It wasn’t long ago when vampires were the badass immortal beings they are, flirting between dusk and dawn with a sexual energy that captivated adult audiences. It wasn’t long ago, when vampires didn’t sparkle and preen in the glow of high school’s overhead lights. It’s also not long ago when vampires embodied the nomadic spirit of an infinite soul, one cast out from the world through a need for carnal survival. In fact, it was only 30 years ago that Kathryn Bigelow’s solo directorial debut film, Near Dark, penetrated the celluloid of cult, weaving together genres that crafted poetry out of the dusty western, the gothic monster, and the bullet riddled crime saga. It’s a film that is all of these at once, while also picking and choosing when it wants to be any of these. Near Dark might embody the horror element, speak the western drawl, and move like an action film, but it’s really its own creature, shaking the cobwebs off a mythology that fit all too comfortably in its own coffin-shaped niche; one that just so happened to need a feminine hand to explode it out of its finite structure.
It’s the story of Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a young cowboy who catches Mae (Jenny Wright) in his headlights, and like the Def Leppard song warns, “if you’ve got love in your sights, watch out, love bites!” See, Mae isn’t like other girls. Mae lives by the pulse of the night, looking wonderingly up at the stars and listening to the deafening sounds of the darkness. “The light that’s leaving that star right now will take a billion years to get down here. You want to know why you’ve never met a girl like me before?” she asks Caleb, who’s already bitten off more than he can chew. Soon, our cowboy begins feeling the side effects of a hickey gone awry, as the sun beats down upon him before being picked up in an RV by Mae’s nightwalker family. There are the parents: Jesse (Lance Henrikson), the gangs leader who, well, “Let’s put it this way: I fought for the South”, and Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), a bleached blonde badass who’ll toss a beer mug in the air and cut your throat before it hits the ground. Accompanying them are the kids: Homer (Joshua John Miller), a man in a child’s body, and Severen (Bill Paxton), the films shit-kickin’ Wild Bill. Together, the group roams the Oklahoma countryside in pursuit of anything that bleeds, praying on those that litter the desolate streets in order to survive; something Caleb must prove if he wants to see the next moon.
Released a mere two months after Joel Schumacher’s similarly fanged film The Lost Boys, grossing over 28 million more, Near Dark never quite found its place with audiences at the time. It opened in 262 theatres, taking home a meagre $635,789, falling to the likes of Fatal Attraction and Hellraiser, both in their third week. Granted, The Lost Boys opened in five times as many theatres, earning eight times as much in its first few days, yet it still remains unclear as to why audience turnout was so divisive over two films that, thematically, share a whole lot in common. Both deal with a gang of outsiders that feast on the living of a small town, though at heart, Near Dark is much more of a road picture, even if we never quite stray too far from Oklahoma. Both films feature a steamy love interest, and I don’t mean the one you have with sax man, Tim Cappello, and both showcase the internal struggle and acceptance between man and bloodsucker.
Perhaps it’s simply because The Lost Boys was released during the summer months, when schools are empty and theatres more prone to filling up throughout the day. Perhaps it’s because Near Dark crept into theatres at the tail end of what many refer to as the dump months (August and September), which finds films with less bankable stars clawing for a wider audience turnout. It’s also a time when genre pieces are released, and films that have a difficult time being marketed, which Near Dark fell prey to.
Produced by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, a company founded by Dino De Laurentiis in 1984, Near Dark came at the very end of its producer’s hefty yet short career, backing some of the most notable cult classics of the 1980’s: Maximum Overdrive, Manhunter, Blue Velvet and Evil Dead II. Neither of these films cracked the top five in their opening weekend, and how could they? A killer truck directed by Stephen King, a stylized debut based off a Thomas Harris novel, a subverted American neo-noir, and a re-telling of Sam Raimi’s first film, directed by Sam Raimi. These are essentially the Wild Bunch of unmarketable genre pieces, and their status in the cult lexicon now demonstrate the demise of DEG; a fate that came on the heels of Near Dark’s release.
And yet, Kathryn Bigelow’s vamp-western endures 30 years later.
Undulating beneath the neon-licked synth score of German electronic group, Tangerine Dream, Near Dark subverts the gothic tale of bloodlust and romanticism, kicking up a dust bowl of clouded dreamlike imagery. Crafting a back to back script with Eric Red, who would turn his into Undertow, a sleeper about a secluded backwoods couple who rescue an outsider, Bigelow’s screenplay would end up being a much more brooding genre fare. Stemming from a fascination with a rare skin disease known as Xeroderma Pigmentosum, in which people develop a heightened sensitivity to the sun’s UV rays, Bigelow created a bare-bone vampire film where widow’s peaks and flowing capes are a thing of myth. Here, spurs clank with the twang of our outlaws drawl, coolly telling us that an immortal life (save for the power of the sun) is no spring picnic. Sure, being able to regurgitate a bullet to the abdomen must be a helpful trick in the Wild West, but the anguish that our vampires endure flows like blood.
This is made especially clear in Mae’s longing nature, and Homer’s inability to physically grow past the stature of his nocturnal genesis. “You have any idea what it’s like to be a big man on the inside and have a small body on the outside? Homer’s mere existence within the group’s almost nihilistic manner defines the parameters that Bigelow establishes; painting a portrait of a nuclear family that feels both anomalous and trapped, yet determined to survive. It’s here where we bear witness to the horrific acts of our group, who hunt and feed like wild animals. This is their life, their survival, and like nature, it’s as unforgiving as it is unrelenting.
Both acts happen to be themes that haunt the western flick and the vampire mythos, turning members of society into survivalists; it’s either them, or us. Though to be fair, the endurance of the vampire lore lies heavily in its ability to mould to the structure of almost any genre. What about vampires in Mars surviving off colonists who too are surviving? Or native vampires who turn their hunger to the conquistadors, protecting their existence from man? The placement of such creatures into the infinite confines of storytelling shows their ability to mould to the constant struggle of survival. With Near Dark, that idea is told poetically, yet shown through a lens that, like our nuclear family, is unfiltered and raw. What Kathryn Bigelow created is a cult film that manages to survive off deconstructing our finite ideas on horror, the western, and the action flick, telling us that there are infinite possibilities; sometimes, it just needs to survive 30 years to really live.