Our review of Near Dark (Blu-Ray), published December 3rd, 2009, is also available.
…pray for daylight.
In the mythology of monsters, there is none more visceral, more deceptively deadly, than the vampire. Sure, one could argue that a werewolf, being chained to his canine instincts, has more lethal potential, or that Frankenstein's reanimated corpse presents man playing god at its most ferocious. But when it comes to overall impact, nothing quite matches the philosophy of feasting off the living to maintain a tormented, everlasting life. Sex also plays a major role in the vampire's impact. Its legendary origins are almost always bathed in a perverse sanguine sensuality. Necking, aside from its obvious back seat at the drive-in connotation, has always inferred the notion of bloodsucking as a sexual exchange between fiend and victim. Dracula, the vilest demon cursed with an immortal thirst, has notoriously been portrayed as a creature of untold animal magnetism, not only for his ability to control those particular "children of the night," but his way with the ladies in their boudoirs as well. From Bram Stoker's classical claim to Anne Rice's randy revision, Nosferatu (or Vlad or Lestat) is portrayed as a seducer on the highest order, making his eventual draining of a victim's life fluid the consummation of a deep, unspoken desire. This quixotic notion has gone a long way in turning the vampire from fearful to farce, from a foul undead creature feeding on blood to a misguided lothario with incredibly penetrating eyes no woman can resist. Thankfully, not every artistic vision of the vampire is so draped in Harlequin Romance. In her 1985 film Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow has re-imagine the night ghoul as a gunslinger, a Western icon recast in a roving "family" of bloodthirsty banditos, carving a trail of terror and torn throats from one part of the Southwest to the other. And unlike other updates of the vampire legend, Near Dark doesn't try to make them sexy. It returns them to their scary origins.
Facts of the Case
While cruising around his one horse Southwestern town, Caleb Colton runs into the attractive, enigmatic Mae. She is literally unlike any woman he has ever met before. After an evening of fun and flirtation, Mae demands Caleb take her home to her "family." Caleb refuses unless Mae kisses him. During their embrace, Mae bites Caleb on the neck and then runs away. Rejected, he heads home. As the morning sun rises, Caleb tries a shortcut. But the sun appears to be burning his flesh. Just before he reaches the family ranch, an ominous Winnebago snatches Caleb up. Once inside the strangely darkened vehicle, he is finally introduced to Mae's vicious, violent outlaw clan.
Patriarch of this "family" is a rough, grizzled presence known as Jesse. His tough as leather "old lady" is Diamondback. Mae also has two "brothers," the psychotic Severen and the oddly mature little "man," Homer. In the initial chaos of threats and introductions, Severen asks Jesse if he can kill Caleb. Jesse relents. But when they learn that Caleb has been "bit" and has already started to "turn," they reluctantly let him stay on. With the sun in full force, Jesse steers the mobile home into a darkened hangar for the day. For you see, Mae's family is not related by blood in the same way we associate that phrase. They are vampires.
Soon, the pressure is on new recruit/"son" Caleb to kill or be killed. Although the hunger inside him is painful and powerful, Caleb just cannot bring himself to take a life. As his real father and sister search for him and as the actions of the claret-craving criminals become more violent and slip shot, circumstances conspire to place Caleb in direct conflict with the undead demons. Only problem is, his feelings for Mae are real and he doesn't want to leave her, even if it means saving his own life. Yet Caleb can't always spend his life living on the edge of daylight, looking for that magic moment, near dark, when he can begin his nightly "feeding."
It takes a lot to reinvent a genre. Usually, you have to mix cinematic styles, or incorporate/steal some foreign film philosophies to see the tired old tale sparkle with new life. Some of the more successful reinventions of the vampire genre have been nothing more than cosmetic. Bram Stoker's Dracula was crazy experimental camera angles and surreal set and art design, all used to invoke the same old lost lover lonesome jubilee that other versions of the Count's canon have delivered. The Lost Boys, one of the few films that made hanging out with your So Cal surf punk pals about as enticing as a Webelos meeting, tried to boy toy up the whole Vlad the Impaler party by making matinee-idols-in-training into the new children on the night on the block. For every heterosexual vampire who longs for the luscious neck of a sultry vixen or virgin, there's Anne Rice's homoerotic horn dogs that love to suck, but don't just limit their lunchables to blood. Indeed, it seems that the only way to rediscover the essence of a variety is to boil it down to basics, to find out what made it malicious in the first place and exploit or twist that factor. Or perhaps, by casting it within a new, more creative milieu. Indeed, many of the considered classic horror films of today are not really monster movies at all, but tormented takes on modern everyday issues like the generation gap (The Exorcist), adultery (Hellraiser), or crass consumerism (Dawn of the Dead). The successful reinventions are those where the problems of the paranormal participants are directly related and easily understandable to regular "meat bag" types.
