Review: Near Dark

Near Dark Poster Bill Paxton

The nukes are coming, and the end of humanity is coming with them. Estimates project you have about 90 more minutes before the surface of the Earth starts to resemble Gary Oldman’s face in Hannibal. You’re left with one ultimate question: what is the last vampire love film you watch? The Lost Boys if you happen to like good movies or Twilight if you don’t. The choice is that simple. Or is it?

Enter Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark.

We’re in some small backwater town in the American South where everyone has horses and shotguns and hats. Nothing new there then. But they also have technological conveniences like ice cream and pickup trucks with their radio’s tuned to 24 hour honky-tonk. There’s dust everywhere and denim makes up most of the costume department’s budget. It’s a modern day western.

Son of the local cow-doctor, Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar – Carlito’s Way) is a young guy prowling the night for some action. He’s at that age where he’s got the balls to approach any bit of skirt that happens his way. This time it’s the mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright – The Lawnmower Man), a girl he’s never met before, who catches his fancy. He offers to take her for a ride in his big truck and she accepts.

near-dark-caleb-mae

She’s not from around here, and is currently staying with her family in the local trailer park. Caleb aims to impress her by taking her to a local ranch and lassoing some wild horse. To be fair that is pretty badass. I can’t say I’ve ever tried this tactic, and I suspect I would have had more success with the ladies had my rope-the-horse game been more on point. But back to bum-fuck America – Despite his efforts, the horse doesn’t want to play ball. Specifically, it seems to be pissed off with Mae. Like the dogs in Terminator, this horse can sniff out that something ain’t right.

She asks for him to take her home and starts to get stressed when she realizes it’s getting close to sun up. She starts crying and shit, and won’t accept the fact that Caleb cooks up a pretty decent story for why she’s back so late (“hey, the car broke down”). That doesn’t cut it.

Now, most of us have a sort of Geiger counter for crazy-hot women. We’ll accept dangerous levels of radiation to get down and dirty with a smoking chick. We’ll endure all kinds of mental. But there’s usually a limit of madness we’ll tolerate before the enterprise becomes futile.

Unfortunately Caleb doesn’t have such a limit. Instead of accepting he’s just struck out, he stops the car and says “Oh I’ve lost my keys down my top, you’ll have to put your hand in there to find them”. In this neo-liberal pro-Femirati world, such a statement could be construed as dangerously rapey.

She digs deep, and kisses him for his trouble. A deep bond is formed and things start to steam up and she starts kissing his neck. Woah there one minute blondie, did you just bite him?! ‘Fraid so Caleb. And without so much as a handjob she gets out the truck and runs off into the dawn-light. Stunned for a moment, Caleb figures he better head home. Shame the truck has died on him. I guess that sneaky story he was gonna spin to Mae’s Dad was true after all. He decides to head back home on foot.

Something’s wrong though. God damn it’s hot. The sun doesn’t usually literally cook people alive does it? Caleb is smoldering by time he stumbles home. But before he can fall into the concerned arms of his Father and baby sister, some blacked out motorhome swoops in and drags poor Caleb inside. Off it speeds, leaving his family running behind in the dust.

Inside the Winnebago Caleb is protected from the sun (it’s windows are covered and painted out), but his troubles aren’t over just yet. While Mae is there to daub his scorched forehead with a wet towel, the rest of her “family” are there too. And they’re all ready to tell Mae and Caleb how much fucking trouble they’re in.

near dark vampires paxton henriksen goldstein

“You’re in so much fucking trouble” announces Severen (Bill Paxton – Aliens) a sort of biker/punk/cowboy psycho.

“You’ve fucked up big time”, says the Daddy of the group, Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen – Aliens). He’s dressed like he’s the last cowboy in the Mad Max universe, sans big hat. Henriksen’s unusual face is further enhanced by an awesome scar and tiny little padawan braid.

They’re all ready to kill Caleb until Mae confesses she’s bitten him.

“He comes with us” Jesse announces.

They hole up in some old building and all hunker down to rest. Caleb wakes up the following night and they’re all talking about what kind of shit he’s into. Turns out the junior of the group, Homer, a pre-teen kid, actually “turned” (by this we mean turned someone into a vampire) Mae herself. He taught her every thing she knows, except for picking up trailer trash on a whim, obviously.

Homer’s an old guy in a child’s body, and I kind of like that dynamic. He uses his youth and innocence as a disguise to allow his victims to get close to him. But it’s also a curse. He’ll never grow old and it’s clear he envies the sexy bond between Jesse and his main squeeze “Diamondback” (Jeanette Goldstein – Aliens). Later in the film, he’ll take a liking to Caleb’s young sister who, as a young girl without a mother, has also been forced to “grow up” despite her physical appearance.

near dark jesse lance henriksen

Jesse, the old romantic, gives Caleb a week to learn the ways. That is to hunt, kill and feed. Otherwise they’ll kill him. Caleb still doesn’t know wtf is going on really. But we know the drill. Regular food and drink ain’t gonna sustain him now. Nope not even that Snickers bar from that vending machine Caleb. Yep, that’s right, throw that crap up. No, it isn’t a peanut allergy.

