being a child and treated as such. You know things aren’t going to end well, but for the duration of this scene you are rooting for these anti-heroes and relishing in the chaos along with them.
One of the strongest aspects of Near Dark, and a smart move in terms of writing is that it takes itself very seriously. There is no self-awareness, it’s played entirely straight, and although often funny at times, the lack of in-jokes, nods and winks etc. really pays off and you believe the unbelievable. It invents its own mythology, although borrows from both Bram Stoker and Anne Rice, and as it’s played more like a straight up western the supernatural element, the vampirism is more of a subtext, and like many vampire films of the 80s it’s often paralleled with addiction. These vamps are outcasts, living on the fringes and feeding, literally, from society. At its core Near Dark is a Western, and what Bigelow does is take this particular ideology, which is oftentimes very consistent and instantly recognisable, and she turns it on its head by introducing the vampire element, creating a transgressive reconfiguration of the genre. The traditional Western is characterised by its celebration of the American dream, and here it is transformed into something that is full of death and decay.
Released to cash in on the October Halloween market, Near Dark was like the indie cousin to The Lost Boys’ widespread release. Perhaps it was just a little ahead of its time. But looking back it still holds up today and its subsequent influence on the genre is widespread. There has been a massive resurgence in the vampire genre in recent years, what with the popularity of True Blood and Twilight, but 1987 is where it’s truly at if you really want to experience the best contemporary interpretations of the vampire mythology.