NEAR DARK, 1987
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton
Review by Gemma Eagle
A mid-western farm boy reluctantly becomes a member of the undead when a girl he meets turns out to be part of a band of southern vampires who roam the highways looking for their next meal.
After re-watching Near Dark last night I couldn’t understand why very few mainstream movie go-ers have heard of the film, especially given the almost macabre excitement that tends to follow most vampire flicks, regardless of quality.
1987 saw the release of several high profile films (Robocop, Good Morning Vietnam, and Full Metal Jacket) and as a result, it was almost inevitable that Near Dark would be overlooked. Coupled with the DEG (DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group) studio going bankrupt and being unable to provide much publicity during its release, it’s understandable why the film failed at the box office, earning little more than $3,000,000.
Writer and director Kathryn Bigelow (K-19 The Widowmaker, Point Break) re-imagined the creatures, combining diverse genres such as horror, western, crime, and romance into what may be the first vampire movie that strays aware from glorifying vampires, instead returning them to their chilling origins.
Set against the eerie backdrop of perpetual twilight, the atmosphere of Near Dark is both moody and beautifully dream-like and unusually for a vampire movie, the word “vampire” is never mentioned. The stereotypical supernatural and religious undertones are almost non existent in the film focusing instead on the characters themselves. Take away the blood drinking in the movie and you’ve got a compelling and somewhat disturbing film essentially focusing the workings of the family dynamics between these rogue killers.
There is a definite James Cameron influence visible at almost every turn in the film, not just in the films cast (the film reteams 3 of Aliens’ cast members – Henriksen, Paxton and Goldstein) Bigelow however doesn’t try to hide this glaring truth instead pays tribute to Aliens in the film. At one point the protagonist, Caleb, stagger through a random town in which Aliens is showing in the local cinema. Instead of the horrible shadows of true black evenings, we get the chrome and steel scenery that fans of the Terminator creator will instantly recognize. Bigelow is excellent at creating mood and feeding atmosphere, and Near Dark is her best example of that skill. Steering away from any special effects, Near Dark certainly feels like it was made in the 80’s which works for the film rather than against it. The grainy feel of the set drops adds a somewhat dirty feel to the films already VHS quality, settling for realism over fantasy. Credit goes to The Terminator’s director of photography Adam Greenberg for creating the films beautifully haunting look.
As mentioned, what sets Near Dark apart from any other Vampire film is that of solid character development brought to life by a string of underrated actors. We realize the vampires need to practice self-preservation and instead of shying away from the brutality involved, Bigelow highlights its monstrosity culminating in the famous bar sequence. Even though, the victims themselves are not nameless patrons; Bigelow still makes sure that their true terror is shown as they are slaughtered one by one.
Lance Henriksen is genuinely terrifying in his underplayed portrayal of Jesse Hooker the age-old chief of the clan.
Wild Bill Paxton is simply magnificent as the blood-guzzling cowboy Severen and despite his obvious brutality, his southern lilt enthusiasm for all things gruesome endear him to the audience right from the get go, ensuring that he steals every scene he appears in. Throughout the film you get the impression that Paxton is constantly seeking the approval of his co-star Henriksen, both in and out of character, showing off like a desperate-to-impress teenager at every available opportunity as Lance/Jesse watches from the sidelines. Though Paxton clearly enjoys the character he is playing, he never successfully makes the character real enough that we forget he is acting.
Jenny Wright who plays Mae, Caleb’s love interest and the cause of his downfall into the vampire world, is interesting throughout the film and despite her onscreen role throughout the majority of the film there is a sense of underdevelopment in her character. Her naivety is believable if not annoying but one can’t help but feel the writing fails her at times.
The script does little to challenge many stereotypes in the film and the almost compulsory Man Child is ever present struggling to deal with the quandary of being trapped in a child’s body. The acting by Joshua John Miller who plays said child (Homer) is a let down much like his character.
The music, composed by Tangerine Dream’s Christopher Franke is somewhat overshadowed by the film itself, though its loud and atmospheric sounds compliment the story well.
Near Dark may not quite come close to masterpiece status by any means, but it is ingenious within its genre, and definitely offers a new spin on the overdone tale. It has its share of let downs but these are generally overshadowed by a solid plot and interesting character dynamics. With the remastered release available on DVD, Near Dark definitely deserves the release it didn’t get upon it’s initial debut.
In the words of Severen (Bill Paxton) – it’s finger-licking Good!
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