Not the usual suspects
Way back in 1987, two vampire movies were released within a few months of each other. The first was Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, a big hit starring Kiefer Sutherland, and also the unstoppable 1980s juggernaut we call The Coreys — Haim and Feldman — just in case you were undecided about which side of the camp fence this one falls on. The other vampire film that year was the less popular Near Dark, a novel horror-western fusion directed by Kathryn Bigelow that ranks as one of the hidden treasures of ‘80s fright flicks.
The film melds two disparate genres in a way that’s admirably unforced. In one of its cleverest bits, there is a daytime stand-off between the vampires, holed up in a cheap hotel, and the local law enforcement stationed outside. It’s your basic oater-style shoot-out with a twist: bullets fly, but it’s the shafts of daylight that come streaming in through the bullet holes, and not the bullets themselves, that damage the undead. Both the horror and western elements are in full force throughout. There’s room for the iconic image of a cowboy riding up on a white horse through a beautifully backlit blue mist in unabashedly classic western style, as well as the vicious vampire attacks of the famed bar scene, a tour de force of black-comic sadism and gore.
Spurting veins aside, Near Dark actually has its share of arthouse cred: it’s included in the Museum of Modern Art’s film collection and spills over with gorgeous, evocative scenes of the American West at dusk and dawn. For a film with the tagline, “They can only kill you once, but they can terrify you forever!” it’s awful pretty. Still, the real secret of its appeal comes from Bigelow’s decision to embrace her film’s status as a down-and-dirty genre flick without sacrificing its originality or the disarmingly romantic notions it holds close to its bloody heart.
The story begins quietly enough, with an Oklahoma farmboy named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) lazily slapping a mosquito as he watches the sun go down. Before long Caleb hops behind the wheel of his beat-up pick-up and drives into town, where he quickly falls under the spell of a young blonde named Mae (Jenny Wright), who first appears licking an ice cream cone. Their dialogue here is almost like something out of a Lugosi flick:
Caleb: Can I have a bite?
Caleb: I’m just dying for a cone.
As evening goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Mae is no ordinary girl, but Caleb doesn’t get the picture, and he gets a bite on the neck for his trouble. By sunrise, Caleb finds himself kidnapped by Mae’s makeshift family — nasty criminals who feed on blood — and discovers he is becoming one of them. Mae’s nomadic vampire clan is played with gleeful nastiness by most of the cast of 1986’s Aliens — Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein (Bigelow was married to Aliens director James Cameron at the time, and the title of Cameron’s film appears on the marquee of a theater that Caleb passes) — as well as young Joshua John Miller as the pint-sized vamp Homer. Henriksen’s marvelously sinister visage is a special effect in itself, and he and Goldstein are a great menacing team as the patriarch and matriarch of the vampires. Paxton also has a great time with his twisted good old boy swagger and plenty of one-liners (“I hate it when they ain’t been shaved!” he exclaims before feasting on one of his victims).
Much has been written about how Near Dark dispenses with the typical trappings of vampire lore — fangs, elegant black capes, crosses, wooden stakes, garlic, and holy water are all out of the picture, as is the word “vampire” itself — in favor of its own gritty vision of murderous drifters and conflicted cowboys. The family hunts for victims in a way that is far removed from the supernatural, and therefore more chilling. Young Homer lies seemingly prone underneath his bicycle, waiting to nab a Good Samaritan; Paxton’s Severn grinningly hitches a ride.
These vampires aren’t the seductive Eurotrash we’ve come to know and love, and their repulsiveness is never shied away from. Yet they share a truly familial camaraderie. They also get off on the freedom of being outlaws, and superhuman, immortal outlaws to boot. Even more alluring for reluctant vampire-in-training Caleb is his love affair with Mae — a complicated romance to say the least. The darkly handsome Pasdar (the boy is handsome and has range — witness him embody the Satan-in-a-suit title character of the cult TV show Profit if you want proof) and the ethereally lovely Wright (who has now seemingly vanished from the acting world — our loss) share a real chemistry. Their love has a youthful earnestness, even if they are nearly immortal, and we really want these kids to work it out, even if it does seem impossible. That may be the biggest surprise about Near Dark: amid the blood, guts, and gunpowder, it becomes an unlikely and affecting story about the power of love.