Near Dark (1987)

16 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Near Dark” features a band of outlaws who are much more than anyone would think. People see these people coming and they suspect trouble, but don’t quite know exactly how much trouble. These people aren’t necessarily human, and I don’t mean that as a metaphor. As one character points out after barely surviving an encounter with them, “Those people back there—they wasn’t normal. Normal folks don’t spit out bullets when you shoot ‘em!” Indeed, conventional weapons can’t kill this family and they don’t feel pain. The only thing that can hurt and kill them is sunlight. So they sleep during the day and stalk the night. As one of them puts it, “We keep odd hours.”

And also, the only thing they can eat is human blood. This means every night, they go from place and place to find new victims, hence their outlaw status. When they keep feeding on blood, and stay out of the sunlight, they can live forever.

Are they vampires? I honestly don’t know. They share some of the same traits of such humanistic creatures, but not in the conventional way. They don’t sprout fangs or fly or morph into bats. They just feed on blood, live eternal life in the dark, and can only be killed by sunlight. And “Near Dark” isn’t an old-fashioned vampire movie—it’s a contemporary thriller, and a Western—it takes place in the South and has certain elements of a Western, such as shootouts, showdowns, and bar fights.

What do we have here that’s different? Well, having the villains be these supernatural beings is actually pretty remarkable and leads to some original story pieces. The biggest showdown is between one of these “vampires” on foot and the hero in a large truck. Should be a no-brainer, right? The hero runs down the rascal, but he’s still not dead yet (though he doesn’t look too good with his head split open). And there’s a bar fight in the middle of the movie, like a lot of Westerns. Only this one is bloodier, as the outlaws take out every person in the bar, one by one (the bartender has his throat slit by boot spurs), and drink their blood. It’s a chillingly funny moment when the wildest one in the bunch, Severen (Bill Paxton), licks a victim’s blood off his fingers and chuckles, “It’s finger-lickin’ good!”

And of course, there’s a shootout in which the law lets loose everything they have at the outlaws in a motel room, while the outlaws shoot back from inside. But the police’s bullets don’t hurt them in the slightest; however, since it’s during the day, the bullet holes that let in the light—those are what really hurt them. That’s very clever.

In fact, all of these added elements to the usual shtick are clever. And the look of the film looks quite nice, considering the subject matter—looking like a painting, especially in the scenes that take place at night. We admire the night as much as the central young couple—Mae (Jenny Wright) and Caleb (Adrian Pasdar)—who fell in with the gang. Mae tells Caleb to look and listen to the night, that it’s the most beautiful thing in the world to live with. From the look of the film, we believe her.

I should also point that “Near Dark” has one terrific opening shot. It’s a mosquito sucking blood from Caleb’s arm—just a mosquito, but it’s a classic case of foreshadowing. Caleb squashes the blood-sucking insect, calling it a “dumb suck,” and has no idea what he’s in for later, when he has to deal with practical human-sized mosquitoes.

I suppose I should share the story of “Near Dark.” The story features Caleb, a young man who goes on a date with Mae, whom he just met that night. Their date continues through the night, as Caleb quickly realizes that Mae isn’t like any other girl he’s picked up before. She commands him to stop the truck so that she can “show him the night,” as she crazily exclaims, “The night—it’s deafening! Do you hear it?” Caleb just sort of plays along, “Well, I’ll hold your ears.” Of course he can’t tell right away that she’s a vampire, even though she practically begs to be taken home before dawn. Then, Caleb and Mae share a passionate kiss…which ends with Mae biting his neck and running away. “Sure was some kiss,” Caleb says to himself.

When Caleb has to walk home as the sun comes up, he realizes what effect the sun has on him now. He nearly burns to death until he is rescued by Mae and her “family,” who show up in a blacked-out Winnebago. When they see that Caleb has been bitten, they realize that he’s “turned.” So they give him a week to call him one of them, and Mae makes it very clear that in order to survive, he has to learn to kill. Caleb doesn’t want to kill, but “the night has its price.”

As you may have guessed from many scene descriptions and lines of dialogue, “Near Dark” has a terrific script, written by Eric Red and director Kathryn Bigelow. Most of the film’s dialogue I have memorized by heart. My favorite line comes from the leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), when Caleb asks how old he is. His response: “Let me put it this way—I fought for the South…We lost.”

Adrian Pasdar is at first playing Caleb as a dumb horny teenager, and him being from Texas don’t make him any different from most teenage sex movies. But when he understands his plight and we see him go through these changes, he does become more human, and therefore more likeable. Jenny Wright makes a charismatic complicated love interest. In fact, I was wishing for more scenes featuring these two together. We get a fair amount, but “fair” isn’t enough.

As the antagonists, the performances are first-rate. Lance Henriksen has a convincing menace to his character of Jesse, trying to keep things in check while resorting to deadly measures in the process. Bill Paxton is perfect as Severen—chilling and yet amusing at the same time. This is the guy you want to party with, given that you don’t know his true intentions and would most likely become his next victim. Also on board is Jenette Goldstein as Jesse’s wife (at least, I think she’s his wife—back stories with these characters are left vague, which I didn’t mind either) and Joshua Miller (the creepy little brother from “River’s Edge”) as Homer, the little boy with a middle-aged mind. Other supporting cast members with significant screen time are Tim Thomerson and Marcie Leeds as Caleb’s father and little sister Sarah, who look for Caleb after he’s been missing for days. The final conflict of the film is whether the vampires will turn Sarah the way they turned Caleb.

There are a few problems I have with “Near Dark.” For one thing, the transitions from day to night are very clumsy, like they transform just too easily. There’s one scene where the characters are in the motel at night, and just a few minutes later, it’s full daylight outside. Talk about dumb luck! Also, I didn’t full appreciate the ending—not just because it was one of those standard chase endings in which the hero is able to kill the villains after all this madness, but because it ended too quickly for everything to sink in. The final payoff between Caleb and Mae could have had more weight, but it’s just all too brief. But for the most part, “Near Dark” is a neat little horror movie that goes beyond all the usual vampire-movie clichés, as well as Western clichés, that we’re used to.

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