Instead he’s gonna need the red blood of a human to keep him from going insane. Also, as he’s already figured out, strolling around in the daylight is a big no no.

Beyond this we don’t really get a sense of their vampire powers. We know they’re immortal, and otherwise impervious to longterm damage. But can they fly? Turn into mist? Communicate with wolves and other badass animals? It’s not really clear. In fact, thinking back, I can’t remember many instances where you even see any teeth. I suppose this is a contemporary deconstruction of the vampire genre, and it’s fine that it’s leaving us to decipher what is going on. I imagine it also saved a bit on special effects.

As a vampire Caleb is pretty shit. He can’t seem to get over that killing and feeding hurdle, and ultimately relies on Mae to do the dirty work. He then feeds off of her via wrist-to-mouth action. Is this some kind of metaphor for women supporting men? I don’t know. But it pisses off the rest of the group.

near dark bar

They decide to give him one more chance at a bar. It’s that kind of drinking hole where bikers and other assorted dregs amass. The walls are peeling, the cigarette-stained wallpaper giving way to rotten wood beneath. Even a nice bit of neon lighting can’t disguise the fact this is a shit hole: the perfect place to bring your incognito vampire brood when swearing in a new initiate.

Punters and staff alike are quickly murdered and drained one-by-one. Only one remains – Caleb’s lucky guy, a poor pool-playing dude whose neck virginity is due to be taken against his will. Only Caleb can’t pull the trigger. Again, could this be some feministic reference to erectile dysfunction? Next time I see director Kathryn Bigelow, I’ll ask her okay.

He gets away, much to Jesse’s annoyance. That was the last straw, but before they can take care of Caleb, they realize the sun is coming up. Surely, the amount of times in this film they realize that the sun is coming up in like 5 minutes, it should have been called Near Sunrise or something. Why not do all their business earlier in the night guys? Or wear watches?

near dark paxton henriksen

Regardless, the race is on to find shelter. The law is gonna be on their asses now that the Pool Dude escaped. Thankfully, they manage to get booked into a local motel. Now, if they’d Trivago’d that shit, there would have been zero stress, and they probably could have saved on the room fee. Instead, Jesse nearly gets burned and they get fleeced for some squalid little bungalow.

When they’re all hunkered down to sleep the law come a knocking. During a tense daylight raid, Caleb literally puts his ass on the line by running out the back and crashing their van into the house. He gets burned to bits, but saves the day. Everyone else suddenly changes their tune in regards to killing him. Hell, Severen even gives him one of his spurs he’s that impressed.

Holing up at another motel, they decide that Caleb is alright, and that he gets another pass. That is until Homer rocks up with Caleb’s little sister in tow. See, ever since he went missing, Caleb’s sis and Dad have been searching for him. And by coincidence, they turn up at the same motel. Jesse orders Caleb to kill them both as the ultimate sign that he is part of the gang.

I think this is a bit unfair by old Jesse. I mean Caleb couldn’t kill a guy he didn’t even know in a bar. So how is he gonna muster the balls to off his old man and his cute little baby sister. I mean, she’s wearing a little dressing gown! She’s adorable!

Obviously he isn’t going to do it. Thankfully after talking and deliberating all night, that pesky sun has risen again, so after opening the door and letting a little light in, Dad, Sister and Son are able to escape. Back at home, Caleb Snr is able to cure his boy’s vampirism with a blood transfusion. But Caleb knows that they’ll be back. He’s seen too much, and by God look at the time. It’s already Near Dark once again…

Near Dark is an odd film. It’s hard to pin it down. It can’t claim to be an action, horror, western or even vampire film. Instead, it just touches bases with each genre. With a reported budget of $5 mil, director Bigelow (Point Break) does make it count in some scenes. The bar scene in particular is well executed, and like that one killer track on a CD chock full of filler, is probably the highlight of the movie. Towards the end there is also a great sequence on a truck, with Paxton (True Lies) being all mangled and burnt, physically ripping apart the engine. 30 years later, Rictus Erectus would go on to do the same in George Miller’s fantastic Mad Max: Fury Road.

The makeup effects, while sparsely used, are good. Seeing the insta-burns on vampire skin being touched by the sun is really effective. As is a lot of the “running whilst on fire” moments, stuntman staples of the 80’s.

Where Bigelow saves her cash for the money scenes, she shrewdly improvises for everything else. There’s lot of shady, poorly lit rooms and alleyways. She also likes to imply a lot of things to. For example,  you see each of the group using their own skills to hunt; Paxton picks up some babes using his charm, Homer pretends to be an injured child in the road, Henriksen and Goldstein pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a carjacker. Each scene ends before the money shot. You never see them kill anyone, but you just know dude, you just know.

bill paxton near dark gif

It has a very Terminator-feel to it as well. The lighting, the essence of an unstoppable killing machines etc. This probably isn’t by accident, as creator James Cameron was boning Kathryn Bigelow at the time. Cameron has a habit of picking strong women to shack up with, and not only has a history with Bigelow, but with Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor) and Gale Anne Hurd (producer of the Terminator) too. I imagine the fact that it also features three Cameron regulars (Henriksen, Paxton and Goldstein) was more a case of filmic nepotism than by mere chance too.

