Film critic James Rodrigues takes a desert road-trip with Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire Western…
When I first stumbled across Near Dark on Film4 late one night, I was unsure what to expect. My knowledge at the time was how this vampire film starred the less-interesting Petrelli brother from TV’s Heroes, and it had received a full 5-stars from my monthly obsession, SFX Magazine. That was enough to interest my college-aged self, whose growing fascination with cinema and comic-books were matched by regular viewings of True Blood and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. As I watched the 1987 film late into the night, sat on the creaky metal bed directly in-front of a square Batman television (wasn’t I cool?), my eyes were transfixed by what was unfolding before me.
The story follows Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a mid-western farm boy who falls for Mae (Jenny Wright) at first sight. There’s a mutual attraction, although when their make-out session ends with a bite, Caleb’s left with more than a hickey. As the rising sun leaves the farm-boy’s flesh smoking, an RV arrives to take him in broad daylight. The passengers are Mae’s family, a group of nomad vampires whose murderous intentions are stopped by discovering Caleb has been turned.
Before a career known for socially relevant dramas, Kathryn Bigelow’s solo-directing debut combined the Western with the then-trendy revitalisation of vampires. Gone were the traditional hallmarks popularised by Count Dracula, as vampirism was merely an affliction which allowed these heinous souls to continue their misdeeds. Stripped away were the transformations, sleeping in coffins, and even fangs, as this family travelled in vehicles with blacked-out windscreens, slept in motels, and drank blood from wounds they viciously created with man-made weapons.
This was also a tale about familial bonds, a sentiment highlighted by the contrast between Caleb’s family figures. The night-time scenes depict the vampires hunting unsuspecting people, utilising methods of seduction, sympathy, and pandering to ego to lull prey into a false sense of security before the blood-soaked debauchery. While this pack build their numbers with each worthy inclusion, Caleb’s human father and little sister use the daytime to also hunt, intent on reconnecting their broken family.
While that’s occurring, Caleb is tasked by the pack’s father-figure Jesse (Lance Henriksen) to make his first kill within the week. Despite a hunger which cannot be sated by candy bars, Caleb is unwilling to cross that line, forcing the family to take drastic action. While the violence has been implied for the first 40-minutes, a trip to a bar changes all that. This stand-out sequence is where the film bares its fangs, as the unsuspecting patrons meet grisly ends for the sake of one family’s fun. What follows is an equally impressive siege by armed officers as the vampires are pinned down within a bungalow that’s rapidly gaining bullet-holes, the burning daylight piercing through.
For the longest time, this was a difficult film to watch due to out-of-print physical media. Nothing changed in the age of streaming as no services had this available, leaving costly second-hand DVDs and Blu-Rays as the only means of viewing. The most recent release was a 2009 Blu intended to capitalise on the popularity of Twilight, and whilst both films contain vampires who fought for the confederacy, Kathryn Bigelow’s creations are vastly different from Stephanie Meyer’s bloodsuckers.
It’s unfortunate such barriers prevent more people from discovering these fascinating characters and remarkable portrayals. Between Bill Paxton’s live-wire performance as the gleefully unstable Severen, and Joshua John Miller’s soulful portrayal of Homer – the bitter man trapped in an adolescent body – these are excellent characters deserving to be recognised as much as David from The Lost Boys and Spike from Buffy.
Many took against the resolution to Caleb’s problems, and however silly it may seem, it highlights what Kathryn Bigelow accomplished with this film; taking a monster deeply ingrained in pop-culture and making it entirely her own in ways which stand-out from the competition. Sadly, the poor box-office takings meant few people saw this in cinemas despite positive reviews from critics, although it has gained a cult following since. As recent reports claim Studio Canal will bring Near Dark to life on 4K Ultra HD with a brand-new restoration, here’s hoping more people will be encouraged to see this tremendous concoction, rather than travelling in a sun-proofed RV for a decent physical media release.