The UHF of the film world.
Latest news

Marina Antunes [Celluloid 02.03.21] action drama western vampires

In celebration of Women in Horror Month, we're going to be featuring a number of retro-reviews alongside some other special programming.

Teen vampires have never gone out of fashion but 1987 was a particularly good year for angsty vampire movies. In July, The Lost Boys, arguably one of the touchstones of the sub-genre (if you can call it that) was released, followed later that year by Near Dark.

While Near Dark never reached the level of success or the cult status of The Lost Boys, I'll happily make a defence that Kathryn Bigelow's vampire/western/romance hybrid is a better movie; far darker, mature, violent and as satisfying as its campier counterpart.

The set-up is familiar: Caleb, a handsome young guy (Adrian Pasdar) meets a pretty girl named Mae (Jenny Wright) and the pair share a PG, night-long romance. Cocky, Caleb concocts a plan to get a kiss from Mae and gets more than he bargained for when she bites him, leaving Caleb out of sorts. Gorgeously captured by cinematographer Adam Greenberg (who had also worked with Bigelow's then-partner James Cameron on Terminator), this scene gives us the first of many memorable images from the movie: Caleb stumbling across the empty field of his family's farm, smoke rising from his back as the dawn sun rises. It's a beautiful image and one that also captures the dichotomy of Caleb's situation: the emptiness of his new life, and his desperation to get home to the safety of his family but the reality is that daylight is no longer safe, and neither is his home.

Just as he's reaching safety, Caleb gets snatched up by Mae and her "family" of vagrants: Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) the defacto parental figures and only couple, wild-one Severen (Bill Paxton), and Homer (Joshua Miller), physically the group's youngest member. Turns out Mae didn't have permission to claim Caleb and certainly did wrong by letting him go. Caleb now has a choice to make: kill or be killed. Not much of a choice.

This exchange unfolds in the back of a blacked-out RV and provides the first in a series of conversations that reveals much about the history and dynamics of the group including the possibly sordid relationship between Mae and Homer. Also at play here is Homer's resentment at looking like a child. "You have any idea what it's like to be a big man on the inside and have a small body on the outside?" he bellyaches to the group, getting a swift response from Severen. In another passing moment later in the film, Caleb asks Jesse how old he is to which Jesse replies "Let's put it this way: I fought for the South. We lost." These tidbits are great indicators of how good Bigelow and Eric Red's script is. The movie is ostensibly an action movie, going from action sequence to action sequence, but at its core, it also features a collection of fully developed, well-rounded characters and while we never learn many details about any of them, their histories play into their choices and group dynamics.

Arguably Near Dark's most memorable scene is the bar massacre. It's clear from get-go that things aren't going to end well for the patrons - this group doesn't do anything half-way - but the way the scene unfolds, with a mix of bawdy banter and brutal violence, is brilliant and punctuated by a flurry of notable one-liners from Severen starting with "Bartender, give me a couple of shots of whatever donkey piss you're shoving down these cocksuckers' throats."

Equally memorable but in a much more subtle way is a scene moments later. One of the young cowboys, Caleb's intended target, jumps out a window in a frenzied attempt to escape. Caleb follows, with Mae close at his heels, and when the time comes to make the kill, Caleb balks leaving Mae to do it for him. In a scene that is both erotic, and full of subtext, Caleb kneels at Mae's feet, drinking deeply from her wrist as pumpjacks work in the background, sucking from the earth another type of lifeblood for humanity. The scene cuts back and forth from the pumps to Caleb and Mae, with Tangerine Dreams' score rising in the background to meet the rhythmic creeks of the pump, pulsating to Caleb's suckling. It's a mesmerizing moment of peace book ended by two action sequences.

I've always liked both The Lost Boys and Near Dark and admittedly, I have a soft spot for romanticized vampires (thank Anne Rice for that) but Bigelow's movie is more to my tastes. There's a dirty, grungy, get-under-your-skin quality to the characters, these wandering nomads that live for the night - and their next meal. For the most part, these vampires - worth noting the word vampire is never mentioned - aren't sexy. If anything, they're legitimately scary and if you were to see them coming, you'd likely cross the street but there's also an underlying appeal about that; the sense of danger and unpredictability. It's that sense of danger than almost captures Caleb.

Some may argue that Near Dark's ending is a cop-out and perhaps it's my romantic sensibilities peeking through, but the fact that the film ends with Caleb returning to the living and extending that gift to Mae so that they can be together... there's something really human (and romantic) about that action, and after all of the violence that leads to it, it feels well earned.

It's disappointing that in the years since its release, Near Dark has never received the kid of restored release it deserves and while I covet my out-of-print blu-ray, I'd happily shell out for a 4K transfer.

Recommended Release: Near Dark

You might also like

Leave a comment