But those three work well together. Henriksen is wiry as hell, and has a genuine frightening appeal. He works better when he’s saying less, as he doesn’t quite nail the accent he’s trying to pull off. Don’t worry though, by time he gets to Hard Target he’s much better.

If Bill Paxton’s Hudson role in Aliens hadn’t been so quotable and lovable, his turn as the psychotic Severus could probably be considered a career high. He’s crazy, erratic and easily the most memorable of characters here. Not only does he predate Heath Ledger’s Joker in terms of grungy evil physical appeal, he also has the best lines too.

Similar to Paxton, Goldein’s most memorable work is as Vasquez in Aliens. Sadly, she doesn’t get much to do in Near Dark, and plays the Mom or Bottom Bitch role compared to Jenny Wright’s ditsy Mae.

I think this is one of the reasons I didn’t connect with the film; I don’t like Caleb or Mae. Caleb is a bit of a pussy, and Mae, for being an ancient vampire and all, seems very childish. The vampire posse are far cooler, but considering the evil that they wreck, impossible to sympathize with. They are the bad guys for sure, and just because Caleb spurns their attempts to join their nefarious ranks, doesn’t mean we automatically like him. Props for writers Bigelow and Eric Red (Blue Steel) though; there is no moment where Caleb, who has lost everything, decides to feast on some poor human and embrace his vampire side. While this happens in every other vampire film where the good guy becomes a vampire (I’m looking at you Dracula Untold), Caleb instead gets cured with his murder virginity intact.

There is a lack of other characters too. Caleb’s sister and Dad aren’t in enough to really start to like, and due to their lack of screen time, you often forget they’re out there looking for him. The Lost Boys had that Jason Patrick vs. Kiefer Sutherland shit going on, but they also had Corey Haim and Corey Feldman as comic relief side characters too. Sure, Sutherland’s vampire brethren are far less memorable (I can only really remember Bill & Ted’s Alex Winter as being another vampire), but you know who you’re rooting for the entire movie. It’s not about the vampires.

In Near Dark it’s all about the vampires. And while they hold this film together, there are some inconsistencies that I’m too much a bastard not to point out. I mean, if I was over 200 years old (which Jesse claims to be), I’d hope to God I’d have got my shit together in that time. I’d be praying I wouldn’t be living hand to mouth every damn day like these nomads are doing. Maybe that’s a lifestyle choice they like. Like veganism, it’s retarded and insane, but some people choose to do it I guess. But if I knew that sunlight was going to kill me, I’d sure as Hell make sure I was inside at sun up. These clowns are nearly always caught out by it. And why the fuck are they in Texas (or wherever)? There’s probably only about 3 hours of darkness per day. Why not get their asses to Alaska, like they do in 30 Days of Night? It just don’t make sense.

Musically, it’s pretty generic. Very synthy, something to be expected from the 80’s. In the opening credits it proudly advises that the music is done by Tangerine Dream. As I’m not a fan, I can’t say this blew my hair back. Personally, I think they did better work on the intro for Streethawk.

Look, I watched this film as a curiosity after the tragic, tragic death of Bill Paxton. Whereas most people were quipping “Game over man” from Aliens, a minority were posting pictures of his turn as Severus. MMA announcer and cult comedic icon Joe Rogan chose Near Dark for his dedication. I’d been aware of it as a film for a long while, being fans of Paxton, Bigelow and Henriksen. It’s been on my Amazon wishlist for years, etc. So I knew I had to take the plunge.

Perhaps this is why I didn’t get it. I love a lot of cheesy shit because I probably came across it one night at 2:00am when I was a kid. I probably would have liked this had I seen it back then. But watching it almost as a study, to “see what all the fuss is about”, most likely didn’t do me any favours. It’s a dangerous attitude to go into a film with preconceptions, and this time it didn’t pay off.

The Lost Boys and Fright Night, the two 80’s sleeper vampire flicks that hit the big time made the whole bloodsucking genre vogue again. But they had a much more playful, colourful style. Near Dark is…well dark, and grim and far more a cult movie than an actual cultural phenom. It lost money from it’s modest budget. But every great director has skeletons in the closet, and it’s great to see it didn’t derail a visionary career. Near Dark is a million miles away from Point Break or Bigelow’s much later Oscar work on The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.

As perennial B-stars, it’s good to finally see the likes of Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen get much meatier roles. And if you’re a fan of either actor (and if you’re not, you’re a douchebag), Near Dark should be on your watch list. It isn’t their fault it doesn’t hit all the right notes. Instead, they’re the most memorable elements of this seemingly forgotten little vampire western. They’ve both put in the time and effort on enough many legendary films, so you kind owe it to them. Get it watched.

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