Having penned my very own vampire-style novel, I’m a huge fan of these horrific bloodsuckers. Honestly, they’re one of the few true movie monsters that lend themselves to a wealth of potential plotlines. Equally tragic and romantic, they appeal to the very best and the very worst in us as fallen angels, and I suspect the silver screen will continue to draw blood from a stone in the years ahead when it comes to putting them up in the shadows and light for future generations to appreciate at least as much as what’s come before.
Because vampires are possible in any era, they’ve also been used in practically every genre. Horror isn’t they’re only playground as vamps have staked out territory in comedies (1979’s Love At First Bite and 1992’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer comes to mind), high drama (1994’s Interview With A Vampire or 2008’s Let The Right One In), and romances (2008’s Twilight or 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive). They’re immortal flexibility – that comfort and ease to fulfill practically any storytelling need – means that, as characters, they’ll outlive us all in ways more than one … though we already knew that going in.
Still, is it wrong of me to suggest that I see them poorly used in film probably as much as I see them used effectively? Though I suspect this’ll pain some of you, one of my worst experiences with them was the much beloved Near Dark, which sprang from the fertile mind (in part, anyway, as she shared screenwriting responsibilities with Eric Red) of award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow fairly early in her screen career. Perhaps therein lies the problem: as this was early in her storied career, maybe she couldn’t tell a good idea from the bad?
Whatever the truth may be, I’ll forgive her – if you’ll forgive me – while I tell you why this flick just never worked for me.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“A small-town farmer’s son reluctantly joins a traveling group of vampires after he is bitten by a beautiful drifter.”
In Ben Mankiewicz’s introduction to Near Dark from a recent airing on Turner Classic Movies, the host talked about how writer/director initially wanted to craft a vampire Western in the creative build-up to the project. However, Westerns (in particular) had fallen to the wayside at studios – meaning she had difficulty securing any financial interest in the affair – and this forced her and screenwriting partner Eric Red to reconceive the script much more as a conventional Horror story set against the backdrop of rural America (presumably in the South) where they could perhaps more easily blend the old with the new (or, at least, “modern”) in the mid-1980’s affair.
It was during this rewatch that, yes, I could see some influence of those traditional oaters playing out with characters as brought to life by Adrian Pasdar, Lance Henriksen, and the always appreciated Bill Paxton. (Paxton’s character ‘Severen’ even wears a pair of signature spurs that he uses to cut the throats of his victims rather cleverly in a key film sequence.) Rather easily, I could sense how this ‘roving band of outlaws’ was likely originally imagined to be terrorizing the small towns of the vast and unforgiving prairies, but parts of their modernization came off feeling more clunky instead of organic.
The sublimely photogenic Jenny Wright – one of Hollywood’s greatest disappearing talents – earns points as the small-town beauty queen who’s somehow found her way amongst the undead. (We do learn that it was Homer who found and turned her into a vampire.) Her scenes with Pasdar are good; they share a youthful energy, and it’s clear that she’s not quite bought into the whole ‘life everlasting’ scenario (especially with this violent lot), so her continued unwillingness to truly push her new love into the ultimate darkness is one of the film’s best characterizations. It may not lift the project to untold heights, but it works when needed … and that gives Near Dark its best moments in the light.
Still, the film’s inability to follow the established canon of vampire lore weakens what should and could be a stronger entry. See, vampires are supposed to feast directly from the body of their victims, but Bigelow’s creations can apparently drain their victim into even beer steins and guzzle when desired … and, to this purist, that ain’t kosher. This lot is also capable of openly bleeding … while anyone who knows anything about a vampire is certain that – if the heart isn’t pumping – then the blood isn’t … well … bleeding. I’ve read that, again, all of this was a deliberate stylistic choice on the director’s part; but if you didn’t want vampires to be vampires, then why make a movie about vampires? Why not come up with something all of your own – something fresh and new – instead of pilfering just what works and forcing a square peg into a round hole? Seizing half of what makes them unique while ignoring the rest is a glaring inconsistency, and inconsistencies do not make for good storytelling.
In fact, I’d argue that the only salvageable scene in all of Near Dark is its high point: the vampires take brief refuge in a tavern on the edge of town, and they spend the bulk of this sequence brilliantly terrorizing the locals one-by-one until there’s only a single man left standing. It’s written exceedingly well, staged brilliantly, and rendered damn near flawlessly by everyone involved … including those cast bit players who get a line here and there. Those scenes are the stuff of screen legend; and they’re likely the source of Dark’s enduring reputation.
Otherwise? It’s a bloodless affair … though with a pair of transfusions that miraculously (and magically) save the day, ignoring vampire lore in the last frame.
Like I said above: sigh.
Near Dark (1987) was produced by F/M and Near Dark Joint Venture.
Still … it’s recommended.
Near Dark is a film I should probably like more than I do … but regular readers in this space know all too well that I’m not really one for always ‘doing’ what it’s in my best interest when it comes to liking genre films. While I think its cult sensibilities are definitely in the right place, its narrative drawbacks are just huge problems for me. But that bar scene? If you watch anything in it, then make it the bar scene. It rather deftly brought vampire Horror into the late 1980’s with just the right mix of humor, pathos, drama, and terror. That, my friends, is movie magic.