Kathryn Bigelow’s revisionist vampire Western exemplifies her career-long fascination with violence and subversion of genre filmmaking. Info
It’s always a treat when Cinematheque features Halloween-themed films in its fall schedule, and the inclusion of Near Dark (1987) on 35mm, no less, is a great chance to revisit one of the era’s most enduring horror entries. In her first solo-directed effort, Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow strips away the bulk of the vampire mythos and infuses it with an outlaw Western sensibility. Bigelow’s fast-paced, concise editing style, career-long fascination with violence, and subversion of genre filmmaking emerge fully formed here.
After being bitten by the mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright), country boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is abducted by Mae’s ‘family’ of vampires- Jesse (Lance Henriksen), Diamondback (Jeanette Goldstein), Severn (Bill Paxton) and Homer (Joshua Miller). Unable to survive in daylight, the group travels in blacked-out stolen cars, feeding off hitch-hikers and truck drivers. Caleb is given a tenuous trial period to join the vampire clan, but his refusal to kill to survive tests the patience of the bloodthirsty group. When Caleb’s father and sister finally track him down, it sets off a showdown between Caleb and the gang.
As in her other films like Point Break (1991), Bigelow’s interest lies in violence and our attraction/revulsion to those who commit it. As a protagonist, Pasdar as Caleb is overwhelmingly dull and inarticulate, while Hendriksen and Paxton as Jesse and Severn, respectively, are as charismatic as they are terrifying. The whole of the vampire family give fantastic performances, with Hendriksen at his creepiest as the patriarchal figure. While Paxton was typically cast as sleazy, unpleasant characters, in Near Dark he gives an incredibly sadistic, menacing performance. Drenched in blood and cracking wise as he rips apart a bar full of rednecks, Paxton portrays Severn as a hyper-violent version of a stock biker movie villain. Filmed shortly after his role as Tim in River’s Edge (1986), Miller is also at his career-best as a cigarette-smoking, temperamental vampire trapped in a child’s body; and his scenes that involve his increasing obsession with Caleb’s little sister are among the most chilling.
Released months after the similarly themed The Lost Boys (1987), Near Dark didn’t make much of an impact in the ‘80s, but has become a beloved cult classic over the years. By purging the vampire genre of its supernatural tropes, Near Dark helped pave the way for a new era of vampires in film. Filled with creatively rendered action sequences and powerhouse performances, Near Dark is an important work in the canon of one of Hollywood’s most uncompromising directors. —Ian Adcock