Since a very young age I have been enthralled by vampire mythology, so it should come as no surprise that vampire movies are one of my favorite subgenres of horror. I recently revisited Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow’s solo directorial debut, which puts a western spin on the vampire genre and does so in a pretty damn entertaining way.
The movie follows Caleb Colton, a young cowboy from a small southern town who encounters Mae, a sweet looker who just happens to be a vampire. After an evening of awkward courtship, Mae bites and abandons Caleb before returning with her vampire pack to pick him up before the sun does him in. Unfortunately, the snatch happens right in front of Caleb’s family. So, while Caleb is brought brutally into the vampire fold, his family sets out to find him, causing a downward spiral of ever-increasing mayhem that challenges the definitions of family and loyalty.
Near Dark is one of those rare movies where the pieces are greater than the whole. The vampire mythos they use is flimsy and poorly constructed. The story, while coherent, lacks depth and leaves you unsatisfied at the end of the picture. The characters have a similar issue, as most of them don’t get nearly enough development, but this ends up being somewhat forgivable as the performances are quite impressive. However, where Near Dark really shines is in the directing and production.
Kathryn Bigelow will go down in history as the first woman to ever win a Best Director Academy Award, but her talent was evident early on in her career, and that is especially true in Near Dark. From the moment the film opens not a single shot is wasted as the camera paints a haunting portrait of bleak places and bleak lives. The landscape coverage is superb, with great tracking shots and occasional adjusted speed on the sky that gives an important supernatural feeling that pairs well with the vampire storyline. The lighting is creative, diverse, and above all brilliant as it is used masterfully to craft mood and enhance emotionality. I particularly like that the troop of vampires are almost always depicted with shadowed faces, reflecting the dark world to which they belong, but done subtly enough that their features are still highlighted.
I’m a bit conflicted on the effects in this movie as sometimes they’re well done and are effective at elevating a scene, while other times they’re done poorly or left to our imagination, which was a bit disappointing. A perfect example of both good and bad effects is when the vampires terrorize a bar. There is a realistic looking throat slash and a devastatingly brutal shotgun blast to the gut, and both of these effects look great and land well. However, there’s a throat slit that isn’t shown, gunshots to the back that land cold, and some vampire feeding that is obscured. The decision to not depict or to obscure these effects could be due to budget constraints or could be a judicious editing choice if they didn’t look right when they were filmed, but either way it diminished the impact of what should be one of the most terrifying moments of the film.
One of the things that makes Near Dark worth revisiting is the fantastic cast. Adrian Pasdar leads the cast as Caleb Colton, and he is wonderful in the role. Caleb is a young man out of his depth and Pasdar portrays this beautifully as he captures every physical and emotional blow effortlessly with his facial expressions. Taking on the part of Mae is Jenny Wright, and while her character doesn’t get quite enough development, Wright does a great job of mixing shyness, ruthlessness, and affection to create an intriguing young vampire that you can easily believe a country boy would fall for. Lance Henriksen is an amazing character actor, and he is a scene stealer as Jesse Hooker, the leader of the vampires. Henricksen infuses Jesse with a quiet but commanding intensity that is impossible to ignore and makes Jesse into one hell of a fun antagonist that you may just find yourself rooting for. Acting is a profession as well as a craft and while impressive performances might wow you, I always love it when you can tell an actor is having fun doing his job, and that is certainly the case with Bill Paxton playing Severen. Severen is a strange mix of biker and cowboy who delights in cruelty and menace, and Paxton plays him over the top arrogant in a way that only works because he is a long surviving vampire, giving us a character that is incredibly fun to watch and who lights up the screen.
Near Dark is a beautifully directed middling vampire movie with some terrific performances from actors who went on to have notable careers, and because of that it will always be an interesting cultural touchstone. If you’re a diehard vampire fan looking for depth and mythology, look elsewhere, because you won’t find it here. However, if you want a fun, raucous, violent romp through the west with some insanely fun characters, then this movie will certainly deliver the goods.