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Near Dark Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 18, 2009

    Near Dark Review

    Okay, let's try to ignore the fact that some marketing dead-head has cold-bloodedly hamstrung this classic movie's region A Blu-ray release with pathetic and ill-fitting Twilight-inspired artwork, and just get to the meat of the matter.

    Although some would have been surprised to find that this ferocious 1987 vampire-cum-modern cowboy thriller had been directed by a girl, the audacious and stylish blood-letter would prove to be merely a foundation-stone for a career so thoroughly tough and testosterone-loaded that she, one esteemed Kathryn Bigelow, would have guaranteed herself a place in the Action Hall Of Fame and proved herself to be one of the boys. With a series of top-notch adrenaline-fuelled pulse-pounders like Point Break, Strange Days, K-19 The Widowmaker, Blue Steel (well, okay, that one's for the ladies) and this year's The Hurt Locker, it is great to go back to the beginning and see just how well she marshalled a trio of the most beloved genre character-actors and retooled the age-old myth of the undead into something contemporary, vibrant and downright vicious.

    The term “vampire” may not even be uttered once in the movie Near Dark, but the story revolves completely around a veritable posse of them and offers a deliciously undiluted slice of twisted mythology and dark romance, mingling the folklore of the Old West with the fuel-veined intoxication of the freeway frontier. Thus, as a reworked Western and an ode to the road-movie, Near Dark was that curiously unique American beast that traded Gothic for gasoline, castles for diners and coffins for a beat-up, sun-scorched and dust-covered Winnebago. It's bloodsuckers were nasty, yet eloquent, down-and-out drifters yet legendary in their own twilight limbo of yawning deserts and roadside death. They may live for the moment, the immediate here and now, with no future other than the desperate destiny that must inevitably await each of them, but their lust for what estranged life that they do have is addictive, shot-through with glycerine and darkly alluring. The film came and went with barely a theatrical flicker, yet it went on to become a cult favourite and one of a select gathering of critically lauded midnight movies that still sits just over the border from the mainsteam dross that has followed in its savage wake.

    The film was co-written by Bigelow and Eric Red, who had already explored the neo-gothic appeal of surreal road-rage with the previous year's The Hitcher. The concept was simple, yet benefited from never really having been attempted before. Mixing genres was nothing new of course, but Near Dark seemed to contain a number of disparate elements that were carefully and almost casually lassoed into the premise of a cocky teen cowboy drawn (reluctantly, as it transpires, by nearly all parties) into the dark and malicious influence of a band of travelling vampires and his fight with the blood-hungry addiction that is coursing through his veins thanks to the fateful bite of the young girl he really shouldn't have picked-up that night. Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is not welcomed into this surrogate “family” easily. The patriarchal head of the clan, Jesse (a marvellously laconic Lance Henriksen), and his rebellious, cut-throat second-in-command, Severin (Bill Paxton on absolute top form - both incredibly scary and k-k-k-krazeee!) feel that the sanctity of the pride is threatened by Caleb and only under duress from Jenny Wright's lonely romantic Mae, as well as some vague form of ancient tradition that they still cling somewhat tenuously onto, do they allow him to ride with them on their ceaseless nocturnal odyssey. But Caleb's gradual “turning” is something that he doesn't want and he is unable to make that all-important first kill, further driving a wedge between him and the rest of the close-knit brood. With his father, Loy (played by B-movie stalwart and straight-to-DVD demigod, Tim (Trancers) Thomerson) out searching for his “lost boy” and a trail of corpses and burned-out vans littering the highways from Texas to Oklahoma, it seems that a showdown after sunset is going to be unavoidable.

    Will Caleb succumb to his ghastly new urges in order to survive and be assimilated into the tribe? Or is there a way for him to escape this bloody nightmare of murder and amorality and still get the girl?

    By turns romantic and haunting, savage and lyrical, Near Dark had the incredible misfortune of both spotty marketing from an almost bankrupt Dino DeLaurentiss and the concurrent release of Joel Schumacher's considerably more flamboyant and trendy vampire tale, The Lost Boys. In a real quirk of fate, both films carried an almost identical plot - young man meets ultra-hip bloodsucking clan of cool outsiders and is seduced by their way of life - but their styles couldn't be more opposed. Schumacher's film was made for the kids - it was loud, brash and overtly designed to be pop-culturally savvy. Bigelow's was dark, macabre, violent and opted not to play by the conventional rules that still dictated much of The Lost Boys. Both films would go on to attain that coveted cult status, but only Schumacher's would achieve immediate theatrical success, too. Personally, I enjoy either variation on its own terms, but the power and hypnotic grace of Near Dark clinches the deal. The Lost Boys is Saturday morning stuff, comical, lurid and action-packed. Near Dark, like its title, is a film that requires the hinterland of twilight (and I do not mean to reference that vampirical abomination that is all the rage at the moment, folks!) and the blood-red haze of sunset to be fully appreciated. It is a film of polarised opposites. At once claustrophobic and stifling - the packed confines of a blacked-out, curtain-draped van or a crowded motel room - and yet set amidst vast plains and desert stretches of an opened-out America. It retains the sanctity of the family unit, whether the bizarre interpretation of the timeless vampire-drifters, or the proud and resilient, yet curiously motherless, Colton ranch, but it also promotes the ethic of running away and forging a new identity. The notion of survival is keenly presented - the vamps need to kill in order to live - but each member of the clan seems hellishly preoccupied with the thrill of the hunt and the sadistic joy of atrocity, perfectly delivering the fearsome notion that they really enjoy what they are doing as well.

