Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Release Date: 1987
In the grand scheme of things 1987 was a great year for vampire movies as it saw the release of “The Lost Boys” and this opus. Now, Near Dark is not perfect but it is a fantastic vampire movie with a western feel. Near Dark never mentions the word vampire, but it is a vampire film in every sense of the word and the hints towards traditional vampire lore are great. Near Dark did not do so well in the box office, many blame this on the fact that it came out in the same year as “The Lost Boys” but in truth it will have had more to do with it being the last movie produced by the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group before the company became bankrupt, thus it never received the publicity it should have. That said it did not stop the film achieving cult status.
We begin with a shot of Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) squashing a mosquito before driving from the family farm into the nearby town. In the town he meets a girl named Mae (Jenny Wright). Mae asks Caleb for a ride but then tells him to pull over and tries to show him the night through her eyes, it is dark, she says, and yet so bright it is blinding, the sounds of the night are deafening. She points out a star and says that it will take a million years for the light to get to them and she will still be there. This goes to explain a lot about the vampires in the movie, they seem reckless at times and yet it is perhaps down to over-confidence. They will always be there. Caleb says to Mae that he would like to be there with her in a million years time; it is romantic mumblings but comes across, to the viewer, as though he has given her an invitation.
Caleb takes Mae to see his stallion and the horse rears at her and then runs away. This was a nice touch. We have previously explored, in the review for Dracula (1979), the effect that vampires, in some traditions, have on horses and how horses can be used to detect vampires. The reaction is not explicitly examined in the film but it is a nice cross-culture reference. Mae, however, begins to freak out fearing, perhaps, the coming dawn and forces Caleb to drive her home. He stops the van and demands a kiss, a wish she exceeds to and then, as you would expect, bites him. The scene is shot at a measured pace with slowed down film, enhanced greatly by the downbeat and atmospheric Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and this can describe the pace of the film as a whole. This pace actually enhances the more violent scenes as they explode into life.
Caleb’s truck has stalled and so he stumbles from the truck and crosses country as the sun rises. He begins to smoke as he lurches and his progress is spotted by his sister, Sarah (Marcie Leeds) and father, Loy (Tim Thomerson). A camper van with blacked out windows races across the field and Caleb is pulled into it and, to the dismay of his family, the van speeds away. This leads to his father and sister’s search for him through the movie. In the van are the other vampires of the movie. The child Homer (Joshua Miller) who was the one who turned Mae, Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), the psychotic Severen (Bill Paxton) and, finally, the leader of the vampires Jesse (Lance Henriksen). It is interesting to note that Paxton, Goldstein and Henriksen had appeared together, just the year before, in Aliens. The vampires are aiming to kill Caleb, as Mae got sloppy and let him live, until Mae tells them that she bit him but didn’t bleed him and thus he will have turned. Jesse gives him a week to prove he can be one of them.
The first night Caleb tries to leave but doesn’t get too far. He seems shaky, when he eats a candy bar he vomits the food back up and eventually he has so much spittle rolling down his chin he looks as though he is foaming at the mouth. Following an aborted bus ride he finds his way back to Mae who feeds him from her wrist. The elation he feels through the blood is emblazoned across his face.
The next night Mae explains that he has to learn how to kill for “the night has its price.” Caleb is horrified at the suggestion and Mae explains that he must use his instincts. We cut to the other vampires and see how they capture their prey. Homer lies in the road, as though injured, with a bicycle near by. A car stops and a man rushes to his aid and Homer strikes. Severen has tarted himself up and hitches a ride with two young ladies. Jessie and Diamondback allow themselves to be robbed. Mae and Caleb end up “hitching” with a trucker. Caleb engages him in conversation regarding the workings of the truck, its gears and breaks, as Mae mouths for him to do it. Caleb seems more and more torn and ill and eventually the truck stops and he literally falls from the cab. The driver checks that he is okay, whilst being generally amused by his state, and it is Mae that makes the kill and then, again, feeds the fledgling vampire. He seems, however, to take too much and Mae warns him that it could kill her.
It is obvious that she has told the others that Caleb has not killed as they want to kill him. It is Jesse that stops this, telling Caleb that he has one more chance and that chance comes in the most gruesome part of the film. The vampires, en-masse, go to a roadhouse. Whilst the others sit, Severen takes Caleb to the bar ensuring that he knocks over a patrons drink and insults the bartender. This continues for a while and eventually Severen spits his drink in the patron’s face and then puts Caleb in the way of the resultant punches. Caleb hits back and his punch throws the barfly across the room. All Hell breaks loose. It begins with Diamondback slitting a waitress’s throat to fill Jesse’s glass. Severen goes for a biker and, after complaining that he hates it when they haven’t been shaved, feeds. The bartender shoots, hitting Caleb in the stomach with buckshot and Severen gets up onto the bar where he taunts the barman and then kicks out, slitting the man’s throat with his spur. The entire sequence is not only gruesome but highly disturbing and we see just how dysfunctional the vampires have become. Henriksen is great in the scene, his presence shining through, but nothing can take away from Paxton and his deranged portrayal of Severen, this sequence, beyond anything else, would make the film a must see.
