“The night has its price.” – Mae

Part horror, part romance, part western road movie, Kathryn Bigelow’s first solo feature, the flat-out classic Near Dark (1987), gives the well-worn vampire mythology a much-needed transfusion by stripping the genre of its gothic signifiers and replacing them with unmistakably American ones.

Focusing on a group of world-weary vampires who roam the sun-parched farmlands of the American Midwest, Near Dark was released only a few months after the success of the glossier, Brat Pack–powered teen vamp flick The Lost Boys; as a result, it performed poorly at the box office. The fact that Near Dark was the last film to be released by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group just before the company went bankrupt probably didn’t help much either. However, the film’s subsequent release on the thriving VHS format offered a new lease of life, and it took no time for Near Dark to amass a devout cult following within horror circles, thanks to its impeccable performances, genre fusing and unique portrayal of vampires.

With its crisply photographed widescreen frames (courtesy of Adam Greenberg’s striking photography), heavy shades of noir and rhythmic editing, Bigelow’s film paints a provocative picture, where a mood of alienation, otherness and rebellion permeates the desert landscape with a unique and sustained oddness. Consistent in form and tone, and immeasurably enhanced by Tangerine Dream’s melancholy electronic score, Near Dark is a horror film of rare substance, poetic in ways that many of its contemporaries fail to be.

Rebelling against convention and cliché, Bigelow and co-writer Eric Red ditched the old genre motifs of fangs, garlic, crucifixes and holy water in favour of distilling the film’s coven of cowboy-punk vampires down to their purest essence, in which their strength, their vulnerability to sunlight and their thirst for blood are retained – and nowhere is the word “vampire” even mentioned.

The film’s opening shots ground us in the rich symbolic language of the cowboy movie  –  the immense sky and vast Oklahoma plains rolling by through the window of a battered pickup truck, driven by a rugged young man in denim and a ten-gallon hat. In town, the driver, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who lives at home with his father and kid sister, spies a doe-eyed waif, Mae (Jenny Wright), emerging from a shop with an ice-cream cone. After a night of flirting and aggressive advances, Caleb finally insists that Mae kiss him before they can part ways, to which Mae responds by biting his neck and running away.

Later, as Caleb begins to undergo extreme changes  – weakened from hunger and literally smouldering in the sun – he is swept up by Mae’s band of blood-drinkers in their blacked-out RV, and drawn into their roving drift along the highways of Middle America. Along with Mae, there is the group’s Civil War-era de facto patriarch, Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen); the psychotic outlaw, Severen (Bill Paxton); the matriarchal figure, Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein); and the malicious ‘adolescent,’ Homer (Joshua Miller), an embittered older soul trapped in the body of a child.

Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, the feral, makeshift family feed off the easily missed in a vast nocturnal environment of scantly lit, depopulated streets, diners and honky-tonks. Leathered, buckskinned, bleached and pigtailed, the clan is, in many ways, the epitome of a nuclear family unit, a feat that Bigelow achieves partly through a casting masterstroke. Certainly, not enough can be said about the actors who committed to the material, key examples being Paxton, Henriksen and Goldstein, who had all collaborated in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) the year before. Their bond feels palpable, and they are all ruthlessly convincing.

Caleb, at first uncomprehending and terrified, tries to return to his home by bus, but has to bail out when he is afflicted with a debilitating sickness. Mae covers for Caleb for a while by feeding him her own blood, but the posse soon gives Caleb an ultimatum: either he does his part and goes hunting like the rest of them, or they put him out of his misery.

As Caleb becomes increasingly strung-out from avoiding blood, Near Dark becomes a timely allegory of disease and drug addiction as well as a tale about broken families and Western isolation. The vampire-as-user is a theme that’s been touched upon many times in film, but perhaps never so well (and subtly) as here. Without doubt, the image of Caleb lustily drinking from a gash in Mae’s arm, as lightning flashes and oil pump-jacks grind away behind them, is one of the most memorable in the history of the horror film. Obscuring all divides between sex and sustenance, male and female, it’s a breathtakingly powerful and sensual moment, twice repeated: the first time as overwhelming, unremitting ecstasy; the second as consuming and greedy, with Caleb nearly killing Mae in the process.

Hiding out during daylight in abandoned warehouses, motels and camper vans with aluminium-foil-covered windows, Jesse and his brood let off night-time steam by playing out bloody scenarios in roadside dives. In the film’s most notorious and intoxicating set piece – both startling in its realism and fascinating in its surrealism – the group attack an isolated Texas roadhouse, searching for a victim on whom Caleb can feed. Here, Severen delights in terrifying, insulting and slaughtering the patrons, while the rest of the group sit back in a booth, taunting the bar’s customers. When Caleb gets shot in the stomach by the barman (Thomas Wagner) yet remains unharmed, and Severen strikes back by slicing the latter’s throat with a few slick kicks of his cowboy spurs, the dumbfounded customers realise that they’re contending with something completely unnatural.

Despite Caleb’s reluctance to make a ‘kill’, he is soon caught between his vampire family and his blood relatives – his father (Tim Thomerson) and younger sister, Sarah (Marcie Leeds) – who are in hot pursuit. It all culminates in a western-style shootout in which Jesse’s family wake to a police ambush. Bullet-riddled, the flimsy walls of their fleabag motel are punctured by shards of sunlight, any one of which might strike the vampires like a match. Next, in the blindingly bizarre climax, Homer – desperate for a companion his own size – bursts into flames as he chases after Sarah, before burning to dust in lethal sunlight. Finally, Jesse and Diamondback roast alive in their truck, as he glowers in defeated rage while she beams at the glory of going out with her partner. “Fun times,” she says, in the serene voice of one who has found all that they ever wanted.

Unapologetically brutal, erotically charged and eerily stylish, Bigalow’s frequently hypnotic vampire tale still holds up today as one of the finest examples of ’80s horror, and remains one of pulp cinema’s greatest achievements. Modern ruminations on the vampire myth are a dime a dozen, but none are this accomplished.

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Near Dark (1987 United States 94 mins)

Prod. Co: F/M, Near Dark Joint Venture Prod: Steven-Charles Jaffe Dir: Kathryn Bigelow Scr: Kathryn Bigelow, Eric Red Phot: Adam Greenberg Ed: Howard E Smith Mus: Tangerine Dream Prod. Des: Stephen Altman

Cast: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, Tim Thomerson, Joshua John Miller, Marcie Leeds

About The Author

Amy Simmons is a freelance film critic based in Brighton, UK. She has written for Time Out London and the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine. Her monograph on Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is published by Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocates series.