    This family thing is rippled out in several angles, though. The Coltons are a forward-thinking bunch. Caleb's little sister is older and wiser and more confident than her age would lead you to believe. His father, clearly a throwback to a time when a man just did what a man had to do, is pragmatic, and down to earth, even when confronted with the clearly supernatural. Caleb, himself, is on the cusp of manhood and, in turns, wilfully independent, a little rebellious and reckless, but, at heart, devoted to his family. The vamps, on the other hand, play at being what they clearly aren't. All strangers bonded by a life on the road, they have each realised the inherent loneliness of their situation and sought to find a companion to fill the natural gaps in their emotions. Thus, little Homer, the adult vampire trapped inside the body of a child, becomes the anguished soul of the group, with his doomed desire for a companion that he thinks he can relate to. His childhood having been stolen from him at the point of his being “turned”, he is the most immediately recognisable genre staple. Having been inspired by Anne Rice's tragic Claudia in Interview With The Vampire (later to be stunningly portrayed by Kirsten Dunst in Neil Jordan's opulent film adaptation - see BD review), this theme was then played out again, with just as much poignancy, in the excellent Let The Right One In (have a look at that BD review, too), and Joshua Millar, who plays Homer, does a fine job of wrangling a vicious and possibly centuries-old soul into the dishevelled and unkempt form of a 50's inspired imp.

    As a re-invention of the vampire myth, riding shotgun with the tropes of a Western, Near Dark pretty much excels. But it is down to the astuteness of casting Aliens triumvirate Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein and Lance Henriksen that the film gains its immortal appeal. Already riding the crest of the wave thanks to James Cameron's classic xenomorph-war, all three had a smoothly assured chemistry and, most winningly of all, a true sense of family due to their on-set bonding on Aliens which aids the spiritual connection that governs Jesse, Severin and Goldstein's terrifically named Diamondback. Goldstein, who became something of a Forces-darling after her muscular-yet-sexy turn as Colonial Marine Vasquez simmers in a trailer-trash peroxide perm, pouting beneath a sultry layer of on-the-road grime at Jesse, the one who turned her and whom she now adores. Playing the part of “mother” to the tribe, she lacks the all-out cruelty of her cohorts and masks her maternal loss with some false doting upon Homer. She'd do anything for Jesse, of course, but her devotions could be her undoing. Sadly, after a spiky-armed turn in Terminator 2 and an explosive dive in the second Lethal Weapon, she really petered-out of the movies and sank into oblivion. Henriksen, on the other hand, has attained bonafide cult iconic status. Famously missing-out on the role of the original Terminator, he would go on to deliver crowd-pleasing turns in the likes of Aliens, this and a whole slew of horror/action exploitationers, including John Woo's Hard Target, House III, Pumpkinhead, The Quick And The Dead and the grim TV show, Millennium. As Jesse, he deliciously intones that he “fought for the South”, wears a prairie duster that has the Confederate flag embroidered upon the inside, slicks back his wispy grey locks and sports a cruel scar down the side of his face. With the unsavoury, though cool party-piece of being able to cough-up fresh bullets that his torso has collected (as well as a dagger later on) and a sinister economy of death-hungry dialogue, Jesse struts the badlands with a sage disregard for civility, but a hard affection for his brethren. Henriksen has the unique ability to be able to stare at you through the screen and he brings Jesse to life with a stark and grim nobility that is as commanding as it is unsettling.

    But the real star of the clan is the wacky, over-the-top Severin, a vamp so in love with his own legend and his own unstoppable abilities that he becomes a one-man horror-show all by his lonesome. Volatile and unpredictable, he is the strong-arm of the bunch, the do-anything, kill-anyone walking, talking blitzkrieg who plays with his victims before wasting them, enjoying every ounce of sweaty terror that he wrings out of them. He exists for the love of carnage and the endless party of destruction. And, as this wound-gathering ghoul, Bill Paxton has never been so profoundly intense. Pvt. Hudson in Aliens was a loon-cake and no mistake, but he was a good guy who'd just lost his marbles. Severin, on the other hand, is in complete control of his deranged mojo ... and he'd eat you for supper.