Near Dark, the 1987 bloodletting Western road movie, views vampirism within the context of the disintegrating nuclear family and the rise in single parenthood. This may not seem like a novel approach today, but as the notion of the latchkey kid and the deadbeat dad was reaching a kind of social epidemic almost two decades ago, championing the intact (even if they are terrorizing) family was seen as unusual. In many ways, this is a movie that pits the new notion of relatives (one parent, sharing of the kids) with the old-fashioned idea of kinfolk living together as an intact unit. Actually, the family in Near Dark is viewed as more "suitable" since it was forged out of desire, each picking the next member in hopes of filling in the gaps of their always on the go lifestyle. The movie argues that, even in all their bloodletting and violence, the "Night" tribe is a more loving, committed entity than most. They work together as a single engine, each component important to the power and performance they require for their mutual survival. Most of the dynamics are very clear: Jesse as Dad, Diamondback as Mother, et cetera. But some of the internal issues also operate like news reports and television movies did back then: to expose the incestual rot within the core of most suburban homesteads. It's obvious that Severen was brought on to feed a need in Diamondback, one that no "mother" should ever have for her "son." And Homer is the one who turned Mae, wanting a viable companion to satisfy his "little man" needs, not a big sister.
Then there is the opposing view, the single parent paradox of Near Dark. Loy, Caleb's father, and Sarah, his sister, are the broken pieces of the Colton's maternally void home. There seems to be an undercurrent of unease and melancholy within the house. In this case, single parenthood may not have been the result of the legal channels of divorce, but within the unfortunate auspices of fate and the Angel of Death. Now, some sociologists and political pundits will argue that the only feasible family is one made of two parents, some even going so far as to chain father to a stifling career and mother to the kitchen in order to perfect the child rearing and raising standards. But the plain fact is that many families are only partially served and still do very well. Loy has not remarried and has chosen to raise his children on his own. The lack of a feminizing presence may have no outward resonance, but it could explain why Caleb spends his nights drinking and carousing for available female companionship. The broken home as a metaphor for an absentee childhood or the sad adolescence has been used and abused ever since a certain Mr. Spielberg created the extraterrestrial parental substitute and crash-landed him on the third planet from the sun. The concept of the solitary guardian, with its mixed sexual roles and obvious male/female cheerleaders, is a loaded gun, a potential powder keg of unfair generalizations and misguided signals. In Near Dark, we get to see how a young man, a soon to be independent adult, reacts to the lack of family when a surrogate one is thrust upon him. And the results are very interesting.
The remarkable development here is that Caleb, deep down, obviously longs for an intact family, no matter how vile or vicious they appear to be. When he has fed off of Mae, he has a choice, a real clear decision to make. He could function on his own. Jesse and the gang have taught him how to hide, how to hunt. He does not need them and one can assume that they are not in desperate need of his services. Some manner of arrangements could be made (after all, why wouldn't Jesse want another band of like-minded monsters cruising the roadways of America along with him?), and it's possible they would even sacrifice Mae to his "clan." But Caleb is all lost child. He needs to be taken care of. He will not nourish himself. He wants to be hand (or in this case, wrist) fed. Within the element of his non-supernatural home, he is brother and mother, father and friend to his little sister Sarah. There is an uneasy bond between Loy and Caleb. They appear more like business partners than father and son. Still, Loy will forgo all, and try anything, to save his boy, and maybe that's the signal Caleb needs to return to the empty nest of his previous life. Sure, his father is a hard working ball of contradictions, but at his core, his family is what is most important. Initially, Caleb makes a call home to tell them he's okay. When he gets no answer, he resolves himself to a life with the "Nights." But when Dad tells him that the lack of a response was because of the weeks of searching he put into finally finding his son, it's the moment where Caleb decides that his normal, non-vampire family is the most important thing to him. He will protect them. He will fight for them. And if there is any chance, he will return to them.
