I can't say that Near Dark is one of those movies about which I'm just chock full of memories. I can't tell you when or where I saw it for the first time. I never hung a Near Dark poster on my wall, and I never clamored to own it the moment it became available for purchase. Yet, while watching it I was feeling nostalgic at every turn for the late '80s, early '90s- for those days when I was finally old enough to go to the movies to see just about whatever I wanted. "Aww, remember Tangerine Dream? Remember Kathryn Bigelow? And Jenny Wright? And movies that had Mack trucks exploding for no reason at all?" Watching Near Dark, it was enough to make me run to my closet for a shoebox full of photos and pore over moments captured during "the good ole days", even if my choices in hairstyles were dubious at best. It was weird, I tells ya.
But who cares about that? Let's talk about the film, not my odd reaction to it (part of which included a burning desire to watch Aliens rightthisminute). Co-writer/director Kathryn Bigelow's tale of vampires in the panhandle is rife with allegory as it deglamourizes the vampire mythos...and it's so good, it's almost hard to believe it's from the world of late-80s horror.
One fine evening, cowpoke-type Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) comes across a young woman all alone on the street save a soft serve ice cream cone. He gives her a lift and learns her name is Mae- and that's pretty much all he learns about her during the ride. Savvy viewers know that there's something a bit wonky about Mae (Jenny Wright), however- she's awfully pale, she really digs the night and its sounds and stuff (I was waiting for her to bust out the "children of the night" line), and she really really needs to get home before sunrise. These crazy kids are almost there when Caleb demands a smooch; Mae complies, but takes it a step further- unfortunately, her 'second base' includes tearing into Caleb's neck...but only a little! Mae splits, and Caleb finds himself stumbling home, feeling decidedly ill and getting a serious sunburn- like, omigawd his flesh is smoking and he looks like he just hopped off the rotisserie at Kenny Roger's Roasters serious.
Before he makes it home, however, a Winnebago with eeeeeevil intent scoops Caleb up and drives off into the sunrise, leaving Caleb's dad and sister (Tim Thomerson and Marcie Leeds) standing there and going "Hey! Wait!" It turns out that the Winnie belongs to Mae and her de facto family: Jesse (Lance Henriksen), Severen (Bill Paxton), Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), and Homer (Joshua John Miller). They're none too happy about Mae's brief canoodling; now that Caleb is about to 'turn' himself, the family is torn between killing the boy outright and seeing if he'll have what it takes to join the clan. "What it takes", of course, is the cajones to kill people and drink their blood in order to survive.
Why, they's VAMPIRES, ma! That word, however, is never uttered in the script.
During the rest of the film, we follow the troupe from stop to stop as they avoid sunlight and the law, sort of like a gang of undead Bonnie and Clydes. Caleb is increasingly torn between his human and his...unhuman sides; he needs blood to survive, but he's loathe to kill and refuses every opportunity granted him, instead feeding greedily off of Mae's wrist when she offers it to him out of pity. When dad and sis finally catch up to the gang after days of searching for Caleb, he's forced to choose between his real family and his new...uh, lifestyle.
Why he'd even give the decision more than a minute's thought is beyond me. These aren't the type of vampires who are going to seduce you and, like, open up a nightclub or something- they're not poets, they're not particularly attractive or bright. They're completely unromantic. In fact, they're filthy. They're dirty, and though they're essentially immortal, none of them seem to aspire to much more than shacking up in a fleabag motel and playing cards. Sure, that's fun and all, but forever? Come on- call the local community college and take a fucking class or something. At the very least, try to comb your hair. Caleb asks Mae, "What do we do now?" and she replies "Anything we want until the end of time". Unfortunately, taking a shower and doing some laundry seems to be nowhere on the agenda. It had me thinking, what's the point? What's the point of living if you really have nothing to live for besides not dying?
This notion certainly ties into one of Near Dark's major metaphors, drug abuse. The vampire-as-user is a theme that's been touched upon many times in film, but perhaps never so well (and subtle) as here- I'm sure it's no coincidence that Caleb's hometown is Fix, Oklahoma. It's a classic tale of a kid making bad decisions and falling in with the wrong crowd- "But I totally love her!" Instead of just shooting up and lying around, though, Mae and Company need to kill in order to get their rocks off.
Again, Bigelow removes any "vampires are so sexy" glamour from the kill scenes, the climax of which is the infamous roadhouse scene. The vampires descend upon a honky tonk in the middle of nowhere and brutally slay all the patrons and staff, slitting throats and breaking necks. The victims aren't beautiful, lacy-collared, puffy-sleeved, heaving-bosomed Hammer ladies- they're truck drivers, drinking cheap beer and playing pool. There's nothing romantic about it; it's gory, it's disgusting, and it's your new life forever and ever, Caleb! Caleb is, understandably, reluctant to take part.
In the end, no fangs are bared. No coffins are slept in, no stakes are pounded, no children of the night make beautiful music. Anything "alluring" about being a vampire is stripped away, and I for one find myself with a profound lack of desire to partake in the "lifestyle". It's kind of like when you watch Pretty Woman and you're all, "Wow, being a hooker would be so great!" and then you drive by the Shell station at 6 in the morning and there's some toothless crack whore on the corner giving hummers to businessmen on their way to work for $5 a pop. Kind of a slap in the face.
Why don't I have a cool name like "Diamondback"?
*I know some of you are going to argue that everything that's unsexy is exactly why it IS sexy, aren't you? Is it Bill Paxton's leather jacket? Is it the "romantic" Bonnie and Clyde thing? You kids, I swear...someday you're gonna listen to me!
Film Club Coolies, y'all!
The Horror Section
Evil on Two Legs
Kill Everybody in the Whole World
The Cemetery Scene