VHS Revival sinks its teeth into Kathryn Bigelow’s undead neo-western
Prior to the 1980s—with the exception of alternative vampire outings such as George Romero’s Martin and David Cronenberg’s sort-of vampire horror Rabid—there was very little in the way of genre deviation when it came to representing Western vampires onscreen. Throughout the 60s and 70s, depictions of vampires tended toward the traditional, with Hammer Horror at the forefront of perpetuating the traditionally hammy genre template that favoured aristocratic, middle-aged evildoers comfortably ensconced in the Gothic revivalist period. With the collapse of Hammer and the rise of a more visceral strain of horror typified by the likes of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the public’s taste for the lavishly Gothic petered out. As a result the vampire sub-genre went into an enforced period of hibernation, and when it returned in the next decade, it would be a different kettle of fish altogether.
In the 1980s, a decade defined by endlessly derivative slasher fare, ‘video nasties‘ and video rental splatter fests were lined-up in increasingly homogeneous rows on horror section shelving, vampires were peripheral. However, loitering on horror’s fringes did the sub-genre some good. As a result, a sort of renaissance occurred, and the vampire movie was finally able to shed the Gothic trappings of its forbears and reinvent itself in a variety of interesting ways. Following on from Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1982), Tom Holland’s blackly comical and self-referential Fright Night (1985), and the lesser-loved, though no less entertaining Grace Jones vehicle Vamp (1986), the stage was set for Warner Bros’ mainstream horror comedy The Lost Boys and, released that same year, Kathryn Bigelow’s low-budget inaugural vampire western Near Dark.
Directed by Joel Schumacher, hot off the back of brat pack fodder St Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys was a revelatory teen horror that featured a band of leather-clad vampire brats, who, sporting the ridiculous coiffures of characters born out of a Whitesnake video, rode motorcycles, dangled off railway viaducts for adrenaline kicks, partied all night and ate people once they started to get low on complete proteins to metabolize. The film was sound-tracked to within an inch of its life, and featured the sort of good-looking genre cast that would become standard in subsequent years, both on television in the guise of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and in cinemas further down the timeline in the bloodless, angst-ridden Twilight Saga. It was the sort of popular mainstream adventure-horror in which everything works out, despite the occasional bout of visceral vampire slaughter, where the protagonists experience some jeopardy but not enough to unduly panic viewers. The Lost Boys was kind to its protagonists. Even the family dog survived intact and contributed to the film’s climactic set-piece.
Severen: I hate ’em when they ain’t been shaved.
Nowadays, The Lost Boys remains fun as a contextual piece for the greased-up sax player, taxidermy gramps and tooled-up frog brothers, with a death-by-stereo thrown in for good measure. Released in the same year as Near Dark, both movies would depict vampires at large in a modern world and a main protagonist seduced by an infected mystery girl, but in terms of tone, pacing and directorial savvy, Bigelow’s moodier, messier effort is a far more unconventional and satisfying spectacle. Bigelow’s previous track record included co-directing a young Willem Defoe in The Loveless with Monty Montgomery in 1982. Subsequently, after spending some time in filmmaker limbo, her then agent Nancy Nigrosh paired her up with fellow newcomer Eric Red via Red’s agent Melinda Jason, whose previous screenwriting effort was The Hitcher, a bloody psychopath picture that featured motiveless murderer Rutger Hauer stalking C Thomas Howell’s naïve youth from bloody set-piece to bloody set-piece.
Bigelow agreed to develop two scripts with Red, the first he would direct titled Undertow. The second Bigelow would direct titled Near Dark. The pair combined their talents and produced the two scripts. Since the writing duo co-owned the rights, they were able to remain attached as directors, despite reported push back from studios disinterested in allowing newcomers to realize the finished product. After a bit of wrangling, Ed Feldman, who previously produced Red’s script The Hitcher, agreed to Bigelow directing Near Dark. Her first solo directorial outing would prove less of a hit than The Lost Boys, but it would establish itself as a much more interesting piece of genre filmmaking than could ever have been hoped for at the start of negotiations.
Near Dark is a stylish hybrid movie that fused the muscular revisionist-western ethos of early Arthur Penn with the romantic vampire vibe of traditional Gothic horror cinema. Ditching the unfashionable genre motifs of holy water, crucifixes and garlic in favour of a fairly atypical depiction of rootless, diseased and entirely plausible predators, Bigelow’s vamps, bound together by the need for survival but forgotten by history and disavowed by society, were as unconventional a vampire horde as any that had gone before. Sociologically peripheral and feeding at the boundaries of civilization, where criminality masked their activities, allowing them to function undetected, these vampires would just as soon as stick a knife in their victims as stare into their eyes to hypnotize them with glamour.
There is no startling opening sequence to Near Dark. There is a brief introduction to Adrian Pasdar’s Oklahoman wrangler lolling in the back of a truck, then a montage of dusky landscape shots, perfectly establishing the restless tone of the piece. After a brief confrontation with a baseball cap touting acquaintance outside a bar, Pasdar encounters Jenny Wright’s diminutive, pixie-like Mae, who he immediately sets about wooing in a clumsily down-home fashion. Through a series of suggestive, playful asides, Mae is established as the mysterious girl with a penchant for after hours activities, who after a brief foray into the night winds up biting Caleb when a brief fondle in his pick-up truck leads to her targeting his neck and passing on her disease, and thus commences the main story arc, in which naïve cowboy stereotype Caleb Colton is kidnapped whilst attempting to return home.
