Near Dark (1987): Kathryn Bigelow Stunning Version of Vamire Myth

Despite mostly dismissive reviews, director Walter Hill was sufficiently impressed with The Loveless to give Bigelow a development deal. Five years later, she came up with Near Dark, a poetic horror film about a gang of vampires roaming the Midwestern plains.

As the critic Jim Hoberman noted, nothing about The Loveless prepared for the supple glitter of Near Dark, an Americanized version of the European vampire myth. The barroom violence in The Loveless is expanded and elaborated on in Near Dark’s horrifying mass murder.

Borrowing from classic outlaw-on-the-lam sagas, the hero is Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a handsome Oklahoma farm boy. He encounters the winsome Mae (Jenny Wright) standing by the road suggestively licking an ice cream cone. He offers her a ride–and his life changes.

Kidnapped by her undead family, a ragtag, rowdy bunch in a stolen winnebago, Caleb gradually becomes one of their kind. Captivated by Mae’s charm, Caleb acquires a taste for fresh blood, but he is slow to adopt the violent ways–he can’t bear the idea of killing. In her image of wistful Mae giving blood from her arm to the starving Caleb, Bigelow reached lyrical tones. It’s a sexual surrender that leads to complications but implies no moral judgment.

Bigelow, who co-wrote the script with Eric Red, gives Near Dark an eerie pacing and enriches the dialogue with wry asides. The message–the sanctity and unity of the family–is no different from other films of the late 1980s, such as Fatal Attraction. The vampires are essentially a model family: Mother, father, an older brother, and a little boy. Jese (Lance Henrickson) is the patriarch, and leather-clad Severin (Bill Paxton) the gang leader. Following genre conventions, they live by night; sunlight bursts them into flames; shrewdly, the word vampire is never mentioned.

Some comparisons were made to The Lost Boys, which pandered to the trendiness it purported to satirize. Taking a different approach, Bigelow combines thrills, dark eroticism, and humor, striking a strange balance between the other-worldly tone of Adam Greenberg’s stylishly chilling photography, Tangerine Dream’s tense score and the characters’ realistic conduct.

Odd as they are, they are played straight, and the film justifies their violence in a rational matter: They rob and kill because they need the blood to survive. In a well-choreographed scene, the gang gleefully wipes out the inhabitants of a redneck bar, while the song “Fever” (by The Cramps) plays on the jukebox. Humor is not neglected either: Severin complains of the scruffy Hell’s Angel whose neck he’s about to bite: “I hate ’em when they ain’t been shaved.”

Near Dark was the first horror film to be given a Museum of Modern Art Cineprobe since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, in 1968. Despite rave reviews, the movie was not commercial, though it became a cult hit on video. Still, the movie caught the eyes of Edward Pressman and Oliver Stone, who decided to produce whatever project Bigelow wanted to do next.