Lionsgate // 1987 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // December 3rd, 2009
Killing you would be easy...they'd rather terrify you...forever.
Director Katheryn Bigelow's cult-favorite Vampire western arrives in high definition. Is it something you can sink your teeth into?
Caleb (Adrian Pasdar, Heroes) plays Colton, a simple country boy doing simple country boy things. One nighttime trip into town introduces him to Mae (Jenny Wright, Twister), who introduces him to the family. Unfortunately for Caleb, Mae's family are a pack of savage nomadic vampires, and he's got a limited amount of time to come to grips with his role as the newest member...or he'll find out how short undeath can really be.
Near Dark didn't make much of a dent when it hit theatres back in 1987. The fact that it was going toe-to-toe with Warner Bros.' heavily marketed The Lost Boys certainly didn't help matters. Yet, like so many other success stories, Bigelow's grim take on vampire lore has made quite a life for itself in the years since. What is it about the film that has enabled it to endure?
For starters, Katheryn and co-writer Eric Red wrote a pretty grim and daring screenplay, dismantling and rebuilding Vampire mythology. Instead of gothic spooks or Anne Rice-inspired romantics, Near Dark's children of the night form a barely functional family of drifting misfits. The word "vampire" never even appears in the film, and I doubt any of these bloodsuckers would have even been aware of the term.
The film's biggest strength is undoubtedly the cast. Lance Henriksen (Millennium) leads fellow Aliens castmates Bill Paxton (Big Love) and Jenette Goldstein (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) as the ring leaders. Henriksen's Jesse is a chilling sort of father-figure, a civil war veteran with a rebel flag stitched into the lining of his long coat. He's a ragged personage who, when cutting loose, does so with menacing zeal. Henriksen plays him as batshit crazy, something he's undoubtedly good at. Bill Paxton goes even further, oozing menace and insanity. Severen's more the unstoppale killing machine to Jesse's calculated evil. Goldstein isn't given as much to do, but Diamondback makes as good a mother figure as an immoral clan of vampires could have. 12 year old Joshua Miller (The Wizard of Gore) is suitably unsettling as a 12 year old vampire should be. Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright manage to hold their own with such a fantastic supporting cast, but one can't help feel that Cameron's Aliens crew tends to overshadow the production, and rightfully so.
Even this early in her career, Bigelow displays a knack for shooting action and doesn't pull any punches. There are a few brutal set pieces, most notably a sequence involving a midnight gobble at a greasy biker bar where Jesse and company really cut loose (Paxton owns this scene). There's also no shortage of red splatter. When the fangs come out and the safety is off, the makeup effects are some of the best of the era, considering the sub $10 Million budget.
As biting as the first two thirds of the film are, as soon as Caleb finds his place with Jesse and company, a chance encounter sends the flick spinning back upon itself. There's no easy way to say it: the final act of Near Dark is weak. It comes from nowhere, it goes nowhere, and the ultimate solution to Caleb's plight is both eye-rollingly cheesy and all too convenient. It totally deflates what had been a tight, well-plotted narrative and sends the burning corpse of the film screaming into B-movie hell. I could bring myself to hate this movie, if only the first two acts weren't so damned awesome. Even in the crapulence of Act 3, you still get some gold from Bill Paxton. Severen's last moments are a hoot.
Worse than any flaws in the film is the HD presentation foisted upon us by Lionsgate. Technically, this disc is a turd. At times, the picture is clean and clear, free of any grain or dirt, looking like a film much more recent that Near Dark's 20+ years would attest. However, this clarity comes at a horrible price, as Digital Noise Reduction has been employed to massive extent, making for all kinds of plastic looking faces, motion blurs, and artifacts. I'd have preferred the cleanup job with a bit of the heavy grain '80s films are known for left intact. As it is, the Anchor Bay disc has a more natural looking picture, though it may not have the color vibrancy of Blu-ray. Sound-wise, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track sounds like it came from a muddy stereo source, with very little in the way of surrounds or subwoofer action. Dialogue is muted as well, probably more due to the low-budget nature of the production than a lack of any remastering effort.
The extras are ported over from the old Anchor Bay DVD, which isn't an altogether bad thing. Bigelow's commentary track is worth a listen, and the featurette, "Living in Darkness" is pretty fun, if only for the insanity shared by Lance Henriksen.
In spite of its narrative flaws, Near Dark deserves its place in cult fandom. This is a dark, brutal ride, and a unique take on vampire lore that, while often imitated, has never quite been duplicated. Unfortunately, Lionsgate manages to stick a stake into the heart of the film, with its shoddy authoring. I never really got the whole Blu-ray/DNR kerfuffle, until now.
While the movie certainly has fangs, this disc just plain sucks.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scene