All fancy pontifications and subtext aside, Near Dark is one of the best vampire films made and one of the most accomplished horror films because it offers so many visceral elements combined in a very stylistic manner. Vampires are by their very makeup hunters. They seek the blood of the living like truckers seek a greasy spoon diner. But we usually do not get to see the vagabond lifestyle and craven desires of the bloodsucker. Most every vampire, from Lugosi to Oldman, is just a tormented loner who longs to nibble a little neck. In Near Dark, the "Night" family are all vicious, voracious killers, opening veins and gullets in the pursuit of purest bodily essence to satiate their hunger. They are at times obvious about their appetite (the infamous barroom brawl buffet) and disgustingly deceptive (Homer's hurt child on bicycle ploy). That's what makes the "Night" family such a disturbing undead clan. They will go to any extreme and do whatever it takes to feed their need. Equally unnerving is the curse they live with, the curse of sunlight. Silver bullets and crosses aside, the sequences where Caleb or the members of the family burn and blister in the sun creates a lasting impression of gruesomeness as we literally see the flesh bubble and pop on the body and hear the sickening sizzle. Near Dark was, upon initial release, a very gory and disturbing movie. Time and titles have stolen some of the movie's moist moxie, but there is no denying that the image of hooded Hellions, skin crisping in the mid-morning sun, is still a potent and profoundly creepy one.
None of this would work, onscreen, without a great cast and an equally talented director at the helm. Just looking over some of the analysis here sounds the warning bells for material just ripe with the potential for mishandling. That is not the case here. Many of the best aspects of Near Dark are the performances and the direction. Raiding some of the finest elements from Aliens to fill out the merry band of blood-lusting bandits, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton make a powerful set of sinister villains, half immersed in their "family" roles, mostly driven by their unholy desire to eat. Paxton turns Severen into a good ole boy of grue, relishing the hunter/slayer aspects of his "yee-haw" mentality. Goldstein is the most normal of the gang, taking her maternal position to heart. Henriksen, whose character has a unique historical connection, has a face that accents that world-weary nature while it seethes with hidden rage. If there is ever a personification of stone-faced fiendishness, it's Lance. He is perhaps the most gifted actor ever at registering the internal slow burn. Yet the real revelation here is Joshua John Miller. Between his pre-teen miscreant in River's Edge and this equally evil blood beast, he owns the role of diminutive demon perfectly. Even with an ever-present lisp as part of the speech pattern, he manages to turn childhood bone chilling with just a look or a gesture. As the yin yang lovers on either side of the soul, Adrian Pasdar gives his Caleb a boyish playfulness that underscores all the familial issues present. And poor Jenny Wright: she is an actress of delicate fragileness, and yet seems to have completely abandoned an industry that she could easily dominate if she wanted to. She's that good here.
As a director, Kathryn Bigelow understands the inherent drama and dread that exists on those long stretches of road which connect the heartland to the Pacific, and she utilizes the horizon and the backwater burgs to great effect. She also controls her impulse to push the limits, never once letting the story, the actors, or the gore get the better of her vision. If there is one flaw in her presentation of the material, it's the reliance on the Jim Cameron blue/gray color scheme for night shooting. Instead of the horrible shadows of true black evenings, we get the chrome and steel scenery that fans of the Terminator / True Lies creator will instantly recognize. Still, this second feature from the now Tinseltown big name (she made the recent K-19: Widowmaker) represents one of the few times where her promise matched her presentation. In later works, like the aforementioned submarine action epic, the surfer Nazis go gonzo of Point Break, or the end of the world as captured on hard drive known as Strange Days, there was artistry in abundance. But there were also missteps and lost opportunities. It seems that once she left the small, strong work that Near Dark represents, the broader canvas meant more potential pitfalls. Her work here is so strong, so assured, that it's no wonder she still gets jobs in Hollywood. Bigelow is excellent at creating mood and feeding atmosphere, and Near Dark is her best example of that wondrous skill.
Presented by Anchor Bay in a two-disc DVD extended edition, Near Dark has been given a fabulous remastered print that looks incredible on the digital medium. Considering this low budget film, a staple of late night television and pay cable for decades (it was made almost 17 years ago) that has probably never been seen in its original aspect ratio, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is enough to make film fans rejoice. But the crispness and overall quality of the image should add equal amounts of joy to the celebration. Sonically, the Dolby Digital 5.1 (the DTS track was not available to this reviewer) is also expertly realized. There is a real sense of space and atmosphere in the aural work here. In addition to the great looking and sounding movie on Disc One, we get a full-length audio commentary by director Bigelow that walks us through an informative, if sparse, overview of how the film was cast and created. It's interesting that she did not set out to have some manner of Aliens reunion; it just happened that way. It's also enlightening to discover how she got the directing gig, her misapprehensions on set, and the disappointment she felt when the film failed to generate huge box office. There are long stretches where she has nothing to say (even during a couple of moments that seem to call out for comments) but overall, she does a good job of giving her side of the story.
