80s vampire cult favorite gets a new DVD release tomorrow.
Long before the red state chastity of the Twilight series or even the homoerotic glamour of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, vampire films got a strange and visceral twist courtesy of co-writer/director Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 B-flick Near Dark, a gritty take on the sub-genre that was as much Western adventure as it was horror story. A cult classic for decades, the film gets its first DVD re-release in five years July 7, even as the director’s The Hurt Locker opens nationwide to riotous critical applause. Fans of the Whedonverse and HBO’s True Blood won’t want to miss it, while Twilight devotees owe it to themselves to check it out.
Small-town Oklahoma boy Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar, Heroes) gives comely drifter Mae (Jenny Wright, St. Elmo’s Fire) a ride home and gets a bite on the neck as thanks. The next day, as his skin catches fire in daylight, he’s kidnapped onto the open road by her gang of roaming vampires, including their leader Jesse (Lance Henriksen, Aliens) and his psychotic henchman Severen (Bill Paxton, Big Love). Severen wants to kill the newcomer and have done with it, but Jesse gives him a week to prove his worth or face undead exile. But Caleb wins the group’s trust during a daytime gunfight with police at an abandoned motel, and conspires with Mae to sustain him as he refuses to drink innocent blood. Eventually, he must save his father (Tim Thomerson, Trancers), his sister and Mae from the group’s repeated attacks and find a cure for his affliction.
The action scenes that ensue are classic 80s cult: gory, at times romantic in shot composition and texture, flaunting their heavy emphasis on mood and feeling. The film was only Bigelow’s second feature, and though its visual restraint and narrative focus sometimes slip from her control there’s a definite sense of creative voice at work, a voice that informs her more polished (though no less noir-inspired) subsequent efforts such as Blue Steel (1989) and Strange Days (1995). Bigelow was married to director James Cameron in the late 80s, and it’s hard not to see the influence of his mid-decade work present here, borrowing especially from The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986) not just its use of lighting but also in its pervasive skepticism about value of moral standards in the face of violent evil.
Much of the film’s energy comes from its fresh approach to traditional vampire tropes: there is no baroque lore, no sense of tradition or of internal struggles flavored with obsessive self-loathing and loneliness. Jesse is ancient and eerie, suggesting a history to their affliction, but the gang doesn’t resemble the coven or guild commonly routinely found in more mundane vampire adventures; rather, they recall the James Gang, or a touring punk rock band, bound together by their mutual needs and ambitions. By contrast Caleb and his family are the archetypal Western homesteaders, defending themselves as much as their property. The film even includes a massacre at a roadhouse that might just as well be a frontier saloon.
Though absolutely a film of its time, Near Dark also saw a return to treating the vampire subject seriously after a spate of broad comedies like Fright Night and Once Bitten (both 1985) used vampire gimmicks for humorous effect. Its release at the box office was disappointing, no doubt hampered by the release of the somewhat similar The Lost Boys just two months before. That film had major studio backing and a cast that collectively boasted the best cheekbones of any group of the decade. Nevertheless, and like so many other cult films of the 1980s, Near Dark‘s fame rests largely on multiple showings on late-night cable movie channels, a time when those fledgling networks seemed perennially half-starved for programming.
Ultimately, it’s unfair to dismiss Near Dark as a runner up genre excercise or journeyman work from a director still coming into her own. It’s a standout B-movie from an era that was often a Golden Age for such humbler-budget efforts. Perhaps more significantly, it’s become in intervening years a touchstone for a larger cycle in American culture, part of a recurring signal flare about what we’re feeling and when we feel it. Vampires swell in popularity as American cynicism about the nation’s direction grows, whether in the current recession, the depths of Reagan’s Morning in America or the premillennial ennui of the 90s. In taking a grittier approach to the genre and melding it with the Western – the hoariest of the nation’s ego-boosters – Near Dark offers a more visceral reflection of how we entertain ourselves when things start looking grim. Hard times come around again and again, while vampires live forever.