One of the great vampire movies, and in my view the best-ever film by
director Kathryn Bigelow, a starkly violent yet poetic fever dream of
romance and bloodletting.
NEAR DARK (1987) was the final release of the
short-lived De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. Its U.S. theatrical bow
occurred around the same time as that of
which was the bigger moneymaker--and also, it seemed, the better film.
Thatís no longer the case!
Painter-turned-filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow made her solo
directorial debut with NEAR DARK (following 1982ís THE LOVELESS,
co-directed with Monty Montgomery). Its cast featured several James
Cameron regulars (Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton),
which makes sense, as Cameron married Bigelow in 1989 and produced a
couple of her films. Another notable collaborator on NEAR DARK was
co-screenwriter Eric Red, who scripted THE HITCHER a year earlier and,
again in collaboration with Bigelow, the Red-directed UNDERTOW (1996).
Subsequent Kathryn Bigelow productions include BLUE
STEEL, POINT BREAK, STRANGE DAYS, THE WEIGHT OF WATER, K-19: THE
WIDOWMAKER and THE HURT LOCKER, arguably the only one of her films to
approach (but not surpass!) NEAR DARK.
Caleb is a young punk who meets the gorgeous Mae
outside a bar one night. What he doesnít know is that Mae is a vampire
intending to kill him and drink his blood. However, Mae finds herself
strangely attracted to Caleb and so lets him live--well, sort of: she
actually bites him on the neck, making him a vampire too. Shortly later,
as the sun is coming up, Caleb and Mae are snatched by a gang of punked-out
vampire drifters Mae runs with, who ride around the Arizona desert in a
Winnebago. Their ranks include the patriarchal Jesse (who when asked his
age replies, ďLetís just say I fought for the SouthÖwe lostĒ),
his wife Diamondback, their grown-up son Severen, and Homer, a
middle-aged man stuck in a childís body.
As Calebís father and young sister search for him, heís
made a part of the vampsí latest nocturnal killing spree. Victims
include a truck driver, two young women and a gang of petty thieves.
Later the gang enters a redneck bar and methodically slaughters nearly
everyone inside. Caleb canít bring himself to kill, and so lets the lone
survivor of the massacre, a petrified young man, run off. The latter
alerts the police, who converge upon the vampires at a cheap motel the
The vamps escape for a subsequent night of mayhem,
ending up at another cheap motel where Caleb is inadvertently reunited
with his father and sister. They whisk him away and Calebís father, a
veterinarian, uses his medical expertise to cure Calebís vampirism via a
blood transfusion. But Caleb still longs for Mae, and vice-versa. Nor
are Maeís vampire companions done with Caleb and his family, as a
forthcoming highway showdown is about to proveÖ
In this early effort Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates a
smooth and confident visual mastery in stark contrast to her later
films, which tend to be excessively flashy and overdone. NEAR DARK has
an undeniably artistic sensibility, yet still satisfies as a hard-edged
thriller with plenty of wrenching violence. The infamous mid-film bar
massacre remains one of Bigelowís most impressive directorial
achievements, a tightly controlled, tension filled and genuinely
shocking cavalcade of carnage.
Particularly impressive is the way Bigelow makes quite
a few hackneyed elements work in the filmís favor. Take the sparse
desert locations, the staple of countless lame no-budgeters that through
the lens of cinematographer Adam Greenberg take on an ethereal poetry.
Or the moody synthesizer score by Tangerine Dream, the ruin of many an
eighties flick (see THE
KEEP and the U.S. cut of LEGEND) that here works superbly,
imbuing the twilit imagery with a haunting aural beauty. Even the
performances of B-movie mainstays like TRANCERSí Tim Thomerson and Jenny
Wright (the Hot Chick of quite a few eighties and early nineties movies)
are first-rate, making Kathryn Bigelow the rare example of a visually
oriented director whoís also great with actors.
There is, however, one not-so-great element about NEAR
DARK: the ending. The idea of a blood transfusion as a cure for
vampirism is scarcely plausible (especially in light of the immensely
clever and resourceful twists on traditional vampire lore introduced in
the rest of the film), and nor is the final highway showdown wherein the
vamps meet their end (which was heavily criticized by none other than
Anne Rice, who argued, convincingly, that centuries-old vampires would
be canny enough to avoid such a fate). Still, the film overall is so
fine Iím inclined to cut Bigelow some slack regarding the
ending--although Iím fully aware that other viewers might not be so
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Producer: Steven-Charles Jaffe
Screenplay: Kathryn Bigelow, Eric Red
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Editing: Howard Smith
Cast: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette
Goldstein, Tim Thomerson, Joshua Miller, Marcie Leeds, Kenny Call, Ed
Corbett, James LeGros, Theresa Randle