Caleb Colton: What the fuck is goin’ on?
Severen: It ain’t what’s goin’ on, son. It’s what’s comin’ off. Your face. Clean off.
It is at this point that the viewer is introduced to the roaming gypsy clan of patriarchal former confederate Jesse Hooker (Lance Henrikson). Feeling threatened by the introduction of an outsider to their band, he agrees to a probationary period for Calebat at the behest of Mae to see whether he has what it takes to become a member of the tribe. At the core of the film is the relationship between Caleb and Mae, which acts as a catalyst for the disintegration of the vampire’s close-knit family unit. Caleb is not one of them, and ultimately it is the inherent decency of his human blood that drives a metaphorical stake through the heart of their nihilistic co-dependency. As a female director making films predominantly made by men and dealing with themes of masculinity in a male-dominated industry, Bigelow knew a thing or two about patriarchy. This is reflected in Near Dark through the conflicting roles of Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) in the first instance, who assumes the role of maternal counterweight to Jesse’s domineering virility, but who ultimately seeks to preserve the status quo and her place within it. Conversely, Mae seeks to challenge it by granting an outsider limited access, thereby weakening the infrastructure of their deviant domesticity.
Bigelow would return to themes of family and patriarchy a number of times, in her uneven follow up to Near Dark, Blue Steel (1990), which featured Jamie Lee Curtis as a female cop in a male-dominated policing profession, Point Break in which Lori Petty’s orphaned surfer assumes a similar role to that of Mae in Near Dark, and Zero Dark Thirty, in which Jessica Chastain’s intelligence analyst, in a male-dominated milieu, goes about the difficult task of coordinating Osama Bin Laden’s capture. Addiction coupled with obsession perpetuates horror in Near Dark. This theme also resonates in other Bigelow productions. In Point Break Patrick Swayze’s selective surfer clan are self-destructive adrenaline junkies. The VR obsessives of Strange Days, meanwhile, are addicted to the violent possibilities of alternate realities. Jeremy Renner’s bomb disposal expert in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s most celebrated work, is a danger addict fascinated by his proximity to death.
It is in Near Dark, however, that Bigelow properly explores the theme of addiction. The vampire clan depicted in the film could well be viewed as roving blood junkies, mired in criminality to perpetuate their habits. They certainly have more in common with heroin addicts enslaved by perpetual need than they do the fanged demons who periodically become bats and avoid garlic and holy water for fear of getting burned. It’s no surprise that when Caleb is overcome by bloodlust while trying to return home to his family on a second occasion, he behaves like a junkie in full withdrawal and crawls on all fours back to his dealer for a fix.
The film was impeccably cast, using a blend of lesser-known actors (at the time) who had previously performed together in Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein and Lance Henrikson, and who had developed good working relationships on the set of James Cameron’s Aliens. This proved something of a casting masterstroke on the part of the filmmakers as the family unit was already partially conceived before the film even went into production.
The relationships between the different ‘family’ members are alluded to in the picture but never fully explained, whilst their manner of speech, dress and interactions all indicate how old they are, from what era they originated and some of the losses they’ve experienced along the way. Each character is only partially rendered, leaving the viewer to sketch in the details, which only adds to their mystique. What is clear is that they have been together for some time and have a strict code to adhere to in order to survive.
Severen: What’s the matter, Homer? You jealous? A little too little to be jealous.
Homer: You have any idea what it’s like to be a big man on the inside and have a small body on the outside?
Severen: You have ANY idea what it’s like to HEAR about it every NIGHT?
Adrian Pasdar is sufficiently charming as Caleb, whilst Jenny Wright as Mae, the gamine bloodsucker who seduces and turns him, is credibly alluring, vulnerable, and dangerous. Henrikson exudes cynicism as family figurehead Jesse Hooker, whilst Bill Paxton as a hypo-manic outlaw with a taste for absurdist violence is riveting as Severen. Jenette Goldstein excels as the adoptive mother figure, but it is her surrogate son, Joshua John Miller’s man in a child’s body, Homer, who is the real standout. Unsettling and incongruous in every scene, Homer’s frustration and emotional underdevelopment as a decades-old man trapped in the body of a child is startling to behold. Neil Jordan’s Interview With The Vampire, in which Kirsten Dunst stars as an older woman trapped in the body of a little girl, would touch on similar themes some years later.
Tangerine Dream work their eerie synth magic on proceedings, producing an evocative, moody, and at times subtly romantic score to layer events. Director of Photography, Adam Greenberg, meanwhile makes incredible use of the landscape, which is as much a character in the movie as any of the players. Greenberg, who was DP on The Terminator for James Cameron, and a slew of indie productions prior to Near Dark, manages to squeeze every ounce of colour and shade from the dusky exteriors and neon-splashed nighthawk haunts, truck stops, bars, car parks, abandoned rail carriages and oil derricks. The film takes place in the spaces between night and day/day and night and is beautiful and unsettling from start to freeze-frame finish.
Bigelow would go on to become the first woman to win a best director gong at the Academy Awards for her work on The Hurt Locker in 2010, and has continued to make challenging movies that question the role of women in society, masculinity, and the sociopolitical goings on in America up to the 21st century and beyond. However, Near Dark, released to moderate acclaim and limited ticket sales, remains a stunning opening salvo, one that rewards repeat viewings and is as relevant in the modern era as it was more than thirty years ago.