NEAR DARK, Review: A Year in Film.

Posted by Brian Salisbury - August 3rd 2009 @ 2:16 pm

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 1987
Written by Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red


Welcome back to AYIF.  Today I am watching a cult classic vampire film from the 1980’s.  One of my favorite movies of all time is THE LOST BOYS (another film of this ilk) and I long ago added NEAR DARK to my must-see list on that basis.  I had actually forgotten it was on said list until Scott Weinberg from Cinematical nearly threw a hammer at my face when he heard I hadn’t seen it.  I told him I would add it immediately, lest cavernous new holes be added to my visage and that’s when I remembered it had been waiting in the wings for years.


NEAR DARK is the story of a hickbilly named Caleb who splits his time equally between shit-kicking and skirt-chasing.  Wow, somebody is really ragging on cowboy culture …. my apologies (I should know better living in Texas).  Caleb sets his sights on a mysterious new girl in town and they are instantly attracted to one another.  Problem is the new girl, Mae, has some off-putting proclivities that put a fright into Caleb.  She is very insistent on getting home before dawn…..very insistent.  When Caleb favors getting action over upholding her curfew, she gives him some necking he won’t soon forget.  Caleb immediately feels very ill and can’t abide the sunlight.

He feels his skin burning as he wanders through the cornfields back to his farm.  Before he reaches home, an RV rolls up and whisks him off.  Turns out Mae travels with her family; vampires of various ages and fortitudes of self-control residing in that mobile sanctuary (windows blacked out and the driver wearing a Tusken Raider suit).  They adopt Caleb into their world on the condition that he feeds on his first victim and quickly.  What follows is Caleb struggling with his new identity and his love for Mae; trying to decide if it’s better to take a life, or be ripped apart by the vamp camp.

It’s official, I need to see more 80’s vampire films because I fraking love this movie too!  This film is dark and sinister, but also a love story.  It’s violent and chaotic, but also hilarious.  It has touches that cement it in the decade, but other elements that make it timelessly cool.  The cast is great, the story is compelling, and crazy genre mix-em-ups are something I always appreciate. I’m getting ahead of myself.

The cast is full of recognizable faces.  Caleb is played by Adrian Pasdar, Nathan of “HEROES”.  He’s a likeable protagonist and I enjoyed watching his devolution into vampirism.  The leader of the vampire family is Lance Henriksen who you will all recognize from ALIENS or PUMPKINHEAD [Editor’s note: Fact – All things come back to PUMPKINHEAD].  He is a great 80’s representation of the villain in a western film; poised, charming, and undeniably menacing.  Bill Paxton is phenomenal as the “wild card” vamp with absolutely no conscience (hmmm, Henriksen and Paxton? How much more of an Aliens reunion could you ask for?).  Well how about throwing Jenette Goldstein (Vasquez from Aliens) in the mix?  She is decent enough but never really shines.  The only other recognizable face for me was the little brother from TEEN WITCH who plays the old soul vampire trapped in a pre-pubescent body.  He is fantastically crude and vicious.  I especially liked his ploy of pretending to be a child to lure young blood (shiver).

I love the interactions between the vampires.  They actually appear to be a legitimate family in that they all seem to hate each other at times.  Sure, Goldstein and Henriksen are a couple, but even they bicker.  Paxton gets the award for shit starter on more than one occasion and the kid, although he is supposed to be much older, is an angsty little a-hole who hates everyone.  What was interesting to me about their relationship was their reminiscing.  I loved the scene where Goldstein and Henriksen pass a broken down car; launching them fondly down memory lane to the day when he turned her.  It was simultaneously heart-felt and disturbing as she is lovingly remembering when she was attacked by a stranger and relegated to the ranks of the undead.  Creepyface!

The scene in the bar in and of itself is enough reason to see this film.  It could only have been more badass if it was born in Fred Williamson’s afro.  Paxton toying with the locals before he inevitably kills them is tré horrific (keep an eye out for one of the greatest costume pieces in all of filmdom).  I love how he talks smack to the toughest-looking guy in the room simply because he knows that guy can’t harm him.  All that is counterbalanced aptly by Henriksen’s patience and nonchalant viciousness.  The gore is subtle and satisfying.  But what this scene really does for NEAR DARK is emphasize the presence of an amazing genre clash.

NEAR DARK  is the first vampire Western I have ever seen.  I am a huge fan of films that smash up genres.  It’s like a great song remix.  You get all of the things that you love about each genre and the harmony they find together can really make you want to sing.   I have found the most interesting genre-bending films have their basis in the Western.  WESTWORLD and OUTLAND effectively blend the Western with Sci-Fi while BLAZING SADDLES stirred it well with comedy.  THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE WEIRD took a classic Western and added an incredibly Eastern flavor.  In the realm of horror, last year’s Fantastic Fest entry THE BURROWERS gave us a pioneer family monster movie that really made an impression on me.  Obviously it doesn’t always work.  You can’t mix a Western with a giant bag of ass or you’ll get WILD WILD WEST.

Not only was this the first vampire Western for me, it was the first horror Western operating within a contemporary setting.  The things that make it a Western are the characters and the plot.  We have a young buck who falls for a girl who runs with the outlaw gang.  He is forced to join the gang, but can’t lower himself to their level; putting his life in danger.  She must then decide if she can be a part of the gang anymore or if her love for him is too strong.  The young buck must challenge the outlaws to a showdown to save those he loves.  There are themes of honor, identity, law & order, and standing up for what’s right; classic Western ideals.  Moreover we get characters wearing spurs, long coats, and carrying guns.  The music has that dusty, windy, guitar that Bon Jovi made so popular in the Young Guns films and the tavern they ravage, aside from the juke box and the neon, is cut right out of a Sergio Leone film.  I absolutely love taking concepts and themes from a Western and utilizing them without limiting the film for fear of being anachronistic.

This is the film that TWILIGHT can only impotently flail in the direction of.  I have to assume Stephenie Meyer had to at least have been inspired by this movie if not completely ripped it off.  It is a tragic love story about the choices two people have to make to be together in the face of dire consequences.  It uses vampirism as a backdrop to reaffirm the immortal quality of love.  Those are the things for which Twilight was striving when it collapsed in itself and died.  This film sucks all the juvenile absurdity right out of TWILIGHT”s neck and spits it back in its face.  The one common ground they share is that their attempt to appeal to both sexes is skewed.  NEAR DARK is more geared toward men while TWILIGHT is clearly setting up shop in ovary town.

WARNING!!! POTENTIAL SPOILER IN THIS PARAGRAPH!!!

If I had one complaint with NEAR DARK it would be the vampire reversal process plot device.  Caleb’s dad finds him and manages to devise a makeshift blood transfusion that cures vampirism! What that does is make vampirism a choice and also allows our hero to stay pure and not succumb to the dark side.  But in the grand scheme of things, this complaint is ticky tack. We are talking about the science of being a vampire.  Who’s to say it wouldn’t work? Hell, it seems logical enough and until a documented case of someone NOT being cured of vampirism via blood transfusion is discovered, I am forced to withhold judgments on its medical accuracy.

That does it for today’s AYIF.  Brian’s Rating: A-

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  1. Brian
    August 3rd, 2009 | 2:55 pm | #1

    Glad to see you enjoyed this, Mr. Salisbury. NEAR DARK was one of my favorites as a kid and it has held up so very well over the years, EXCEPT for that fucking “Tangerine Dream” score.

    Great review.

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