It ends with one patron left, for Caleb. The patron throws himself through the window and Caleb gives chase as the vampires burn the bar down. Unfortunately, having caught the man, Caleb cannot attack and lets him go. He’s blown his last chance but it is too close to dawn. The vampires hole up in a motel, Caleb will be dealt with when the sun goes down. Their sleep, however, is interrupted by a banging on the door, the police, alerted by the escapee, have come for them. Severen shoots a cop through the door but, as the police man is thrown back by the shotgun blast so is Severen, when a stream of daylight hits his stomach, setting him on fire. A gunfight ensues, the bullets tearing more and more chunks from the walls allowing more and more light to stream in. Caleb puts a blanket over his head and makes a run for the van, his flesh charring and bullets ripping into him. By the time he reaches the van he is on fire, but he manages to get in and drive it straight into the bungalow, providing the vampires with their means of escape.
That night the vampires are in the Godspeed Motel. I mention this specifically as the filmmakers have veered away from religious symbols having an effect and, to underline this, they linger on the name of the hotel and have a cross engraved into the handle of Jesse’s gun. Because he saved them, all the vampires now seem to accept Caleb, Severen even gives him a spur. All, that is, except Jesse. For him Caleb has done no more than buy himself some time. Caleb asks Jesse how old he is; his answer, “Let’s just say I fought for the South… we lost.” Mae and Caleb go out and eventually Homer follows and meets a little girl. He returns to the room with her to watch TV and Severen goes to get her father. Unbeknown to the vampires it is Sarah and Loy. Caleb returns just before Severen brings Loy in and sees Sarah. He tells his father he is with them (the vampires) now, but asks Jesse to let his family go. Homer wants to turn Sarah and Jesse wants to kill Loy. Loy shoots Jesse, who spits out the bullet that entered his chest and all seems lost but Sarah bolts for the door and we have an unfortunate plothole. It is now broad daylight, having been dark moments before. Caleb runs with his family, getting into the darkened rear of his father’s van and, as they drive he asks whether his father has performed a transfusion on a human.
The transfusion is done back at the farm and it cures Caleb. This is often criticised but I really don’t mind the idea. It seems to me to be an (unwitting) extension of Stoker’s Dracula. In Dracula, Van Helsing tries to save Lucy by blood transfusion, okay this is before she dies and turns but, as far as we know, Caleb has not died. In short I can live with the concept.
That night, after a family dinner, Caleb goes outside to find Mae on the yard’s swing. He seems scared at first but, eventually, they hug and Mae is abhorred to discover that he is warm. She runs into the night. In the house Caleb discovers that Sarah is missing and then discovers that the vampires have slashed all the tyres of the farm’s vehicles. He gets on his horse and rides into town to find them.
In town the horse suddenly rears, throwing Caleb, and then bolts and Severen is above him. Caleb is beaten a little but manages to run down the street to an oncoming truck. He flags it down and is going to get in when Severen shoots the driver. Caleb takes the wheel and drives at the vampire, the arrogance of the creature apparent as he stands his ground defying the vehicle. He hits Severen but then the vampire climbs up the front of the cab, his face badly mangled, and punches through the hood and starts ripping out engine parts. Caleb causes the truck to jack-knife and throws himself clear before the truck explodes. All that remains of Severen is a spur blown into the road.
Jesse and Mae appear, Mae is still asking Jesse to take Caleb back. In the car, behind them, Homer has Sarah. Caleb doesn’t notice Diamondback behind him until Sarah escapes from the car and shouts a warning. He moves and her thrown knife misses him, unfortunately hitting Jesse straight in his mouth. Bundling Sarah into his arms, Caleb runs. Jesse is going to take a shot but Mae pushes him causing him to miss. All the vampires get into the car to pursue Caleb.
Caleb has reached the fields and the sun is rising. He puts Sarah down and tells her to run but the car sweeps past and she is pulled in. Mae grabs the girl and smashes out of the car. They run with Homer, on foot, in pursuit. He begins to burn as he runs and then explodes. The car, with Jesse and Diamondback still in it, approaches but begins to slow as the vampires are consumed in flames, their combustion causing an explosion.
Here my main problem with the film becomes apparent. Firstly Mae is only charred when the others have burnt up and exploded. One might argue it is because she is younger but that is not explicit. When she awakes later the sun is up and she is not dead, Caleb has performed (or, unseen, had his father perform) a transfusion. Whilst I do not mind the transfusion concept the ending is so saccharine that it makes your teeth hurt to watch it. I really detest the very end of this movie and it mars what had been, until then, a very gritty and severe movie.
In honesty, I can live with the unfortunate night/day plothole. It might make little sense continuity-wise but it does work visually and doesn’t really jar that much because, by then, you are sucked too far into the movie to overly notice. The ending, however, does jolt and stops the rest of the film from being damn near perfect. As it is, it is still a classic and I would not do the film justice at all if I did not give it 9 out of 10 for being a bold retelling of the vampire myth, with excellent direction and a fantastic cast (they all do really well but particular mention to Paxton and Henriksen who are fantastic).
Just a little mention of a throwaway line, as it very subtly indicates the age of some of the vampires. Severen mentions a fire they once started in Chicago; this is likely in reference to the 1871 blaze that decimated the city.
DVD wise the film is available either as a double disc set, with a host of extras and some really nice packaging or it can be found as part of the 'Box of Blood' set, though it is only one disc in that, so you miss out on the extras but gain several other excellent films.
The imdb page is here.