Saturday, September 12, 2009

Review of Near Dark

     Vampires are all the rage at the moment.  The Season 2 finale of HBO's True Blood airs tomorrow night.  The sequel to Twilight, New Moon, opens this fall, and the CW's blatant Twilight rip-off, The Vampire Diaries, premiered this past Thursday.  With all the bloodsuckers and fang-bangers about, it's very easy to forget the sanguinary films and shows that have preceded the latest craze, especially when you have a more cutesy, fangless, family-friendly phenom like Twilight grabbing everyone's attention.  So, here's a review of an old-school vampire flick that's worthy of remembrance.

Near Dark (1987)
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, Tim Thomerson, Joshua John Miller.
9 out of 10 stars.

     Certainly I was one of those who vividly remembers the release of Warner Bros.’ The Lost Boys in 1987, but sadly I was only vaguely aware of another vampire movie which came out that same year.  It would be years before I got a chance to see the horror-western, Near Dark, and I wouldn’t be surprised if others share that same experience.  That’s a shame, because Near Dark is a film that took an even bolder step in re-imagining vampires, keeping them relevant and scary, but also adding greater degrees of pathos to the bloodsuckers and verisimilitude to the mythology.  That’s no easy feat, yet in addition to that, Near Dark also triumphs as a fluid blending of genres and a visually captivating, subtlety performed story about growing up.

     Set in the modern-day American Southwest, the film tells the tale of Caleb Colton (played by Adrian Pasdar), a directionless farm boy who falls in with a pretty drifter girl named Mae (Jenny Wright).  Their night of flirtation leads to a kiss…which leads to Mae biting Caleb on the neck.  Caleb tries to stumble home, nursing his wound, but is soon kidnapped by Mae and her companions: a band-of-gypsies-like “family” of vampires.  They intend to do away with him, but Mae protests, saying that he’s becoming one of them.  The patriarch of the clan, Jesse Hooker (genre legend Lance Henriksen), decides to give Caleb a week to prove he can kill to feed himself, or else!  Throughout the film the young man struggles with trying to assimilate with his new brethren while developing a deeper relationship with the woman who turned him.  Meanwhile, Caleb father, Loy, and little sister, Sarah, decide to track down Caleb after seeing him snatched up in front of their farm.  After a western-style shootout with cops, it seems that Caleb has been fully embraced by the group, but when his real family becomes their next target Caleb is forced to chose for the final time.

     What elevates Near Dark above most vampire movies, as well as a lot of hybrid films, is the way co-writer Eric Red and co-writer/director Kathryn Bigelow downplay both of the genres they work with.  There is no mention of the word “vampire” in the dialogue, and quite a few staples of vampire storytelling are left out.  You won’t find good guys in white or bad guys in black here.  Instead of a barroom brawl we get a barroom blood feast.  When the hero rides into town on a horse, he’s thrown off.  The screenwriters utilize only portions of conventions from both mythologies, rather than piecing together a hodgepodge of clichés, to create a unique whole.  At the helm, Bigelow uses those techniques, along with cinematographer Adam Greenburg and a rather unconventional score by Tangerine Dream, to come up with a realistic and yet other-worldly nighttime dimension where the characters live.  But fear not, because with all this experimentation, Near Dark still packs on as much gore as other modern vampire movies.

     All of that is well and good, but it would be nothing without the cast to carry it through.  The restrained use of dialogue in Near Dark’s script allows this group of newcomers and genre vets to concentrate on creating some really memorable characters.  Performance-wise, some are better than others.  Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright’s romance never truly feels real, although Pasdar does a better job at his transition from aimless adolescence to heroic maturity.  Wright is a sort of weak link, who beauty is more standout than her role.  Tim Thomerson, who portrays Caleb’s dad, on the other hand achieves a lot through his minimal dialogue.  Definitely a hoot are the actors who make up the group of vagabond bloodsuckers: Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Joshua Miller, and (especially) Bill Paxton.  Henriksen, Goldstein, and Paxton all appeared together in the 1986 film, Aliens, and it’s delightfully obvious that their previous collaboration greatly helped in their performances.  Henriksen excels as the world-weary Jesse Hooker; Jenette Goldstein is Diamondback, the surrogate mother to Miller’s Homer, an old vamp trapped in the body of a child; and Paxton has the time of his life as the fun-loving Severen.  The camaraderie between the Aliens alumni  reverberates throughout the whole cast, keeping the entire unit deftly solid despite individual flaws.

     Under Kathryn Bigelow’s vision and with the help of a fantastic ensemble, Near Dark is wild oddity and a benchmark of vampire storytelling that deserves to be remembered.  Even though it was crushed at the box-office by the studio might of The Lost Boys, I find it a relief that the movie has found a devoted following these 20-plus years.  I just hope that Near Dark doesn’t get buried again under the sugary fantasy of the Twilight phenomenon.  The film isn’t in the Museum of Modern Art for nothing; Near Dark is one vampire movie that hits the…Bull’s Eye!            

~Doctor Splatter

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