This week’s video vault may not be as obscure a title as the previous entries, but with the current media onslaught and surge in popularity surrounding the whole vampire myth, I felt compelled to discuss a film which inspired many of these new revisionist works, and to also introduce a couple who make Bella and Edward look positively anaemic by comparison.
Near Dark is a film I first watched with a bunch of friends as a wide-eyed 12-year-old (requiring an understanding parent to rent it out for us). Even back then, seeing this alongside a bunch of cheap and cheerful genre flicks, I knew that it was a cut above the rest and was an attempt to do something else other than entertain through cheap shocks and scares.
Released in US cinemas within a week of another popular vampire picture of that time, The Lost Boys, it was sadly overlooked at the box office where audiences were enticed by the more youth-orientated Joel Schumacher picture. Although I was (and still am) extremely fond of Sam and the Frog brother’s vampire-hunting shenanigans, the two films both present a very different take on the legend.
The film stars Heroes cast member Adrian Pasdar as Caleb, a hot-headed farmer’s boy who meets a drifter in the shape of an alluring young woman named Mae (Jenny Wright). Mae is actually part of a group of nomadic vampire drifters who travel from town to town, feeding off human victims. Rather than kill her intended prey, Mae instead ‘turns’ Caleb into one of her kind, much to the annoyance of the rest of the group who reluctantly agree to let him travel with them under the proviso that he must kill to survive.
A big part of what gives this film its unique quality is down to the genre cross-pollination of horror and western. The ‘family’ of travelling bloodsuckers roam across a barren American Southwest landscape which has the kind of iconography familiar to anyone who has watched a disheveled Clint Eastwood ride in to another one-horse town.
It also succeeds by taking the mythical life of the vampire (a word that is never actually used by any of the characters) and infusing it within a realistic setting, and using the rules of the genre to deliver some really distinctive twists on familiar set-pieces. From a daytime shootout in a motel, where the bullet holes cast potentially fatal rays of light for the holed-up vampires to contend with, to a bar stopover where grabbing a bite to eat and drink takes on a whole new sinister meaning, these are just a couple of example of the film’s playful use of traditions from vampire folklore. First and foremost though, it’s the central love story between Caleb and Mae which really holds the piece together. You really get the sense that Mae is torn between the love for her new suitor and the loyalty she has towards her dysfunctional family unit.
Unfortunately, for all the imaginative elements incorporated throughout the film, the ending is somewhat of a disappointment, where despite adhering closely to the western theme and motifs (the showdown involves Caleb actually riding into town on horseback), it can’t really top what have come before. This is a minor quibble however, and ultimately doesn’t derail the film.
Anyone familiar with Near Dark’s director Kathryn Bigelow and her body of work will be aware that this is her normal approach to filmmaking, and her aesthetic choices have really helped to transcend the normal framework we’ve come to associate with and expect with the genres she has worked within.
I think Near Dark is the purest example of this and still her best film. I was really happy to see her finally receive some recognition when she was the recipient of this year’s Academy Award for best director for The Hurt Locker (not surprisingly, her most straightforward film to date).
A remake of Near Dark was scheduled to be made last year under the direction of first-timer Samuel Bayer. It ultimately fell through (due largely to the influx of similarly-themed material already out there) and he went on to sully the memory of another cherished 80’s horror classic with his remake of A Nightmare on Elm St.
At least for now we can all rest easy in the knowledge that this unique film will stay just that, and fantasy films like this can exist out there for fans that prefer something with a little more bite.
Near Dark is available in both DVD and Blu-ray on Region 2. Hooray!