EMPIRE ESSAY: Near Dark Review

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A mid-western farm boy reluctantly becomes a member of the undead when a girl he meets turns out to be part of a band of southern vampires who roam the highways in stolen cars. Part of his initiation includes a bloody assault on a hick bar.


The word "vampire" is never mentioned in Near Dark. Yet, in the dustbowl gravities of its Oklahoma setting a van full of night-crawlers set to gorging on local blood. The touch of sunlight will chargrill them instantly, but they have no aversion to garlic or crosses and display no propensity for turning into flying mammals.

Released in the summer of 1987, Near Dark went head-to-head with the more brashly comic The Lost Boys and, in box office terms at least, took a heavy beating. Yet it was the superior movie by far. Its mix of edgy romanticism (the film is also a love story) and haunting melancholy makes it, as an immediate proposition, less accessible but far more memorable. These are vampires of a postmodern world in which belief has faded to the point where the paraphernalia of myth and religion are no longer effective. Bigelow, echoing the games the Coen brothers play, reconstructs genre conventions from the inside out. These are humanised monsters, almost likeable.

Our first meeting with them is innocently romantic: Mae (Wright) confusing blood lust with sexual desire when she is hit on by Caleb (Pasdar). They are depicted in tight-knit family unity, Henrickson's Jessie and Jenette Goldstein's Diamondback are surrogate parents to the band. But their hermetic existence is a bleak one. We are never asked to sympathise, but we do empathise. Perhaps we even envy them. Still, their actions are quite despicable (having completely lost touch with the humans they once were). Paxton's overbearing, scene-stealing brute Severen devises new and vile ways to siphon the red stuff from his victims. In an idea nicked squarely from vampire doyenne Anne Rice (the same motif appears in Interview With The Vampire), the brat of the pack Ishmael (Joshua Millar) has been preserved forever in a child's body while his mind and desires have grown older.

No excuses are made for the characters' behaviour: their nighttime existence as forever drifting outsiders (this is also a road movie) has driven them to the point where they have only mutual dependence to rely on. But neither are their victims innocent. No swooning virgins these, but oafish hicks and rednecks clamouring to die. The kernel of the plot is simple. Listless farmboy Caleb romances an itinerant girl who, instead of making out, takes a bite and drinks from his jugular. As his transformation to bloodsucker gathers pace, he is reluctantly taken into the fold of her nomadic vampire clan. Meanwhile his father fights to get him back and save his soul. The central metaphor here is hardly an original one — vampirism as drug addiction: the hostile, insular community, the dependence upon night, the cold turkey/transfusion link (an idea that stems from Bram Stoker himself, in Dracula he called it "blood letting").

The ability to "cure" vampires in Near Dark introduces an unusual factor to the genre, the chance for an immortal to return to humanity. Both Mae and Caleb find salvation, but in the process lose something immense and are forever tainted by the experience. Artist-turned-director Bigelow — a consummate blender of action staples and stylistic overtures (Blue Steel (1989), Strange Days (1995), the pumped up machismo piss-take of Point Break (1991) — understood the key to the affair was atmosphere, and she drenches the film in it. Tumbleweed America bled dry, a world of ashen light and endless horizons, with the familiar woozy moods of Tangerine Dream in the background. Bigelow worked closely with cinematographer Adam Greenberg to invest the night scenes with a seductive warmth to suggest the allure of vampirism. The violence, when it happens, comes in brutal, imaginative bursts. There are some tangy visual licks — the sun barbecuing an agonised Paxton (utilising tubes of compressed smoking tobacco stuck under prosthetics); bullets punching through walls to let in laser beams of deadly sunlight.

A sequence where Paxton squeezes a redneck's head like an ugly great pimple had to be excised, however, to appease the censors. But the violence, laced with jaunty wit ("I hate it when they ain't shaved," moans Severen of a hirsute kill), is seen as the truth of their existence rather than simply a sadistic impulse, never is it premeditated. This predilection for reinventing the vampire theme has struck something of a chord: The Addiction (1994), From Dusk Till Dawn (1995) and The Wisdom Of Crocodiles (1998) all refit the classic motifs. None, though, have had quite the startling, unnerving effect of Near Dark.

There are no gothic extravagances in Kathryn Bigelow's bone-dry, style-rich, noir-steeped vampire western. Instead it comprises a fascinatingly modern take on blood sucking mythology, shedding tradition to examine the creatures as human counterparts, whos