Whenever the question of favorite vampire movies pops up, there are certain titles you hear again and again. The Lost Boys is one. One of the many adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula might be cited by those with respect for the classics. If you’re with a younger crowd you might hear Twilight or What We Do in the Shadows. But for me, the one that always comes to mind is Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, one of the most satisfying genre hybrids of all time and maybe the only vampire movie that actually makes these supernatural bloodsuckers legitimately frightening.
Near Dark is a horror movie almost by default, thanks to its plotline about a band of immortal vampires who stalk and kill humans by night. But Bigelow’s interest seems equally attuned to making a vampire action-western, and the film probably has more well-known pieces of western visual iconography in it than familiar vampire hallmarks. There are no fangs, or cloaks, cobwebs, bats, wolves, crucifixes, or stakes through the heart, but there are twirling six-shooters, silver spurs, horses, and saloons -- enough to make this an even more pointed vampire western than John Carpenter’s Vampires, which came out more than a decade later. But despite its western trappings and mood, this is a truly unsettling horror film as well, particularly in its infamous barroom massacre sequence which makes the usual fangs-through-the-neck approach to bloodsucking seem like polite dinner conversation.
Adrian Pasdar is nominally the star of Near Dark in the role of Caleb, the young farm boy somewhere in the rural southwest who accidentally finds himself transformed into a vampire. I say “nominally” because Pasdar has to hang on for dear life just to share the screen with those more experienced vampires, played by the likes of Aliens alums Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and the late Bill Paxton in the role of a lifetime as sociopathic shitkicker Severen (it’s a true testament to Paxton’s versatility as an actor that he managed to avoid being typecast as killers and maniacs like Severen for the rest of his long career). Jenny Wright plays Mae, the vampire who turns Caleb, and a young Joshua John Miller (who would go on to become a successful screenwriter in Hollywood) plays Homer, a vampire of indeterminate age who is nevertheless trapped in the body of the 12-year-old boy he was when he was first transformed. The other piece of the cast that I want to give special attention to is genre movie god Tim Thomerson, who has played so many memorable jerks and assholes in movies like Cherry 2000, Dollman, and the Trancers series but here plays Caleb’s father as a perfect embodiment of humble decency. His (and his young daughter’s) search for Caleb after he goes missing gives the movie a surprising amount of emotional weight and provides Near Dark with the added urgency of a struggle between two families for Caleb’s fate and soul.
I’ve seen Near Dark countless times but on my most recent viewing the power of Thomerson’s performance as Caleb’s father made me realize something interesting about it I’d never really thought about before. Its moral universe is totally clear-cut and even conservative in nature. It’s easy to imagine a different version of Near Dark in which Caleb finds refuge from an abusive or hypocritical family in a found family of vampires, who may kill humans and drink blood to live but are basically good people trying their best to survive in a cruel, unjust world. Bigelow doesn’t appear interested in that kind of moral gradient, however, instead opting to portray vampires, and more significantly, vampirism itself, as an evil transgression against a basically good society. You could pick that approach apart very effectively if you wanted (and with so many instances out there of young people being mistreated and abused by their own families and society at large, you wouldn’t even have to try very hard) but within the movie’s own insular context there’s no question that it can make you believe in this basic moral premise even if only for 90 minutes or so.
Caleb and Mae are “good” vampires because they don’t really want to be vampires at all, while Severen, Jesse, Diamondback, and Homer are “bad” because they’ve embraced their roles as nocturnal predators and are even seen to have sadistic fun playing with their food, and Caleb’s welcome into his new vampire family is contingent upon his learning how to kill and feed, something he never quite manages to do. Fortunately, Near Dark brings another narrative innovation to the table, allowing vampires to break their curse by way of a simple blood transfusion. The idea that a vampire endowed with superhuman strength, immortality, and the condition of bursting into flames by sunlight could be cured just by swapping out some of their blood for a normal human’s makes absolutely no scientific sense, but it’s in keeping with this film’s deceptively old-fashioned morality -- it’s a wonder that Caleb and Mae are cured by a medical procedure at all and not the blessing of a Christian minister or exorcist.
But: spend too much time meditating on the thematic or moral components of Near Dark and you’ve already missed the point. Like most of Bigelow’s films, this is paced like a silver bullet, and is generally proportioned with one great set-piece after another. There’s the aforementioned barroom slaughter, the daylight motel shootout, the standoff between Caleb’s two families (which takes place in another, different motel), and the final showdown between Caleb and the vampires, a masterpiece of bloody mayhem that also serves as a helpful illustration of how to kill a vampire when there’s no sunlight around -- it involves blowing up a tanker truck.
No discussion of Near Dark is complete without mentioning the score by Tangerine Dream. The band has a pretty incredible filmography, including favorites like Sorcerer, The Keep, and Thief, and their music is crucial to all of their tension and atmosphere, and Near Dark arguably has as much of those qualities as any of the other films have.
Near Dark kicked off a run of excellent action films from Kathryn Bigelow, leading into the underseen Blue Steel (a good contender for a future NeoText essay), Point Break, and her vicious science-fiction masterpiece Strange Days. Then, she moved onto purportedly fact-based dramas like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Detroit, for which she was rewarded with a wealth of awards and critical acclaim. But I know I can’t be the only one who longs for her to return to her pulp cinema roots and do another movie about vampires, skydiving bankrobbers, cursed handguns, or cyberpunk dystopias.
Near Dark is notable for its blend of generic elements, its atmospheric visuals, its cast, its music, and its special effects, but it’s its old fashioned, almost fairytale-like sense of simple morality that struck me the most on my umpteenth viewing. “You’re gonna have to support your own bad habits,” says one of Caleb’s friends early in the film, which goes on to prove those words correct.