Forty Miles of Bad Road: Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987)
It’s a simple setup: a western love story, with vampires sprinkled in for flavor. Director Kathryn Bigelow explores areas of vampire love way before it became extremely popular and profitable, through a much better lens of course. Bigelow manages to create one of the more stand out films within vampire cinema; she fills Near Dark Bigelow with a wonderful sense of framing, working alongside her secret weapon, the director of photography, Adam Greenberg (The Terminator). They create unforgettable images (my favorite being the shafts of light pouring through bullet hole-riddled walls) making one fully believe in this genre fusion picture. The cherry on top is a score from Tangerine Dream; now while the score here is quite good, with just the right mood to move things along, it is, however, far from my favorite that they have produced.
Again, this is simple. Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) sees Mae (Jenny Wright) eating an ice cream cone and is immediately smitten. They hang out together all night and sparks begin to fly. I’m sorry to say (or spoil) that ice cream cones leave the film, never to return again. Symbolic? Debatable. Anyways, Caleb is bit by Mae, turning him into a creature of the night, combustible if exposed to sunlight. To make matters worse, Caleb is taken by a group of vampires who have been on a homicidal tear for countless years, feeding and stealing like diligent vikings. The beauty of this is that it plays out like a kid who got swept up in gang life, very sink or swim. Or one can see it like a kid who is addicted to "substance X" committing heinous crimes in order to slake the cravings. Replace blood with addiction of whatever kind and you’ll get it. (David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly has that deeper-than-gore-and-guts attitude as well.)
Now, about that gypsy-like pack of terrors that sweep up our lead actor into a life of thirsting for blood. Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein, all of Aliens fame, are back with that amazing chemistry, only here it is utilized for pure evil. Joshua John Miller, also seen in Class of 1999, plays a vampire that was turned early, forever ancient in a child’s shell. Like Kirsten Dunst in Interview with a Vampire, only Near Dark predates it by seven years. And finally, there is Mae, the eternal teenager who is shocked to actually find love amongst the people who are food. Together this motley crew creates a memorable dynamic helping sell the fact that they are all mass murderers who can never stop the addiction. They strut around like they own the world and it shows, particularly in the infamous bar sequence the film is probably best known for. Humans are food yes, but they are also playthings.
Not enough can be said about the actors who committed to the material, key examples being Henriksen and Paxton. Henriksen is gaunt and spry, with a grin that would fool the Devil. He barks orders with complete credibility, an actor who fully understood the character and totally fell in. Paxton is bombastic and over the top, but behind all that is a complete madman who would slay a town for kicks, singing the whole time as well. While our two lead actors involved in the love story get the job done, they are simply not as fascinating as the pack of dangerous creatures on the neverending murder spree. They truly carry this film to a greater place, making for a unique take on the vampire yarn.
Aliens is my all time favorite film, so seeing two Colonial Marines and Bishop go on a debaucherous killing spree blew my little mind and made Katheryn Bigelow a huge name for me when I first saw this. I chased her everywhere after this movie. Her visuals lead me to Point Break and Strange Days and I have been craving more ever since. This film and Point Break pair well together, actually, because they have a somewhat similar theme: we follow a pack of thieves and killers with a protagonist that is dragged along the way to face very horrible consequences. Both contain confident visual styles and are solid demonstrations of practical effects magic. I’ve always liked how gross Near Dark was, too. With its hour and a half runtime it manages to squeeze in more bubbling skin, blood stained faces, slashed necks, stuntmen on fire, and vomit than most human minds can process.
Bigelow co-directed The Loveless, so Near Dark was her first time to fly solo. She stepped up to the task and delivered a solid film capable of avoiding any B-movie stigmas that must have been attached to a horror-western pitch during the mid-eighties. Bigelow can shoot a damn film and make it pop. Her imagery is her own and everything is up there for a reason. Near Dark was a start of a powerful run that made me wish he had more women attacking action cinema. If only Hollywood would grow up already.