BY JESS PEACOCK
At the risk of coming across as some kind of horror hipster, Near Dark – which turns thirty-one this week – is not a film the casual horror fan tends to identify as iconic or even memorable. And nobody could really blame them, as the film received criminally sparse publicity and coverage upon its initial run in 1987. And rather than using the amazing original promotional artwork from the film that featured a crispy Bill Paxton with beams of sunlight slicing through his body, the 2009 DVD/Blu-Ray release was inexplicably disfigured with cover art that closely resembled the promotional posters for Twilight.
If you have seen Near Dark then you know that it is an original, twisted, and violent take on the traditional vampire legend (especially for the neon drenched era of the 1980s), and serves in some respect as the ideological forbearer to Steve Niles’ 30 Days of Night graphic novels. However, rather than being set in the snow barren Alaskan backcountry, Near Dark takes place in the equally barren desert of the American west.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Near Dark tells the story of Caleb, a young cowboy who becomes attracted to a strangely aloof girl named Mae. She is a vampire, of course, and bites Caleb on the neck before unceremoniously abandoning him as dawn approaches. The vampiric effects are practically instantaneous as our hero, walking through a desolate field bathed in the unforgiving glare of a desert sunrise, literally begins to melt. From there, Caleb is hastily snatched up into the RV from Hell and introduced to one of the more psychotic family dynamics in cinematic history.
“While a horror film per se, Near Dark is first and foremost a character driven family drama “
While a horror film per se, Near Dark is first and foremost a character driven family drama that relies entirely on the performances of the lead actors. Bill Paxton in particular shines as the vampire Severen, his over the top maniacal brutality coming to a head in the now somewhat infamous blood drenched bar scene. In addition, Lance Henriksen’s chilling menace is on full display as Jesse Hooker, the patriarch of this uniquely American family gone horribly wrong. And child actor Joshua Miller is wholly convincing as Homer, a frustrated older man trapped in the body of a pre-pubescent vampire, his story becoming unbearably tragic as he develops an obsession for Caleb’s younger sister Sarah.
Aside from a 1980s Tangerine Dream synth pop score, Near Dark is somewhat of a timeless film, although It Follows, Stranger Things, and others have recently capitalized on the nostalgia of the 80s horror score. The wardrobe and set design bear few traces of the overly gaudy decade it emerged from, giving it a resonance and power even by the jaded standards of cynical filmgoers three decades later. In addition, Near Dark was a forerunner of vampire films that eschewed the religious iconography and theological backbone of the western narrative that existed in cinema up to this point, with Vamp beating it to the secular punch one year previous. One scene in particular within Near Dark is notable of this shift, as Caleb receives a blood transfusion administered by his father in the hope that it will reverse his vampirism, while also challenging the religious assumptions of the traditional vampire mythos that Susannah Clements problematically emphasizes in her book The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero. Discussing Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula she writes:
“It is by Christ’s blood that the Christian is saved. And, in Dracula, the unnatural drinking of blood in an inversion of Holy Communion is a means of human damnation. When Lucy suffers physically from the loss of blood, Van Helsing knows that she needs a transfusion of blood to keep her alive. But this doesn’t, of course, get to the root of the problem — a spiritual one, not a physical one — so the medical treatment only works temporarily. A religious ceremony is necessary. Spiritual warfare is the only way to save in the face of a spiritual threat.”
In Near Dark, however, the problem of Caleb’s vampirism is proven to be entirely biological with little or no trace of the theological or even metaphysical (although the presence of the vampire cannot help but imply some religious ramifications through its very nature), as science, low tech as it might be, succeeds at solving the undead problem the Divine is either unable or unwilling to handle. It is difficult to imagine that director and co-writer Bigelow did not have Van Helsing’s failed attempt at blood transfusion in mind when writing this scene, and it speaks to the heart of the religious/secular shift that was taking place within the traditional vampire narrative at this time in history (for more on this shift, head over to Amazon and grab my book Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture).
Considering this, Near Dark is a grossly underappreciated and noteworthy addition to not only the western vampire canon, but horror cinema as a whole. Be sure to add it to your Halloween viewing list!