"The night, so bright it will blind you." —Near Dark
Welcome to Horror Month—in November, surely the scariest month this side of, um, October. But let's pretend for a moment that covering horror films after Halloween wasn't a dumb mistake, but a canny attempt to demonstrate that the great modern cult horror films are all about revisionism. Sometimes they discard the old rules completely and invent a new language; at other times, they reformulate the genre in step with changing cinematic styles or cultural values. Whatever the case, they rely on viewers who know the genre backward and forward, enough to appreciate when a movie is paying homage to the past, and when it's striking out in a bold, idiosyncratic new direction.
The vampire subgenre isn't the easiest one to revise, in part because the vampire myth has been modified in so many radically different ways that departures have their own set of clichés. But to me, Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark remains singular, a moody, brilliant fusion of vampire iconography and American Westerns, served up with a distinctly modern bloodletting and a romantic sensibility that's right out of the Bram Stoker tradition. Here's a movie that cuts against the grain to such a degree that the word "vampire" is never uttered, as if nobody has ever heard of such a creature, not even in storybooks. Set in the rural back roads of states like Oklahoma and Iowa, the film presents vampire life as equal parts brutality and boredom, with the creatures feeding by grim necessity and barreling through one-horse towns like outlaws perpetually on the lam. And yet there's still that seductive draw: Eternal life, eternal love, and the strange intimacy of the feasting ritual, which is like a kiss, only deeper.
Since vampires are rooted in European upscale decadence, with its castles and noblemen and milk-skinned virgins in strained bodices, Bigelow goes to great lengths to strip away the fineries and situate Near Dark firmly in low-down Americana. Our first glimpse of Caleb, the sensitive shit-kicker played by Adrian Pasdar, is quintessentially American: A handsome chap in a cowboy hat, cigarette dangling from his lips, leaning up against a ragged old pickup truck. Though he swills some beer with his redneck buddies, he's more of a James Dean type, with soft eyes and a way with the ladies; no average cowboy is given to wistful pronouncements like "Wish I may, wish I might, wish I was a thousand miles from here tonight." Mae (Jenny Wright) appears to him as if summoned from a fairy tale, a pixie-ish beauty in boots and a pair of ragged jeans belted by a piece of rope, working on a soft-serve cone.
From the start, there's an essential innocence to Caleb and Mae's connection that's never wholly corrupted by the violence and mayhem that it brings into Caleb's life. We find out soon enough that Mae is a vampire, but she bears that curse more heavily than the bloodthirsty savages with whom she runs; killing and feeding is just a sad necessity of her existence, and she's numbed herself to it. Before "turning" Caleb, she points up to the night sky and talks about the billion years it takes for a star's luminescence to touch the planet. "Wanna know why you've never met a girl like me before?" she asks. "Because I'll still be here when the light from that star gets to Earth." She's a conflicted character: Selfishly, she wants company on her endless journey, and she's found the right person. But she knows that she's damning him all the same.
It takes a long time for Caleb to become a vampire, and Bigelow gives the pain of his transformation a visceral kick. Mae has bitten him on the neck, but he doesn't know what's happening, so all he can do is try to stagger home across the Oklahoma plains, weakened from hunger and literally smoldering in the sun. When Caleb is swooped up in a motor home by Mae's vicious clan—roughneck Jesse (Lance Henriksen) and his wife Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), the psychotic Severen (Bill Paxton), and Homer (Joshua Miller), the oldest among them, stuck in a little boy's body—Mae is the only one arguing against his swift execution. They're already perpetually on the lam, and they don't need some neophyte gumming up the works with a withered body and a lingering conscience. They give Caleb an ultimatum: Either he does his part and goes hunting like the rest of them, or they put him out of his misery.
From there, Near Dark strikes a superb balance between Caleb and Mae's complicated relationship and the slash-and-burn lifestyle of vampires on the prowl. As hard as Mae tries to convince him to trust his newfound instincts for the hunt, Caleb just doesn't have a killer inside him, which makes Mae love him all the more. One image from Near Dark that's always stuck with me: Mae opening her own wrist to feed Caleb, who then lustily drains her lifeblood. It's a swooningly romantic gesture, twice repeated: The first time as sustained ecstasy, the second as consuming and greedy, with Caleb nearly killing her in the process. Here's the first. (Dig the typically awesome Tangerine Dream synth score.)
It would be tempting to credit these more tender moments to Bigelow's feminine touch, but such attributions are usually facile, especially in this case. Though her track record is a bit rocky, what's consistently set Bigelow apart is her ability to play tough in a traditionally masculine world. She's done cop thrillers (Blue Steel, Point Break), science fiction (Strange Days), and war movies (K-19: The Widowmaker, The Hurt Locker). She doesn't shy away from violence, and she operates in a striking, hyperkinetic style that goes for maximum impact on an audience. She was once married to James Cameron—more than half the vampire clan in Near Dark played space marines in Cameron's Aliens one year earlier—and it's easy to imagine her as one of his two-fisted heroines. But she's her own woman, with a background in painting and visual art that gives her images texture and dynamism even when the stories (and lately, unfortunate artiness) fail her.
Bigelow's cult reputation owes much to the justly famous roadhouse sequence in Near Dark, when the clan descends on a redneck bar, terrorizing and slaughtering everyone inside. Again breaking from vampire lore, Bigelow discards the seductive rituals of "glamouring" and neck-biting, and instead opts for a profoundly visceral, nightmarish scene of sadistic torture and brutality. Much like George Romero's brilliant Martin, in which a kid who may or may not be a vampire uses a razor blade in lieu of fangs, the clan in Near Dark isn't sinking its teeth into anyone. They're armed with six-shooters, butterfly knives, and spurred boots, and there's nothing delicate or artful about the way they drain their victims; they'll pierce the flesh by any means necessary. In this NSFW clip, they request a glass of beer… hold the beer.
Killing without fangs, they seem less like creatures going about their bloody business and more like a roving band of outlaws and murderers; the fact that the v-word goes unspoken makes them seem all that much closer to human, which darkens them further. Mae bears the grisly necessities of her fate with palpable melancholy, but the rest seem to have long since decided that if they must travel from backwater to backwater like criminals, stealing cars and dodging the law, they might as well get some enjoyment out of it. Bigelow suggests in an oh-so-subtle way that Jesse and Diamondback might have some suppressed decency, but vampire life has reduced them to cruel scavengers, the black-hatted villains of Bigelow's horror-Western.
Near Dark set the table for many other irreverent, darkly humorous redneck horror efforts to come, including the likes of From Dusk Till Dawn, Feast, and HBO's True Blood, but none have approached its stark, singular contrast of moony vampire romanticism and gritty, unapologetic brutality. It's a wild ride: Bigelow goes from one extreme to another, but by staying close to Caleb, who's presented with the possibilities of endless love and endless slaughter, she keeps the film perfectly balanced. Modern ruminations on the vampire myth are a dime a dozen, but none are this complete.
Horror Month continues…
Nov. 13: Audition
Nov. 20: Pulse
Nov. 26: The Devil's Rejects
Dec. 4: Fallen Angels