The best is saved for Disc Two. In a documentary called "Living in Darkness," we get a series of telling interviews with almost everyone involved in the film (sadly, Master Miller and Ms. Wright are missing). Overall, it's one of the best anecdotal behind the scenes discussions of a film ever committed to DVD. Everyone has a great set of stories to add to the Near Dark mythology and you can tell that for them all, this was a fantastic experience. But the real star here is none other than big Lance H. himself. Beginning with the full back story of who his vampire was and how he came to be "turned" to his cross country journey to the film set, in full method acting man mode (he would pick up hitchhikers and scare the living shit out of them with his "Jesse" jive), Lance is like a precocious imp here, a harbinger of evil in a suave and stylish shell. As interesting as Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, and Bigelow herself are, this bonus belongs to Lance. Most of the other material here is completist oriented, from untold galleries of publicity material and on set stills to trailers and TV spots. The sole deleted scene is kind of a letdown, since it really adds very little to the movie and is easily missed. Still, the package Anchor Bay puts together should function as a benchmark for all future DVD releases of similar style films. It's like a Criterion for the chiller set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Part of the problem with Near Dark for anyone approaching it as a first time viewing experience is that hype and historical perspective have stolen a lot of its terrorizing thunder. The movie feels less like a horror film in 2003 and more like a meditation on a misguided man and his blood drinking adoptive kinfolk. True, there is mood and environment aplenty in what Bigelow puts on screen, but with current screen scream fests like Blade and From Dusk 'Till Dawn taking the vampire to new levels in the action hero adventure hierarchy, this simple story of country crossing creatures of the night can't help but pale by comparison. That's because Near Dark also feels like it was made in the 1980s, that strange time in cinema where movies seemed stuck in a mode of manufactured commercialism that seeped into even the most independent of works. You have the VCR and VHS tapes to thank for this. With the ready availability of in home video to flood the popular culture, the look and like-mindedness of movies became a lot like manufactured housing. Each one was slightly different, but still seemed cut from the same mold. Near Dark remains a standout in its genre, one of the best vampire horror films ever made, and this DVD is a great way to see it in its originally intended widescreen presentation. But that does not mean that it will frighten you the way it once did, or could. Sadly, it's a recognizable relic of the past, just like Dracula and Nosferatu. Not too shabby of company to keep, eh?
Currently on the Spanish language television network Telemundo, there is a novella or Latin soap opera called El Beso del Vampire (translation—Kiss of the Vampire—duh!) about the lives of everyday high-powered modern vampires, a kind of Dallas for the bloodsucking sect. As odd as that sounds, chalk it up to yet another attempt to bring the neck biter and his brethren out of the catacombs and into the mainstream. Indeed, over the years since Near Dark we have seen movies about every kind of claret craving creature, from kiddie ersatz vampires (The Littlest Vampire) to undead armies in need of a good James Woods ass kicking (John Carpenter's Vampires). All hoped to take the Vlad legend to another level of public acceptance or excitement. But almost all have failed (the aforementioned Blade excluded), and that's because it's not enough to simply recast the nocturnal nogoonik as some manner of misunderstood good guy or super powerful pest. The reason Near Dark succeeded where others have (and still have) tried and failed is because it is about much more than the undead. It's about family, connections, and the undeniable bond of blood. It may have lost some of its scares over the years, but it has lost none of its power or providence. In the pantheon of horror films, Near Dark will always be considered a "near" classic. But in the ever-mutating world of the vampire legend, it will be perceived for what it truly is: one of the few times where a re-imagination of the classic story was actually done correctly and handled just right. The night may be "deafening" according to Mae, but thanks to Near Dark, its "children" will never be seen the same.
Near Dark is found not guilty and is free to go. The entire cast of the film is acquitted, but the court is holding over Lance Henriksen for psychological evaluation to determine if he is indeed sane or just completely loopy. Anchor Bay is also released, as all charges are currently dropped (the court, however, retains the right to recall the studio in the near future, say, around the release of the 43rd version of Halloween).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary by Kathryn Bigelow
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