    Just like Goodfellas became notorious for its “shoe-shine” head-stomping sequence, Near Dark reached a level of infamy for its ultra-stylish bar-room massacre. The point is not the ferocity with which the slaughter is conducted, but the two-pronged assault on the senses that it delivers. You have Jesse, ever the practical and wary one, who knows what must take place is unpleasant but it just has to be done - yet he will enjoy it, regardless - and you have Severin, who absolutely indulges his wanton desire for physical and mental bullying and takes his sweet time toying with his victims, as though slurping the fear from their bones like an aperitif. The violence, when it comes, is swift, brutal and sickening, but it is not gratuitous. Bigelow seems to understand the parameters that will allow her to hit the right buttons and elicit the appropriate reactions and then slink away with only the residual impression of terrible atrocity left loitering in your mind's eye. The gore is minimal, but the spellbinding effect of this “invasion” is so shocking due to the innately laid-back, and almost comical approach with which it is undertaken. It is also funny to see that the big, grizzled biker type that Severin takes so much pleasure in taunting - “Hey, did you ever hear the one about Buffalo Bill?” - took another beating under almost identical conditions at the start of Terminator 2. He's a big feller, but he should stay out of bars, that boy.

    Bigelow's ongoing penchant for action is also well announced with this early outing. It is neatly poetic the way that we see Caleb, unwittingly, learn how to pilot a truck and also how to make it jack-knife - a trick that he will come to use with devastating results later on. Plus, we get the cool shot of him riding into a seemingly deserted, neon-lit ghost town on horseback, reinforcing the Western-style stand-off that the film has been leading up to the whole time. Severin's in-yer-face whirlwind of fury, and his outright mockery of all those in his sights is a tonic to the staid vamps of traditional horror. It is actually hard to imagine him sucking the blood from anybody whilst keeping a straight face, yet when Paxton complains about a victim's unshaven throat we almost share his rancour and disdain. But a man's gotta drink ... and, as Severin says, wiping the gnawed stubble from his lips, “It's finger-lickin' good!”

    Given that I have already written extensively about electronic film scores from the likes of John Carpenter, Alan Silvestri, Christopher Young and even Jerry Goldsmith, and enthused profoundly about them, it may seem a little odd that I am actually going to confess to disliking Tangerine Dream's score for Near Dark. Now, don't get me wrong, the Dream are amazing musicians with an extraordinary track record for albums, concepts, film and TV themes, but they are also responsible for some of the dreariest, most appallingly dated and depressingly bland mood-cues in the movies. The opening tracks of Michael Mann's excellent The Keep are absolutely tremendous but the rest of the score is truly awful. Their pure 80's fuzzy adrenaline-blast main theme for loopy super-bike show, Streethawk, appears like a shining nugget of glistening synth-fun adrift in the morass of terminally turgid tonal ambience that they came up with for many of their films during this period - the drudge of Sorceror, the musically blue fugue of Manhunter and the sporadically energetic cadence of The Park Is Mine. And, let's be honest, nobody can possibly forgive their woeful interpretation of Ridley Scott's Legend when compared to the majestic score that Jerry Goldsmith created for the dark fantasy. And, here in Bigelow's Near Dark, the tone is mesmeric, melancholic and coldly abstract to the action seen on-screen. Personally, I find the score downright depressing and dull - but it is testament to the performances and the tightness of the set-pieces that the film manages to get over this and remain fresh, engaging and gripping. Mind you, that celebrated slaughter-fest in the bar remains cleverly un-scored except for the source cues playing on the juke-box, most notably “Fever” from The Cramps, which becomes a sinuously seductive piece of devilment. Literally music to kill to, if you are in that frame of mind, folks.

    Part of the film's ongoing appeal lies in our interest in Jesse's gang. Not specifically the things that we see them do, but the stories that lie behind their existence in the first place. With their costumes dishing out enigmatic clues as to their path through life and un-death - a cross engraved in the hilt of Jesse's six-shooter, the razor-sharp spurs on Severin's boots - their legacy grows with the mystery that surrounds them. But one of the film's greatest glories is its refusal to give anything away, other the merest hints of how the clan gathered. Given the interest in vampires these days and the tiresome trend for flogging a dead horse, as it were, it is strange that no-one has attempted to make some sort of prequel to Near Dark to establish the origins of Jesse and co. In fact, despite my dislike for such commercial enterprises - the Underworld mythos, anybody? - this actually wouldn't be such a bad idea. We certainly haven't found out many of the gang's secrets by the end of this particular road and the scope for the discovery of past encounters would, as far as I am concerned, be quite a welcome one. Mind you, we'd need the unholy three back again, wouldn't we?

    Bigelow, now in her late fifties and still looking gorgeous, is a rare breed indeed. Her focus is masculine and concerned with gung-ho action, but she is able to imbue a visual romanticism and a sensitivity alongside the fighting and the chasing and the killing that makes her heroes and anti-heroes stand apart from the usually one-dimensional crowd. Highly stylised and with its supernatural quotient ripped down to a ruggedly physical level of raw intimidation, her vampire opus is not your run-of-the-mill blood-hunt. Bathed in shimmering blues and drained of all but its essential colours by Terminator lenser, DOP Adam Greenburg, we are eased into a world of half-light, shadow, eerie slow-motion and sudden death. That Bigelow allows this night-scape to become lyrical, gritty and struck through with a sense of gallows humour is the feather in her cap. Point Break is, undoubtedly, the ultimate rush of macho-posturing. The Hurt Locker adds enormous dignity and character to the shell-shock. But Near Dark, her first solo directing gig, is a powerful, post-modern, tequila-twisted fantasy that goes for the throat and then roars off into the pre-dawn shadows without taking prisoners.