Overlooked Movie Monday: Near Dark

by Phil Fava on October 22, 2012

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

With director Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty release date approaching and Halloween right on our heels, today’s Overlooked Movie takes a look at an early movie in Bigelow’s career, the underrated vampire flick Near Dark.

The 1980s seemed to exist in a vast ocean of cheesy vampire flicks. Movies like Once Bitten, Vamp, and Fright Night were popping up left and right, and the quality of each varied dramatically.

The best known in this quasi-category is probably The Lost Boys, the only Joel Schumacher film to date that I have any affection for, and it arrived in theaters the same year as today’s overlooked movie, Near Dark. The basic premise of each was remarkably similar: attractive young man (Caleb in Near Dark and Michael in The Lost Boys) gets lured into a group of fringe-dwelling vampires by an attractive young woman (Mae in Near Dark and Star in The Lost Boys) and his life is thrown into upheaval as a result. However, the similarities end there. There’s a stark difference between the two in terms of style, setting, tone, and overall execution that makes them worthy companion pieces and not vacuous competitors. (I’m looking at you, Armageddon and Deep Impact.)

The Lost Boys had a lighter touch, relied more on comedy, and played pretty much by the basic rules of movie vampirism. Also, it happily and freely used the word “vampire,” going so far as to have local slayers recommend vampire comic books as makeshift survival guides.

Conversely, Near Dark was darker and slightly more existential, with black humor and considerably greater violence, and no interest in adhering to the traditional rules of vampire cinema laid out by countless predecessors. No stakes through the heart or defensive crucifixes, here, and apart from their blood thirst and aversion to sunlight, the vampires in this film are undefined. They’re never identified as vampires and have more in common with the marauding sociopaths of The Devil’s Rejects than they do with Nosferatu.

Another important distinction between the two is a detail that actually becomes paradoxical within Near Dark. As Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and Mae (Jenny Wright) stare up at the sky and hone in on the stillness of the night, the pathos and majesty of eternal life manifest as Mae tells Caleb she’ll still be around when the light from a distant star finally reaches the planet. It’s a haunting moment elevated to transcendent by the score from Tangerine Dream. With sparse, mournful airs bellowing on a synthesizer seemingly adjusted for deep space, the never ending future seems cold and lonely and inexplicable.

When I first saw the film, I wasn’t sure what to think of it, but I knew that I was moved in some capacity by that sequence. And so it stands to reason that my only real complaint about it is that it lets its vampires off the hook of their doom much, much too easily and undercuts some of the power that sequence conveyed. A fairly simple medical procedure is all it takes to return a vampire to his or her human form, and that fact has consequences for the philosophical implications and efficacy of the film.

The first thing it does is tell us that there’s nothing supernatural about vampirism. It doesn’t specify what it is, but we can assume that it’s a biochemical aberration caused by an infection and not a spiritual one with demonic origins. The second thing it does is take something away from the haunting beauty of the immortality associated with vampirism that the film established so well in its opening scenes.

On the one hand, I appreciate that with this detail they’re able to sidestep the “kill the head vampire” trope because it’s ubiquitous in films of this sort (Lost Boys comes to mind) and so slightly less dramatically compelling. On the other, I find it disenchanting that something so frightening and sacrosanct can be embraced and rejected through such relatively simple means.

It’s an odd situation. The film does a better job crystallizing eternity than just about any other vampire film I’ve seen, and yet, before all’s said and done, it chips away at that crystallization by solving its biggest problem far too easily. I guess the sacrifice of resonance for originality is an essential compromise.

The vampires in the film are played by James Cameron regulars Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein, in addition to Joshua Miller, the son of Jason Miller (The Exorcist) and brother of Jason Patric, who, coincidentally, starred in The Lost Boys, this film’s aforementioned timely and topical counterpart. As Severen, Bill Paxton is particularly engaging and his antics add a completely different dimension to the film. By “antics,” I mean slaughter. And by “slaughter,” I mean widespread gory demises of minor characters delivered with the personal touch of the 1980s Bill Paxton prototype.

The film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, would go on to become the first female recipient of the Academy Award for Best Director in motion picture history for The Hurt Locker. While this film was certainly no harbinger of things to come, it showed in the young filmmaker an effortless command of elaborate action sequences and a palpable inventiveness that permeated them. Take a look at the motel shoot out in broad daylight and you can see notes of technique that would be employed later on.

And in addition to those technicalities, the burnt-out western landscapes and the dodgy bars and motels visited throughout create an exacting sense of time and place. It’s murky and dusty and exhausting, but ultimately rewarding.

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