Written by: Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"We keep odd hours."
The vampire film is one of the most well-known and most popular sub-genres of horror. Ever since Max Schreck horrified audiences as the fiendish Count Orlok in 1922ís Nosferatu, the sub-genre has been subjected to countless interpretations of Dracula and a host of other vampire characters. Along the way, there have been a few notable vampire films to carve a niche in their uniqueness: Romeroís Martin, The Lost Boys, and Fright Night, among others. Near Dark is another example, as it takes the traditional vampire film and blends it with another popular Hollywood genre: the Western. Such a combination seems odd, and the conception of the film was actually a happy accident, as director Kathryn Bigelow couldnít secure funding for a simple western film, which led to the development of Near Dark, and it was a happy accident indeed.
The film concerns Caleb Cotton, a young man from a small Oklahoma town who meets a drifter named Mae. As they begin to make out, she inexplicably bites him on the neck and runs away. As the sun begins to rise, Caleb notices that his skin begins to burn, and, before long, he finds himself in the clutches of Mae and her family of drifters: Jesse, Diamondback, Severen, and Homer. Severen and Diamondback want to kill Caleb, but Mae convinces Jesse that he can be turned. It soon becomes evident that Mae and her family are a group of vampires that not only have an appetite for blood, but also one for destruction. Caleb then begins to struggle with his own newfound appetite for blood as the family drifts from town to town, with each holding deadly and destructive encounters with the locals. All the while, Calebís father (Loy) and sister (Sarah) are committed to finding their missing son and brother, and the paths eventually cross to lead to a deadly, Western-style showdown.
Near Dark is without a doubt one of the most unique vampire films out there. The blending of genres, while odd, definitely makes for an interesting viewing experience. Vampires typically reside in old, decrepit castles in the old country and terrorize the innocent who stumble upon them. Near Dark strips the vampire myth of all its mysticism by grounding them in the harsh, brutal reality of Western grit. Jesse and his family are apparently normal human beings outside of their bloodlust and the usual vampire weaknesses; in fact, they act like the traditional villains and drifters in a conventional western. This characterization is beautifully done, as it also allows the film to explore another common theme in the vampire film: the somewhat tragic life of the vampire and their latent human qualities.
This is best explored in the character of Homer, who is an old vampire trapped in a very young body. Throughout the film, he displays a jaded cynicism for his condition and even shows a desire for love when he falls for Calebís sister. This comparison between the vampires and the humans is also seen in Bigelowís treatment of the family unit, as the film is essentially a battle between two families that arenít very dissimilar at their core. While Jesse isnít the biological father of his clan, itís obvious that he shows paternal instincts that mirror Loyís; furthermore, both families exhibit dysfunction, as it seems rather clear that Loy and Caleb are a bit estranged at the beginning of the film. At the end of the day, however, both Loy and Jesse will do anything to protect their own. Such a conflict allows us to identify with the vampires and causes them to become more like western anti-heroes than outright villains.
This characterization is helped by the extremely strong performances turned in by all involved. Of course, this shouldnít come as a surprise from a film that features three James Cameron favorites (Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein). Chief among these is Henriken turns in an absolutely outstanding performance as the charismatic Jesse. Henriksen brings a wounded, weary quality to the character that anticipates Clint Eastwoodís take on the aging western legend in Unforgiven. Jesse is clearly a man who has accepted his fate and is unapologetic about the havoc his family has wreaked for over a century.
Bill Paxton is at his best here as the outlandish Severen, who is easily the most deranged of the clan. Joshua John Miller (who had the distinction of playing Tom Atkinsís kid in Halloween 3) turns in a fantastic performance as the aforementioned Homer, a character that brings an almost child-like innocence to the vampire clan. The rest of the performances are just as solid, and Bigelowís direction is top notch. Simply put, Near Dark is an extremely well-made film on all fronts; furthermore, the film looks absolutely wonderful, as there are numerous scenes featuring breathtaking shots (most notably the sunsets and sunrises). Finally, the Tangerine Dream soundtrack is an excellent, moody companion to the dark and subdued visuals on screen.
Near Dark is one of the most epic vampire films ever made. From a horror perspective, it is notable not so much for its scares or gore (though the effects are very well done), but for its excellent and unique treatment of the vampire myth. Itís not a perfect film by any means; for example, the blood transfusion angle seems rushed and convenient, and it causes the film to lumber a bit towards its conclusion. However, the final, epic showdown between Caleb and Jesseís clan more than makes up for this minor complaint. Ultimately, I donít have much bad to say about this film, and itís unfortunate that it was looked over back in 1987 (no doubt due to the aforementioned Lost Boys, a much more accessible vampire film). Fortunately, the film was able to garner quite a cult following in the years after its release, and itís beginning to get the respect it deserves in the genre.
Due to the filmís increasingly popularity, Anchor Bay released an excellent special edition of the film back in 2002. Even though itís six years old, this release still stands tall among modern releases, as the presentation is excellent. The DTS soundtrack is especially well done, as is the video quality. I canít imagine that the film will look or sound any better until Anchor Bay decides to release it on Blu-ray. On the specials front, there is an entire disc dedicated to extras, the most notable being Living in Darkness, a 45 minute documentary on the film. The film is available on a one-disc configuration that retains Bigelowís commentary from the two-disc release; however, the special edition can be found for around ten bucks these days, which is more than a fair price. Either way, no horror fan should be without this one. Near Dark is one of the few films that not only attempts to do something different, but also manages to succeed. Essential!
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